Simile World

Denis Feeney

  • Virgil: Georgics translated by Peter Fallon, notes by Elaine Fantham
    Oxford, 109 pp, £7.99, July 2006, ISBN 0 19 280679 3
  • Virgil: The Aeneid translated by Robert Fagles
    Penguin, 486 pp, £25.00, November 2006, ISBN 0 7139 9968 3

Within a generation of Virgil’s death in 19 BC the trajectory of his poetic career had become iconic, with its apparently teleological progression from the slim one-volume collection of ten Eclogues to the more ambitious four-volume Georgics and finally to the 12 volumes of his imperial epic, the Aeneid. The progression could be seen as a poetic instantiation of rhetorical theory’s division of style into the low, middle and high; by the Middle Ages, Virgil’s path from pastoral through didactic to epic had become emblematic for theories of decorum and poetic style, and Milton’s career is the clearest example of the way Virgil’s successors could plot their poetic autobiographies into a hierarchy of genres.

As with all teleological narratives, however, the sheer unpredictable strangeness of the itinerary gets obscured. The Eclogues look humble and tentative in this story, yet at the end of the Georgics Virgil looks back in rueful wonderment at what he had achieved in his first revolutionary work, when he had been ‘bold in my youth’ (audax iuuenta, oddly miscued by Peter Fallon as ‘still a callow youth’). Again, it is amazing that the poet who embarked on the Aeneid had seven or eight years earlier published a poem in which his desire to write an epic was suavely depreciated by Apollo, the god of poetry. At the beginning of the sixth Eclogue, Virgil’s alter ego Tityrus is about to sing of kings and battles when Apollo tweaks his ear and tells him that a shepherd ought to feed up his sheep to be fat but keep his poems spare. Virgil here is adapting a famous passage written just over two centuries earlier by the Alexandrian poet Callimachus, the Ezra Pound of his day. Callimachus, too, says that at the beginning of his career Apollo warned him to keep his Muse slim, but Callimachus never ignored Apollo’s advice, and in all his works maintained an ironising pose in the face of claims to greatness. This abhorrence of bombast or cant is typical of modernising poetic movements, yet Virgil could not afford to make a career only out of avoiding bombast. His poetic predecessors in Latin, Catullus and his friends, had achieved wonderful things in the cause of Callimachean-style modernism, but Virgil wanted to be a classic as well as a modern. Catullus had been liberating in his time, but had painted his successors into a corner. Virgil refused to be contained, and in the process created masterpieces that defied the inherited terms of debate and showed that it was possible to make it new and be magnificent at the same time.

The nature of his ambition is evident in the Georgics. The title is Greek, ‘working the land’, and the most overtly acknowledged model is Hesiod, a poet of archaic Greece, working some seven hundred years earlier. Hesiod composed two related poems which inform the Georgics: the Theogony, on the origins of the gods and the current cosmic order, and the Works and Days, on the agricultural routine which is the human side of that order. For a long time, criticism of the Georgics was bedevilled by an inability to see Hesiod in the Works and Days as anything other than an earnest fellow who had a thing or two to tell unsophisticated people about practical matters. But once scholars started to take stock of ancient readings of Hesiod that took him to be a master of knowledge about contemporary human and divine order, then the way was open to appreciate the Georgics as a modern Roman counterpart.

Virgil develops Hesiod’s presentation of the relationship between human life and the world of nature, accentuating Hesiod’s dogged view of humans needing to work continually to preserve a purchase in a world that is not necessarily hostile but that was not made for them. Virgil’s humans are in a more profoundly estranged state, and the poem goes disconcertingly deep in its stripping away of the usual equation of the agricultural with the natural life. A telling quotation from Ernest Gellner illustrates how instinctive this equation can still be: ‘Agrarian man can be compared with a natural species which can survive in the natural environment. Industrial man can be compared with an artificially produced or bred species which can no longer breathe effectively in the nature-given atmosphere, but can only function effectively and survive in a new, specially blended and artificially sustained air or medium.’ The modern scholar has naturalised the agricultural state, but Virgil is wiser in seeing that any natural phase was further back, since Gellner’s ‘agrarian man’ is himself already inextricably in the phase of estrangement from a natural environment.

The Romans, as much as us, knew that they had the tiger of technology by the tail and could not let go: there is no way back to a state of nature. The farmer is constantly resisting nature’s tendency to entropy, and the products of the worked land are not nature’s bounty but the result of unremitting human pressure, regularly characterised in the Georgics as violence. The poem’s first simile, two hundred lines in, captures the point in emblematic style. Virgil shifts gear disconcertingly, as he so often does to catch the sensation of the interconnectedness of different levels. He moves from the mundane annual selection of seed to an apparently disproportionate statement of the human violence needed to keep up the process of selection, and then to the simile itself: the tendency of everything to deteriorate and be carried backwards is compared to the fate of a man rowing against the current who relaxes his arms and is immediately carried headlong downstream.

The context for humans’ experience of the world may be presented in this unillusioned way, but the poem is not unrelievedly bleak. Farmers may not be living in the Garden of Eden, but they are not living in the moral corruption of the city either, and Virgil conveys an appreciation of landscape and animal life which is, for most readers, the main memory of the poem as a whole. Its four short books leave you with an impression of huge and uncontainable variety. Moving through ploughing in Book 1, trees and vines in Book 2, large animals in Book 3 and the tiny bees of Book 4, the poem packs in an unassimilable density of sensation and experience. At any moment the perspective can shift from one level of scale to another: when Virgil tells you how to spot approaching rain, the same line of verse takes you from an ant carrying eggs along a narrow route at the beginning to a huge rainbow at the end, which spills over into the next line by enjambment.

For a variegated project like this, Virgil needed a Latin of great resource, to cover the range from the ant to the rainbow, from the intimate or pathetic to the grand and cosmic. Fallon speaks eloquently about the variety of Virgil’s style in his ‘Translator’s Note’, and his new translation has some notably successful moments, above all when he is aiming at a more elevated and passionate register. He responds especially well, for example, to Book 3’s description of the frenzy that lust induces in animals (including humans); here the impetuous energy of the Latin is finely sustained over three pages of English. Many individual phrases are genuinely felicitous: ‘royal court and realm of wax’, describing the bees’ hive, is a wonderful example of language that is both close to Virgil’s original and evocative of English poetic phrasing.

In the ‘lower’ register Fallon’s touch is less sure, however, with jarring colloquialisms throughout. Too often, his Virgil comes across as perky and jaunty. Fallon has evidently aimed to present an unpompous Virgil, and this is highly commendable, but if Virgil is not pompous he does not veer into bathos or colloquialism either. At the end of the poem, for example, he points a contrast between his secluded life of leisure and the mighty deeds of all-conquering Caesar. The tinge of irony colouring each of these polarised life-choices is just perceptible in the Latin, but to say that ‘Caesar was going hell for leather along the great Euphrates’ pushes too far towards puncturing the balloon. Again, towards the end of Book 2 Virgil describes his Epicurean predecessor, Lucretius, as ‘blessed’ (felix) for being able to ‘get to know the causes of things’ (rerum cognoscere causas). This is pretty solemn language, keyed into long traditions of natural philosophy; Fallon underpitches seriously with ‘That man has all the luck who can understand what makes the world tick.’ There are similar problems in the verse form. Fallon’s decision not to produce a rhymed version is very defensible, but he has ‘substituted assonance’, and to my ear at least the result is another cause of bathos. ‘The thick thickets people think of when they think of you’ is not much like Virgil, or any Classical Latin poet; nor is ‘you’ll lighten loads of routine by rotation,’ or ‘setting snares of sticky sticks’. Perhaps he is aiming at a Seamus Heaney-like tactility, but the result is often distractingly off-key.

Fallon hits the quintessential translation problem of ‘sameness and difference’ when he comes to the society of the bees in Book 4. Every schoolchild now knows that the crucial bee in the hive is a queen, but the ancients thought they were kings. If the translator has ‘king’, then it will seem very odd to most modern readers; on the other hand, if the translator has ‘queen’, then it will seem normal but produce peculiar results. Faced with this insoluble conundrum, Fallon opts for ‘queen’; Elaine Fantham, in one of her excellent brief notes, points out that this is accurate biologically rather than linguistically. Readers don’t have to wonder about what kings are doing in a beehive, but the problem is that Virgil’s political metaphors now become unreadable, as we see the bees fighting under the command of queens in civil war and giving slavish obedience to their queen. Readers who pursue the analogies suggested by the English version will end up a long way from where Virgil meant them to be: I look forward to reading students’ essays about the allegorised Cleopatras of the fourth Georgic.

From the microcosm of the warring and society-building bees Virgil moves into the Aeneid, to engage directly with the world of human action in the form of Homeric epic. The concerns of the Georgics persist in the new poem, just as many of the vignettes of the earlier work find a new home in the epic, now flipped from being foreground to background, or from being the tenor of a comparison to the vehicle. The toiling bees in Georgics 4 are with earnest whimsy compared to the Cyclopes at work in Vulcan’s forge; when we go to Vulcan’s forge in Aeneid 8 we see the Cyclopes themselves, hard at work in the same five lines they had inhabited in the simile world of the Georgics. When Turnus and Aeneas clash at the end of the epic, with the princess Lavinia as the prize, they are compared to fighting bulls, and these bulls are the same ones we met in Georgics 3, maddened by passion in their competition for the heifer.

These continuities develop the interconnectedness which had infused the Georgics, as they play out across the boundaries between the poems. The Georgics become the middle term, bonded with the Eclogues as poetry of the country and with the Aeneid as poetry of ‘la condition humaine’. Ultimately, both the Georgics and the Aeneid concern the order that humans strive to impose on the intransigency of their world. In the Georgics the natural world is the defining antagonist; in the Aeneid it is the recalcitrant human material that the imperial project is always attempting to corral. The empire keeps producing idealised images of fixed order, as the fine work of David Quint and Philip Hardie has demonstrated, yet this order is always being disrupted and challenged by the movement of history. Virgil acknowledges at many turns the fact that the imperialist, like the man in the first simile in the Georgics, will be swept downstream by the flood of events if he relaxes his grip for a second, or carried headlong by his charging horses like the hapless charioteer in the terrifying simile that closes the first book of the Georgics.

Robert Fagles comes to the task of translating the Aeneid with a lifetime of experience as a translator behind him, but the Aeneid is the first Latin text he has translated.[*] Until now he has worked on Greek texts, and is particularly admired for his translations of Homer. This handsome volume is a fitting cap to a distinguished career. It is graced with an introduction by Fagles’s long-time collaborator and friend Bernard Knox, who also wrote the introductions for Fagles’s Iliad and Odyssey. At the close of his introduction Knox retells the story of how he found a text of Virgil in a wrecked house towards the end of the Italian campaign, and opened it at random to light on the end of Georgics 1, with its image of a war-torn world out of control. This moment took him back to Classics after the war.

It is intriguing to compare Fagles’s Virgil with his Homer, and one obvious way in is through the ancient (or the 18th-century) vocabulary of a polarised art and nature. Homer’s natural power has always impressed his readers, and poetry has often been compared to natural phenomena: the ocean, or the setting sun, as in Longinus’ ‘On the Sublime’, or else a new world, ocean or planet, as in Keats’s ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’. In his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, Fagles aimed at reproducing Homer’s force, directness and emotional power, and in this he was very successful, especially in the oral dimension: anyone who has heard these translations read by Fagles, or Derek Jacobi’s recording of the Iliad or Ian McKellen’s of the Odyssey, will acknowledge that they convey the compelling power of the Greek. Yet the Homer of nature is also all art. His metre is intricate and tight, very unlike the loose patterns of the ‘guslars’, the extemporising oral bards of Yugoslavia who became a point of comparison for Homer’s technique in the 1930s. His verbal expression is meticulously formed; although Fagles systematically tried to capture Homer’s emotional directness through English conventions of breaking off, ellipses and verbless sentences, Homer’s language is always regular and his syntax always formally complete. It is because Homer embodies both these polarities at once that he has commanded the often stupefied admiration of poets and translators since.

In turning to Virgil, Fagles has confronted the formal art head-on, for no readers can fail to register the formalism of Virgil’s rhetoric and the involved craftedness of his style. In response, Fagles has produced a version that is markedly more formal than his Homer, with fewer ellipses or minor sentences, and with more subordinate clauses reproduced. The risk with registering this dimension of Virgil is that readers will not get beyond the first impression and will take his poetry to be frigid: it requires familiarity and momentum to see that the medium is not a carapace, and that Virgil, too, has a high share of ‘nature’. Here Fagles cashes in on his long years in the Homeric workshop, for his developed verse has the energy and the sympathy to convey the terrific pace Virgil can develop in extended narrative, or to capture the eery moments of horror or shock, as in the Underworld in Book 6 or the satanic progress of the Fury Allecto in Book 7. The result is strikingly successful, even more so than with Homer, in my view, since a translator-poet with a commitment to the elemental has accommodated himself to a poet who works his effects through traditions of high formalism.

Fagles’s powerful and moving translation will allow modern Latin-less readers to find their own Virgil, for poems like the Aeneid never rest. The mobility of it came home to me as I was reading Fagles’s Aeneid for this review, when I saw a fine production of Brian Friel’s play Translations at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. The Royal Engineers arrive in County Donegal in 1833 to map the country and to rename its places in the process. The setting is a hedge school, whose master, Hugh O’Donnell, has spent his life teaching Latin and Greek to his Irish-speaking pupils. O’Donnell begins by saying he can see the point of modernising and moving with the times, but the disasters at the end of the play bring him back to the beginning of the Aeneid. The play closes with him reciting, and then reciting again, the lines that open the narrative of Book 1, where Virgil introduces Carthage as the favourite city of Juno. She fears its eventual destruction by the Romans, descendants of Aeneas, ‘an arrogant people ruling far and wide,/proud in battle, destined to plunder Libya’ (Fagles’s translation). We see that O’Donnell has always casually identified with the Romans when he has read this poem, but now he is having to learn to read it while identifying with the Carthaginians.

[*] Fagles mentions me in his acknowledgments, with characteristic over-generosity; I read his final draft and made a small number of suggestions.