This book is of more value than meets the eye—but first some perspective. Fewer than sixty of its 220 pages carry C. S. Lewis’s translation of the Aeneid, with a commensurate number carrying the original text from the Loeb edition (not Lewis’ primary text). Whereas we have all that Lewis translated of the epic, we have only 15 percent of the twelve books of the poem itself: all of Book I, much of Book II, about half of Book VI, and snippets thereafter (including prose summaries by Lewis). So even though he was at work on this translation for half his life, until his death in 1963, the work is both abbreviated and unfinished.
Machinery includes a foreword, a preface, and the editor’s introduction (as well as manuscript pages, maps of Aeneas’s journeys, a convenient glossary, and a name index). The first, by Walter Hooper (Lewis’ renowned steward and editor), describes the provenance of the manuscripts and their rescue from a bonfire. The second, by the classicist D. O. Ross, discusses the translation proper, especially in light of Lewis’ thinking on Renaissance humanism (he was not a fan), and does so to suggest that he had just read the great classical critic D. S. Carne-Ross on translation (and perhaps John Talbot on Carne-Ross lately in these pages [May 2011]).
A. T. Reyes’ introduction lays out what there is of Lewis’s engagement with the Aeneid and with Virgil (vocations and their price looming large), his religious importance to Lewis, and Lewis on translation generally: he loved the poem as no other and re-read it more than he did any other book. He did believe that “all translations ruin Virgil”; but, in light of his belief in the success of the Aeneid as a Secondary Epic (so-called in his Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’), he could not have agreed with Carne-Ross that “no epic ‘succeeds’ after Homer.”
While discussing Robert Fitzgerald’s 1981 Aeneid in his Classics and Translation, Carne-Ross is silent on Lewis, even though the older Lewis anticipated much that the younger man has to say; but Carne-Ross does pose the telling question whereby to assess a translation: Does it work “for whatever creative and enlightening relations between [itself] and the original”? Here refractions from the critic and translator Bernard Hoepffner’s essay “Proxy Literature” (TLS, May 27, 2011) are helpful. Translation is “language creation,” he says, that should “alter the complexion of [its] language for its own good.” Moreover, “the target language should somehow be violated” so that readers will “feel the otherness of the source language and culture as well as the otherness of the [original] author.” A translation, then, ought to infuse the original work and its culture into our mind and our culture, enriching our literary tradition with a variegation—not a mere novelty—that refreshes both. Lewis would have meant his translation as just such a renovative infusion.
Given that what we have is largely unfinished, the best we can manage in our assessment of Lewis’s translation are line comparisons. Consider the following passage (out loud, of course) from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation:
Saturnian Juno, burning for it all,
Buffeted on the waste of sea those Trojans
Left by the Greeks and pitiless Achilles,
Keeping them far from Latium. For years
They wandered as their destiny drove them on
From one sea to the next: so hard and huge
A task it was to found the Roman people.
Now, here is Lewis’s:
Therefore she bars from Latian soil for many a year
The Trojan few, the leavings of Achilles’ spear,
Leading them far, for-wandered, over alien foam
—So long was fate in labour with the birth of Rome.
Fitzgerald is sea-faringly rhythmic, I think, and Lewis economical and dramatic. Which is better poetry? “Those Trojans left” (Fitzgerald) lacks the evocation of savaged waste in “the leavings of Achilles’ spear” (Lewis); “Their Destiny drove them on” (Fitzgerald) pales against the urgency and graphic menace of the personified “fate in labour” (Lewis). Lewis was an accomplished narrative poet in his own right (and, along with narrative poetry, woefully neglected). He had command of both his matter and his meter. This passage from his narrative poem Launcelot is in the same meter as his Aeneid:
That door was opened, fragrance such as dying men
Imagine in immortal countries, blown about
Heaven’s meadows from the tree of life, came floating out.
Why did Lewis leave scarcely more than the draft of a fragment? Other long poems of his are unfinished, but in this case it may be because, as he said, “all translations ruin Virgil” and Virgil meant too much to him to fail at. And then there was Lewis’s own unrelenting vocation. Is Hooper correct when he tells us that, “of all the literary remains of C. S. Lewis published since his death, this”—even unfinished—“is the one that would have pleased him most”?
Whatever the impediment, had he completed the work he would have drawn many more readers to Virgil and made the point that “the poem would still be as good as anyone ever said it was” (Carne-Ross again). Withal, the actual book affords us a glimpse of how one rich, enormously sympathetic, and religion-charged literary imagination engaged another, religion-charged, though greater, literary imagination; that, and it recovers for us a well-spring of Lewis’ imagination and spirit.
James Comos most recent book is Remembering C
more from this author