The Aeneid, by Virgil. Translated by C.H. Sisson. New York: Carcanet. 358 pp. $25. Next to the Bible, Virgil's ``Aeneid'' is the most important book in Western culture. C.H. Sisson's brilliantly successful new translation helps us see why.
For centuries, ``The Aeneid'' was literally next to the Bible. Early Christians considered Virgil (70 BC-19 BC) a prophet of Christianity. In an early poem (Eclogue IV), he seemed to them to prophesy the coming of the Saviour, and in ``The Aeneid,'' he told of the coming of the Roman Empire (which became the Holy Roman Empire). And since much of Roman culture and religion passed into Christendom, the greatest poem of antiquity embodied much that looked familiar to medieval readers. In modern times, the poem has been appreciated for its style and architecture, as well as for its wisdom.
``The Aeneid'' is about empire. It was ordered by the then new emperor Augustus as part of his rebuilding program in the wake of the civil war. The call went out for a poem celebrating the emperor and Rome. Several poets backed off. Virgil accepted the proposition, but dragged out its execution, to the emperor's great irritation. When Virgil died, the poem was unfinished; he wanted it destroyed. Instead, it became an immediate classic.
It's possible Virgil worried about his poem because it showed the great cost of founding the empire. Recent critics have claimed it's a pessimistic poem. But it could be that what strikes critics as pessimistic is just realistic.
Look at Aeneas, the hero. He stands for Augustus. In the first half of the book he's decidedly unheroic. He abandons Troy in flames. If it weren't for his mother, Venus, and other gods, he would have reneged on his duty to found Rome and spent his life with Queen Dido in Carthage. Gradually he learns how to lead. His sighs and tears become less frequent; he learns how to kill in the line of duty. In short, during the poem Aeneas is tested; his character is tried.
Throughout, Aeneas is called pius. Pius is a crucial word, and difficult to translate. ``Pious'' is all wrong. Sisson translates it ``dutiful.''
``Dutiful'' is good. Duty is at the center of the poem, as it is of civic life in the real world. And yet Aeneas' duty is not simply toward the state, but toward the gods. As one commentator puts it (referring to the hero of Homer's ``Odyssey''), ``Odysseus chooses humanity; Aeneas chooses divinity.'' The poem is really about choosing to do one's duty ``to God and one's country.''
Or rather it's about the necessity and the difficulty of so choosing. The world of ``The Aeneid,'' like the real world, is an ambiguous place. All is not what it seems. If reason doesn't always pan out, neither does saying prayers (Virgil sometimes calls them ``vain''). As a hero, Aeneas' battle is with his perceptions of the world and of himself.
On one level, this is an overtly ``moral'' poem. For example, in order to fulfill his destiny, Aeneas must learn to ``repress'' his feelings. Sisson's translation makes this clear. Confronted by a furious Dido, who charges him with betrayal, Aeneas, in Sisson's words, ``Kept his eyes motionless and with an effort/ Fought back overt expression of his feelings.'' Duty to divine destiny prevails. At another point, just before being visited by the ghost of his father, who steels his courage, Aeneas falters: ``his mind was indeed divided/ Between responsibilities which conflicted.''
In ``The Aeneid,'' morality and ambiguity reinforce each other. The turning point comes when Aeneas visits the underworld, follows his father, confronts Dido, and sees a vision of the glorious future of Rome. There's only one problem with all this: Virgil has Aeneas leave through the gate whence ``the dead/ Send false dreams into the world above.''
The second half of the poem is a nightmare - the nightmare of war, the nightmare of passion and action, of political reality. We wake up only on the very last page - but waking reality may seem less real than the illusion of the poem. Virgil's pessimism never makes the mythical element in the poem seem less than overwhelmingly ``real.'' The passage quoted on this page illustrates both the power of Virgil's conception and the elegant plainness of Sisson's English (Lavinia is the daughter of old King Latinus and part of the prophecy). The Italian people whom the invading Trojans destroy have something ideal, something of the innocent native about them. Virgil makes their destruction pathetic.
Worse, in the vision given him in the underworld, Aeneas was told to ``spare the defeated.'' When he gets his chance, on the last page of the book, he won't, or can't. Overwhelmed by what he sees - his arch-enemy is wearing spoils taken from a boy whose father had demanded vengeance from Aeneas - Aeneas hesitates above the downed man, remembers his vow to avenge, and plunges. The catharsis of that conclusion is more than literary: It's philosophical. Virgil's unique fusion of morality and ambiguity makes it so.
Virgil's vision of life is challenging. To grasp it in an age bemused by ideologies and fantasies is difficult. To have made it available to others in a translation is heroic! In the end, though, it's the poetry that matters. It's Sisson's mastery of English idiom and quietly expressive sound that makes this the most readable, the most immediate, of current translations. Sisson doesn't write ``translatese'' (no archaic words, no inverted word orders, etc.). His English is that of the Authorized Version of the Bible, of Jonathan Swift - the English of literate (not literary!) conversation.
Throughout a long career (half spent in the British civil service), Sisson has written novels, essays, criticism, translations, and original verse; but his ``Aeneid'' may be his masterpiece. It's certainly a masterpiece of English poetry and a testimonial to the continuing relevance of Virgil. Everyone should read it.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.
From Book VII: ...while the virgin Lavinia Stood by her father as with holy torches He waited on the altars, a monstrous
thing: Her long hair appeared to catch fire And all her fine head-gear was burnt up In crackling flames, all was alight, Her queenly tresses, her crown with all its
jewels: Then wrapped in smoke and yellow
brilliance She scattered Vulcan all around the
palace. This horror was reported everywhere As a miraculous sight; what could it mean? The talk was that it meant she would be
famous But for the people it portended war.