Popularizing Literature: A Revival of Edith Hamilton & an Unfortunate Review of a Roman Classic

Norton has reissued two books by Edith Hamilton, a popularizer of Greek and Roman culture.

In my thirties and forties  I reviewed for (mostly now-defunct) book pages,  but I have enjoyed blogging far more than reviewing.   My goal as a blogger/book journal writer is to popularize neglected classics, as well as an occasional striking new book.

Alas, critics seldom respect popularizers or bloggers. The received wisdom  is that bloggers’ opinions do not matter because they do not know the language of criticism.  But as book review publications change direction or fold  (and  as a lifelong reader of reviews, I’m very sad about this), critics have more to worry about than the competition of bloggers.  I am disturbed that  two of the daily critics at The New York Times,  Michiko Kakutani and Jennifer Senior, have recently resigned and transferred to  “longform journalism” (whatever that may be).  And in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, the review of David Ferry’s new translation of the Aeneid was written by April Bernard, a poet who does not know Latin.  Mind you, she is enthusiastic–a popularizer?–but the review is riddled with errors–and bullshit.  The NYRB usually assigns such reviews to classicists, among them Mary Beard and Daniel Mendelsohn.

On the positive side, I am  enthusiastic about an excellent article in the TLS about the revival of Edith Hamilton, a classicist who popularized Greek and Roman culture in her books.  And, by the way, the reviewer, thank God,  is a classicist, Donna Zuckerberg.  (N.B. At the end of this post I will write more about Hamilton.)

But first let me rant about the NYRB review of David Ferry’s translation of the Aeneid.

If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s good to establish your lack of credentials.  Bernard cleverly does this. She writes,

My own Latin education, which came too late to stick, required me to construe some lines from the Aeneid before a frowning, and then sarcastic, doorkeeper to a graduate program in literature. He seemed to regard my poor performance as no better than could be expected, and passed me on with a sigh. My point is that I am no scholar, and like the vast majority of readers I gratefully apprehend the likes of Virgil and Ovid through their English translators.

This is not false modesty–it’s hubris. It’s an attempt to get readers on her side.  Bernard manipulates readers into forgiving her ignorance, thinking, Oh, classicists are so stuffy!  But I would guess that quite a few classicists will read this  and wonder, as I did, How on earth did she get the job?

Bernard writes at length about poets influenced by, or responding to Virgil, and she does that very well.  But she has problems when she actually looks at Ferry’s translation and waffles unconvincingly about Virgil’s Latin.  She spends much time marveling at Virgil’s use of the “historical present,” a substitution of the present tense for the past tense.

If she knew more Latin, she would understand this is common usage. Roman writers frequently employ the historical present, i.e., present tense, instead of the  past  to emphasize the immediacy and vividness of the action, or even just to fit the meter of a poem.  Poets, prose writers, Virgil, Ovid, Tacitus, Livy:   all use the historical present.  In many languages this is common usage: think of the  present tense of the short stories of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Bobbie Ann Mason.

She illustrates the use of the historical present in the following passage from Book VI, when the Sibyl leads Aeneas travel  to the Underworld, guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog.

Ferry writes in his translation

Huge Cerberus, crouching there in the dooryard of
The cavern he was watchdog of, made all
The regions round reverberate with the loud
Barking of his three heads. Seeing the serpents
Bristling around his neck, the Sybil throws him
A drugged pellet of meal, drowsed with honey.
He catches it in his ravenous triple gullet,
Wolfs it down, and at once his monster body
Relaxed, and he sank down….

What Bernard doesn’t understand is that the shifting of tenses from past to present at which she marvels is not a literal translation.  The past tense of “made all reverberate” is Ferry’s own, not that of Virgil, who consistently uses the present in the passage (Book VI, lines 417-423, in the Latin.)  So when she writes the following, it is bullshit.

What results from this shuffling of tenses is a strange, accordion-fold relation to time. We sit far away, even farther away than the gods, since we in the future know that what Fate has decreed will come to pass. And yet much of the time we are “on the ground,” in the thick of the action in the present tense. Moreover, events from this historical present are constantly “predicting” the future—in addition to being given yet another famous shield covered in predictive panoramas, Aeneas is also peppered with auguries, omens, and more casual guesses, promises, and threats of consequence throughout the epic. His job, of course, is to see Fate realized in the most honorable of ways, to make his person serve as vehicle for the story that is so much larger than himself.

Oh, by the way, the present is also sometimes used for the future–but we won’t go there.

In Book IV, the monster Rumor walks.  Virgil describes Rumor  as a horrendous monster with feathers all over her body, and with as many eyes, tongues, mouths, and ears as there are feathers (the eyes, tongues, mouths, and ear are under the feathers),  Bernard translates  tot linguae, “so many tongues,”as “these tongues.” And she fudges about the reasons for Ferry’s modifications in translation, as so often, by comparing it to Latin she doesn’t know.

She quotes a passage from Ferry’s translation about Dido’s suicide.  Dido explains that she wants to die.  And then she stops speaking, and her companions see her  actual death, that she has fallen on the sword.

Then Bernard decides, for some odd reason, to show off her  inability to translate Latin.  She writes,

Here is an opportunity to compare translations. The Latin original, for those last five lines after Dido’s speech, is:

Dixerat, atque illam media inter talia ferro
conlapsam aspiciunt comites, ensemque cruore
spumantem sparsasque manus. It clamor ad alta

Literally, and clumsily, this translates as:  “Having spoken, in the midst of all that, her retinue sees/saw [Dido] fall/having fallen on the blade, the sword making a geyser of gore, hands awash in blood. The clamor rose to the roofs of the palace.”

Alas, Bernard is not skilled enough to write a literal translation. She confuses the pluperfect verb,  dixerat (‘she had spoken,” translated in English narrative as “she spoke,” perfect tense), with a past participle (“having spoken).” Since I am a classicist, let me share a literal Latin translation with you:   “[Dido] spoke, and in the midst of such words her companions saw her fallen on the sword, and the sword foaming with blood and her hands bespattered.  A cry goes up to the roofs.”

Bernard also waffles about fatum, “fate,” and does not understand the complicated attitude of the sophisticated literary Romans of the first century B.C. toward the concept.  Even the etymolology of the word “fate” is fascinating:  it comes from the Latin  fari, “to speak,” and literally means  “that having been said.” It comes to mean “prophetic declaration,” “oracle,” and”prediction.”  Does anyone feel up to writing about fate.   I do not.

Bernard does not know enough about classics to write the lead review for the New York Review of Books.  A much shortened form of this review might work in a lesser publication, even in The New York Times (barely), but never in the  NYRB, one of the most intellectual publications in the U.S.

And, by the way, I will blog about Ferry’s translation eventually.  It is absorbing, and I love it.  But honestly? For our Virgil readalong in January, I will read Robert Fagles’ or Mandelbaum’s translation.  They are closer to the Latin, and that matters to me.

Are you ready to move on?  In this week’s TLS, the classicist Donna Zuckerberg  has written a fascinating article about  Edith Hamilton, the author of  The Greek Way and The Roman Way,  which inspired generations of readers, including Robert F. Kennedy, to appreciate the classics and Greek and Roman culture. I became interested in Hamilton last summer when I read Yopie Prins’ Ladies’ Greek:  Victorian Translations of Tragedy,  a fascinating book about  Victorian women classicists, writers, and poets who translated tragedies, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Virginia Woolf,  and Edith Hamilton.  (I wrote about this stunning book here.)

I was particularly interested in Edith Hamilton, an American classicist who dedicated herself to popularizing Greek and Latin. We never read her at the university,  because she wasn’t strictly scholarly,  but I’ve known people who became interested in classics through Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.

Donna Zuckerberg in the TLS considers  Hamilton’s  The Greek Way and The Roman Way  classics. Norton has reissued these two books, and she says with good reason.   She writes,

Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way and The Roman Way, originally published in 1930 and 1932, are classics in their own right. Praised for their lucidity and accessibility, her books served as an introduction to classical antiquity for the general American public for much of the twentieth century. Although less well known in Europe, Hamilton achieved such popularity in the United States that, when I tell people that I study Classics, most people over the age of fifty who are familiar with the subject tell me that Hamilton was their entry point. The Greek Way was a favourite volume of Robert Kennedy, and – he claimed – a text that helped him process his grief after the assassination of his brother. Hamilton’s works underlie one traditional American approach to the Classics. Do they deserve re-publication?

Hamilton herself is a figure about whom much has been written lately (for example, the excellent chapter by Judith Hallett in the volume Women Classical Scholars, 2016). She had two distinguished careers, first as headmaster at Bryn Mawr, then as a writer about the ancient Mediterranean. It is tempting to compare Hamilton to her British contemporary Jane Ellen Harrison, but while Harrison’s work on Greek mythology became the foundation of scholarship on the subject, Hamilton’s work on mythology and classical civilization was unapologetically popularizing.

I did read a bit of The Greek Way last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it, though it is a bit dated.  Good for the TLS for writing about this now neglected writer.

Three New Books & The Scarlet Letter: “B” Is for Bookish

Demi Moore as Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”

I was doing very well at not buying books.

And then the urge struck me.  I bought three books and smuggled them into the house, so as not to be lectured by Himself.

I am not a bookish Puritan, but I felt a bit like Hester in The Scarlet Letter, only with a scarlet “B” for “bookish.”

But really I enjoy books too much to wear the “B.”

Here’s what tempted me:

 John Crowley’s Ka.  Crowley’s books are fantasy/literary fiction, loved by critics Harold Bloom and Michael Dirda as well as by fans of brilliant, entertaining novels.  He has won the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Literature and the World Fantasy Award.

I have just begun his new novel, Ka.  It is the story of a crow, Dar Oakley, who is our guide through 2000 years of history.  If you loved Watership Down, you’ll find Dar’s account of crow life fascinating, and a bit  post-modern.

Here is a passage from Elizabeth Hand’s review in the L.A. Times.

So yes: John Crowley is a writer’s writer, the rare stylist whose stories can feature both downtown New York City bars and 16th century cosmologist and martyr for science Giordano Bruno. Yet Crowley is also a serious reader’s writer. As with Middle Earth, his imaginary worlds so enchant and entice that many fans read and reread his books obsessively, the closest we can come to inhabiting them. But, unlike Tolkien’s legendarium, most of Crowley’s fiction is resolutely set in our own world. Even those works that venture onto other planets maintain quicksilver ties to this one. Decades before George R.R. Martin’s series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Crowley’s first novel, “The Deep” (1975), recounted an ancient, seemingly endless conflict that evokes the War of the Roses and its precursors. In his second novel, 1976’s “Beasts,” humans and genetically engineered sentient animals make their way across a near-future U.S. devastated by civil wars and a totalitarian government.

Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by David Ferry.  Ferry, a National Book Award winner, is one of my favorite American poets.  He is also a brilliant Latinist who knows his Virgil:  his translations of the Eclogues and the Georgics are lovely.

I reread the Aeneid every year in LatinSo why buy Ferry’s translation?  His style is brilliant, and I am anxious to see how he handles problems in translation.

As I grow older I appreciate the Aeneid more and more, particularly Virgil’s brave characterization of the first weak hero.  (I am calling it the first, but I should say my first.)  I first taught the Aeneid as a T.A. many years ago, and many, many times later as a prep-school Latin teacher.

I’ve been thinking about Latin descriptions of passion.  Virgil often uses the words amens (pronounced ah-mens, and literally meaning “out of one’s mind”).  In Book II, during the fall of Troy, Aeneas is amens  when he loses his wife Creusa as they are running away during the fall of Troy.  Ferry translates it “in my frenzy.” (And that is an excellent, popular translation.)  But I keep visualizing the more pictorial amens   (“a” means “away from” and mens “mind”):  a diagram of  a man outside his mind.  Later, in Book IV, Dido, the queen of Carthage, is amens when she falls madly in love with Aeneas.  So perhaps Aeneas was only really passionate about Creusa?  Poor Aeneas.

Sara Maitland’s Three Times Three.  In Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller, he mentions  Sara Maitland.   Three Times Three was one of my favorite novels of the ’90s.  I ordered a cheap copy online, and it arrived today.  I can’t wait to reread it!



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.