Reading Virgil Again

This week I mentioned my astonishment that the TLS reviewed a new Cambridge edition of Virgil’s Aeneid Book XII with a commentary by Richard Tarrant.  No American book review publication would take on a Latin text.

I was delighted. I have a degree in classics and can read Latin poetry and chew gum at the same time.

IMG_2287If you mention the Aeneid to your friends, they beg you not to get up on Slam Poetry Night and recite “that hysterical Amata speech, for God’s sake!”

You just read it on your own.

I have many editions of the Aeneid already–I taught it as an independent study for two students in my T.A. days, and most recently in adult ed.  But I had to order the new edition from Amazon.

My copy has already arrived in the mail and I am comparing the new Tarrant to the 1973 R. Deryck Williams commentary.

For my purposes, my old two-volume Williams edition of the Aeneid serves very well.   But Tarrant’s extremely focused 258-page commentary on only Book XII, the first single-volume commentary on Book XII, according to the publisher, elucidates just 952 lines, and is naturally much more detailed for those who plan to reread and study this book.

Comparing the Tarrant with the Williams commentary.

Comparing the Tarrant with the Williams commentary.

Williams and Tarrant concur in many of their notes. Both commentaries help with translation and identify obvious literary precedents.  But Tarrant is more detailed and goes further.  When Virgil compares Turnus to a lion shaking his comantis toros,  ” hairy muscles,” both commentators tell me to translate it as “mane.”  But Tarrant goes on to explain “V. is evoking Catullus 63.83, addressed to one of Cybele’s lions, where the lion’s ‘muscled neck’ and its mane are neatly separated and has produced a more suggestive , visually less clear-cut image in which waving hair and rippling muscle merge into a single motion.” I’m fascinated by Virgil’s brilliant allusiveness.

Certainly it is a treat for those of us who live in cities without university libraries to have these commentaries:  it is like taking a private class from Williams and Tarrant.

Before I go, let me recommend that you read The Aeneid in English, if you don’t know Latin.  (The translations of Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald are both good.)  Now I will tell you why you haven’t read it, if you haven’t.

American schools have dropped Latin and many other languages from their curriculum in the last 50 years.  Even some universities have cut their language requirement.  So if you didn’t study classics, or take a course in classical literature in translation from the classics department, you probably missed it.  Many English departments have ceased to teach The Aeneid in translation because it requires so much background.

It wasn’t always this way.  The Aeneid, as T. S. Eliot tells us, is a true classic,  written by a mature poet at the height of his powers at the apex of Roman civilization.   And it influenced Dante, Milton, Dryden, Alexander Pope, Henry Purcell, Thomas Jefferson, Willa Cather, and Margaret Drabble, among others

You do need some background to appreciate it fully.  The struggle of the hero, Aeneas, who must sacrifice his personal life to lead the Trojan refugees to Italy, is utterly incomprehensible and unhip without understanding pietas, a Roman virtue that has to do with fulfilling one’s duty to the gods, country, and family.

It also helps to know the history of Rome in the first century B.C., and to know Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Buty ou can read The Aeneid like a beach book:  I have done so and enjoyed it.

2 thoughts on “Reading Virgil Again

  1. I’ve read the whole of the Aeneid in Mandelbaum’s translation a couple of times, and loved it. I’v read select parts in Dryden’s. I’ve read the individual books more 2 ,4, 6. I’ve assigned books 1-6 the two times I was given World Literature Part 1 (classics to Renaissance) to cover. I used to love the Georgics. I’ve had a couple of students who loved it. I enjoyed reading some literary criticism of it. I cannot come near your knowledge but I appreciate learning what I can. Oh Izzy has read the book in translations and she has read several individual books in Latin. He is not her favorite: she prefers Catullus and Horace. But she appreciates the book. Ellen from New York glad to read your words.


  2. Ellen, Mendelbaum’s translation is magnificent.

    Books I-VI are commonly taught, but the war books, VII-XII, are perhaps coming back into fashion. I am particularly interested in the incidents with Camilla (they are not in Book XII, alas).

    The Tarrant commentary is very, very good: it was a present to myself, and a very good one.

    Of course you taught Virgil! I had forgotten. I wonder how many of your colleagues have done so?


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