Reading the Aeneid of Virgil, Blow by Blow
I read books 3, 4, 5 and half of book 6 of the Aeneid tonight (so far). Publius Virgilius packs a lot of story in his text. I can best appreciate this work in the light of Homer, the tragedians and Plato; the summation of all story up til his time is simply remarkable. It is is as if Virgil in his epic has set out not simply to tell a story, but to give all Story, the archetype of story-ness, the All-Story. But he is not summing up like Homer; characteristically Roman, Virgil seeks to engulf the memories of stories past. Virgil's Aeneid is a colony poem in more ways than one.
And what about the person, the consciousness of Virgil? I must admit I read Virgil through the more accessibly humane Dante. So much of Dante is clearly enriched by Virgil, that if the character Dante had not kept him at his side the strength of Virgil's poem would have overcome Dante the poet. Keep your literary influences close - this seems to be Dante's approach to Virgil.
Virgil sometimes comes across as a bit of a patchwork man. The story leaps from reference to reference of other men's work - and it works, it flows, but we do not clearly get a sense of the cohent consciousness of a work. At least, not yet. Maybe I ought to read on before I judge the man!
The poetry is fine. I have fiddled with many translations, and chanced on the Fagles-like one by Kline, which is superbly lucid compared to the Dryden (best of the olde translations). Tony Kline's Aeneid is free online, and has the benefit of having the books subdivided into the more precise episodic structure. This means the reader gets to rest without losing the thread, and gets reminders of what the thread was, and the sense of the story stands more clearly out than if we just have books one to twelve. It really helps the read. Also, Kline's version renders words that past generations might have called the 'moral sentiments' into plain emotions, which is a bit more real.
Kline's translation of Aeneid is not fancy, but neither is it pedestrian - the poetry reads simply and roughly into Virgil's luminous verse. Compared with ye olde Englishe translations, with which one needs to stop and mentally retranslate into modern English every dozen lines, Tony Kline's translation is a pleasure to read.
Update: I'm now at book 8, and the patchwork is becoming clearer. It makes better sense how Virgil's exercise in epic poetry is not an end in itself but a means to justify the Roman empire. But I can also see how, by making the poem a means to a political end, Virgil undercuts his personal source of inspiration. One cannot turn such sophisticated and urbane critical and aesthetic faculties onto the legends of the founding of Rome without also uncovering something of a critique of the beautiful lies of armed force. Virgil's falterings really illuminate why the Romans were relatively scarce in creative genius: it is hard work being a good Roman!
Update: Finished. I can see why Virgil didn't finish the poem. love the first half of Aeneid, but the second is like reading Rupert Brooke's war poems for a few thousand lines. Pathos becomes bathos. Lyrical emotion become prim patriotism. By the time Turnus dies it is just dreary, and the rage of Achilles has become the duty of Aeneas. Meh.
Part two Aeneid sucks more than Scylla's whirlpool. I suggest prospective readers read up until the Trojans land in Italy and stop there. For reading pleasure, the first half is superb. Trust me on this one: the Trojans settled Italy just fine.