Translated by Robert Fagles
All posts contain spoilers.
I know that I’m not supposed to admit this, but I don’t care for ‘The Aeneid‘.
I will stipulate that this is my problem; I am aware that this makes me a philistine. The great minds have, through the ages, cherished Virgil. Propertius, another Roman poet, wrote upon the publication of ‘The Aeneid’, “Give way, you Roman writers, give way, Greeks/Something greater than the Iliad is being born” (2.34). Dante included Virgil as his guide in ‘The Divine Comedy‘. Dryden dedicated his own translation of ‘The Aeneid’ to “those Readers who have discernment enough to prefer Virgil before any other Poet in the Latine Tongue”.
Nevertheless, despite these excellent references, I just don’t like ‘The Aeneid‘.
I hadn’t read an English translation of ‘The Aeneid’ since high school, and I’d been wondering whether, perhaps, my initial aversion to it was a maturity problem, whether ‘The Aeneid’ is something only adults enjoy, like drinking espresso or discussing property values. It’s not uncommon for me to find that, upon re-reading, I really like authors or books I loathed when I was younger, and I hoped that ‘The Aeneid’ might be one of these.
It isn’t. I’ve just re-read Fagles’ translation, and I didn’t enjoy it any more this time around than I did when I was sixteen, and I think I’ve figured out why.
- Aeneas is lame.
‘The Aeneid‘ is often paired with the two great Homeric epics, ‘The Iliad‘ and ‘The Odyssey‘. It really shouldn’t be: it has a different author, writing from within a different civilization, in a different language. The comparison is particularly invidious when it comes to main characters: Achilles and Odysseus are much richer and more complex than Aeneas, who is ever-noble, ever-handsome, ever-brave, ever-pious, and ever-victorious. All his misfortune is the result of the personal animus of the goddess Juno, who doesn’t dislike him per se, but all Trojans (since Paris dissed her way long ago); he is essentially a victim of divine racism. But he himself is personally flawless and so narratively dull.
- Aeneas is lame.
- Virgil is unsexy.
One of the perks of taking Latin in school is that you get to read more dirty poetry than the kids who take Spanish. Almost all of the Roman poets wrote about sex; many of them went out of their way to cram raunch into verse where it wasn’t necessary. Horace, for example, wrote about 9,000 odes that all go approximately like this:
Spring is here, the young tree is all green.
New buds are springing out everywhere.
Its flowers bloom; birds sing in its branches.
But soon it will be winter; the leaves will shrivel and brown,
and no one’s going to want to fuck that tree then.
Virgil is the exception: there is depressingly little sex in Virgil. In the entirety of ‘The Aeneid‘, there’s only one sexual encounter, and Virgil can’t even bring himself to describe it – he describes a metaphorically significant thunderstorm instead. His prudishness is a real joy-killer, especially in light of the fact that…
- Virgil is unsexy.
- The plot of ‘The Aeneid‘ is boring.
I’m sure that I’m coming across as something of a blunt instrument, but this third point is incontrovertible. The plot of ‘The Aeneid’ is not scintillating – it isn’t character-driven, it isn’t sexy, the conclusion is announced at the beginning, and the pacing is atrocious. The most interesting section, Aeneas in Carthage and the tragic fate of Dido, is elbowed into one book (not coincidentally, the book with the only sex). Several books, however, are given over to the battles for Italy, which sounds interesting but aren’t. Instead, the battles read like a very violent roll call: Bob cleaves the head of Sam, and is then stabbed by Frank, who is in turn disemboweled by Andrew, who falls off his horse and is smooshed by John, &c. It’s difficult to make extreme violence boring, but Virgil manages it. It’s not all, perhaps, his fault (‘The Aeneid’ is, of course, unfinished; Virgil died before he could complete it), but that doesn’t make it any more fun to read.
There are wonderful parts; there are parts which are transcendent, but they are almost all short sections of incredible linguistic beauty or rhetorical power. For example, when, before she kills herself, Dido curses Aeneas’ descendants:
“And then to any Power above, mindful, evenhanded,
who watches over lovers bound by unequal passion,
Dido says her prayers.
…”That is my prayer, my final cry – I pour it out
with my own lifeblood. And you, my Tyrians,
harry with hatred all his line, his race to come:
…No love between our peoples, ever, no pacts of peace!
Come rising from my bones, you avenger still unknown
…Shore shall clash with shore, sea against sea and sword
against sword – this is my curse – war between all
our peoples, all their children, endless war!” (Book IV, 651 – 784)
Two thousand years later, every person who has had their heart broken will still understand this passage.
Or Virgil’s description of the gates of Hell:
“There, in the entryway, the gorge of hell itself,
Grief and the pangs of Conscience make their beds,
and fatal pale Disease lives there, and bleak Old Age,
Dread and Hunger, seductress to crime, and grinding Poverty,
all, terrible shapes to see – and Death and deadly Struggle
and Sleep, twin brother of Death, and twisted, wicked Joys
and facing them at the threshold, War, rife with death,
and the Furies’ iron chambers, and mad, raging Strife
whose blood-stained headbands knot her snaky locks.” (Book VI, 312-320)
(If you doubt the mighty influence of Virgil, perhaps this second passage reminded you of another:
“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom.” (‘A Christmas Carol‘, Charles Dickens))
It is for passages like these Virgil is so beloved, and they are magnificent. But there’s a lot of dry, poetical bullshit to get through to achieve them, a lot of Aenean virtue, a lot of sailing, lots of lists of dying men you’ve never met and won’t remember.
And I know that the failing is mine, but I wish I’d re-read ‘The Iliad‘ instead.