The Aeneid, by Virgil, translated by Dryden, Fagles and Heaney

Rather than the second paragraph of Book III, I’m taking the second paragraph of Book II as my sample text, because it includes the single best known quotation from the poem:

P. Vergilius Maro
Primus ibi ante omnis magna comitante caterva
Laocoon ardens summa decurrit ab arce,
et procul ‘o miseri, quae tanta insania, cives?
creditis avectos hostis? aut ulla putatis
dona carere dolis Danaum? sic notus Ulixes?
aut hoc inclusi ligno occultantur Achivi,
aut haec in nostros fabricata est machina muros,
inspectura domos venturaque desuper urbi,
aut aliquis latet error; equo ne credite, Teucri.
quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.’
sic fatus ualidis ingentem viribus hastam
in latus inque feri curvam compagibus alvum
contorsit. stetit illa tremens, uteroque recusso
insonuere cavae gemitumque dedere cavernae.
et, si fata deum, si mens non laeva fuisset,
impulerat ferro Argolicas foedare latebras,
Troiaque nunc staret, Priamique arx alta maneres.
John Dryden Robert Fagles
“Laocoon, follow’d by a num’rous crowd,
Ran from the fort, and cried, from far, aloud:
‘O wretched countrymen! what fury reigns?
What more than madness has possess’d your brains?
Think you the Grecians from your coasts are gone?
And are Ulysses’ arts no better known?
This hollow fabric either must inclose,
Within its blind recess, our secret foes;
Or ’tis an engine rais’d above the town,
T’ o’erlook the walls, and then to batter down.
Somewhat is sure design’d, by fraud or force:
Trust not their presents, nor admit the horse.’
Thus having said, against the steed he threw
His forceful spear, which, hissing as it flew,
Pierc’d thro’ the yielding planks of jointed wood,
And trembling in the hollow belly stood.
The sides, transpierc’d, return a rattling sound,
And groans of Greeks inclos’d come issuing thro’ the wound
And, had not Heav’n the fall of Troy design’d,
Or had not men been fated to be blind,
Enough was said and done t’inspire a better mind.
Then had our lances pierc’d the treach’rous wood,
And Ilian tow’rs and Priam’s empire stood.”
“But now, out in the lead with a troop of comrades,
down Laocoön runs from the heights in full fury,
calling out from a distance: ‘Poor doomed fools,
have you gone mad, you Trojans?
You really believe the enemy’s sailed away?
Or any gift of the Greeks is free of guile?
Is that how well you know Ulysses?
Trust me, either the Greeks are hiding, shut inside those beams,
or the horse is a battle-engine geared to breach our walls,
spy on our homes, come down on our city, overwhelm us—
or some other deception’s lurking deep inside it.
Trojans, never trust that horse. Whatever it is,
I fear the Greeks, especially bearing gifts.

“In that spirit, with all his might he hurled
a huge spear straight into the monster’s flanks,
the mortised timberwork of its swollen belly.
Quivering, there it stuck, and the stricken womb
came booming back from its depths with echoing groans.
If Fate and our own wits had not gone against us,
surely Laocoön would have driven us on, now,
to rip the Greek lair open with iron spears and
Troy would still be standing—
proud fortress of Priam, you would tower still!”

I thought I had previously read a translation of the Æneid, but I definitely hadn’t – I did the first third or so of Book II as part of a long-ago Latin O-Level, and more recently read Marlowe’s Dido, but this was my first time working through the whole thing.

I decided quite early on that I had to start with Dryden, whose verse is beautifully lyrical and mostly clear, and then wavered between the various modern translations before settling on Fagles. To be honest I didn’t think Fagles was as good. I found him useful as a comprehension check where I got lost in Dryden’s verse, but I wasn’t convinced that I gained all that much in meaning, and the verse structure doesn’t carry me along in the sae way as the original or Dryden. I would have preferred Sarah Ruden for gender balance, but hers is not available in Kindle yet.

For Book VI, I also read Seamus Heaney’s translation, completed but not finally edited when he died (just as Virgil himself was still working on the Æneid at the time of his own death). I think that Heaney does manage to get across the dark tone of the poem, and his verse also sounds better than Fagles’ when read aloud.. Here is another section starting with the poem’s second-best known line.

P. Vergilius Maro
facilis descensus Averno;
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.
John Dryden Robert Fagles Seamus Heaney
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labour lies.
the descent to the Underworld is easy.
Night and day the gates of shadowy Death stand open wide,
but to retrace your steps, to climb back to the upper air—
there the struggle, there the labor lies.
It is easy to descend into Avernus.
Death’s dark door stands open day and night.
But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air,
That is the task, that is the undertaking.

There’s not a lot to choose between the translations here. Heaney has clearly gone a lot of the way with Fagles, but scores over both Fagles and Dryden with “Death’s dark door” – Dryden and Fagles prefer “gates”, and Dryden omits that they are dark.

Here’s another crucial moment, when Æneas is unable to embrace his father’s ghost:

P. Vergilius Maro
‘da iungere dextram,
da, genitor, teque amplexu ne subtrahe nostro.’
sic memorans largo fletu simul ora rigabat.
ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum;
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.
John Dryden Robert Fagles Seamus Heaney
‘But reach your hand, O parent shade, nor shun
The dear embraces of your longing son!”
He said; and falling tears his face bedew:
Then thrice around his neck his arms he threw;
And thrice the flitting shadow slipp’d away,
Like winds, or empty dreams that fly the day.
‘Let me clasp your hand, my father, let me—
I beg you, don’t withdraw from my embrace!”
So Aeneas pleaded, his face streaming tears.
Three times he tried to fling his arms around his neck,
three times he embraced—nothing… the phantom
sifting through his fingers,
light as wind, quick as a dream in flight.
‘Let me take your hand, my father, O let me, and do not
Hold back from my embrace.’ And as he spoke he wept.
Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck.
Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped
Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.

Again, Heaney has improved on Fagles and acknowledged Dryden, but all are rooted in the source – that ter/”thrice”/”three times” repeated is very effective, and Virgil did it first.

So much for the translations. What about the story? Well, this is an epic poem consciously written to glorify Rome, and to depict its rule by Julius Cæsar and Augustus after him as a natural historical development rooted in ancient prophecy – which is pretty daring, given the patriotic strength of the Republican tradition. The hero, Æneas, escapes Troy with the assistance of his mother (the goddess Venus), driven by destiny to lay the foundations for the future city of Rome. He is distracted in Carthage by its queen, Dido, and then must battle with the indigenous Latians to gain the territory that he is destined to make his own.

The good bits are concentrated in the first six of the twelve books. The first and fourth books concern the doomed romance between Æneas and Dido; the second and third are a flashback to the fall of Troy; the fifth has some sailing around and competitive sports; and the sixth has Æneas’ descent to the Underworld, using the Golden Bough to gain access, to hear his destiny from his father’s ghost. The seventh to twelfth books are all about the fighting between Æneas’ troops and the locals, and to be honest I found them a bit eye-glazing. But the first half of it is very stringly recommended – Virgil took the existing fandom of classical legends, and recast it into Latin while making it relevant for his readers.

I have to note a couple of points that jumped out at me. A lot of the characters make an appearance only to be killed (or occasionally saved), and usually we are given just one interesting fact about each of them before they leave the narrative. Two interesting cases are Cydon and Cæneus. Cydon appears in Book X:

P. Vergilius Maro
tu quoque, flaventem prima lanugine malas
dum sequeris Clytium infelix, nova gaudia, Cydon,
Dardania stratus dextra, securus amorum
qui iuvenum tibi semper erant, miserande iaceres,
John Dryden Robert Fagles
Then wretched Cydon had receiv’d his doom,
Who courted Clytius in his beardless bloom,
And sought with lust obscene polluted joys:
The Trojan sword had cur’d his love of boys,
You too,
unlucky Cydon, pursuing Clytius, your new love,
his cheeks soft with the first gold down of youth—
you would have gone down under the Trojan’s hand
and died a pitiful death,
with all recall of your young boy lovers lost,

It’s instructive that Dryden introduces condemnation of Cydon’s sexual orientation which is absent from the original. As far as Virgil is concerned, gay soldiers in the military are not a problem.

Cæneus is one of the ghosts that Æneus encounters in the underworld. We are told precisely one thing about this character:

P. Vergilius Maro
et iuvenis quondam, nunc femina, Caeneus
rursus et in veterem fato revoluta figuram.
John Dryden Robert Fagles Seamus Heaney
Caeneus, a woman once, and once a man,
But ending in the sex she first began.
and another, a young man once, a woman now, Caeneus,
turned back by Fate to the form she bore at first.
and Caeneus who in her time had known
Life as a man, though fate had now restored
The figure of the woman she once was.

I was not familiar with the legend of Cæneus, and I have to admit that it does not end well for its protagonist; but the fact that it is there at all says something about trans visibility in antiquity.

You can get Dryden’s translation here, Fagles’ here and Heaney’s here.

This was the top unblogged book in my catalogue. Next up is Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson.

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