Book Reviews - Winter 2007

The Historical Present

Robert Fagle's bold solutions to the problem of Virgil

By A. E. Stallings | December 1, 2006

The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles, Viking, $40

Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “every generation needs a new revolution” has long been adopted by translators; it is a commonplace that every generation needs a new Homer, a new Virgil, a new Dante. If that is so, we are in need of a new Aeneid. Robert Fitzgerald’s elegant rendition of The Aeneid, the standard text, has been the reigning champion for more than 20 years and can buy a drink without getting carded. Robert Fagles, after his acclaimed translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey, has now turned his attention to this more problematic work. The shopworn copy of blurbers, “long-awaited,” leans, for once, in the direction of understatement.

The Aeneid seems to be something major translators turn to only when they have run out of Homer or Dante and still need something meaty to get their chops into. This was not always the case. The Aeneid holds a special place in the history of English translation. The Earl of Surrey invented blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—for his translation of books 2 and 4 in the mid-1550s. And Dryden’s translation of The Aeneid (1697) remains an unmatched achievement. Its opening, “Arms, and the man I sing,” is itself a famous quotation, as the title of Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Arms and the Boy” suggests. Dryden’s beginning has the advantage of a word-for-word metaphrase of the Virgil—“Arma virumque cano”—and in the same rhythm too. Avoiding Dryden, as translators are tempted to do, is bound to take one further from the Latin. (In modern translations, Stanley Lombardo, 2005, hews closest, with “Arms I sing—and a man.”) Fagles’s opening, “Wars and a man I sing” is both rhythmically familiar and shocking; with “Wars,” Fagles gives notice that this will be a violent Aeneid from its in-medias-res beginning to its open-ended finish.

The Homeric epics, composed in an impersonal style honed by anonymous bards, are arguably easier to translate than Virgil, who is subjective even at his most public. Just on a technical level, Homer’s Greek hexameters skim polysyllabically along, while Latin, lacking Greek’s articles and particles, has a greater grammatical density. It takes Fitzgerald, for instance, eight lines to convey Virgil’s first four. In expanding for clarity, compression is lost, the spring that sets Virgil’s poem into its relentless motion. Fagles’s solution, as in his Homer translations, is to allow for a variable line—while most weigh in at five beats, they may extend to six or even seven, and condense to three or four. This vers libre eschews the padding and omissions that are the hallmarks of so much verse translation, without resorting to prose. There are a startling number of prose translations of the poem, as suggested by one ad that flashed up on Google: “The Aeneid as a Novel: Finally! No more tedious poetry.”

No film version of The Aeneid springs to mind; one cannot picture Brad Pitt taking up the role of Aeneas. Yet The Aeneid is often strikingly cinematic, much of it written, as Bernard Knox and Fagles both write in their flanking essays, not in the past tense of narration, but in the historical present, so that the action often unfolds before our eyes in close-ups and graphic slow motion. Fagles boldly chooses to render Virgil’s historical present in the present tense more consistently than most other modern translations. (Allen Mandelbaum’s from 1971, is an exception.) The received wisdom about the historical present is that it makes a narrative more vivid and gripping. But it also makes for a curious stasis. Nothing happens; rather, it is always in the process of happening. In English, the present tense is the tense of anecdotes (“then she says to me . . .”), jokes (“a man walks into a bar”), and lyric poems (“Whose woods these are I think I know”), but it is not generally how we describe action, unless we are a sports announcer. We think in the present tense when we are in the midst of something so wonderful or horrific we cannot believe it is really happening. We do not live in the present tense so much as relive in it—replaying memories or nightmares. The Aeneid also has this effect on us—as if we are in a particularly vivid nightmare. The gods are able to turn their eyes away from the violence and horror; we are not.

Aeneas’s epithet is famously “pious,” which, as the scholars would remind us, does not have the priggishness in Latin that it does in English and refers to a range of obligations not only to the gods but also to family and fatherland. Fagles’s neat rendering of this is “Aeneas, duty-bound.” It is often said that Aeneas is an unsympathetic hero. But if he makes us uncomfortable, it is perhaps because we understand him all too well. Achilles and Odysseus are arguably no more likable; but their actions are consistent with a distant heroic world. Aeneas is a man torn between what he wants to do and what he has to do: a modern conflict. Even “correct” decisions—such as leaving Dido—are fraught with guilt. Homeric heroes act out of concern for their own fame and glory—for a song and a name. Aeneas struggles for the fame of his descendants and for a nation that does not yet exist. The success of Aeneas is also a kind of annihilation—the assimilation of his language and culture.

Besides problems of style, there is the larger problem of a poem that has “palpable designs on us.” Almost from the beginning of its existence, the poem has been a school text. While Homer is translated for its own sake, the translation of Virgil has been an act of piety (the hobby of many a Victorian village pastor). A translator may feel he is colluding in Augustan spin; equally, translators have felt that their translations are subversive acts of protest against empire, ancient and contemporary. The Aeneid has been enlisted by everybody from Christian fathers to royalists to anti-royalists to fascists. (Mussolini subsidized the publication of The Aeneid.) In short, we feel that the poem does have a message, even if, millennia later, it is not entirely clear what that is. As Virgil was too great a poet to be entirely co-opted into the Augustan publicity machine, so he resists our own efforts to make him speak for us. Augustus’s empire promised an age of peace and prosperity unprecedented in the ancient world, and it came to an Italy bled dry by strife, unrest, and civil war. Yet as scholars remind us, the poet consistently evokes more sympathy for Rome’s enemies than for its legendary ancestor, whether “tragic” Dido, valiant Turnus, or even the atheist Mezentius, whose bravery, affection for his trusty horse, and fierce love for his son give his godlessness a noble humanity.

In the grand major chords that swell for the grandeur that is Rome, the poet strikes unsettling dissonances. In the Underworld, Aeneas’s father, Anchises, shows his son a parade of great Romans yet to be born, and we see, in this procession, the unfolding of history. The epic traditionally is timeless, set in the distant heroic past; The Aeneid is instead timeful, looking forward and backward like Janus, not only back to Rome’s ancestor, but forward to his legendary descendants (to the Roman reader, still pre-history), to contemporary Augustan Rome, and even far into the future. Rome is promised imperium without end. But there will be a heavy price to pay for empire. As Anchises declares:

                    Others, I have no doubt
will forge the bronze to breathe with
suppler lines,
draw from the block of marble features
quick with life,
plead 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

(Virgil coyly omits yielding to the Greeks the palm in poetry.) This passage is echoed in another poem about the price of empire, the much-maligned “White Man’s Burden” of Rudyard Kipling. Written in 1899, when the United States acquired the Philippines, it echoes the paternal words of Anchises:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Have done with childish days—
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.

Substitute “empire” for “White man” and suddenly we start to see the poem for the rueful and prescient work it is. Aeneas would find much to recognize here, particularly the burden of fighting “the savage wars of peace.”

Strangely, after this hymn to Rome’s future greatness, Aeneas leaves the Underworld through the Gates of Dreams. These gates are mentioned by Penelope in The Odyssey, but with the matter-of-factness of folklore: dreams that will come to pass are sent through the gates of horn, false dreams to delude mortals through the gates of ivory. Virgil makes the gates actual physical features of the Underworld, the horn gates for true shades, the ivory for false dreams. Perhaps Aeneas cannot leave through the gates of horn, not being a shade at all. There can be no doubt that the parade of future Romans is full of genuine compliments to Augustus, in front of whom Virgil recited this book, such as the immortalizing of his nephew Marcellus, who died young. But the ambiguity did not have to be introduced. Aeneas departs through the gates of false dreams, and we are left to puzzle the consequences.

Caution: plot spoiler ahead.

Anchises’s advice from the Underworld comes back to bear on the end of the poem. Virgil died before completing his revision of the work. (He had wanted three more years to “lick it into shape.”) But that does not mean the poem, as it ends, with the duel of Aeneas and Turnus, is in any way “unfinished.” Virgil first plotted the poem out as prose, then versified it. Thus, the ending must be assumed to be what Virgil intended. Turnus is fated to die. Yet Aeneas’s decision not “to spare the defeated,” but to kill him, and in the passion of rage and revenge, is a startling act of free will in a poem of Stoic resignation to destiny. It is not the fact but the mode of Turnus’s death that sends its ripples back through the poem.

Fagles is at his best in the heat and gore of battle, his footing less sure in sublime moments where his accentual line can lack the stateliness molded by a more regular measure. The conclusion is among the most vivid parts of the translation. Aeneas has held back his right arm, considering Turnus’s plea for mercy. But suddenly seeing on Turnus the spoils of Pallas, a young friend whose death at Turnus’s hands nearly unhinged Aeneas earlier, he cries out:

“Pallas strikes this blow, Pallas sacrifices
you now,
makes you pay the price with your own
guilty blood!”
In the same breath, blazing with wrath he
his iron sword hilt-deep in his enemy’s

The effect here of the present tense in English almost has the immediacy of stage directions.

While the poem ends in a decisive blaze of rage, the language of Virgil keeps ambiguity in play. When Aeneas slays Turnus, the verb Virgil uses is condit. Condere means both “to bury” and “to found.” (Roman dates, for instance, are given a.u.c., ab urbe condita, “from the founding of the city.”) It is an act of destruction that is also an act of creation. Fagles demonstrates here, as elsewhere, that he is alive to the metaphorical multivalence of the Latin; so that when Aeneas “plants” his sword in Turnus’s chest, he also plants the Roman empire. I cannot think of a more perfect way in English to convey this two-edged word. Yet another reminder that in this lively and accurate translation, students, new readers, and readers returning to this cornerstone of Western civilization will not have to choose, as poor Aeneas did, between duty and pleasure.

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