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.)

BOOK 2

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.

SCHEDULE:

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.

AENEAS AS A MODERN HERO

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

ECPHRASIS: THE PICTURES AT THE TEMPLE

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.

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.

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).