A review of The Aeneid, by Virgil, translated by Robert Fitzgerald
Robert Fitzgerald's new translation of Virgil's Aeneid will not appeal to the casual reader or to the scholar accustomed to "critical editions." There are none of the usual devices intended to make classical works easier to understand and interpret: It contains no glossary, no interpretive essay, no plot summary, no introduction. Even the acknowledgments are in small print at the end of the volume. This reticence stems, it seems, from Fitzgerald's unwillingness to stand between the reader and the story.
The Aeneid's story is of course unfolded in the poem itself, and Fitzgerald lets the reader go directly to the story. The reader will find opportunity along the way (if he is so inclined) to make the observations customarily set forth in introductions. Virgil's intentions, his devices, his mastery of poetic form and language, all are revealed in the poem much more clearly than any introduction can do. Fitzgerald gives his readers the now-rare opportunity to learn, as distinct from being told, about Virgil's Aeneid.
Reticence is undeniably the proper role of the translator. He cannot assume that his own interpretation is best. His office is to stand aside and allow the reader to make his own judgments. There is, however, an obvious problem with this. The translator's judgments are embedded-hidden-in the text of his work. When Fitzgerald uses "warfare" rather than the more conventional "arms" to translate arma (the first word of the poem), it reflects his interpretation of the Aeneid. It is his judgment of what best reproduces Virgil's meaning and best captures the mood which Virgil tried to set. The disadvantage of Fitzgerald's reticence is that we begin the poem without his having told us what kind of Aeneid he will show us. Will Fitzgerald try to capture the gravitas of the Roman spirit, or will he try to make the Aeneid a story for modern audiences, audiences which demand "relevance"?
Fitzgerald's translation is unquestionably a fine one. He has struck a pleasing balance between pedantic literal-mindedness and poetic fancy, and produced a wonderfully readable version. Fitzgerald's choice of words is always apt, even if sometimes (as with arma) a departure from convention, and is faithful to the Latin text. Major credit for this version's readability goes to Fitzgerald's halving of Virgil's line; that is, for every Latin line there are two lines in the translation. This works very well most of the time-English versions that retain or try to reproduce Virgil's hexameter are frequently difficult reading and certainly not to be read for pleasure. At times, however, especially in the second half of the poem, the short line detracts from the grandeur of Virgil's theme and the majesty of his language. The effect is of reportage, rather than "singing"; of history, rather than myth. Despite Fitzgerald's judicious and admirable choice of words, the stateliness sometimes is missing.
The story of the Aeneid is of course the story of the origin of Rome through the efforts of the great Trojan warrior-hero Aeneas. His wanderings after Troy's defeat occupy the first half of the poem, while the second tells of his labors to establish the Trojans in Italy and his heroic fight with the Rutulian hero Turnus. But despite these and countless other similarities between the Aeneid and the Iliad and Odyssey, a difference of intention is manifest. To make only the most obvious observations, Virgil wrote in a skeptical age, in an age that was aware of the charms of philosophy. Homer's age was not skeptical and was not yet aware of philosophy. In Virgil's time, two philosophical schools contended for the soul of Rome, the Stoics and the Epicureans. The first great post-philosophic epic, Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, had been written not long before the Aeneid. Like the Aeneid, it traced Rome's origin to Venus; it too was a praise of Venus. But its intention had been to convince men of the ugliness and terror of human life, and persuade them that the only remedy was Epicurean philosophy.
Virgil's poem is not an attempt to answer Lucretius; it is certainly not a "Stoic" response to Lucretius' Epicurean teaching. As a mythical or poetic account of Rome's origins, it takes as its starting point piety or reverence for the gods. Against the skepticism of the Augustan Age, Virgil wants to reaffirm-indeed establish wholly anew-the nobility and the justice of Rome's founding.
All the ages of the city, from Romulus to Julius Caesar, have been episodes that divide two "golden ages," according to Virgil. The first golden age was the product of the heroic struggle of Aeneas, most pious of the Trojans:
As to our stalemate before stubborn Troy,
The sword arm of Aeneas, with Hector's, halted
Dominance of the Greeks for ten long years;
Both known for courage, both for skill in arms,
Aeneas first in reverence for the gods.
[Diomedes speaking, XI 285-92]
The second golden age will be the age of Augustus; i.e., Virgil's own time. But Virgil was aware of the powerful obstacles in the way of any restoration of the virtues of the Roman people such as a new golden age would require. Aeneas' heroic piety was not the virtue of the sophisticated Romans of Virgil's age-Romans whom Virgil avoided most of the time by staying in the countryside. Rome was a city grown sated with conquest; it lacked the leanness of a heroic race. In any case, the opportunities for heroism of Aeneas' sort in the Roman world seemed to have passed with Augustus' victory at Actium. Great warriors did not seem possible in a world where the conqueror was the man who could best administer. If nothing was left but administration, could this really be a golden age?
The Aeneid is a central element of the western heritage. Virgil was, for centuries, the only classical poet known first-hand in the West, and his influence continues to be felt in countless subtle ways. Fitzgerald's reticence permits student and scholar alike to approach the Aeneid afresh, and his fine translation is an encouragement to give the Aeneid the thoughtful attention it deserves.