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).

The Epic As Beach Book: Homer, Virgil, & Others

Robert Fagles' translation is stunning.

Robert Fagles’ translation (Penguin)

At Barnes and Noble, the last bookstore in our fair city, I was delighted to find a copy of The Odyssey on a “Beach Reads” table. It was a very old translation by George Herbert  Palmer, but never mind.   I love to imagine a reader picking up Homer for the first time since ninth-grade English, or a freshman Classics in Translation class.  I read Greek, so I don’t bother much about translations, but I have seen students inspired by the translations of Lattimore, Fitzgerald, or Fagles.

iliad 41zzK2KjwzL._AC_UL320_SR208,320_Epic poems make great beach books, because narrative is as important as the language. It is easy to lose oneself, slathered with sun block under the umbrella, in Homer’s riveting poem about Odysseus’ adventures on the return trip home from the Trojan War, impeded by storms, Cyclops, sirens, and witches.  I read and reread Milton’s suspenseful epic rendering of devious Satan’s tempting of Adam and Eve in  Paradise Lost.  It’s a pity so many of us find Satan sympathetic:  that was not Milton’s intention.  But in Paradise Regained, he is the  unreconstructed villain we remember from the New Testament.

What else would I like to see on that Beach Reads table?   Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Derek Walcott’s Omeros,and Alice Oswald’s Memorial.  (Let me know your favorite beach epics!)

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.  In the essay “What Is a Classic?” T. S. Eliot explains why Virgil’s epic is a  “classic”.

A classic can only occur when a civilizsation is mature; when a language and a literature are mature; and it must be the work of a mature mind. It is the importance of that civilization and of that language, as well as the comprehensiveness of the mind of the individual poet, which gives the universality.

the aeneid virgil 51bBUTqwlZL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Virgil’s sense of history, the maturity of Roman literature, and his knowledge  of both Latin and Greek literature gives him a rare command of style, consciousness, and vocabulary.  The Aeneid has been read as a celebration of empire; it has also been read as an anti-war poem: there is evidence for both readings. It is a homage to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the texts studied by educated Roman schoolboys.  Books I-VI of The Aeneid are about homecoming, or rather about traveling to find their fated home in Italy, and it is loosely based on the Odyssey.  Books VII-XII is a story of war, a  Roman Iliad:  after the Trojan refugees arrive in Italy, Aeneas and his men must fight for the right to stay and Aeneas must marry Princess Lavinia.

Virgil begins the poem:

arma virumque cano…

A literal translation is “arms and the man I sing…”

The first word arma refers to the war described in the last six books. The second word, virum, refers to the man , Aeneas, whom we meet during his trials in the first six books., as The Odyssey is about the man Odysseus.  Note that these two words, the subject of The Aeneid, open the poem.

Without knowing anything about Roman culture, it can be tough to understand The Aeneid. I wonder how Seamus Heaney’s new translation of Book VI, in which Aeneas visits the Underworld, fares with the common reader who has not read the entire poem.  There is a lot to take in:  the homage to the Odyssey, the odd behavior of the Sibyl, the significance of the golden bough, the pageant of the future…

The best bet, even if you decide just to read the Heaney, is to get a copy of Robert Fagles’s translation of The Aeneid for background.  First reaason:  the whole poem is there.  Second Reason:  the brilliant Bernard Knox, who was probably as close to a celebrity classicist as the U.S. has ever had,  writes the introduction beautifully and succinctly, and intelligently gives you all the background you need.  Of pietas, he writes:

Pietas describes another loyalty and duty, besides that to the gods and the family. It is for the Roman, to Rome, and in Aeneas’ case, to his mission to found it in Hesperia, the western country, Italy.

As state budget cuts threaten or slash language departments at public high schools and the state universities where , by the way, the majority of Americans study languages, classics departments bite the bullet and peppily teach culture classes.  SUNY Albany eliminated it classics department, along with French, Italian, Russian, and theater.  I worry that in the not-so-distant  future classics will  be yanked from business-oriented curricula and taught only at the most exclusive expensive prep schools and private universities.   If that day comes, the division of the rich and poor will be even more exaggerated than now:   only the elite will have knowledge of ancient languages and culture. I am not exaggerating:  that is our heritage.  But Budget cuts are making war on the middle class.  Without Latin and Greek, we would be a poorer civilization.

Amatory Lit 101: Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid & Doris Lessing’s Landlocked

pulp love cover cd0c32c52e8a6ed2730d959432329ddeThe first amatory classic I read was Jane Eyre.  I don’t think Peyton Place,  The Robe, or Max Shulman’s Rally Round the Flag, Boys!, count, do you?  At 12, I was enthralled by Jane’s love for  Mr. Rochester.  I knew that one day I, too would fall in love with Mr. Rochester.  The operative word was “fall.”

But is “falling” love?

I suppose so.

Amatory lit can be sexy.  But so often it is not quite about love.

Take two amatory classics I read recently.  They are about sex and passion, but love?

Aeneid Rolfe Humphries c99ea633518bd50c8c3027ab79b6d8a6Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid is one of the world’s most famous tragic love stories.  I reread it every year, preferably on the Mediterraean, actually at Ahkwabi State Park, since I never  find myself on the Mediterranean.  Dido, Queen of Carthage, is desperately in love with the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who is is driven off course to Carthage by a storm on his way to Italy.  There are many different interpretations of this elaborate, glittering poem:  it is the sympathetic portrait of a passionate woman, or a condemnation of a queen who puts love before duty, or a vindication of Aeneas’s obedience to the gods and devotion to the pursuit of power. It was the most influential Latin poem in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,  the inspiration for Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas, Berlioz’s opera, Les Troyens (The Trojans), and innumerable works of art.

Dido is a powerful widowed queen in exile, building a new city for her people.  But in Book IV, she is obsessed with Aeneas, and fears it is disloyalty to her dead husband.  Virgil describes her love as a disease:  wounded by love, she feeds the wound.

One of the best translations of the 20th century is Rolfe Humphries’, which is close to the Latin and reflects the economy of the language. (I also love Robert Fagles’ translation, but he adds phrases that are not in Virgil.)  Book IV begins,

But the queen finds no rest. Deep in her veins
The wound is fed; she burns with hidden fire.

The Latin lines are alliterative and arranged in interlocking word order:  The second line of the Latin below shows the repeating v’s and c’s, as you can see here:

vulnus alit venis, et caeco carpitur igni.

(vulnus = wound)… (venis = veins),,, (caeco = blind) (carpitur = consumed)

"Dido Building Carthage," b JMW Turner

“Dido Building Carthage,” b JMW Turner

The balance and style of the poem are elegant and the plot is compelling, especially for women.    During a storm, Dido and Aeneas take refuge in a cave and make love.  Dido regards their relationship as a marriage.  But Mercury comes with a message from Jove, ordering him to go to Italy, reminding him he must found Rome for his son.  Aeneas prepares the fleet’s departure without telling Dido, but she confronts him.  After he leaves, she commits suicide.  And Virgil revives the images of the fire and the wound:   she builds a pyre, then kills herself by falling on his sword.

Virgil’s description of the end of her life is  grotesque.

And her wound made a gurgling hissing sound.
Three times she tried to lift herself; three times
Fell back; her rolling eyes went searching heaven
And the light hurt when she found it, and she moaned.

Traditionally, classicists speculate that the Romans would have mistrusted the love affair, comparing  the dalliance of Dido and Aeneas to that of Cleopatra and Antony. Antony’s affair with a foreign queen fueled a war and drove Cleopatra to suicide.  And Augustus had defeated Antony, and Virgil was a patriotic poet, very much Augustus’s poet.  So would the audience  at Virgil’s poetry readings have approved Aeneas’s flight from Dido?  Or would the women have been fuming?  Should we be postmodern? Or traditional?

Love is a wound.

Lessing landlocked 328419Doris Lessing’s Landlocked., the fourth in Nobel Prize winner Lessing’s Children of Violence series.

 Landlocked, written after her masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, which certainly taught Lessing how to write about love and sex, is the most polished novel in this series.  Set during World War II, Martha waits in Africa for the end of the war to divorce the husband she married for political reasons.  She  left her first husband, a civil servant, and their daughter Caroline to  become a Communist activist and support herself as a secretary.   She made the disastrous marriage to Anton Hesse, a communist refugee from Germany, so he would not be interned in a camp or deported.  Anton is terrible in bed, they have no chemistry, and Martha insists on having affairs, reminding him that they are not really “married.”

The political climate changes, the town again become hostile to the left, and the communist group is unraveling..

But the most important aspect of the novel is Martha’s discovery of sex.   Tomas, a Polish Jew, a farmer, and a communist who simply loves women, introduces her to great sex.  She has never been happier. But the affair is a brief idyll, and she knows it.  He will not leave his wife, and is determined to go back to Europe.  She will go to London.

Nothing can wipe out the memory of violence.  Martha is  aware that if he had not left Europe with his wife, he would have died.

If he had not–well, none of his family was left alive, several dozen brothers, sisters, cousins,, relations–they were all dead, they had died in the gas ovens, on the gallows, in the prisons and the concentration camps in those years of our Lord, 1939-1945.   But here Thomas was alive.  And all her life Martha would say to herself–whatever else had  been untrue, whatever else had not existed, this had been true:  this was true, she must hold on to it, even though, when she touched Thomas it was with the anxiety that related not to Thomas now and here, but to the scene she could create by a slight dislocation in her mind: Thomas very nearly had not left Poland.

This is a gorgeous novel, with some of Lessing’s best writing.  It is the gateway to the experimental, genre-busting fifth book in the series, The Four-Gated City, which is actually my favorite.

It is so good to see Martha happy.  So much lies ahead of her after the war, when she goes to London.

The Cat Collection, the British Library, & Wearing a Cat Sweatshirt in London

taintor crazy cat lady 36639_catladyI love cats.  I  am a crazy cat lady.  I have lived with cats for decades:  Chloe the wild Siamese, Grendel the laid-back black-and-white,  Miss Beethoven the explorer…the list goes on.  As a cat lady, I open cans of tuna, chat to them, and ensure the furniture is “cat-proof.”  I arrange tables and chairs where they can jump up and look out the window. I let them play in paper sacks.

Cats have distinctive  personalities.  Chloe was so wild she playfully batted my pens to stop me writing, ran up the curtains and hung there, and also once incredibly clawed her way across a fiberglass ceiling.  Miss Beethoven loved to explore bizarre unknown crawl spaces under the sink.  How many hours did we spend calling, “Miss Beethoven! Miss B!”  And then she would pop back out, and it turned out we needn’t have worried.

People give you cat stuff if you are a cat lady.  I have received many, many kitschy cat figurines, cat mugs, cat sweatshirts, a cat charm bracelet, and a cat fire screen.  Most of the cat collection is in the basement, but I do drink from cat mugs and like my wooden cat figures (which are seldom upright, because the cats like to knock them over).

IMG_3523

You can’t have too many cat sweatshirts to wear in your freezing cold house in winter.  (Thanks, Mom!)

But a cat sweatshirt isn’t quite the thing in London.  It is like going out in your pajamas.

I’m pretty sure everybody at the British Library wore black the day I wore my cat sweatshirt. While I huddled at a table on the piazza  rereading Jane Eyre after seeing Charlotte Bronte’s “fair copy” in a glass case,  researchers indoors sat at tables in the halls staring at their computers.  What research, I wondered, could get them out of the hall and into the fantastic Reading Rooms?

Anyone can apply for a reader’s pass, though not everyone gets one.   I couldn’t think of any research I had to do.  If I wore my cat sweatshirt to apply for a reader’s pass,  I would probably have said,  “I am very interested in your, er, material on…cats.”

Cats, Kat?  Don’t you mean…Katherine?

Katherine Somebody…

Looking up Katherine at the British Library, I came up with Katherine by Anya Seton (a historical novel); “Katherine,” words and music by Osborne, Stuart James; or, this sounds promising, Katherine, notes from http://www.katherinetailoring.co.uk/ available only in our Reading Rooms.  But I went to the website and it just isn’t me.

My subject?  Oh, yeah, I do remember.  Classics…I taught it… .and to tell the truth I reread Book IV of The Aeneid in Latin recently.

How about a paper on Aeneas’s bad luck with women, or, more appropriately phrased:  “Aeneas and Women:  Relationships with Queens, Princesses, and Goddesses”? His mother is Venus, the goddess of love; but Juno, the queen of the gods, hates him.  He is unlucky with women:  he lost his first wife, Creusa, in the smoky chaos while escaping from burning Troy. Fortunately her ghost appeared and said it was all good.  Years later, he drove his lover Dido, the queen of Carthage, to suicide, and later in Italy, the middle-aged Queen Amata stirred up a war to prevent his marrying her daughter Lavinia.    Aeneas wasn’t a misogynist, but women had reason to hate him.  Was he a good husband to Lavinia?  One must read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia to find out.

Nice try, Kat, but this isn’t a British Library kind of thing, is it? They do have fragments of an illuminated manuscript of The Aeneid, but that won’t help.  You can do this at home.  You’d better go back to cats if you want to do research at the British Library!

P.S. I left my cat sweatshirt in London to make room for 15 paperbacks in my suitcase.

Can a Book Inspire You to Read Latin?

Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens gloria Teucrorum .–Virgil’s Aeneid, Book II

“We were Trojans; Ilium and the great glory of the Trojans are gone.”

Many years ago I read Virgil, Ovid, and Horace in translation.  I was puzzled:  why were these classics?  Somehow the poetry didn’t translate gracefully.  My friends and I gossiped:  “Men romanticize this so much.”  But I had a nagging sense that something was missing.  And so I studied Latin, learned that English and Latin have different structures, discovered I have a Latinate brain, went to graduate school, taught in private schools for a few years (like most of my fellow classicists), and have continued to read Latin poetry for decades.

Not everyone can study Latin, but books can  inspire you to read Roman authors, or to return to them.

Seven Sisters margaret drabbleIn  Margaret Drabble’s extraordinary 2002 novel, The Seven Sisters, I was fascinated by the narrator’s fascination with Virgil’s AeneidThe Aeneid is my favorite poem, and I have tried in vain to get fellow bloggers to read it.  (You know who you are.)

Candida, the ex-wife of a headmaster who jettisoned her for the mother of a student who drowned in a pond on the school grounds, has moved to an apartment in West London.  She is solitary, almost friendless, and far from her family, and the big event of her day is swimming at a Health Club, which has not always been a health club:  it was converted from a College of Further Education that in the evenings held adult classes.  Candida had taken a Virgil class there, which involved not only reading Virgil in Latin but comparing translations by Dryden, C. Day Lewis, and others.

You wouldn’t think you could go to an evening class on Virgil’s Aeneid in West London at the end of the twentieth century, would you?  And if fact you can’t anymore as it’s closed. …Why did I join it?  Because its very existence seemed so anachronistic and so improbable.  Because I thought it would keep my mind in shape.  Because I thought it might find me a friend.  Because I thought it might find me the kind of friend that I would not have known in my former life.

Candida, who is obviously depressed, is obsessed with Book VI of The Aeneid, which describes the descent of Aeneas into the underworld, and dovetails with her own obsession with death.  Eventually she is inspired to organize a Latin class reunion and a life-affirming Virgilian trip  to Italy.

Drabble’s book influenced me to consider teaching again.  We had moved to a lovely, quiet city that “had no culture,” as I was told.  It definitely had no Latin.  I had no job.  I was hanging around the house, reading all of Virgil, when I wasn’t alphabetizing the books at a very messy used bookstore.  (I was paid in books.)

Why not get out of the house and teach adult ed?  I wondered.  And so I taught a very traditional Latin class, using Wheelock’s Latin as the text. We also translated a short Latin passage from The Aeneid every week, with a great deal of help from me in the form of vocabulary lists and worksheets.

How to Read a Latin Poem William FitzgeraldI believed my idea of reading Virgil in Latin with students who knew little or no Latin was original (or perhaps I had borrowed from Drabble). But after reading Roy Gibson’s review of William Fitzgerald’s new book, How to Read a Latin Poem If You Can’t Read Latin Yet in this week’s TLS, I discovered that other classicists are doing this kind of reading.

Roy Gibson, the reviewer, is a classicist, who likes Fitzgerald’s book and is mostly positive.  He writes,

…it has a serious purpose:  to give the reader with little or no knowledge of Latin or the classical world a feel for the character of Roman poetry in the original language.  We are offered word=by-word analysis and translation of classic texts, with deft explanation of how meaning gradually emerges from a language which (unlike English) does not depend on word order to create sense. This is a necessary task.  Some ancient poets translate rather well into English (Catullus, Ovid), but readers who have encountered Virgil or Horace’s Odes only in translation can feel justified in wondering what the fuss is about.  Fitzgerald proves an inspiring guide to the richness and (rarely emphasized) strangeness of Virgil’s Latin.  He also offers stimulating asides on the stark juxtapositions of vocabulary that are inevitable in a language which dispense with definite and indefinite articles and has no need of many of the prepositions which litter English.

He says, however, that Fitzgerald glosses over the amount of work involved in reading Latin.  Professionals use commentaries and dictionaries, and some passages remain controversial or ambiguous.

Of course I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s book, but it is the kind of thing I would give to friends to help them understand Latin poetry.

Alexandria peter stothardIn Peter Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Days and Nights of Cleopatra, a  brilliant memoir of his fascination with Cleopatra, he writes a few pages about reading Latin poetry with those who don’t know Latin.  Stothard, a classicist and the editor of the TLS,  chaired a panel on how to read a Latin poem, saying it is “the kind of appointment that come to an Editor of the TLS with interests in the ancient world.”  The panel read and discussed an ode by Horace addressed to Plancus, a shrewd man of middle rank  who was devoted to Marc Antony until the tides of politics changed. Stothard had extensively researched Plancus for his book about Cleopatra.

Stothard  writes:

The choice of poem was not mine.  Plancus followed me by purest chance.  ‘Laudabunt alii‘ we all began at 10.00 a.m.  A light-pointer identified each word:  ‘will praise’ was followed by ‘other men.’  Laudabunt alii claram Rhodon aut Mytilenen aut Ephesum bimarisve Corinthi moenia:  Others will praise bright Rhodes, or Mytilene, or Ephesus or the walls of Corinth on its two seas. The audience had come to read it in Latin–and it was my task to help them do just that.

Then there is classicist Mary Beard’s blog, A Don’s Life. She recently wrote a very interesting post about participating in a debate on The Future of Latin.

What came over most clearly — and clearer than I had ever seen it before — was the way we have projected onto Latin so many of our anxieties about privilege in education, teaching quality and the personality of the traditional teacher, ideas of utility, the control of the curriculum etc. Latin in other words is so much of a symbol that it is hard to discuss it without getting involved in series of much bigger debates, only symbolically connected with Latin.

Cicero EverittAntony Everitt’s Cicero:  The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician is a fascinating biography of Cicero, and a very clear, accessible history of the politics of the first century B.C.

Everitt writes in the preface:

With the disappearance of Latin from the schoolroom, the greatest statesman of Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is now a dimly remembered figure….

…nearly two thousand years after his time, he became an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives.   For the founding fathers of the United States and their political counterparts in Great Britain, the writings of Tully (as his name was anglicized) were the foundation of their education.  John Adams’ first book and proudest possession was his Cicero.

Professor's House catherLet me also mention Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, which is not about Rome but nonetheless describes the life of Tom Outland, a student Latinist.   Professor St. Peter, a disenchanted historian of early Spanish explorers, camps out one summer in the old empty house, too depressed to follow his very conventional family to the new house they have built. And he often remembers his student Tom Outland, who died young; we learn in the middle part of the novel that during a summer in the Southwest Tom read all of The Aeneid in Latin.  St. Peter’s conversation with a greedy colleague who is about to benefit from Outland’s research causes him to connect Tom with Shakespeare’s Mark Antony.

 The university, his new house, his old house, everything around him seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man.  Yes, it was possible that the little world, on its voyage among all the stars, might become like that:  a boat on which one could travel no longer, from which one could no longer look up and confront those bright rings of revolution.

He brought himself back with a jerk.  Ah, yes, Crane; that was the trouble.  If Outland were here tonight, he might say with Mark Antony, My fortunes have corrupted honest men.

I recommend the Fagles translation.

Finally, let me recommend Virgil’s Aeneid in translation. This stunning epic poem about the founding of Rome is translated beautifully into English by Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald, and this cannot be said about very much poetry in any foreign language.  This classic poem describes the fatigue of the depressed hero, Aeneas, forced by last-man-standing fate to lead the refugees from Troy, the allure of a foreign queen, Dido, who is really Cleopatra and Medea combined, and the gods that force him to continue his trip to Italy, which leads to yet another war.

Mirabile Reads Virgil

Reading the Virgil with text, dictionary, and grammar.

Old photo of Virgil’s Aeneid, Williams edition, and notes.

Reading Virgil is a joy.

I was happy when I came to Book XII, line 239, and recognized the allusion of the verb serpit to the serpent imagery in Book II.

 …serpitque per agmina murmur.

“…and the murmur snakes (creeps) through the army.”

Y0u spent a week, perhaps it felt like years, studying Book II with Ms. Mirabile, who expounded on the serpent and flame imagery (from Bernard Knox’s famous essay) and possibly xeroxed the essay for you AT HER OWN EXPENSE.  Did you reread The Aeneid later at the beach, as the great Cecil Wooten advised Ms. Mirabile’s generation, who strongly recommended it to you?

Well, I did.  But then I MIGHT be Ms. Mirabile.

Back to the serpent imagery in Aeneid Book II: the Greek Sinon (think “sinuous”) persuades the Romans to bring the wooden horse into Troy; then serpents strangle the priest Laocoon and two sons after he warns the Trojans against Greeks even bearing gifts; and the flames of Troy flicker like serpents.

IMG_2287In Richard Tarrant’s commentary for the new Cambridge edition of Aeneid, Book XII, he details the use of serpit in Latin literature. If you’re a student, you can skip most of the philology and use the notes for translation.

serpere can mean:  creep, crawl; move slowly, creep along; grow imperceptibly, make way stealthily, spread abroad, increase…

In Georgics, III, 468,Virgil warns us to cut the disease  (or “mischief”) with a knife

…priusquam

dira per incautum serpent contagia vulgus.

…before the dire infections snake through the unsuspicious herd (or through the heedless people).

Cicero uses it in Pro Murena, 45:

Serpit hic rumor.

“This rumor (snakes) gets abroad.”

I very much enjoy reading these notes.  Would everybody?  No, but if you don’t have time for the history, the manuscript criticism , and so forth, you don’t have to read all of them.

You have to be a little bit crazy to want to curl up with Virgil and a dictionary, but some of us still do it.

David Bamber as Cicero in "Rome"

David Bamber as Cicero in “Rome”

NEXT UP:   Anybody want to join my Cicero group?  I’d be astonished if you did.  Perhaps I’ll read Pro Murena.

Or you can just watch the miniseries, Rome, if you can’t face Pro Murena. David Bamber plays Cicero.

SPRING BREAK traditionally arrives during spring.  Of course we have only had spring here in the Back of Beyond since global warming.  Some years back, I waited for a train in Chicago on a freezing March day, the river dyed green, and a parade marching through snowy downtown.  That was spring.

This year, that was spring again.  It was cold.

Here is what I did to celebrate the advent of spring.

Kevin-McKidd-as-Lucius-Vorenus-Ray-Stevenson-as-Titus-Pullo-rome-16609042-600-399

Ray Stevenson as Titus Pullo and Kevin McKidd as Lucius Vorenus

I watched the miniseries, Rome.  I love Mark Antony (who could not? he’s very funny) and the evil Atria (Octavian’s mother), but of course am especially drawn to the two ordinary soldiers who are off-center yet at the center of quotidian life, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo.

I TURNED THE THERMOSTAT UP.  We’ve all known since Jimmy Carter’s presidency that we should keep the thermostat down and wear a sweater.  But it was so cold last week that I left the heat at 60 at night.
It was just a Spring Break thing, but I certainly felt better.

Let’s get that solar power going so we can all be warm indoors!