Thursday, September 6, 2012

On Getting To Read The Aeneid

I can't remember ever having this difficult of a time starting to read a book.  And it's not, as you may imagine, because Don Quixote was so good (it was.  Did I mention that it was?  Because it was.)

Some of you may know that I used to operate an online used book business, in fact it was my primary source of income for several years back in the '00s when you could do things like that, back before the companies that hosted online used booksellers caught on that they could bleed their sellers dry with fees and long before eBooks were practical.  When I closed up shop, we culled all of the titles that we thought we might like to own.  The Aeneid was one such title, so I owned a copy that happens to be the one that I had for sale at one time.  It's the copy on top of the stack in the photograph.

They have the entire Harvard Classics Library at my local lending library, but I prefer to own copies of the books I am reading, because I like to destroy them with underlining, margin notes, and dog-ears.  So, on Saturday, I began to read the Frank O. Copley translation in the yellow book in the picture and found it... entirely unreadable.  Have you ever had the experience where you are reading something and you realize "Oh, wait a minute.  I did not comprehend a single thing that I just read.  Better go back and try that again" and you go back and have the exact same thought just slightly after where you read the previous go?  Okay, now have you ever had that in the first two pages of a book?!!?  This is new to me.  And I was really trying. 

I would have despaired at this point were it not for the knowledge that Robert Fagles has a translation of the book in print.  It was Saturday and I didn't have to work, so I walked downtown, a half an hour each way in the early September heat, to our two used bookstores, finding that:
1) neither used bookstore had a copy in stock and
2) my town has turned into something like The City of Destruction, but with the hospitality of Sodom.

So, I went to the lending library and found the Fagles immediately.  In doing so, I passed the Harvard Classics and thought "Hey, let's see which translation they have in the actual assigned text." 

It was the Dryden, which some part of my brain knew was the preferred academic text (at least in Dr. Eliot's time.)  But, more to the point, it came to my attention that there was a Dedication to his patron by John Dryden upon the publication of the translation in 1697.  The Dedication was almost as long as the poem itself and I realized that Dr. Eliot wanted me to read that Dedication. 

There in the library, I sighed and made my decision.  I would check out both of the volumes that were in my hands.  I would read Mr. Dryden's Dedication like a good boy, then begin to read Mr. Dryden's translation.  If I didn't like it, I would then switch over to the Fagles for the actual text, returning to the Harvard Classics for the afterword. 

So, I am enjoying the Fagles tremendously.


  1. P.S. I should probably hasten to add that I love Dryden's poetry and I did enjoy his Dedication a great deal. More on that soon.

  2. Robert Fitzgerald also translated the Aeneid. His Iliad and Odessy were, I think, standard until Fagles, and Fagles sometimes strikes me as overly colloquial, whereas Fitzgerald is classical, and Shakespearean.

    That said, I've only listened to Aeneid via a semi-successful audiobook. However important Aeneid was to Western development, Homer is more enjoyable. Eliot ignores The Iliad altogether, and positions The Odyssey between I Promessi Sposi and Two Years Before The Mast. Classical Greek literature as Adventure tale. Following Dante. My only response is... WTF?

  3. I personally think the Fagles Aeneid surpasses his Greek translations. I don't know if one attributes that to Fagles or to Virgil. I knew, when looking for the Fagles, that I would find readability without completely sacrificing elegance. The Copley, by the way, sacrifices both. The Dryden, I felt, sacrifices readability on the altar of elegance, which on one level I can appreciate. I feel like I will return to the Dryden a few years down the road when time and familiarity make it a more welcome guest.

    As for Dr. Eliot, I assume that he felt Latin literature needed to be represented and The Aeneid was the obvious choice. I agree that it is difficult to imagine that Dr. Eliot really thought that a Harvard graduate need not have read The Iliad.

  4. Also, I still can't believe he didn't include Part 2 of Don Quixote on his list. I imagine at some point the poor man, in the process of compiling the list, was kicking himself over not having said "a six foot shelf of books."