Recent reading: The Aeneid

I don’t read nearly as many books as I see films (though I’m trying to rectify that), so this is a bit of a departure for this blog. Still, reviews is reviews…

Anyway, technically this is more like “recent re-reading” (though it’s the first time I’ve read the John Dryden translation of 1697); I did Latin at high school and we did the Aeneid for the HSC in 1992, so I got the translation then-available in Penguin Classics, which was W.F. Jackson Knight’s (from 1956, if I recall rightly), cos I wanted to have some idea of the whole thing (our exercises were limited to excerpts from book 8). I didn’t particularly like it. I think I’ve historically always viewed it as a knock-off of the Iliad and the Odyssey, boiling the two Greek classics into a single Latin imitation. That was 20 years ago, mind you, and in that time I like to think I may have matured slightly, cos I’ve realised two things over the years:

One, unless a book is translated by its original author into another language they speak, any translation of any book really is the work of the translator rather than the original author. This is why I find myself irritated at claims like the one on Amazon.co.uk that it’s “more Dryden than Virgil”; it’s a criticism that goes back to Alexander Pope at least, as someone said of his translation of the Iliad, it was a pretty poem but he ought not to call it Homer. But as a criticism it seems both obvious and utterly redundant. Of COURSE it’s more Dryden than Virgil. It’s Dryden’s Aeneid, not Virgil’s. Virgil’s Aeneid is in Latin, not English. Dryden took Virgil’s choice and arrangement of Latin words and rendered them in his own choice and arrangement of English words. Pope’s translation of the Iliad was similarly his Iliad, not Homer’s. And so forth.

Two, if the original was in verse, the translation had probably better be as well.

Now, poetry is problematic for me cos I don’t really “get” it. I generally tend to read it without really responding to it. Such taste as I do have is probably pretty backwards, in that I don’t really like free verse (and I hate the sort of “poetry” that is obviously just prose cut up into lines), I can live without rhyme but I do like some sort of evident form and structure based on metre. When I was doing Latin at school, I remember one of the exercises presented two translations (I forget by who) of Horace’s fountain ode, one from the 1740s and one from the 1980s, and the question asked which of the two we thought was better. And the modern free verse rendering was obviously more literally “correct”, but the old one “felt” more like poetry. Well, to me it did.

I do tend to like basically narrative verse, so I have a lot less trouble with things like the Aeneid than I do other forms. But this is the thing: having first encountered both the Iliad and Aeneid in prose translation and only later in verse form, I’ve realised the latter is really the ideal way to go about presenting them. Although, in saying that, obviously not all verse translations are going to be created equally… I’ve read Fagles’ Iliad and Pope’s Iliad, and I like the latter much more. I mean, Fagles is good enough but I don’t get quite the same feeling of “epicness” from him as I did from Pope. C. Day-Lewis (Daniel’s dad—see, there’s still a film connection here) said something about how we no longer (i.e. by the early 1950s) had a “grand manner”, no “prevalent poetic language” of the sort current in Pope’s time… a somewhat artificial, elevated, “literary” use of language much like the old Greek and Latin verse forms were. Maybe that’s why I like Pope better than Fagles, the former feels more like “the real thing” somehow. Maybe that’s why I also didn’t like Day-Lewis’ own Aeneid translation (or maybe that was just my own aversion to hexameters).

And that’s probably why I enjoyed Dryden’s Aeneid so much, it felt as near to “the real thing” as I’ll ever get (because I am not re-learning all the Latin I’ve forgotten since high school just to read it in the original again). It reminded me that, yes, the Aeneid really was a poem, not the pseudo-novel that Knight made of it. Cos this stuff just doesn’t work the same in prose form, it’s not meant to be a novel… Dryden made me actually feel the massiveness of the events Virgil was writing about, from the fall of Troy to the years of wandering, the business in Carthage, the eventual landing in Italy and the war that ensues, all of it. And as a result I’m more charitable about how I view its relationship to the Homeric poems, though obviously some bits (particularly the shield business in book 8) are very closely modelled on the Greek. I didn’t even get the sense of the story being unfinished that I did in the past; it seems perfectly right for it to end with Aeneas delivering the final blow to Turnus. No more really needed to be said by then.

And the violence. Holy shit, the violence. I remember reading the Iliad at 16 and being stunned by the copious and descriptive bloodshed. People who think Steven Spielberg did something with the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan? Homer was there 2700-odd years before him. And Virgil wasn’t too far behind in the gore stakes either, nor did Dryden seem to feel inclined to spare his readers’ sensibilities; there’s nothing particularly polite or civilised about the warfare on show here. And people complain about the violence in films and so forth these days? I feel like handing them a copy of this and saying “here, bitch, this is a cornerstone of Western literature and civilisation, if you want to piss and moan about declining standards come back after you’ve counted all the corpses in this”…

Anyway, now you know my reading habits are sometimes as pretentious as my viewing habits can be, I’ll get back to being a cinephile (shudder) tomorrow. Just wondering what to read next, what with my backlog of unread books probably being even worse than my backlog of unwatched films…

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