On not Buying the New Aeneid

by F.

Robert Fagles translation of Virgil’s Aeneid has hit the shelves. Reviews are positive. Publishers Weekly is typical and gives the book a starred review:

Princeton scholar Fagles follows up his celebrated Iliad and Odyssey with a new, fast-moving, readable rendition of the national epic of ancient Rome. Virgil’s long-renowned narrative follows the Trojan warrior Aeneas as he carries his family from his besieged, fallen home, stops in Carthage for a doomed love affair, visits the underworld and founds in Italy, through difficult combat, the settlements that will become, first the Roman republic, and then the empire Virgil knew…. Fagles chooses to forgo meter entirely, which lets him stay literal when he wishes, and grow eloquent when he wants: “Aeneas flies ahead, spurring his dark ranks on and storming/ over the open fields like a cloudburst wiping out the sun.”

That quoted lines, though, gives you a taste of what you are in for. One could say those lines have a seriously mixed batch of metaphors. First, Aeneas flies—he is like a bird. Then he “spurs his dark ranks”—he’s a rider and his troops are horses. Then he “storms like a cloudburst.” He’s a storm or cloud. So, from bird to horseman to cloud in two lines. Wow. That’s a lot to process. This is the confusion aesthetic in action; some like it (Romantics, generally), but I generally don’t. As a comparison, read a sonnet of Shakespeare. The metaphorical shifts seem to come at semantically appropriate moments, which avoids this cognitive cloudiness yet generates the same delight. (The Sonnets are the ultimate brain candy, in my view.)

In any event, the new Fagles translation comes with a nice preface from Bernard Knox, too:

A substantial preface from the eminent classicist Bernard Knox discusses Virgil’s place in history, while Fagles himself appends a postscript and notes. Scholars still debate whether Virgil supported or critiqued the empire’s expansion; Aeneas’ story might prompt new reflection now, when Americans are already thinking about international conflict and the unexpected costs of war.

At the bookstore last night I browsed it. First off, the hardcover was $40.00 at Borders. Too much. Amazon has it for $26.00, which is more like it. However, I have a feeling this one will be available cheap pretty soon as many will buy it, read 10 pages, get confused or bored, and then put it on the shelf (part of buying books is signaling how smart or learned you are rather than actually reading them). Then, invariably, in a few months, copies will show up in the used bookstores by the box. That’s when I’ll get my copy for $5.00 or whatever.

Is it good? Yeah, it is. Reading the first page, I got the chills. Fagles is a great writer. But then I turned to the end of the tale and started reading, and that’s when I decided not to buy the book.

I’ve read the Fitzgerald translation; I also have a recording of it which I’ve listened to a couple times. I’ve also read Mandelbaum’s translation, which I think might be a little more to my taste than Fitzgerald. Both are good poetry. But the problem with the Aeneid is not the poetry. It’s the story. It’s not that compelling.

How can this be, since it is based on—is in many places a direct copy of—the Odyssey? I have a theory: it’s the dramatic need of the protagonist, Aeneas. His need is just not something most of us can relate to. What does Aeneas want? He wants to found a country or an empire or a people. That’s just not something I’ve ever wanted to do. Have you? “What do you want to do today.” “Oh, I don’t know. Go to the gym, play some XBox, found a country.”

In contrast, Odysseus wants to get home. That is the sort of desire that we can all understand. I think The Odyssey is a fantastic story. If I had to stack rank the “epics” I’ve read, I would put them in something like this order:

  1. The Odyssey
  2. Paradise Lost
  3. The Illiad
  4. The Divine Comedy
  5. The Aeneid

The Odyssey needs to be a movie. Peter Jackson, get on the case, dude. This is one for you. Paradise Lost, too. I’ve heard—I think I read it in Variety—that a version is “in production,” and with today’s special effects, it could really be a trip. That could be a blockbuster, since it would draw sci-fi geeks and Christian nutcases in equal measure. It’s Star Wars meets The Passion of the Christ. I smell money.

It’s not easy to read Paradise Lost, but it is hard to put down because it’s so…weird. You just can’t stop. It’s the heavy metal of an earlier day. Iron Maiden? Fuggetaboutit. Milton was Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden and White Zombie all rolled into one. Ditto for the Divine Comedy. That shit is freak-o-matic. Today’s equivalent would be something like Saw II or Hostel or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

But back to the Aeneid. The story starts well, but it peaks, for me, with Dido’s suicide. Then it’s all down hill. The last part, when Aeneas and his men get to (what will be) Italy, just falls flat. There is that dictatorial, totalitarian stench about the whole thing. Not my thing.