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Have We Lost The Lofty? Virgil’s Aeneid and the History of English Poetry

By Aaron Poochigian

In two months’ time Farrar, Straus and Giroux will release Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book Six of the Aeneid. In the same way as the epic was, in the words of his daughter Catherine Heaney, “a touchstone . . . to which he would return time and time again through his life,” so the often-translated epic itself has been a touchstone for changing literary and cultural tastes throughout the course of English literature. Translations of the Aeneid have, in fact, inaugurated major literary movements. Now seems a good time to review the history of this very Roman poem in English. Translations and re-translations are fascinating because they reveal the tastes (and limitations) of past ages and our own. Though poets of yore found in it a justification for British imperial ambition, the epic feels in places as if it were written with the express purpose of turning off contemporary readers—the hero’s great virtue is the Roman ideal of pietas ("piety, dutiful respect"), and the narrative is a kind of literary empire-building. We here in the twenty-first century want heroes with a rebellious spirit and abhor empires for their oppression of native peoples. No, the Aeneid’s politics are not for us.

Our story begins five hundred years ago in the sixteenth century, when our language was settling into something like its present form. Gavin Douglas’s translation of the Aeneid, the Eneados (1513), into Middle Scots was the first complete translation of a major Classical work into English or an Anglic language. His endearing brogue is at times incomprehensible to the contemporary reader. The following passage describes the development of Queen Dido’s obsessive passion for Aeneas in terms of a wound and subsequent infection. I have modernized the spelling:

By this the Queen, through heavy thoughts unsound,
In every vein nourishes the green wound,
Smitten so deep with the blind fire of love
Her troubled mind ‘gan from all rest remove.
Compassing the great prowess of Ene [Aeneas],
The large worship feill sys memories she
Of his lineage and folks; for aye present
Deep in her heart so was his figure prent [pressed],
And all his words fixed, that for busy thought
None of her members nor quiet suffer mocht [might].   (Book 4, lines 1-10)

A few Latinate words (e.g. “remove,” “compassing,” “figure,” “fixed,” and “members”) pepper the rough-and-ready Anglo-Saxon diction that comprises the majority of the passage. The form wavers between the syllabics of the Romance languages (Italian and French) and the accentual-syllabic meter that was to become standard in English. The second line, for example, has ten syllables (“In every vein nourishes the green wound”) but fails to scan as a line of iambic pentameter. In this passage we can see English prosody struggling to become its future. Ezra Pound, an impresario of exquisite taste, praised Douglas’s version for its fidelity to the Latin and its “richness and fervour,” and championed it as the best Aeneid translation (Emily Wilson, Passions and a Man, New Republic Online, 1/11/2007).

Forty years later Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey published his translations of Books Two and Four of the Aeneid as Certain Bokes of Virgiles Aenaeis. His translation not only introduced blank verse to the English language but also established the accentual-syllabic system that would predominate in English-language poetry until the 1950s.

But now the wounded Queen, with heavy care,
Throughout the [her] veins she nourished the plaie,
Surprised with blind flame; and to her mind
‘gan eke resort the prowess of the man
And honor of his race: while in her breast
Imprinted stack his words, and pictures form.
Ne [Nor] to her limbs care granteth quiet rest.   (Book 4, lines 1-8)

More Latinate words (e.g. “nourished,” “surprised,” “honor,” “imprinted,” and “pictures”) have crept in to take their place among the Anglo-Saxon words. Above and beyond the technical advances in prosody, Surrey’s translation introduced a heroic idiom to English. Without him there would have been fewer resounding lines in Shakespeare and no Milton at all. In fact, as a tribute to the Aeneid, Shakespeare has Hamlet ask one of the visiting actors to recite a speech from a play which featured “Aeneas’ tale to Dido,” a passionate but dignified speech that employs “an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine” (Hamlet Act. 2, scene 2). Virgil’s epic went on to inspire one of the finest English-language operas, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1680). Nahum Tate, who wrote the libretto, is otherwise famous for rewriting Shakespeare’s plays so that every scene would be “full of respect to Majesty and the dignity of courts” (Prologue to Tate’s Richard III).

Our next major translation, John Dryden’s Aeneid (1697), takes the heroic idiom to the next level by compressing expression, introducing more rhetoric and polishing the heroic couplet to a higher degree of stateliness:

But anxious cares already seiz'd the queen:
She fed within her veins a flame unseen;
The hero's valor, acts, and birth inspire
Her soul with love, and fan the secret fire.
His words, his looks, imprinted in her heart,
Improve the passion, and increase the smart.   (Book 4, lines 1-6)

Nearly half the words in this passage are Latinate, and we find emphatic and rhetorical parallel constructions (“improve the passion, and increase the smart”). What’s more, Dryden’s lines are distinctive verses—aurally identifiable units that, brick by brick, make up the architecture of the poem. Rhyme punctuates them in much the same way as two stressed syllables, bum-bum, mark the end of a line in the Latin. One could fault Dryden, like Douglas, for rhyming an unrhymed poem, but his couplets certainly have pomp and circumstance and, to my mind, best match the original form in heft, stateliness and musicality. This translation ensconced the heroic couplet as the vehicle for poetry in the English Augustan Period. The Virgilian mode survives in couplets and blank verse down to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (published 1859-1885), the last major epic in the classical style.

Three major American translations of the Aeneid have come out over the last fifty years: Alan Mandelbaum’s in 1972, Robert Fitzgerald’s in 1983, and Robert Fagles’s in 2008. They are all blank-verse and similar in their technique. We will focus on Fagles’s:

But the queen—too long she has suffered the pain of love,
hour by hour nursing the wound with her lifeblood,
consumed by the fire buried in her heart.
The man’s courage, the sheer pride of his line,
they all come pressing home to her, over and over.
His looks, his words, they pierce her heart and cling—
no peace, no rest for her body, love will give her none.    (Book 4, lines 1-7)

Compared to the translations we examined above, Fagles’s is neither flesh nor fowl. Scattershot in its technique, syllable counts range from ten to thirteen per line, and there are anywhere from four to six stresses. Such loose lines are closer to what we might call “conversational,” and that’s the problem—the original is written in an artificial idiom, a Kunstsprache, no Roman ever spoke. Striving for accessibility, even our conservative contemporary poetics (as represented by these translations) falls far short of the stateliness of the original and of previous translations.

We have not seen a major free verse translation of the Aeneid, and there are reasons: invented to liberate poetry from conventions, free verse does not lend itself to the translation of conventional poetry. The natural speech patterns prevalent in contemporary poetry do not rise to the solemn (and artificial) heights that epic demands. My fear is that free verse is incapable of sustaining a lofty tone because irregular rhythms break the incantatory spell and prosaic expressions undercut the elevation. As Surrey’s powerful translation of parts of the Aeneid established a living heroic medium that led to works like Milton’s Paradise Lost, so the lack of such a translation in our age implies a gap in the range of our current poetics.

This survey has shown the challenges that the Aeneid poses to our age: how do we enthusiastically, convincingly translate an epic that strives to justify the subjugation of peoples to an empire? How do we, with our current poetics, translate a sublime but very formal poem?

Have we lost the lofty?

Published Jan 11, 2016   Copyright 2016 Aaron Poochigian

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