The Aeneid, by Virgil. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Random House. 403 pp. $20.
Well known for his vigorous and plainspoken English verse versions of Homer's ''Iliad'' and ''Odyssey,'' poet Robert Fitzgerald now becomes the first writer to have translated all three major epics of ancient Greece and Rome.
''The Aeneid,'' left all but completed at Virgil's death in 19 BC, might seem a strange choice, for it has long been out of favor with modern readers, perhaps ever since scholar Edith Hamilton drew a distinction between the stylistic purity and narrative economy of the ''classical'' epic (Homer's) and the exaggerated rhetoric and loose sweep of the ''romantic'' (Virgil's).
Many have felt that Virgil's adulatory ''history'' of the founding of Rome bores readers with its partisan insistency and its focus on a hero who is really little more than a political-ethnic idea. Such readers feel ''The Aeneid'' never achieves the degree of life Homer breathed into virtually all of his battling, scheming heroes and villains.
For me, ''The Aeneid'' is, on balance, a dramatic and colorfully varied work. Its 12 books tell of the forced wanderings of the Trojan hero Aeneas (son of the goddess Venus and the mortal Anchises) after the fall of Troy; how he survived the wrath of the goddess Juno (who favored Troy's enemies, the Achaeans), and, after a series of demanding adventures, fulfilled a prophecy that he would lead his uprooted people to a new home and there found an empire - what would become the home of Augustus.
Storms at sea, encounters with Harpies and Cyclopes, and graphically described battles are the matter of this poem. It contains, moreover, two justly famous long set pieces. Book IV describes Aeneas's brief stay in the North African kingdom of Carthage, his romance with its widowed queen, Dido, and the desperate rage which drives her to suicide when the wanderer, faithful to his mission, wanders on. And the splendid Book VI is a richly imagined, brilliantly lit tapestry of drama and idea, in which Aeneas travels to the underworld and receives a philosophical explanation of the workings of the universe, and hears a detailed prophecy of the founding of Rome. Several centuries after Virgil, it became the impetus for Dante's ''Inferno.''
The final four books, covering Aeneas's landing in Italy, his series of campaigns against its several tribes, and his climactic single combat with the famed military commander Turnus are frequently engrossing. But there's no denying that successive battlefield scenes are, by their very nature, wearying - or that the poem does bog down in unvaried repetitions on Aeneas's mission and Rome's destiny.
On the other hand, I'd argue that the poem's characterizations are more compelling than has usually been admitted. The regal, passionate Dido makes a marvelous dramatic figure; surely there is something of her in Shakespeare's Cleopatra. And the standard objections to Virgil's depiction of Aeneas as emotionless and impossibly noble don't seem really justifiable; his nobility surfaces in a variety of contexts, and gradually takes on convincing human depth.
Robert Fitzgerald has rendered this complex material in plain, colloquial, and very readable English blank verse. His language seems best suited to the travel and action scenes, and less effective in the lyrical and reflective passages.
Yet there are many remarkably beautiful passages. One is this description of Venus: ''. . . Rose-pink and fair/Her nape shone, her ambrosial hair exhaled/Divine perfume, her gown rippled full length,/And by her stride she showed herself a goddess.''
Classical scholars probably will object to Fitzgerald's plainness and directness. The important point is that the poem's major complications - the machinations of the bickering gods, the battlefield confrontations, even the very involved geographical detail - seem perfectly clear. Most important of all, Robert Fitzgerald has brought ''The Aeneid'' off the library shelf and placed this great, imperfect, essential poem within every reader's reach.