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.)

Our Winter of the Aeneid: The Trojan Diaspora & the Trojan Women Rebel in Books 3 & 5

Aeneas, Polydorus, and Leaving Crete

Yes, I’m late with our Aeneid readalong post this week!

People have written notes to say they’re behind in the reading, so I kicked back this week.  Today I’m writing about Books 3 and 5 together, because they are the neglected books of the Odyssean first half of  the Aeneid.

The language is less rich in Book 3, but the plot is fast-paced and spellbinding, and Virgil heightens our emotions by his descriptions of the Trojan diaspora.  I found myself grieving and increasingly distressed as Aeneas and his people attempted to find a new home in foreign countries, only to be routed again and again.

In Thrace Aeneas prepares to sacrifice to the gods–ironiically pious–when dark blood drips from a tree as he tries to cut greenery for a roof for an altar.  Virgil says,  horrendum et dictu video mirablile monstrum  (and horrendous to say I see a fearful monster [omen] ).

Virgil continues:

nam quae prima solo ruptis radicibus arbos
vellitur, huic atro liquuntur sanguine guttae
et terram tabo maculant.

“When the first stalk came torn/out of the earth, and the root network burst/Dark blood dripped down to soak and foul the soil.”  (Fitzgerald translation, p. 66)

It is Polydorus, a Trojan betrayed and killed by a king who took gold then buried Polydorus under a hedge of spears which took root.  Obviously the omen is bad and the Trojans cannot remain.

The C. Day Lewis translation

After holding a funeral for Polydorus, they sail to Delos and consult the oracle.  Aeneas, still unwilling to assume leadership, refers the portent to his father Anchises.  They must go their ancestors came.  Anchises says they should go to Crete (but they are fated to go to Italy).   So in Crete they begin to build a city, Pergamum (Little Troy), and are content and secure when the plague strikes.

It’s too much.  I kept picturing them fleeing from the smoke and fire of Troy, losing people in the flames, Aeneas losing his wife Creusa, having to build a fleet, then not knowing where to go, and there were so few of them that they did not dare go to populated areas where there might be war, and then to have to leave Thrace and Crete…

Their wanderings in Book III continue, and Anchises dies in Sicily.  Then in Book V, after leaving Dido in Carthage, they return to Sicily (the gods send the ships in that direction), where their friend Acestes (a Trojan) welcomes them.  It is a year since Anchises died, and Aeneas celebrates with games.

But while the men are participating in ship races, foot races, and archery contests, the Trojan women rebel, stirred up by Juno, who sends Iris to persuade them to burn the fleet. (Juno later also agitates the women in Italy , through Amata, the mother of the Italian woman whom Aeneas is fated to marry.)

Iris flies down from heaven and appears as Beroe, an old woman of noble birth.  She makes a long speech, and says to them (my rough and fast literal translation of part of it, so I don’t have to copy another translation):

“O wretched women, whom the Achaeans did not drag to death under the walls of our country! O unhappy people, for what death is Fortune keeping you?  Already it is the seventh year after the destruction of Troy, having traversed waters, lands, wild rocks and stars (weather) through the great sea  in the pursuit of  Italy, fleeing:  we  have been rolled (tumbled)  in the waves.  Here is the country of Eryx, Aeneas’ half-brother, and the host Acestes.  Who keeps us from building walls and giving our citizens a city?”

And Virgil seems slightly sympathetic,  as I am, though I know it’s the wrong side.  Yes, Aeneas is fated to go to Italy–and fight another war–and the women, incited by Iris, don’t want to go.  They wildly decide to burn the ships :   it makes no sense to keep sailing.   They are working against Aeneas’s heroic morale-building games.  Peace.  Home.

Aeneas and his men save the ships.  But staying is not a foolish idea.   Aeneas learns from Anchises’ ghost that it would be best to allow some to stay and go on with those who want to travel.

So Virgil has some sympathy for the women.  Aeneas leaves with a smaller number of mainly young men who want to fight.

Oh, poor, poor Aeneas.  But everything will become clear in Book VI when he meets his father in the underworld.

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.

Which Translators Changed Your Life?

In the 1990s you probably attended at least one poetry slam. You did not intend to: you would be at a pub or coffeehouse when suddenly an emcee would announce the Boston Slam team vs. Hyannis.  (It was fun.)  In a recent essay at  the NYR Daily, “Gained in Translation,” Tim Parks describes an event I never dreamed of:  a translation slam.  At this particular slam, two writers translated passages from Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island,  and then discussed their very different word choices with a moderator.

Readers of translations do not have to be language buffs.  Still, even if the last time you read a foreign language was in college, you will have noticed that the literature did not have an exact word-for-word match in English. I am a keen reader of Greek and Latin poetry (master’s in classics, former Latin teacher), but translations are imperfect.  The cognate languages Greek and Latin are more economical than the English language, and the word order is more flexible:  the order does not have to go Subject – verb – direct object, as it does in English, so the way you think actually changes.

Virgil’s Aeneid is in vogue because of the many reviews of the poet David Ferry’s new translation. I do not often read translations of Latin, so it was a strange experience to sit down with Ferry’s book.  His version of the Aeneid reads very well: the language is beautiful, the  translation is sometimes very precise, then goes astray, then returns. Robert Fagles’s translation is more exact, but less elegant.  My inner Latin teacher chooses the Fagles.  Would a poet prefer Ferry?

Yes, I read classics but depend on translators for other languages. And translators of 19th-century Russian and French literature transformed my life when I was a young woman.  Can I  express the joy I felt  in discovering Louise and Aylmer Maude‘s graceful translations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace?  (The Maudes really are the best! says she who does not know Russian.)   And the English poet Kathleen Raine brought Balzac into my life, with her engrossing translations of Lost Illusions and Cousin Bette.

In “Gained in Translation,” Parks brilliantly describes the gift of translators.  He writes,

Translators are people who read books for us. Tolstoy wrote in Russian, so someone must read him for us and then write down that reading in our language. Since the book will be fuller and richer the more experience a reader brings to it, we would want our translator, as he or she reads, to be aware of as much as possible, aware of cultural references, aware of lexical patterns, aware of geographical setting and historical moment. Aware, too, of our own language and its many resources. Far from being “just subjective,” these differences will be a function of the different experiences these readers bring to the book, since none of us accumulates the same experience. Even then, of course, two expert translators will very likely produce two quite different versions. But if what we want is a translation of Tolstoy, rather than just something that sounds good enough sentence by sentence, it would seem preferable to have our reading done for us by people who can bring more, rather than less, to the work.

What a lovely essay!

Which translators have changed your life?

In Which I Flippantly Consider Venus’s Purple Buskins; & What Are Your Favorite Agatha Christie Novels?

Sarah Ruden’s translation of the Aeneid is the first in English by a woman.

I am obsessed with Virgil.  As  I’ve written many times since I began this blog five years ago, rereading the Aeneid in Latin is one of my guilty pleasures.  Virgil’s epic poem about the founding of Rome by Trojan refugees is partly a brilliant homage to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, partly a  celebration of empire to flatter Augustus, and partly an anti-war poem.

There are many critical interpretations of the Aeneid; hence comparing translations to the Latin can be illuminating.  This fall I am reading the English for the first time since Robert Fagles’ superb translation was published in 2006.  I am fascinated by two new (or newish) translations, the poet David Ferry’s and the classical philologist Sarah Ruden’s.

I love David Ferry’s spellbinding new translation, though occasionally he wanders from the Latin to perfect the beauty of his own lines.  But why, I lament flippantly, did he leave out Venus’s purple (or crimson) buskins (open-toed  boots with laces)? When she disguises herself as a huntress in Carthage to confront and advise her son Aeneas, she denies to him that she is a goddess and says she is just a normal Tyrian girl wearing the current fashion.

Before we look at Ferry’s, here is my literal translation of the Latin (and the Latin lines are below, at the end of the Virgil section of this post).  “Then Venus said: ‘Indeed, I am not worthy of such an honor./ It is the fashion for Tyrian girls to wear a quiver/ and purple buskins  tied high on the calves.'”

Venus as huntress (in  crimson buskins) appears to Aeneas in Carthage

Ferry is a very great poet, but he chooses to add a bow to the quiver and subtracts the purple from the boots.

Ferry writes, “Then Venus:  ‘I am not worthy of that honor./It is the custom of Tyrian maidens to wear/Such hunting boots and carry a quiver and bow.'”

Sarah Ruden, the first (and only?) woman to translate the Aeneid into English (Yale University Press, 2008), has a different, more literal approach. She lines up her  English lines of blank verse almost exactly with Virgil’s Latin , and  since Latin is much more concise  than English this is quite an achievement. Her translation is less poetic than Ferry’s, but equally effective. And, yes, she mentions the purple boots.  Here is Ruden’s translation of those three lines:

“She answered, ‘That would surely not be right./These quivers are what Tyrian girls all carry; /We all wear purple boots, laced on our calves.”

I love it!   And that famous purple dye, which ranged from violet to crimson, is worth a mention:  it was, later, one of the main Tyrian exports.

And here’s the Latin of those three lines:

Tum Venus: ‘Haud equidem tali me dignor honore;               335
virginibus Tyriis mos est gestare pharetram,
purpureoque alte suras vincire cothurno.


This weekend we saw and very much enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s new movie adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express.  It was so much fun!

It made me want to curl up with an Agatha Christie, so I found my copy of Murder on the Orient Express.  And then, looking around for more,  I found a charming article at the Barnes and Noble Reads blog about “10 Absolutely Essential Agatha Christie Classics.”

Here is the list, and do let me know your favorite Christies!  I have enjoyed the Jane Marple mysteries, but have many Hercule Poirots yet to read.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The ABC Murders
Murder on the Orient Express
And Then There Were None
Death on the Nile
Endless Night
Peril at End House
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
The Murder at the Vicarage

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.