The founding of Rome and the maturation of a hero who has greatness thrust upon him are the subjects of Virgil’s first-century (b.c.) epic, newly available in Princeton scholar Fagles’s energetic verse translation.
It succeeds Fagles’s critically acclaimed and very popular English-language renderings of Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey, the touchstones that preceded and inspired Virgil (the Latin poet’s hero Aeneas in fact makes a brief appearance in the Iliad). In 12 Books containing nearly 10,000 lines of unrhymed verse hexameters (i.e., six stresses per line), Virgil tells of the endangered voyages of Aeneas’s fleet of ships following the devastation of the Trojan War; his dalliance with Queen Dido of Carthage, and the abandonment of her that adds the scorned monarch’s lethal rage to that of (Aeneas’s nemesis) the offended goddess Juno; the hero’s journey to the underworld and reunion with the ghost of his father Anchises (one of classical literature’s imperishable scenes); and a litany of the deeds and sufferings of noble Romans that expands into a prophetic vision of a glorious future. Veteran scholar Bernard Knox’s replete introduction brilliantly summarizes the poem’s provenance, meanings and influence. And a “Translator’s Postscript” both emphasizes and illustrates “[Virgil’s] unequaled blend of grandeur and accessibility . . . of eloquence and action, heroics and humanity.” Fagles varies the hexameter pattern ingeniously, condensing to five stresses, or expanding to seven, depending on the desired rhetorical or emotional effect (e.g., “the dank night is sweeping down from the sky / and the setting stars incline our heads to sleep”)—and demonstrates his talents smashingly in scenes set in “The Kingdom of the Dead” (where, amid sulphurous sound and fury, we hear “. . . a crescendo of wailing, / ghosts of infants weeping, robbed of their share / of this sweet life, at its very threshold too”).
Homer’s deserved primacy makes us often forget that Virgil is in many ways his equal. Fagles’s triumphant new achievement makes us remember it.