Peter Jones in The Oldie, March 2007
John Dryden’s Aeneid (1697) shows what can be done when the sensibilities of one real poet respond to those of another. The first half of Virgil’s proem - ‘Arms and the man I sing’ (Dryden) - reflects Homer’s Iliad (arma) and Odyssey (uirum) before outlining the story which is to culminate in the founding of Rome, and concludes:
Albanique patres atque altae moenia Romae
lit. ‘whence … the Alban fathers and the walls of high Rome’. Dryden translates:
‘From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.’
No mention of walls, true, but that wonderful last line takes the breath away: one poet finding perfectly the pitch of another’s voice. Fagles too does not translate the Latin - ‘the Alban lords and the high walls [sic] of Rome’, forgetting that Rome was a city built on hills - but there is no poetic quid pro quo, the line as flat as Norfolk. It may as well be prose.
And that is the problem: Fagles is convinced he is a poet. His translations of the Iliad and Odyssey have certainly been acclaimed world-wide, but I find them dreadful: a superficially dramatic vocabulary encased in a bogus, windy rhetoric, an insecure register, cliché-ridden line-filling and a tenuous grip on sound and sense. The Americans love it. It sounds so, gee, so epic.
We do not get beyond the second line of his Aeneid before hitting the first false note:
‘Wars and a man I sing – an exile driven on by fate,
he was the first to flee the coast of Troy…’.
Aeneas – the first man to run for it? Hardly a ringing encomium of your hero. The point of the Latin, of course, is that Aeneas was the first man to found the Latin race.
Now try this for confusion:
‘ …watching it all,
the Trojan hero heaved in a churning sea of anguish,
his thoughts racing, here, there, probing his options,
shifting to this plan, that …’.
Poor, sea-sick Aeneas (there is a lot of ‘heaving’ in Fagles). It is impossible not to hear the effort all this ‘poetry’ is taking. Like dead fish, the words rise to the page, belly-up.
Here Aeneas in the Underworld meets Dido, whom he had loved but abandoned. She ignores him and retreats into the arms of her husband. Fagles continues:
‘……But Aeneas, no less
Struck by her unjust fate, escorts her from afar
With streaming tears and pities her as she passes’.
But if you ‘escort’ someone, you accompany them. How can that person then ‘pass’ you, especially if you are escorting ‘from afar’? The Latin means ‘for a long time’, and the Latin idiom here means not ‘escort’ but ‘follow to say farewell to’ – usually with words, but here with tears. ‘Streaming’ is padding to make up the line. Fagles gets through lorry-loads of the stuff.
Fagles can translate perfectly pleasantly when he forgets about ‘poetry’ and listens to the Latin. Here Aeneas and the Sibyl are walking through the underworld – ibant obscuri, and all that:
‘On they went, those dim travelers under the lonely night,
through gloom, and the empty halls of Death’s ghostly realm,
like those who walk through woods by a grudging moon’s
deceptive light when Jove has plunged the sky in dark
and the black night drains all color from the world…’.
That tin-eared ‘dim’ apart, this is accurate and graceful. Will one of the 102 people Fagles thanks in his ‘Acknowledgements’ please have a quiet word with him?