Our book today is Allen Mandelbaum’s 1971 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, with thirteen drawings by Barry Moser, a fine, collection-worthy volume that I have as a sturdy deep-green paperback from the University of California Press and that I’ve read probably two dozen times – a reflection, probably, of the oddly questing nature of my relationship with Virgil’s great big poem. I don’t love that poem with anything near the raw, personal love I feel for its Homeric templates, and nobody ever has (including Virgil), and every time I read it I at least try to figure out why. Translators are always trying to figure out why; they take on this enormous work and sink years of their lives into dressing it out in some kind of English, the whole time knowing it’s not just an echo and a pastiche but a self-conscious knockoff by a poet who didn’t even bother to hide his ambivalence with his whole project. It’s the combination of that toe-in-the-water diffidence and the at times almost incomprehensible level of poetic artistry that makes the Aeneid such a riddle; it’s impossible either to simply write it off as nationalistic propaganda or to embrace it as an honest, barbaric yawp on the level of the Iliad or Beowulf. It’s too self-aware to outright amaze us; it feels – and always has felt – like school. It’s a tame epic – which feels like it ought to be a fundamental contradiction.
Naturally, all that confusion bounces me around from preferring one English-language translation to another. My heart will always belong to John Dryden’s great version, and I find my estimation of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation lessens with each reading (there’s so much of Fitzgerald in it that the whole thing comes off feeling more like a collaboration than a translation); there are contemporary versions I like very much, but I keep returning to Mandelbaum’s translation – and to his stellar Introduction, in which he, too, grapples with the feeling of unease Virgil doesn’t bother to hide from his readers, an unease Mandelbaum hears as sadness:
Far from belief in miracle and magic, in the utopian leap, there is in Virgil a sense of the lost as truly irretrievable. He was indeed a celebrator of dominion, of the rule of law …But he is able to look with longing not only at the rule of Saturn (the gods, too, have their vicissitudes: Saturn had been evicted by Jupiter) … but also at Latinus’ description of his people as “needing no laws” …
Maybe one of the reasons I’ve loved the Mandelbaum version since it first appeared is sentimental: he was the first modern translator I’d ever encountered who esteemed Dryden instead of reflexively sneering at him (the entire body of his poetic work is still mostly only the object of reflexive sneering, which would have baffled the finest minds of his own day, and which baffles my own less-fine mind today). But I’ve also always loved how alive he is to Virgil’s enormous brain at work throughout the poem:
I have tried to impress what Macrobius heard and Dante learned on this translation, to embody both the grave tread and the speed and angularity Virgil can summon, the asymmetrical thrust of a mind on the move. I have tried to annul what too many readers of Virgil in modern translation have taken to be his: the flat and unvarious, and the loss of shape and energy where the end of the line is inert – neither reinforced nor resisted – and the mass of sound becomes amorphous and anonymous. In the course of that attempt, a part of the self says with Dryden …” For my part, I am lost in the admiration of it: I contemn the world when I think of it, and my self when I translate it” …
And I love the end result, the lilting English verse Mandelbaum labors to make out of Virgil’s Latin, as when Aeneas and his men, fleeing the fires on the Carthage shore (and just about guessing what caused them), encounter black, rough seas immediately:
But when the fleet had reached the open waters,
with land no longer to be seen – the sky
was everywhere and everywhere the sea –
a blue-black cloud ran overhead; it brought
the night and storm and breakers rough in darkness.
And from the high stern, even Palinurus,
the pilot, cries, “And why these tempest clouds
surrounding heaven? Father Neptune, what
are you preparing?”
“The sky was everywhere and everywhere the sea” is a line Virgil himself would have approved, I think, and Mandelbaum is equally good at evoking the oppressive moods Virgil could do so well: his opening scenes in burning Troy – marauding soldiers racing through the flame-dancing shadows, Aeneas himself running from flashpoint to flashpoint, sword drawn, desperate to save what he can see with his own eyes is past saving. His mother Venus eventually appears to him, asking essentially ‘what madness is this?’ – she pulls an Immortal trick, removes the veil from his eyes and allows his mortal eyes to see the Olympian gods rampaging in the Trojan night. She does it to underscore to him that all his old causes are lost, that he must focus on his family and on survival. She lends him and his men her protection all the way to the house of his aged father Anchises (in one of the many perfect little dramatic moments Virgil simply ignores, Venus doesn’t linger in that courtyard to say hello to her old lover, or to kiss his cheek one last time), where at first the old man refuses to leave Troy – it’s neither Venus nor Aeneas but a random shooting star that convinces him to become an exile:
No sooner had the old man spoken so
than sudden thunder crashed upon the left,
and through the shadows ran a shooting star,
its trail a torch of flooding light. It glides
above the highest housetops as we watch,
until the brightness that has marked its course
is buried in the woods of Ida: far
and wide the long wake of that furrow shines,
and sulphur smokes upon the land. At last,
won over by this sign, my father rises,
to greet the gods, to adore the sacred star:
‘Now my delay is done; I follow; where
you lead, I am. Gods of my homeland, save
my household, save my grandson. Yours, this omen;
and Troy is in your keeping. Yes, I yield.
My son, I go with you as your companion.’
To his credit, Barry Moser takes a decidedly non-classical approach to his illustrations; they’re dark and elegiac (and, in the case of doomed Palinurus falling from his tiller into the sea, scandalously weird – it’s not exactly the angle Palinurus’ mother would have chosen) and all the more memorable for it. The more I look at them with every re-reading, the better I think they enhance Mandelbaum’s own reading of Virgil’s epic – how unresolved it is, how powerful it is (and embarrassed of its own power) … and how weird it is. Other interpreters always seem embarrassed by that weirdness; Mandelbaum and Moser seem to revel in it.
Some Penguin Classics aim for the unreachable, bless their hearts, and a good case-in-point is Guy Lee’s edition of Virgil’s Ecologues, which was brought out in the Penguin Classics line in 1984. Lee opens his Introduction by promptly admitting that the 20th Century had seen no shortage of English translations of Virgil’s career-making debut verse collection. But he says his own has a distinction that sets it apart from the rest: Virgi’s versification, he tells us, is strict, not free – it’s hexameter lines of six metrical stresses, no more and no less, and his translation of Virgil, he claims, has as its goal to “reproduce that regularity” in English.
He then immediately starts telling his readers why that can’t be done. First, he’s chosen to use the English Alexandrine as his medium – which (as any nearby English-major grocery clerk might be able to tell you) is iambic, whereas Virgil’s lines are dactylic. Which scotches the whole ‘reproduce that regularity’ business right at the get-go. Lee is ready for this objection:
… first, that in English poetry blank verse (iambic rhythm) is the commonest medium, just the dactylic hexameter is in Latin; secondly, that in practice the English dactylic hexameter offers more syllables than are normally needed to render its Latin equivalent, whereas the blank verse line contains too few.
“These considerations point to the Alexandrine, or twelve syllable iambic line, as the natural representative in English of the Latin hexameter,” he tells us, but he’s not done quite yet: “provided that a feminine ending and certain substitutions be occasionally allowed in order to increase the number of syllables available, and conversely that now and then a trochaic line be admissible.”
In other words, there isn’t really any prosodological reason for this version – or any version – of the Ecologues, but it’s just possible this one will come in handier than most as a kind of student trot – a metrical version in which the reader will “be able to recognize every word of Virgil’s Latin.” The pages that follow have the Latin on one side and the English on the other (the whole thing followed by Lee’s superb, mercifully concise notes), and that’s where the real test comes in: regardless of metrical niceties, has our translator actually given us a version of these famous verses – the fount and school of so much Western verse – that’s actually good to read?
True to Penguin Classic form, he has. By sticking as close as he could to Virgil’s Latin, he actually is able to simulate some of the master poet’s peculiar mix of jangle and melody. In the much-imitated second Ecologue, he catches almost perfectly the way Virgil has poor lovelorn Corydon over-intellectualize his unrequited love for the beautiful Alexis:
‘O cruel Alexis, have you no time for my tunes?
No pity for us? You’ll be the death of me at last.
Mow, even the cattle cast about for cool and shade,
Now even green lizards hide among the hawthorn brakes,
And Thestylis, for reapers faint from the fierce heat,
Is crushing pungent pot-herbs, garlic and wild thyme.
But I, while vineyards ring with the cicadas’ scream,
Retrace your steps, alone, beneath the burning sun.
– and the rest of the versions are equally involving, to the point where even the Latinless reader can see why all of Rome would have been captivated by this new voice in its midst. That captivation took many forms, and later translations of the Ecologues have gone much further in displaying the flexibility and versatility of these poems. But Guy Lee’s Penguin Classic volume does exactly what he wanted it to do: it gives readers a perfect place to start.
Our book today is a pretty little volume the J. Paul Getty Museum put out in 1998 – it’s called A Garden of Roman Verse, and it features snippets from dozens of different Roman translations, each set in attractive typeface and accompanied by full-color reproductions of ancient Roman paintings or mosaics recovered from the entombed cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The book’s title guarantees that you’ll be meeting Virgil, Horace, Catullus, Ovid and the rest inside, but nevertheless the title is a bit misleading. This isn’t really a garden of Roman verse so much as it’s a garden of English verse.
It’s no less pretty for all that, as even a casual dabbler into the vast translation-literature of English poetry could attest. First flowering in the Age of Elizabeth and continuing in an unbroken tradition to the 19th century (it limped into the 20th and has died almost utterly in the Twittering 21st), the efforts of English poets and classicists to render the ancient greats in contemporary verse were unrelenting. It was the favorite pastime of procrastinating dons, the most predictable route to publication for aspiring poetasters, and a sublime alternate voice for the greatest masters of the various British eras.
The singular charm of this little volume is that it touches on all of those various exponents. This isn’t just Alexander Pope’s Greatest Hits, although of course he’s in here, hilariously letting his ‘numbers’ get the better of him, as in this rather verbose rendering of a mere two lines from Virgil’s 7th ecologue:
Some god conducts you to these blissful seats,
The mossy fountains and the green retreats!
Where-e’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade,
Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade,
Where-e’er you tread, the blushing flowers shall rise,
And all things flourish where you turn your eyes.
And in an undertaking such as this one, where there’s Pope, there must be Dryden! Here’s here a few times, never more felicitous than in this bit from Virgil’s Georgics:
Wet weather seldom hurts the most unwise,
So plain the signs, such prophets are the skies:
The wary crane foresees it first, and sails
Above the storm, and leaves the lowly vales:
The cow looks up, and from afar can find
The change of heaven, and snuffs it in the wind.
The swallow skims the river’s watery face,
The frogs renew the croaks of their loquacious race.
I love that almost tactile use of ‘snuffs,’ and the subtle echo of ‘croaks’ in the first syllable of ‘loquaious’ accurately but not pedantically reflects the ‘veteram’ and ‘querelam’ of the original. Dryden was never better than when he was quietly trying to match wits with somebody this way – it’s when he has the poetic stage to himself that he sometimes gets into long-winded trouble.
Long-windedness isn’t a problem for the famous adventurer Sir Walter Ralegh, who here gives us a portion of the soles occidere of Catullus very nearly as taut and pointed as the original:
The sun may set and rise:
But we contrariwise
Sleep after our short light
One everlasting night.
But it’s not just the mighty and famous you’ll find in this volume (if you can find this volume at all – I presume it’s available online, like everything else) – the editors have seen fit, charmingly, to include a small sample from “the young gentlemen of Mr. Rule’s Academy at Islington.” This is a bit of the parcius iunctas of Horace, published in 1766:
The bloods and bucks of this lewd town
No longer shake your windows down
Your door stands still, no more you hear
‘I die for you, O Lydia dear’,
Love’s god your slumbers rocking.
Horace is also represented by the volume’s only selection from a woman, this portion of the solvitur acris done by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:
Sharp winter now dissolved, the linnets sing,
The grateful breath of pleasing Zephyrs bring
The welcome joys of long desired spring.
The galleys now for open sea prepare,
The herds forsake their stalls for balmy air,
The fields adorned with green approaching sun declare.
In shining nights the charming Venus leads
Her troops of Graces, and her lovely maids
Who gaily trip the ground in myrtle shades
And sadly, there are names here that lack the glitter of either Lady Mary or her arch-nemesis (every writer should have one) Pope, though not from wanting it badly. Foremost here must be our sad old acquaintance Branwell Bronte, the alcoholic failure dreamboat brother of those super-talented Bronte sisters. There’s a snippet of his work on the sunt quos curriculo of Horace – showing, it must be admitted, a bit of strain:
Many there are whose pleasure lies
In striving for the victor’s prize,
Whom dust clouds, drifting o’er the throng
As whirls the Olympic car along,
And kindling wheels, and close shunned goal
Amid the highest gods enroll
And naturally no such anthology would be complete without that most Romanesque of all the Romantics, Lord Byron. His translations form the Romans were, you should pardon the expression, legion – we’ll never known how many he consigned to the fireplace, but what we have is almost universally choice. And really, could there readily be a better latter-day candidate to do justice to the passionate mood-swings of Catullus? We’ll let them both have the last word here:
Equal to Jove, that youth must be,
Greater than Jove, he seems to me,
Who, free from jealousy’s alarms,
Securely, views thy matchless charms;
That cheek, which ever dimpling grows,
That mouth, from which such music flows,
To him, alike, are always known,
Reserved for him, and him alone.
Ah! Lesbia! though ‘tis death to me,
I cannot choose but look on thee.