My rating: 5 of 5 stars
While nobody wants to agree with the conventional wisdom, I have to say that The Aeneid lives up to its reputation as a half-hearted epic, strongest in those moments and with those characters that most pull away from the teleology of Aeneas’s god-ordained journey to found Rome. The most memorable passage in the poem is indeed the love and death of Dido, and the best set pieces aside from that—the attack of the harpies in Book 3, the Dante-inspiring vision of the Underworld in Book 6, the sinister war-making mission of the fury Alecto in Book 7, the doomed expedition of the Greekly-loving pair Nissus and Euryalus in Book 9, the adventures of the Amazon Camilla in Book 11—indulge Virgil’s obvious aestheticism, his love of all things “counter, original, spare, strange,” to quote a later poet whose desires were at odds with his social position. When Virgil tries to be Homer, I find the effect falls flat; his battle scenes and his councils of gods and political leaders are full of wooden figures stiffly acting and speechifying, whereas the poet longs to describe what happens when beauty and horror come together, when desire sickens into disgust, when beauty dies, as in Euryalus’s death scene:
Dying, he thrashed. His lovely limbs and shoulders
Poured streams of blood; his neck sank limply down,
Like a purple flower severed by the plow;
He fainted into death, like a poppy bending
Its weary neck when rain weighs down its head.
For Homer, living in a feudal agricultural order, nature was too much of a whole to be romanticized in this way; death just was and beauty was a fact but not an autonomous value. But for Virgil, living in a late and over-civilized age (the distance between Homer and Virgil is like the distance between Chaucer and us), these almost Decadent moments are the poem’s real value and its real interest. The Aeneid is meant to hymn the founding of civilization, but it really celebrates, from the perspective of the over-refined, all that civilization represses. The poem, however unfinished, thus ends in the right place: with the Trojans in all their Oriental and androgynous foreignness—
Embroidery glows on you, saffron and purple.
You love to laze and treat yourself to dancing.
Your hats have ribbons and your tunics sleeves.
You’re Phrygian women!
—about to be subsumed into the masculine western civilization of the Latins, purified of their strangeness and thus made fit to rule. From there, where else could Virgil go? Maybe this should be read as tragedy rather than epic. Dido is compared to a maenad, and the agitation in Latium stirred up by Alecto is similarly likened to an episode of Bacchic frenzy. This narrative, dominated by a contest between two goddesses, Juno and Venus, under the authoritative eye of Jupiter, may have a secret divine sponsor.
A word on this translation. Sarah Ruden committed herself to matching the poem line-for-line and working in iambic pentameter. This prevents the translation from drifting into wordy explication and maintains the apparent tautness of Virgil’s verse, its stylized directness, its artifactual quality that emphasizes the poem’s vein of crypto-aestheticism. While I can’t comment on Ruden’s faithfulness to the Latin, as an English poem her version lives and breathes.