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From the December, 2007
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World of Tears by Franklin Freeman

World of Tears

Virgil: The Aeneid
translated by Robert Fagles, introduction by Bernard Knox
Viking, 2006
(486 pages, $40.00, hardcover)

reviewed by Franklin Freeman

In Homer’s world, wrote C. S. Lewis in A Preface to Paradise Lost, quoted by both Bernard Knox in his introduction and Robert Fagles in his postscript, “you were unhappy, or you were happy, and that was all. Aeneas lives in a different world; he is compelled to see something more important than happiness.”

The something more is a vocation. As Lewis wrote, “To follow the vocation does not mean happiness: but once it has been heard, there is no happiness for those who do not follow.” Or as Fagles, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton University, who has also translated Homer, Sophocles, and other classic authors, comments, “His [Aeneas’s] destiny, like his character, remains double-edged, a ‘yoking by violence together’ of opposing tugs, of profit and loss, of gain and bitter grief.”

The Aeneid continues the story of the Trojan War, but instead of telling the Grecian story of Ulysses trying to return home, as Homer did in The Odyssey, it tells the story of the Trojan Aeneas’s return, with his countrymen, to his ancestral homeland of Italy.

“I am pious Aeneas,” Aeneas says in the first book. This includes not only religious piety, writes Knox, director emeritus of the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies, because “the words pius and pietas have in Latin a wider meaning . . . something like ‘dutiful,’ ‘mindful of one’s duty’—not only to the gods but also to one’s family and to one’s country.” Aeneas’s double-edged “something more” is the vocation to found Rome.

Driven by Duty

In the course of fulfilling his duty, Aeneas goes through many ordeals and obstacles: wars, storms at sea, descent into the underworld, desertions of the womenfolk, who burn a large portion of his fleet, and most dangerous of all, falling in love with Dido, the Queen of Carthage.

For many, Book IV, which describes this affair and Aeneas’s leaving of Dido when reminded by the gods of his duty, is the most moving part of the poem. Aeneas tells Dido that he leaves her “all against my will,” but she swears he will pay for his betrayal of her, and as he sails away, she immolates herself on a funeral pyre heaped with his gifts to her.

There is a moving passage describing Aeneas after Dido storms away from him for the last time:

But Aeneas
is driven by duty now. Strongly as he longs
to ease and allay her sorrow, speak to her,
turn away her anguish with reassurance, still,
moaning deeply, heart shattered by his great love,
in spite of all he obeys the gods’ commands
and back he goes to his ships.

Aeneas obeys the gods and fulfills his vocation, though, as Fagles points out, the note or feeling at the poem’s end is one of unfinished business. It ends as suddenly as it began, with Aeneas killing his opponent, Turnus, and thus winning the war that entitles his nation to be founded in Italy. It ends on a note of bloodshed, not construction:

In the same breath, blazing with wrath he plants
his iron sword hilt-deep in his enemy’s heart.
Turnus’ limbs went limp in the chill of death.
His life breath fled with a groan of outrage
down to the shades below.

Virgil’s poem is in two voices, Fagles writes, “echoing an opposition between action and reflection, patriotism and personal assertion, public exultation and wrenching private sorrow,” that is, between his calling to found Rome and his desire to stay with the woman he loves and rest from warfare. It is an opposition with which we can identify.

A Note of Sadness

But there is a deeper truth here, which Dante, who memorized The Aeneid, exalted in his Divine Comedy: a sense of spiritual exile and frustrated justice. Or as Lewis put it, in the two lines from Book V, “Twixt miserable longing for the present land/ And the far realms that call them by the fates’ command,” Virgil “has described once and for all the very quality of most human life as it is experienced by any one who has not yet risen to holiness or sunk to animality.”

The poem’s “ocean-roll of rhythm,” Fagles writes, reminds us of what Matthew Arnold called “the eternal note of sadness.” It is “a note we cannot, should not avoid. For Virgil’s world of tears, like that of Keats, may become a ‘vale of soul-making’ after all, a place to restore ourselves and our societies to wholeness, health, and peace.”

A word about the translation itself. Though I’m no classicist, my impression is that Robert Fitzgerald’s popular translation is truer to the words, Fagles’s to the lines of Virgil. Fagles very occasionally falls flat in diction, but his translation has stronger narrative momentum than Fitzgerald’s, and you keep reading because he doesn’t let you stop.


Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.

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