Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Aeneid by Virgil - Translated by Robert Fagles

Perhaps the most affecting portion of Virgil’s great masterwork on the founding of Rome is its namesake’s visit to the Underworld, which comes at the midpoint of the story.

After a trip to Sicily to honor the memory of Anchises, his father, Aeneas ventures to the land of the dead to see the man one more time. It is there that Virgil shows us the wandering souls of the dead - ‘numberless races, nations of souls/like bees in meadowlands on a cloudless summer day/that settle on flowers, riots of color, swarming round/the lilies’ lustrous sheen, and the whole field comes alive/with a humming murmur.”

Here is not only a trope from the ancient world - a hero among the living momentarily steps across the curtain to visit the departed, safe himself from the sting of death - but the poetic inspiration for Dante’s Divine Comedy, which will employ Virgil as a guide for its first two-thirds. Here are the heartbroken who have gained the knowledge that Virgil lacks. His father, by virtue of this home, reveals to his son the glories of Rome that will follow Aeneas once he leaves to fulfill his destiny.

Robert Fagles’ translation of “The Aeneid” is a worthy successor to his excellent translations of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Most of what I could say about these three works has been said many, many times. Though “The Odyssey” is the more well-known story and the most easily copied, the “The Iliad” is a more satisfying story on a much broader canvas. While Odysseus is the obvious star of the later work, there are so many personalities in “The Iliad” beyond just the angry Achilles that one can quickly lose, regain and lose himself again in its rich maze of action and character.

But both of Homer’s works were meant to be performed, declaimed, shouted even. There is an academic polish, a host of page-bound flourishes in “The Aeneid” that mark it as different in tone and spectacle. Though Virgil was obviously following the style of the two earlier epics, “The Aeneid” is its own animal. Though it takes up the story from the Trojan War and involves the Olympian gods in the affairs of men, there are several voices present here which were absent earlier.

Anchises’ prophecy, for example, points to “The Aeneid’s” main difference - the sense of destiny. That exists in the Homerian epics as well, but not the extent as Virgil’s work. Where Homer was concerned with the fate of individuals, the warriors who bled outside Ilium and on the waters back to Ithica, “The Aeneid” is chiefly concerned with the empire that will flow from the point of Aeneas’ sword. There is about his shoulders the flourish of history, the sense of fate.

“Others, I have no doubt,
Will forge the bronze to breath with suppler lines,
Draw from the block of marble features quick to life,
Please their cases better, chart with their rods the stars
That climb the sky and foretell the times they rise.
But you, Roman, remember, rule with all your power
The peoples of the earth - these will be your arts:
To put your stamp on the works and ways of peace,
To spare the defeated, break the proud in war.”

When the Fire God forges Aeneas’ shield, we are told he takes delight in the images he forges there - images that for Virgil are Rome’s glorious past, but for Aeneas will be their future - but even the Fire God knows nothing of what these events mean. He only knows that these images give him pleasure.

While Virgil wants his readers to feel the swell of martial pride at the thought of Roman arms, he also takes another cue from Homer - the terrible cost of war. At the end, when Aeneas has conquered a portion of Italy, he stands over the defeated Turnus, who yearns for his life. Aeneas shows him no mercy and stabs him with his sword after he sees Turnus is wearing the belt of the dead Pallas. The foe is sent to join Anchises in the realm of the dead. Aeneas has a nation to build.

It is hard to tell, two thousand years later, whether Virgil is decrying the same war he is glamorizing in his lines. Some of this confusion may be simply to what our modern ears expect to hear, and some of it may be the dimly perceived reminder that even destiny entails death and pain.

We get from Virgil a sense that there is ultimately meaning - for all time - in the struggles of Aeneas and his men. They are the inheritors of a proud tradition from Troy, while the home that they knew is gone forever. Their quest to build a new home, and their fortitude in doing so builds a great empire.

What we don’t know however, much like anyone who feels a personal sense of destiny, is what is to become of us and our dreams. It is Aeneas’ memory of the whispered prophecies of his father in the land of the dead which drive him onward. Like Orpheus coming back from a similar trip, his steps are deliberate, but he looks forward rather than back, because he knows nothing will bring back the home he knew. It is not worth the effort. Instead, there is only the kingdom that has been prepared for him, a kingdom for the taking.

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