By Publius Vergilius Maro
Translated by Sarah Ruden
Yale University Press
320 pp. $30.
Reviewed by Chris Hedges
The power of Homer's
lies in the stories and ideas. Virgil's epic
is about language. This creates a dilemma for translators who struggle to re-create a sound. In Latin, because words are inflected, words can occur in any order in a sentence and make sense. Virgil's genius, and the reason he is revered by classicists, lies in his deft manipulation of the order and rhythm of words. Poetry, in the ancient world, was indistinguishable from song. Ancient lyric poetry was usually sung. The epic hexameter was probably chanted. Virgil, as a composer, was unrivaled.
Sarah Ruden, a poet and translator, has chosen to make every line of her new translation of
correspondent to the original. She concedes that English, with its strict rules for word order, makes her attempt to replicate Virgil's music "beyond fantasy." But she sets out to keep her Aeneid faithfully tied to the Latin because she wants to "go through the technical struggle that the author went through in composing the original."
Most English translations of
take hundreds more lines than the original. Ruden sets for herself a difficult task that gives to her book a terse, staccato beat. She is a minimalist. This does not always work. There are times when compressing Virgil kills the poetry. But it works often enough to make her translation a welcome and interesting addition to the volumes of Virgil scholarship.
draws its inspiration from Homer. It tells the story of Aeneas - a character mentioned by Homer - who flees his home city of Troy after the Greek victory and wanders across the Mediterranean to found the Roman empire in Italy.
, Virgil's poem is a hymn to imperial power. It celebrates civic duty, destiny and the divine mandate of Virgil's patron, the emperor Augustus Caesar.
was a classic in its own day, hailed as a canonical poem even as it was being written and taught in schools through the Roman empire. Characters from
adorned wall paintings, graffiti, silverware, pottery, tombstones and state monuments. The poem instantly created the mythic narrative Romans used to explain themselves.
Occasionally Virgil descends into fawning over the emperor, fawning that mars the poem: "Here is the man so often promised you,/ Augustus Caesar, a god's son, and bringer/ Of a new age of gold to Saturn's old realm."
On his deathbed, Virgil begged that the
, then unfinished, be burned. His request was overruled by Augustus, who had a modern appreciation for the role of heroic, national epics in the solidification of dictatorial power.
But woven into this celebration of empire and deification of the Roman emperor are moving passages about exile, loss, love, loneliness and mortality. The heartbreaking despair of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, after being abandoned by Aeneas, is one of the greatest passages in Latin literature.
Dido lies awake and realizes that Aeneas has departed in his ships never to return. Here is Ruden's version:
Now it was night, and all earth's weary creatures
Slept peacefully. The woods and savage waters
Were still. The stars were halfway through their journeys
Above the tranquil fields. Cattle and birds
Of the broad lakes and brambly wilderness
All lay asleep beneath the noiseless sky,
Their troubles soothed, their sufferings forgotten -
But not the desolate Phoenician queen.
It is often at the height of Virgil's music, such as in this passage, that Ruden's faithful line-by-line translation falls flat.
Allen Mandelbaum, translating the same passage, does a better job of capturing Virgil's rolling, liquid cadences:
Night. And across the earth the tired bodies
Were tasting tranquil sleep; the woods and savage
Waters were resting and the stars had reached
The midpoint of their gliding fall - when all
The fields are still, and animals and colored
Birds, near and far, that find their home beside
The limpid lakes or haunt the countryside
In bristling thickets, sleep in silent night.
But not the sorrowing Phoenician.
Virgil rescues himself from nationalist cant through his astonishing skill as a writer and the complexity of his characters. Dido kills herself not only because she was abandoned by Aeneas, but also because she did not remain faithful to the memory of her dead husband Sychaeus.
The Sibyl of Cumae, later in the poem, takes Aeneas to the underworld to converse with his father's shade. Aeneas travels through the infernal regions that house the souls of those who died for love. He recognizes Dido's ghost. He tearfully tells her that he was not his own master, that duty spurred him on to Italy. Dido, her eyes downcast, remains silent. She abruptly flees, even as he pleads with her to speak, into the shadows, "where her spouse Sychaeus/ Felt for her sorrow and returned her love" (VI: 473-474). The ghostly couple share, in death, what is denied to Aeneas. The pursuit of empire and power, while fated by the gods and perhaps noble, is, Virgil understood, often achieved at the cost of love.