October 13, 2010

How is this for a blurb: I liked this book so much, I named my first-born child after its author.

Virgil is a legend.  Just as the Romans ‘Hellenized’ the world and spread Greek culture to all of us barbarians in the hinterlands, Virgil helped to canonize Homer with his Homeric epic in Latin, The Aeneid.  Virgil’s poem follows Aeneas after the fall of Troy (just as The Odyssey follows Odysseus after the fall) and Virgil explicitly borrows from and transforms the work of his predecessor as writers have been doing ever since.  For maximum enjoyment, read The Iliad and The Odyssey before The Aeneid and then go on to Dante’s Inferno, where Virgil becomes Dante’s tour-guide through Hell.

But enjoyment is not exactly the point.  The Aeneid may be one of those great works that rewards close reading but isn’t as entertaining on the dramatic level.  It is, however, a work of great beauty.  I had to translate it from Latin in high school and I still remember Virgil’s sensitivity to nuance and detail on one hand, and on the other, his sense of epic proportion when dealing with fate, time, or the sea.  It’s the work from which I learned the literary tropes and the basics of grammar and I have a particular fondness for it as a literary mother of sorts.

If you do want to compare Virgil and Homer, it may be of interest to note the way that The Aeneid rebuts certain elements of the worldview of The Iliad and The Odyssey.  The Aeneid seems to me to look ahead towards a more guilty pre-Christian morality.  Aeneas’s epithet is “pious” versus Odysseus’s defining trait of wiliness–and this may explain why The Aeneid is a bit stiffer as a story, because Aeneas is a more duty-bound and inhibited creature than Odysseus.  The Aeneid begins with a reversal of perspective that’s similar to what the Christian gospels were doing at the time they were written.  The gospels retell the story of a crucifixion from the perspective of the victim and glorify martyrs; in the same vein, Virgil revisits the destruction of Troy from the perspective of the victim and glorifies the victims, not the conquerors.  (The victims in fact literally “inherit the earth” since Aeneas’s Trojan line supposedly gives rise to the Roman people.)  So it’s no wonder that medieval Christians favored Virgil among pagan writers (when they paid attention to antiquity at all)–they even supposed that by some divine influence his work foretold of Christ.  The Aeneid was, of course, written for Augustus Caesar to glorify the Roman people, but it is politically subversive, precisely because of its ironic attitude to conquerors.

A.D. Nuttall describes Aeneas as “great and at the same time rather weird.” Where Odysseus repeatedly breaks free, Aeneas suffers.  Odysseus is consummately independent, while Aeneas dutifully carries his father on his back.  The warlike Athena sponsors Odysseus and the goddess of love (Aeneas’s mother) pulls for him.  Finally, Odysseus has sex with every female that walks on two legs while Aeneas endures a grim and painful love affair with Dido.  These contrasts, especially the last, reflect not only Virgil’s somewhat different attitude to guilt, but also a more modern, realist approach to character and relationship than you find in Homer’s highly expressionistic Odyssey.

I’ve read the Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum translations but not the Fagles.  I’m fond of Fitzgerald, who was a professor but also a practicing poet and a friend to Flannery O’Connor, who lived with him and his wife in Connecticut for a couple of years.  But any recommendations of other translations are welcome.