Every age gets the Greek and Latin literature it deserves. Prologue to the tumultuous decade to follow, Richard Lattimore’s 1961 translation of the Iliad begins, “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’s son Achilleus/ and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians.” Thirty years later Robert Fagles gives us a post-Vietnam Homer by rendering the same lines as “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles,/ murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses.” One need only appreciate the psychological bent of “anger” versus “rage,” or the more euphemistic “pains thousandfold” versus the body count of “losses” in order to see how the translation of classical literature often says more about the era from which it springs than it does about the ancient world. Cue Emily Wilson’s recent descriptor of Odysseus as a “complicated man,” and once again we hear the contemporary played out through the classical.
Virgil’s Aeneid is no less susceptible to such massaging, even though it is more a poem of action than character: Achilles rages; Odysseus avenges; Aeneas simply moves on, in David Ferry’s new translation, to “the future/ He was required to look at” when he spurns Dido. Whereas Rolfe Humphries’s 1951 version begins, “Arms and the man I sing, the first who came,/ Compelled by fate, an exile out of Troy,” three decades later Robert Fitzgerald offers a more blunt assessment: “I sing of warfare and a man at war.” Ferry initially would seem to return to Humphries’s more Nietzschean embrace of fate when he writes, “I sing of arms and the man whom fate had sent/ To exile from the shores of Troy to be/ The first to come to Lavinium,” but then he follows this with a more visceral account of Aeneas’s plight as someone subject to Juno’s
Savage implacable rage, [who] was battered by storms
At sea, and from the heavens above, and also
By tempests of war, until at last he might
Bring his household gods to Latium, and build his town,
From which would come the Alban Fathers and
The lofty walls of Rome.
Whereas Humphries splits the same passage into two sentences, the first of which describes the hero innocuously as “Much buffeted on land and on the deep/ By violence of the gods,” Ferry’s translation employs parataxis to convey the relentless powers of fate driving Aeneas, as well as Virgil’s epic. The result is a sense of ongoing crisis, a war that never ends, and a hero less heroic than simply enduring.
“We are called to seek our fate by different ways,/ One way, and then another way, and another,” Aeneas tells Andromache in Book Three of Ferry’s translation, and this is the engine that drives Virgil’s poem. Even in moments more contemplative than active, Ferry draws out the peripatetic state of the hero’s mind. When Mercury, on assignment from Jove, reminds him of the need to leave Carthage and Dido for “the city that is your destiny,” Aeneas is anxious to get away, but can only helplessly wonder:
Ah, how to do it?
What will he say to her, to assuage her fury?
What will his first words be? How to begin?
And as, in a panic, he tried, in a panic, to think
Which way to choose and what to do, and how,
It came to him, as he turned this way and that . . .
Once again, “and” is the passage’s drive gear, while across its surface the hurdle-like commas of “as, in a panic, he tried, in a panic, to think” conjure the illusion of a swift fluid race toward an imminent finish line. Crossing it, Aeneas keeps on running as he decides “To make the fleet ready, and do so quietly,/ And arm the ships and bring the crews to the shore,/ And to dissimulate the reason for this new plan.”
And yet there is no “new plan,” instead only the navigation of a world where “Dire woe is everywhere, everywhere terror,/ Everywhere there are images of death.” This is what makes the Aeneid a grimmer poem than Homer’s twin epics, but also what helps set off some of its better-known set pieces: Dido’s rage at Aeneas’s betrayal, the meeting with Anchises in the underworld, the funeral of Pallas. Ferry handles all of these with aplomb, his ability to convey tenderness amid mayhem again well served by the halting anxious sorrow he teases from a syntax unwilling to let go of Pallas upon his pyre:
They placed the body high on its bed of straw.
He looked like a young flower a young maiden had picked,
Soft violet, say, or a hyacinth fallen,
Not faded, as yet, as yet not having lost
Its shape, but now, it is true, no longer being
Fed and fostered by its mother earth.
The shocked repetition of “young . . . young,” the tentative interjection of “say,” the wishful yearning in “as yet, as yet,” the mournful acceptance of “now, it is true, no longer being”—these in microcosm render the dawning, denial, and implacable doom of loss confronted, death’s finality descending slowly like an opera curtain. Such fleeting moments of heartfelt sorrow posed against the tides of slaughter and conquest mark not only the epic’s dna, but also the very marrow of Ferry’s translation.
There are three discrete modes to the poem: battlefield action and its aftermath, hubristic speechifying, and the far-off witness of the gods. How Ferry handles each is distinctive, but his ability to unspool the narrative action without friction grants the translation a high degree of readability. Here, for instance, is another funeral scene, the burning of the Trojan and Latin dead after a truce is called in Book Eleven.
The black pitch smoke of the burning of the bodies
Arose up high and darkened the sky above.
Three times in shining armor the grieving warriors
Circled the burning pyres, three times on horseback,
Ululating, weeping, as they rode.
You could see how teardrops glistened on their armor.
The clamor of their sorrowing voices and
The dolorous clang of trumpets rose together
As they threw into the melancholy fires
Spoils that had been stripped from the Latins, helmets,
And decorated swords, bridles of horses,
And glowing chariot wheels, and with them, also,
Shields and weapons of their own familiar
Comrades, which had failed to keep them alive.
The connection established between war’s detritus and the waste of lives is a visual equation carefully appointed by Ferry’s nimble pentameter line. One absorbs the scene, rather than just reading it, the effect being the kind of wide-angle cinematic rendering we have come to expect from contemporary war films such as Dunkirk or Apocalypse Now. The use of “ululating,” however, jumps out at us, landing us immediately in a contemporary surround more reminiscent of the Middle East than the Mediterranean. That Ferry uses it several times throughout renders it a distinctive tic. Whether the choice will hold up with time, however, would seem an open question, but such is the mortal life of every translation.
Ferry’s colloquial rendering of speeches made by the Trojans and Latins to rouse their troops or defy each other allows the warriors to speak more like human beings than marble reliefs, thus avoiding the pressure for the poem to sound predictably “ancient.” Here, for instance, is Tarchon egging on his fellow Etruscans to take up arms against the invading Trojans:
“What are the weapons you have in your hands for? Use them,
For god’s sake, use them. Oh, yes, I know,
It’s the battlefield of love at night you like,
It’s wine, it’s what the menu is tonight;
You love the crackling sound of cooking and
The crooning voice that tells you dinner is ready,
The feast is ready for you.”
“For god’s sake,” “dinner is ready,” “the crackling sound of cooking,”—these sound like live speech, as does Turnus’s swipe at Drancus’s “windbag blather,” his “big talk, big mouth.” Noticeably, the later books are rendered more colloquially than the earlier. This causes dissonance between the verve of the lines quoted above and Aeneas’s early lament, “Alas, Tydides, bravest of Danaans,/ That by thy hand I could not fall and pour/ my life out on the fields of Ilium.” Clearly Ferry found his stride as the years passed while working on his version, but it’s a pity such rare musty blemishes remain.
Ferry does not, however, shy from the stately when it serves the poem in more organic fashion. This most often happens when the gods look on at the slaughter they cannot—or at least do not choose to—stop.
Mars impartially deals out grief and death;
Equally they kill and equally die,
Victors and victims alike; the gods look down
From Jupiter’s palace above, and pity them,
Sorrowing for the mutual labors of men;
Venus looks down; and Tisiphone down there rages,
Pale as death among the thousands fighting.
Blank verse suits well the distance described. The pause that Wordsworth said occurs at the end of each unrhymed line slows the passage to the proper somber cadence, creating what Ferry describes in his preface “On Meter” as “an alerted active awareness that this is happening.” In a separate preface to the entire poem, Ferry also praises David West’s translation of “opera atque labores” as “their toils and sufferings.” And yet, that he translates the same as “what men have done,/ And what has been done to them” reveals Ferry’s own “alerted active awareness” to the extended life of the slaughter, murderous day after murderous day illuminated as “Aurora rose, spreading her pitying light,/ And with it bringing back to sight the labors/ Of sad mortality” in a nod to Shakespeare’s sonnet 65.
When Ferry embarked on his translation of The Aeneid in 2006 at the cheeky age of eighty-two, the United States was already in the fifth year of the longest war in its history. Another twelve years have passed for our forces in Afghanistan, and no real end is in sight. Quietly, but firmly, this translation asks of the gods who look down on such extended carnage, “Can anger like this be, in immortal hearts?” This is asked on the epic’s first page, and the twelve books that follow proffer a poignant, clear affirmative to its tremulous query. Another question posed in the poem’s final pages epitomizes the humane, beleaguered, yet noble stupor forced to take in the numbing bloody waste of continued war:
It’s as in sleep, in the quiet of the night,
Our languid eyelids close and in their dream
Won’t tell wherever we are nor where we’re going
Or trying to go nor can we get there where-
Ever where might be, and who knows who it is
We maybe are, our legs gone weak, no way
To get there where?
Such is the condition of “arms and the man” for our age. From the long view and vantage of his own advanced age, Ferry has crafted an Aeneid not so much “for the ages” (one never knows if that might be), but rather from and of our age in a manner not merely contemporary, but contemporaneous in spirit to what Virgil knew of war then, and remarkably what it still entails two millennia later. This not only enlivens for us a great classical poem, it also allows us to see our world as still classical in its demise and answering demeanor, no matter the drones that hover above. Loss, courage, blind rage, catastrophe, and chaos are the stuff of any age; David Ferry has held a finely polished mirror up to our own.
1The Aeneid, by Virgil, translated by David Ferry;
University of Chicago Press, 432 pages, $35.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 8, on page 27
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