Our Winter of the Aeneid: The Underworld and Twin Gates in Book VI

Book VI is the center of the Aeneid.  Aeneas has completed the journey to Italy, but has not yet fought a war to establish a place for the Trojan refugees.  Aeneas must descend into the underworld–the world of the dead–before he can acquire the knowledge to live in Italy.  Or does he?  Why does he return through the ivory gate–the gate of false dreams–rather than the horn gate–the gate of true dreams?  This extremely philosophical and mystical book raises many questions.

It is divided into three parts: Aeneas’ arrival at Cumae and preparations for the descent (1-263); the journey through the underworld to Elysium (264-678); and the interview with Anchises about the nature of life beyond the grave and the vision of greatness of Rome’s future through a pageant of Roman heroes (679-end).

In Book VI Aeneas is entranced by two ecphrases and two gates.

Are they dreams?  Are they real?

In English literature, we take for granted many of the conventions of classical literature, among them characterization, plot, speeches, similes, metaphors, imagery, and symbols.  We do not, however, commonly talk about ecphrasis.  Ecphrasis is a Greek word simply meaning description, and is used in poetry to describe an artifact or work of art in such a way that it makes a meaningful comment on the text, or illumines it in some way.  Virgil looked to the brilliant ecphrases in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey for inspiration:  Homer’s most famous ecphrasis occurs in Book 18 of the Iliad, a delineation of the engravings on Achilles’ shield, made by the god Haephaestus for Achilles. Virgil would also have been familiar with the ecphrasis in some lesser known ancient poetry, Apollonious’  The Argonautica, which describes details on Jason’s cloak.  And Catullus in Poem 64 describes the detail on a coverlet.  Ecphrasis is an epic convention, and of course Virgil has crafted many beautiful, vivid ecphrases in The Aeneid.

Aeneas lands at Cumae in Italy, the site of the temple of the Sibyl, Apollo’s priestess and oracle.  The mention of Cumae would have evoked recognition, due to Augustus’ recent restoration of the temple.

On the doors of the temple are Daedalus’ (mythic) engravings; the Sibyl immediately tells Aeneas not to linger.  Why?  Is it too dream-like?  Is the underworld more real?

Non hoc ista sibi tempus spectacula poscit. (37)

“This time does not demand those sights you are gazing on.”  (This is not the time for sighteseeing.)

Daedalus’ engravings of the labyrinth, the death of Minos’ son, and the Minotaur are an ecphrasis,  such as we saw in Book I.  There Aeneas was overcome by depictions of the Trojan War on the walls of the temple of Juno, but here we do not feel that emotion.  Here the engravings are more remote, mysterious, and we also see the absence of a portrayal by Daedalus of his son Icarus’s death. Some believe that this absence of the son in the engravings is a kind of reversal of the absence of Aeneas in Anchises’s underworld:  Daedalus’s son is dead, presumably in the underworld; Aeneas’ father Anchises is dead, in the underworld.

After prayers, sacrifices, and the funeral proceedings for Misenus, who has died seemingly at random, reminding us of the brevity of life, is the mystery of what Aeneas is about to undergo, a visit to death and return.  Aeneas breaks off the golden bough, a symbol of life and death.  He needs the bough to enter the underworld.  And it immediately grows back on the tree.

Part 2:  The Journey

Virgil has drawn on material from the 11th book of the Odyssey, Odysseus’ visit to the underworld.  He also refers to Plato (the Phaedo, the Republic, etc.), Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, and even Aristophanes’ comic riffs on heroes in the Underworld, The Frogs.

He meets three ghosts:  Palinurus, a Trojan helmsman who was swept overboard by the god Sleep near the end of the journey to Italy and cannot cross the Styx–Aeneas feels guilty; Dido, who will not speak to him and glides away, despite Aeneas’s begging for forgiveness; and Deiphobus, a Trojan hero, Helen’s second Trojan husband after Paris’ death, who was killed by her bloody betrayal to Menelaus.  Aeneas is sorrowful and desolate, but he cannot change things. This is especially brought home to him by Dido, who now coldly rejects him just as he rejected her.

3. The Revelation

David Ferry’s translation

The last section is connected with the glory of the future.  After passing the hell of Tartarus and arriving at the heaven of the Elysian fields, Aeneas and the Sibyl meet some Trojan heroes, warriors, and singers who are pursuing the occupations they followed in life.  But Anchises is entertaining himself by counting the descendants of the Roman race.  And this is the second ecphrasis in Book VI.

Anchises describes to Aeneas a veritable pageant of Roman heroes who will reward Aeneas’s journey to Italy.  Among the Roman heroes are Romulus, the Roman kings, Cato, the Gracchi, Augustus, Caesar, Pompey, and Marcellus.

Anchises’ magnificent visual art-ecphrasis of the future restores Aeneas’ courage.  He now understand that there is a purpose to the journey and to the war he must fight in Italy to win a place for the Trojans.

But there are two gates out of the underworld, the horn gate, the gate of true dreams, and the ivory gate, the gate of false dreams.  Aeneas and the Sibyl return to Cumae through the ivory gate–the gate of false dreams.  Perhaps the dreams of an empirical future will not after all repay Aeneas’s loss of his personal life.

Virgil describes the two gates (literal English translation below the Latin):

Sunt geminae Somni portae, quarum altera fertur
cornea, qua ueris facilis datur exitus umbris,
altera candenti perfecta nitens elephanto,              
sed falsa ad caelum mittunt insomnia Manes.
his ibi tum natum Anchises unaque Sibyllam
prosequitur dictis portaque emittit eburna…

“There are twin gates, of which one is said to be horn, by which an easy exit is given to true shades, and the other is made shining of white ivory,  but Hades sends false dreams through this gate to our world.  Anchises, having finished speaking  escorted his son and the Sibyl and sent them out by the ivory gate.” (My literal translation.)

Poetry on Friday: Praxilla’s Cucumbers and Dido & Aeneas Get Close in a Cave

It was such a beautiful day that I got out my Greek Lyric Poetry. And so I sat outside in fifty-degree weather at what we call our “cafe table,” mittens and wool coat temporarily abandoned.  Armed with a Greek dictionary and grammar, I read Praxilla, a little-known Greek woman poet of the fifth century B.C.

“To know Greek is to know yourself,” a professor once said to us.  Greek and Latin are cognate languages, but the emotional issues are very different for me. I channel the Latin like a Roman matron—I  am very practical, and was a Roman matron in an earlier life!—but the Greek of fifth century B.C. is very strange and remote  to me. I had barely heard of Praxilla, and no wonder: her work has survived only in a couple of fragments.

In the three lines we have of Praxilla’s poem, “Adonis,” the shades of the Underworld have asked Adonis after his death to name most beautiful thing he left behind in life.

Here is my literal prose translation:

“The most beautiful thing I have left is the light of the sun,/ next the shining stars and the face of the moon,/ and also summer cucumbers, apples, and pears.”

It seems very lovely to me, but apparently there is a  cucumber joke.  The cucumbers  cracked the Greeks up, because cucumbers don’t go with the sun, stars, and moon, or,  apparently, the fruit. I rather wonder if the cucumber is one of the Greeks’ bawdy jokes,  but my footnotes do not suggest that.  There are references to cucumbers in Aristophanes, however, and comedies are connected.  Praxilla’s cucumbers inspired a Greek proverb, “sillier than Adonis.”

And here is Richmond Lattimore’s superb translation:

Loveliest of what I have left behind is the sunlight,
And loveliest after that is the shining stars and the moon’s face,
But also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears and apples.

Oh, Lattimore, that is so lovely!  I do wish I could write poetry.

I am so not Greek! But I love it.


As you all know, I love Virgil’s Aeneid.  The Latin is elegant, stately, and richly allusive.  Even the plot, based loosely on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, is compelling.  But I never bother with  English translations–you don’t much once you know a language–and simply assumed that Virgil and the translators were in accord.

This month, due to our informal Virgil readalong, I have dipped into several modern translations.  Each time,  I have returned to the Latin with relief that I do not rely on translators’ idiosyncracies. Though we are all reading a book called the Aeneid,  we are not reading the same book.  These very different translations bear as little resemblance to each other as cucumbers and apples, to go back to Praxilla’s crazy joke.

Before I go on, let me say that just because I don’t care for a particular translation doesn’t mean it is not right for  you.  If you like a translation, stick with it.  You won’t see the problems or mistakes.

Without question, the best, richest, and most accurate of 21st-century translations  is that of Robert Fagles , who won the  Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the American Academy of Poets in 2007 for his Aeneid. (He won the same award in the 1990s for his translation of the Iliad.)  Not only does he write beautifully, but he understands the Latin thoroughly and captures the spirit of epic and the complex emotions of the troubled hero, Aeneas, who is fated to found Rome at the cost of his personal happiness.

I am equally enthusiastic about the  translations of Robert Fitzgerald (1983) and Allen Mandelbaum (1971). Again, both are fine poets in their own right who know their Latin well—as people did back in the day.  Mandelbaum won the 1973 National Book Award for his translation of the Aeneid.

Now on to two well-respected recent translations:  I respect but am personally  less keen on the  translations by David Ferry (2017) and Sarah Ruden (2008). Ferry’s poem is gorgeous, but there are mistakes and mysterious intrusions of his own poetic observations.  Still, I can make a very good case for reading this version on its own merits.  Sarah Ruden is very literal, and attempts to match the number of Latin lines in her economical English.  A fascinating exercise, but because each Latin word is so packed with subtle shades of meaning, it does not work for me.

But do read the ones that work for you!  All tastes are different.  And you won’t be comparing it with the Latin probably.

AND NOW A TREAT!  I am going to show you something very cool. In Book IV, when  Dido and Aeneas rush into the same cave for shelter from a storm, Virgil arranges the words so that the two are enclosed by the walls of the cave.  We cannot do this in English translation!

The orange words are the cave; the blue are Dido and Aeneas.  See how they are  in the cave?  Speluncam, in orange, means “cave,” and the adjective, eandem, which means “the same”and modifies the cave, is placed at the end of the line.

speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem

As you can see, Dido and the Trojan leader in blue  are  inside. Very cool!  And the word “leader (dux) is between Dido and the Trojan  because both Dido and the Trojan Aeneas are leaders.

Aren’t you overwhelmed?  I hope you liked it.

Have a good weekend and see you soon!

Our Winter of the Aeneid: Madness and Duty in Book IV

Robert Fagles’s superb translation (the best, in my opinion).

Welcome back to the Virgil readalong.  All translations of the Aeneid are brilliant in different ways, and all are welcome to comment on their responses and interpretations. I am reading the Latin, and will occasionally guide you through a translation, or compare a translation to the original.

(Note: Our reading schedule is posted at the end of this blog entry. We have already discussed Book I here and Book II here. )

Today we’re reading Book IV, the story of the love affair of Dido and Aeneas.  It is the most famous, and perhaps the most widely-discussed book in the Aeneid.   It has inspired numerous works of literature and art, among them Dido’s letter to Aeneas in Ovid’s Heroides, Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, and Charles Martin’s modern poem, “Dido and Aeneas.” Shakespeare’s plays are rich with allusions to Book IV. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

When I first read the Aeneid as an undergraduate and Second Wave feminist,  Dido was my favorite character.  We were modern women; we empathized with Dido.   Our male classics professors didn’t pay much attention to the female perspective.  But  certainly writers through the ages have preferred Dido to Aeneas.  Later, as a graduate student in classics, I did much research and taught a Virgil class. And I began to view the details of Book IV with different eyes.  I discerned the tension between furor (madness) and pietas (duty).  I saw the perspectives of Dido, Aeneas, and perhaps Virgil.   And when I taught Latin at prep schools and in adult education classes, I tried to share these perspectives.

Some of you are reading Sarah Ruden’s translation.  It is my least favorite, but I will talk about it in a later post.

There is a historical context for Book IV.   No Roman could have read Book IV without thinking of two historical events:

Carthage (Dido’s city), one of Rome’s greatest rivals and brutal enemies, was destroyed in 149 B.C. during the Third Punic War. Virgil’s legend explains the enmity in terms of the love affair between Dido and Aeneas. Carthage was destroyed in the third of the Punic Wars. Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”) was said to be uttered by Cato the Elder at the end of his speeches, 149 B.C. Virgil celebrates Augustus and Rome through these allusions.

But more immediate would have been the Romans’ memory of the doomed “marriage” between Antony and Cleopatra. At the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Octavian/Augustus Caesar defeats Antony. Some consider the reference in Virgil a replay of the Punic Wars, with Augustus/Rome coming out ahead over the exotic east. Cleopatra, of course, commits suicide, traditionally from an asp’s bite (Plutarch’s story), as Dido does, more gorily, with a sword. But Dido is portrayed as a romantic, doomed figure from the beginning, and she is traditionally interpreted as more sympathetic than Aeneas. Aeneas’ views of duty are craven in comparison, or so we think nowadays. Dido represents Carthage, Aeneas Rome. But Virgil may be questioning empire as Aeneas gives up all personal life in despair. (You can find evidence for both sides.)

Christopher Marlowe’s “Dido, Queen of Carthage,” performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company 2017.

Book IV portrays the  tension between furor (madness) and pietas (duty). If Dido represents furor, tormented by love in the forms of a flame (flamma) and a wound (vulnus), then Aeneas is pietas (duty to his gods, country, and family)  When Aeneas “is buffeted by a gale of pleas” to remain in Carthage, he is compared ( IV.441 Latin, p. 111 Fitzgerald translation) to “an oaktree hale with age.” Dido, on the other hand, is compared earlier to a deer struck by an unwitting hunter.

But is furor or pietas more sympathetic? Many believe that Dido/furor is sympathetic, and that Aeneas/pietas is weak (certainly pietas is not much regarded nowadays).  And it is true that Aeneas does not come off well here.  His speech to Dido is cold, an unfeeling response. But we know from Virgil that Aeneas is heartbroken.  He writes (Book IV, vv. 279-80):

The Latin is:

At vero Aeneas aspectu obmutuit amens,
arrectaeque horrore comae et vox faucibus haesit.

My literal translation:

And truly Aeneas was astounded, frenzied at the sight,
and his hair stood on end with horror, and his voice stuck to his throat.

Robert Fagles’s superb translation:

Then Aeneas
was truly overwhelmed by the vision, stunned,
his hackles bristle with fear, his voice chokes in his throat.

What does Virgil mean by this description of madness? Aeneas is as mad (amens, literally “away from his mind) as Dido, who also is described as amens (pronounced ah-mense).  Is Virgil questioning the achievements of Rome and the teaching that Venus/love is subservient to Mars and duty?  Is Aeneas, as Venus’ son, now doomed, despite his eventual win?

Many read Book IV as a tragedy within the structure of an epic. There are references to two Greek versions of the Medea, Euripides’ Medea and Apollonius of Rhodes’s The Argonautica, an epyllion (little epic). In Euripides’s tragedy, Medea is a witch who kills her children and her husband Jason’s new bride in revenge for Jason’s deserting her for a younger women. Her love for Jason is as strong as Dido’s for Aeneas, and Jason is as obnoxiously logical as Aeneas when he explains he has to marry for power. Apollonius’s epyllion follows a similar path. Some of Dido’s speeches come directly from Apollonius.

Some of the primary elements of a tragedy are:

exposition (the set-up)

agon (struggle, conflict)

catastrophe (change of fortune)

peripeteia (reversal of circumstances or intention)

hamartia (caused by a tragic character flaw or mistake)

Protagonist brings about downfall through a mistake, not because he is evil, but because he doesn’t know enough.

anagorisis: a discovery [hinges on surprise)

suffering occasioned by discovery

lamentation (kommos)

catharsis (for audience)

Do let me know what you think about Book IV.  There is so much to discuss.  Books have been written on it.  And what translation are you reading?  I think Robert Fagles’ translation is the richest and the best, the closest in spirit to the Latin.  But I know that others of you are reading Ferry’s and Ruden’s.  Do you like the one you are reading, whatever it may be?


Jan. 22-28: Book IV

Jan. 29-Feb. 4: Books V and VI (the “short version” is Book VI)

Feb. 5-11, Book VII (Book VIII optional)

Feb. 12-18, Books IX

Feb. 19-25, Books X and XI

Feb. 26-March 4, Book X

Our Winter of the Aeneid: Self-Narration & Serpents in Book 2

Detail from “The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy” by Domenico Tiepolo (1773)

Welcome back to the readalong of Virgil’s Aeneid.   Since it’s a holiday weekend, I’ll write briefly about Book 2 today and try to get to 3 later this week.  (The schedule is printed at the bottom of this post: Book 3 is “optional”in our readalong.)


At the end of Book I, Dido urged Aeneas to tell the story of the fall of Troy.   And, by the way, the heroine Dido is based on Cleopatra, the powerful Egyptian queen.  More about this later.

In Book 2, Aeneas relates the story of the fall from his personal point-of-view.  And it is the poignancy of  his “self-narration” that makes Book 2 unique.   Homeric heroes like Odysseus may express pain and grief in order to manipulate others’ emotions, but Aeneas is a “counter-epical hero” who reveals his very real desolation, doubts, loss, and regrets.

And yet Aeneas is the cultured hero of a lost Trojan civilization, and the story is shaped for reception at a banquet.   Of course he is  trying to win her compassion.

Here is the first line of Aeneas’s speech, in Latin and three translations.

The Latin:

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem

Allan Mandelbaum’s translation:

“O Queen—too terrible for tongues the pain/you ask me to renew”-

Robert Fagles’ translation:

“….Sorrow, unspeakable sorrow,/ my queen, you ask me to bring to life once more”

My literal translation:  “Queen, you bid me to renew pain.”

The arrangement of the Latin words is very  clever, and not quite translatable:  I have color-coded two Latin words  in blue, infandum (unspeakable, unutterable, shocking), the first word in the line, and dolorem (pain), the last word in the line. These two words belong together:   Infandum… dolorem (unspeakable pain). The arrangement emphasizes the unspeakable pain that surrounds  Aeneas and Dido:  the queen (regina), the command/question (iubet) and the renewal (renovare) are encircled by the phrase “unspeakable pain.”

Laocoon and his sons.

And then Aeneas tells the story of the fall of Troy. The great Bernard Knox, in his essay, “The Serpent and the Flame:  The Imagery of the Second Book of the Aeneid,”  analyzes the imagery  that dominates Book 2.  The priest Laocoon, who  says the famous words, “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis” (“I fear Greeks even bearing gifts”), warns the Trojans not to bring the strange gigantic wooden horse left by the Greeks  into the city. Then two huge serpents glide across the sea from Tenedos, and stangle Laocoon and his two sons.

And a Greek trickster, Sinon, whose name means “destruction,” claims the Greeks have sailed away due to an oracle and built the Trojan horse to appease the gods.  He  insinuates himself in their midst.  His name recalls the Latin words sinuo (wind, curve) and sinus (fold, curve).  The words serpentes (serpents, snakes) and serpere (creeps) recur.  A new fear insinuat (winds) into their hearts after Laocoon and his sons died, but they take the horse into Troy anyway. The flames also take on snakey shapes.  At one point they are described as serpentes (winding).


I do feel Aeneas’s unspeakable pain (infandum dolorem)  as  I read Book 2. I am especially moved by the loss of his wife Creusa. Do let me know what interests you in Book 2:  particular scenes, poetic details, any effects characters.  There are many, many interpretations of this poem, so all comments are welcome.

N.B. I promised to write about Sarah Ruden’s translation today, but, alas, I have misplaced the book.  I organized my classics books–all except this one apparently.


Jan. 15-21:  Books II and III (the “short version” is Book II)

Jan. 22-28:  Book IV

Jan. 29-Feb. 4:  Books V and VI (the “short version” is Book VI)

The schedule for February, including the “short version,”  will be announced later.

Our Winter of the Aeneid: Aeneas as Modern Hero & Temple Art

Robert Fagles’ translation

Welcome to the readalong of Virgil’s Aeneid. I will post about this gorgeous epic poem once a week, and do hope that you will comment and share your own reactions.  There is no single interpretation, and every reading or rereading is different.  Whether you read a translation or the Latin, you will travel to the same place.  All the translations are excellent.  From time to time I will say a few words about the Latin.

This week we are discussing Book I.  The schedule is at the bottom of this post.

Today I wrote briefly about Aeneas as a modern hero, and the paintings at Juno’s temple.


If you have to be a hero, why complain about it?

That is how I responded to Virgil’s Aeneid the first time I read it as a very young woman.

Virgil’s complex characterization of Aeneas as a depressed, reluctant, tragic leader was innovative in epic.  Based on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, poems inspired by the Trojan War, the Aeneid has a different Roman slant on the heroic life.  Aeneas is a stretched to his limits by war and exile.  He does not have the perfect confidence of Homer’s heroes, nor the luxury to sulk in his tent, as Achilles did in the Iliad.   Fated to ensure the survival of the Trojan people, Aeneas must sacrifice his personal life to lead the refugees of the Trojan War to Italy, where they will found Rome. Virgil describes him as fessus (tired).   And Aeneas can’t give the job to someone else.

You must understand the Roman concept of pietas to appreciate the AeneidPietas is not quite the same as piousness: it  means duty to the gods, one’s country, and one’s family.  Aeneas is repeatedly called pius Aeneas: such epithets are characteristic of epic, but this one reminds us of why Aeneas does what he must do.

As Virgil explores the conflict between the longings of the personal man and the stoicism of the public figure, he creates a new kind of poem.  Our culture has no comparable concept to pietas, and we have no epic like the Aeneid.

We first meet Aeneas in a shipwreck, when he is very much the personal man, wishing himself dead. He says (and I have given both the Latin and the English):

The Latin:

…’O terque quaterque beati,
quis ante ora patrum Troiae sub moenibus altis
contigit oppetere!

A literal English translation:

“O three and four times blessed, those who happened to meet death before the altars of their fathers under the high walls of Troy!”

Aeneas is tired.  The Trojans are tired.  The ships are described as tired.

But when Aeneas  and only seven of his 20 ships reach the shores of Libya, he must be strong and says (Fagles’s translation):  “My comrades, hardly strangers to pain before now, we have all weathered worse.”

And he delivers one of the most famous lines in the poem:

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.

“Perhaps one day it will be a joy even to remember these things.”

He has lost his wife, friends, and many relatives in the war.  Does he believe what he says?  He knows how to say it.

And doesn’t this remind us all of sadness and disasters we have overcome?

And now on to


David Ferry’s translation

One of the most fascinating features of epic is ecphrasis, a term used to describe the meaning of works of art. When Aeneas stumbles upon a temple to Juno (a goddess who hates him, by the way), he has strong reactions to the paintings on the walls. The paintings depict episodes in the Trojan War. Even he is depicted in one of them, in combat with the Greeks. And so he believes Queen Dido, who is building the city of Carthage, will be friendly to him and his followers.

But what do the pictures really mean? Virgil tells us that Aeneas” feeds his spirit” and cries over pictura inani, which means an “empty picture,” an “idle picture,” or a “worthless picture.”

But Aeneas is so moved by the lasting fame of the Trojan heroes in art that he says the following (another famous line):

Here is the Latin:

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

Literally it means, “These are the tears of things and human woes touch the mind.”

The poet Robert Fagles translates it:

even here, the world is a world of tears and
the burdens of mortality touch the heart.

And Robert Fitgerald translates it: “…they weep here
for how the world goes, and our life that passes
Touches their hearts.”

Many critics question Aeneas’s interpretation that the paintings  show sympathy for the Trojans. Both Greeks and Trojans are portrayed:  often the Trojans are routed by the Greeks.  And the frieze is at the temple of Juno, who  favors the Greeks,.

I  do not have a firm grasp on this: in other words, sometimes it means one thing to me, sometimes another. Dido and Aeneas become friends, which supports Aeneas’s theory, but Juno and Venus (Aeneas’ mother) did some ground work to make this happen.

It’s complicated!

Let me know what interests you about Book I. There is so much here.


Jan. 8-14:  Book I

Jan. 15-21:  Books II and III (the “short version” is Book II)

Jan. 22-28:  Book IV

Jan. 29-Feb. 4:  Books V and VI (the “short version” is Book VI)

The schedule for February, including the “short version,”  will be announced later.

New Year’s Resolutions, a Literary Calendar, & a Virgil Readalong

WE RARELY KEEP OUR NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS.   According to The New York Times, unclear resolutions are easily broken, especially when imposed from an external base. For example, dieting is a societal expectation, especially for women, despite our assertion that it is for our health.  My own resolution? To watch my sugar intake.  What I’ve learned:  they put sugar in milk, even soy milk.  One must read all the labels.

RESOLUTIONS I’VE BROKEN.  Last year I declared it was the Year of Balzac.  What a nice idea!  But after I finished reading the Penguin editions, I turned to tatty copies of 19th-century translations by Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell.  The flaking of old paper actually hurt my hands,  so I abandoned the project.

LITERARY CALENDARThe New York Times has posted a literary calendar for 2018. The most exciting event?  Muriel Spark’s 100th birthday on Feb. 1.  I love her books, and have posted about The Ballad of Peckham Rye (here), Robinson (here), and The Finishing School (here).

THE  READALONG OF VIRGIL’S AENEID, JAN. 8- Feb. 26, at Mirabile Dictu.

Do join us.  It’s a great read.

The famous line below is one of the reasons to read the Aeneid.

…forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabat.

Translation:  “Perhaps someday we will be happy even to remember these things.”

In desperate times it is a comforting saying.

Does Aeneas believe this?  No, he does not.  He asserts it to hearten a band of Trojan refugees. Trauma lies behind them, trauma ahead.  Aeneas tells us privately that he wished he had died at Troy: his personal life ended with the fall of Troy. He is a reluctant leader, destined to found Rome.  The survivors of the Trojan war wander for years, welcome nowhere for long, not even in Italy, where the gods send them.

Is this an epic about empire, or an anti-war poem?  All interpretations are right, supported by critics, historians, or common readers. Feel free to argue about it!

Here is the schedule for January:

Jan. 8-14:  Book I

Jan. 15-21:  Books II and III (the “short version” is Book II)

Jan. 22-28:  Book IV

Jan. 29-Feb. 4:  Books V and VI (the “short version” is Book VI)

The schedule for February, including the “short version,”  will be announced later.

All the translations are very good, but if you want background, I recommend the excellent introduction, notes and glossary in the Penguin edition (Robert Fagles’s translation).

If you have questions, email me at mirabiledictu.org@gmail.com

David Ferry’s New Translation of Virgil’s Aeneid

David Ferry’s new translation of  Virgil’s Aeneid  has just been published by University of Chicago Press.

Are you excited?  I am.

That’s because I know Ferry’s poetry.  In his National Book Award-winning collection, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, he included excerpts from his translation of the Aeneid.  Ferry is not only a translator, but a poet in his own right.

I reread Virgil in Latin every year (yes, I’m a classicist), but not everybody is so lucky. When I taught the Aeneid in Latin,  I also assigned parts of Robert Fagles’ translation, because intermediate students could not read the poem in entirety in Latin in a semester.   The translation gave them a broader perspective on the poem as a whole.

Michael Dirda of The Washington Post is enthusiastic about Ferry’s new translation, and about Virgil in general.  He writes,

Ours is a great age for classical translation. Just in the past dozen years, Virgil’s “Aeneid” has been tackled by Robert Fagles, Stanley Lombardo, Frederick Ahl, Sarah Ruden and, now, David Ferry, who previously gave us the best modern English version of Horace’s odes . Being the work of an award-winning poet, Ferry’s “Aeneid” can be read with excitement and pleasure — but so can all those other translations. What really matters is to read at least one of them.

And Dirda beautifully explains the influence of Virgil’s epic on Western culture..  He reminds us that after Virgil’s death in 19 B.C.,

For the next 1,800 years, “The Aeneid” was generally viewed as the preeminent masterpiece of the Western literary tradition. Its famous opening words, “Arma virumque cano” — Ferry translates them straightforwardly as “I sing of arms and the man” — can be found scribbled as graffiti at Pompeii. An awed Dante follows the arch-poet through Hell and Purgatory. In essence, wherever Latin was studied, Virgil’s poetry was revered. An English “Aeneid” first appeared in a 16th-century Scottish version by Gavin Douglas — highly praised by Ezra Pound — and was followed in the 17th century by John Dryden’s classic rendering in heroic couplets.

Robert Fagles’ translation is very good.

I love the Aeneid, and have often tried to sell it as a beach book:  see my post on The Epic As Beach Read.   I said, “The best beach epic of all, and possibly the best epic poem in any language, is Virgil’s Aeneid,  the story of the founding of Rome by a refugee of the Trojan War.”

Every Roman schoolboy read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in Greek, and the Aeneid is in part Virgil’s homage to Homer. The first half of the Aeneid corresponds to the Odyssey, as Aeneas and the survivors of the Trojan War sail from their native country to find a new home in Italy (Rome), their journey as long and tangled and god-thwarted as that of the trickster Odysseus.  And the last half of the Aeneid is a  Roman Iliad, the story of the war between the Trojans and inhabitants of  Italy, before they can found Rome, as the gods prophesied. 

The Aeneid has been read as a celebration of empire; it has also been read as an anti-war poem. Most important, it is a great story, with beautiful imagery and complex figures of speech.

Most translations of Virgil have good introductions. The Fagles has detailed notes, glossaries, character lists, and place lists.  (I do not yet have Ferry’s book, but have already read many excerpts, and assume there are notes. I also recommend his translation of Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics.)

Meanwhile, here is Ferry’s elegant translation of the first 34 lines of Book I of the Aeneid.

Virgil’s Aeneid Translation of Book I. 1-34

I sing of arms and the man whom fate had sent
To exile from the shores of Troy to be
The first to come to Lavinium and the coasts
Of Italy, and who, because of Juno’s
Savage implacable rage, was battered by storms
At sea, and from the heavens above, and also
Tempests of war, until at last he might
Build there his city and bring his gods to Latium,
From which would come the Alban Fathers and
The lofty walls of Rome. Muse, tell me
The cause why Juno the queen of heaven was so
Aggrieved by what offence against her power,
To send this virtuous faithful hero out
To perform so many labors, confront such dangers?
Can anger like this be, in immortal hearts?

There was an ancient city known as Carthage
(Settled by men from Tyre), across the sea
And opposite to Italy and the mouth
Of the Tiber river; very rich, and fierce,
Experienced in warfare. Juno, they say,
Loved Carthage more than any other place
In the whole wide world, more even than Samos.
Here’s where she kept her chariot and her armor.
It was her fierce desire, if fate permitted, that
Carthage should be chief city of the world.
But she had heard that there would come a people,
Engendered of Trojan blood, who would some day
Throw down the Tyrian citadel, a people
Proud in warfare, rulers of many realms,
Destined to bring down Libya. Thus it was
That the Parcae’s turning wheel foretold the story.

Fearful of this and remembering the old
War she had waged at Troy for her dear Greeks,
And remembering too her sorrow and her rage
Because of Paris’s insult to her beauty,
Remembering her hatred of his people,
And the honors paid to ravished Ganymede –
For all these causes her purpose was to keep
The Trojan remnant who’d survived the Greeks
And pitiless Achilles far from Latium,
On turbulent waters wandering, year after year,
Driven by fates across the many seas.

So formidable the task of founding Rome.

Is Virgil’s “Aeneid” a Weepie? (The Restored Version)

If there is one word on which we can fix, which will suggest the maximum of what I mean by the term “a classic’, it is the word maturity. I shall distinguish between the universal classic, like Virgil, and the classic which is only such in relation to the other literature in its own language, or according to the view of a particular period.
― “What Is a Classic?” by T. S. Eliot

Is Virgil’s Aeneid a weepie?

I tell everyone it is a beach read.

Some of us read it because we love it. Some of us read it in school. Perhaps you remember the opening words of the epic, arma virumque cano… “Of arms (war) and the man I sing…”

The poet sings of two wars, the Trojan war and a later war in Italy, and the man is Aeneas.

I read this Roman classic every summer. I focus on the elegance of the Latin, but this time found myself weeping over Aeneas’s harsh fate. A leader by default–everyone else is dead–he must lead the survivors of the Trojan War to their new homeland in Italy and found Rome. The gods says it is his fate. He is a reluctant hero, even whiny sometimes. He seems like a human being. Not just an epic hero.

Why was this so shattering to read? The Trojan plight seems so fraught, so war-torn, so modern. Exile is horrendous, whether it is by war (Aeneas) or emperor’s mandate (Ovid’s exile, which he wrote about in Tristia, “Sad things,” and Epistulae ex Ponto, “Letters from the Black Sea”). I kept visualizing Aeneas’s and the Trojans’ wanderings, driven from place to place, welcome no place. Modern refugees of war, too.

The young women I taught in third-year Latin much preferred Book IV of the Aeneid, a kind of romance. But the heroic fate wrecks that, too. When Aeneas and his men are shipwrecked at Carthage, Dido, a refugee widow and queen of a new city, Carthage, takes them in. She and Aeneas become lovers. But he flees when his mother, Venus, tells him to go and follow fate. He tries to slip away without Dido’s knowing.

During the years I taught Virgil, I gradually became more sympathetic towards Aeneas. Constantly referred to as pius Aeneas, he is ripped apart by pietas, which is not quite“piety,” but a very Roman notion of duty to the gods, one’s country, and family.

After a shipwreck at Carthage, can he cry and moan? Only privately. He wishes he had died at Troy.

His duty is to make an encouraging speech to his men.

And he says the famous line:

Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
“Perhaps sometime it will please us even to remember these things.”

The literal order of the Latin words is as follows:
“Perhaps even these things someday to remember will be pleasing.”.

Emphasis on “perhaps even.”

Does this stoic sentiment even make sense? Not for Aeneas, who has lost wife, father, and friends. He says what he has to to comfort his followers.

Does Virgil believe it? In the context of the poem, I doubt it, though he certainly flatters Augustus when necessary. Perhaps this is a line generals will quote in future wars.

I certainly do not believe the Trojans will someday find these things pleasing to remember.

Hence my lacrimae rerum, “tears over these things” (Aeneid, Book I, line 462).