Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Virgil, Robert Fagles, and Margaret Drabble

I didn’t know Robert Fagles had translated The Aeneid. Nobody told me. I haven't kept up. I was browsing in a bookstore and discovered his 2006 translation in a beautiful Penguin Deluxe edition. I bought it immediately. The cashier treated me with respect. How many customers buy The Aeneid? This was the only Fagles in the store, though I have to admit they carried other good translations, among them Allen Mandelbaum's, Robert Fitzgerald's, and Dryden's.

Still, there’s something special about Fagles. Some years ago a group of intelligent online friends discussed Fagles’ The Odyssey, and we agreed it was a startling experience, the poetry seeming crisper, clearer, and more vivid than Richard Lattimore’s more literal translation, which we read in college. He also translated The Iliad. There are other equally good translations: Robert Fitzgerald's The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid are stunning.

Epic poetry is my favorite. The more I read The Aeneid, the more I appreciate it.

“Wars and a man I sing,” Fagles begins.

Virgil writes: "Arma virumque cano," literally “Arms and the man I sing.” The most common translation is, "I sing of arms and the man.” Fagles uses the word "war," not "arms" - less striking than Virgil's metonymy- but there is something fierce and simple about “wars.’

War is Aeneas' fate, a fate he doesn’t want. Early in Book I, during a turbulent storm caused by Juno, with people dying all around him, we first meet Aeneas. He cries out:

“Three, four times blest, my comrades
lucky to die beneath the soaring walls of Troy-
before their parents! eyes! If only I’d gone down
under your right hand - Diomedes, strongest Greek afield-
and poured out my life on the battlegrounds of Troy!’

Many don't like Aeneas. He seems colorless, listless, too obedient to the gods. He is a hero in the Roman tradition: dutiful, pious. Aeneas wishes he were dead. He is denied a personal life. He must carry on. It is his fate to lead the Trojan refugees to Italy and found Rome. And a miserable life it is, traveling through hostile lands and seas and then conquering Italy so that further generations of Trojans/Romans may thrive. A man tired, dispirited, forced to lead by default.

The great anti-war literary poem. Some read it as a celebration of empire, most as a subtle condemnation of war and the loss of personal life.

Robert Fagles died last year. I wasn’t aware of that. Somehow I had been expecting more translations. I had thought of him as young and dashing. Strange, isn't it?

As a companion volume to The Aeneid, I am reading Margaret Drabble's The Seven Sisters. In this novel, she writes in part about an adult community center Latin class in London, in which the aging students compare many different translations of The Aeneid to the Latin. The heroine, Candida, a rather muted, practical, judgmental, but smouldering-under-the-surface adventurous aging divorcee, organizes a trip to Italy with the class after the adult education center closes and becomes a health club. The health club is modern, but discussing The Aeneid gave purpose to Candida. Book 6 of The Aeneid is the key for Candida.

Anyway, it’s a charming novel.


Ellen said...

Thank you for your comment on my blog and I hope your latin class yesterday went well.

I've not read (nor own) Fagles but I have read Mandelbaum a couple of times, and I have the tapes of Derek Jacobi reading Fitzgerald aloud. Fagles sound more like Fitzgerald and in my experience students prefer Fitzgerald because the language seems more modern. Jacobi reads it beautifully.

Still I prefer Mandelbaum. It's more melancholy and poetical (I use the old-fashioned term deliberately). I had him as a teacher and also like his Dante very much.

As to Seven Sisters, that's a Drabble I love. As with Atwood, sometimes I dislike her novels, and then again I'll love one of their books. I finished Cat's Eye; superb book. The title made me remember an episode in Mary Poppins where Mary and the children are visited by the Seven Sisters. Pleiade.

I'm much more cheerful just now than I've been in a couple of days. I do love the Aeneid and read it as an anti-war poem, and I like Aeneas too :) and the story of Dido; up to the 6th book it's just magnificent, highly original.


Mad Housewife said...

I like all the translations. I'm impressed that you had Mandelbaum as a teacher. He is very good.

There is something very clear and forceful about Fagles, who somehow sounds modern yet retains that classical air.

I even like the last six books. Naturally I prefer "the Odyssey" part but his literary homage to The Iliad is poignant and sad.

Yes, I like The Seven Sisters very much!

Tony said...

Great review, makes me want to read 'The Aeniad'. (Hope you get this comment even though it's on your old blog.) Is there any historical linkage between Greece/Troy and Italy or is that all just made up? I guess what I'm asking is did people from Greece actually settle Italy? I think I may have actually bought this book but haven't read it yet.