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The best books on Virgil

recommended by Sarah Ruden

Aeneid (Sarah Ruden translation) by Vergil and Sarah Ruden (translator)

Aeneid (Sarah Ruden translation)
by Vergil and Sarah Ruden (translator)

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Virgil is one of the most influential poets in the history of Western literature. Here, another poet, Sarah Ruden, talks about the challenges of translating the Aeneid and why, although we know little about Virgil as a man, his great poem’s take on the violence and power struggles it depicts is deeply ambivalent.

Interview by Benedict King

Aeneid (Sarah Ruden translation) by Vergil and Sarah Ruden (translator)

Aeneid (Sarah Ruden translation)
by Vergil and Sarah Ruden (translator)

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Before we get started on the books, can you just tell us very, very quickly, who Virgil was and on what his reputation rests?

Virgil was probably the greatest Roman writer. He was a poet of the late first century BCE, and he’s known for his three great works, the Eclogues, the Georgics and the Aeneid. They were all written under the sponsorship of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, who came to power in 31 CE, after defeating the last of his opponents in the civil wars. From then on, Rome was effectively an autocracy. Augustus assembled a very impressive group of writers: Gallus, Propertius, and Tibullus were elegiac poets. There were prose writers, the greatest by far being Livy. There was Horace, who worked across several poetic genres and was probably the most gifted and brilliant of them all, though his currency is quite a bit less nowadays.

The height of Virgil’s career was his composition of the epic that mythologises the Roman Empire and the Roman state, the Aeneid. It’s about the adventures of a refugee from the fall of Troy called Aeneas, someone from whom Augustus himself claimed descent. Aeneas himself is of divine descent, the son of Venus, so the Julian dynasty—Augustus was the adoptive son of Julius Caesar—claimed descent from this divine stock. It was important for imperial propaganda that this claim of divinity be sustained and continued.

Your own translation of the Aeneid uses exactly the same number of lines as Virgil, in spite of using a metre that is one foot shorter than the Latin and the challenges of translating anything absolutely directly. What rules did you set yourself to do that?

A translator is always working with pretty loose equivalences in language forms. What I had to do here was come out right every three or four lines, ensuring the same cumulative number of lines in English and Latin. Sometimes I could adjust over as much as, say, seven lines, and perhaps I might still have some overflow—but it had to work out so that at least the boundaries of scenes and speeches held. It was almost like a collection of mathematical formulae.

Did you find that using that constraint gave you any advantages or focus to your translation?

It absolutely did. I’ve been a poet in traditional forms since my teens—I just always preferred them. But this process of translating the Aeneid reassured me that there’s something about traditional forms, or about the discipline of working in them, that focuses the mind with respect to content as well as form. It makes you work harder. It may be that simple.

My final question before we get into the Virgil books you’re recommending—and I hope you don’t mind me asking this. As a Quaker and a pacifist, what is it that appeals to you about this tale of political and religious violence?

The beauty of the language, of course. But I came to this project kind of reluctantly. It was a way to stay in translating. It’s an important book and the publishing company really wanted their own English version of it.

The thing that appeals to me about Virgil in his portrayal of violence is his grief, and his ambivalence. There is in him a certain embrace of his place in history—that’s what makes him more than a propagandist, much more than an Augustan lackey. He himself had lived through the civil wars. His family farm may have been confiscated and given to a war veteran, or several war veterans. He is somebody who knew the agony of civil war at least in part. There had been roughly 100 years of civil war before Augustus came to sole power. So, for most Romans, it was convincing that this route—Augustus’s imperial rule—led beyond uncontrolled violence. There was a widespread view that the Romans couldn’t handle republican politics anymore and that they’d been slaughtering each other for too long.

But Virgil isn’t a gung-ho, flag-waving authoritarian by any means. Throughout the Aeneid there are very ambivalent and sorrowful depictions of state violence. Virgil thought very seriously about a range of bad choices for dealing with human differences.

Let’s move on to the books. First up are the Iliad and the Odyssey.  You’re recommending Emily Wilson’s translations, although her Iliad is not out yet. Why do you have to know Homer if you want to understand the Aeneid?

Homer was prototypical literature, and in a sense the holy book of ancient Greece. It laid out much of the fundamental mythology; and for a certain period it was even performed on state occasions. It was the ultimate classic for the ancient world, so I think Homer was a natural choice as a model for Virgil.  There was also the connection to Aeneas. The myth already existed that Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan War, traveled as a refugee to the West and had adventures, much like Odysseus does in the Odyssey.

“Virgil thought very seriously about a range of bad choices for dealing with human differences”

In Virgil, Aeneas is thus ‘coming home’ to a new land, to Italy. Odysseus comes to his original home in Ithaca. In the Aeneid, Virgil performs a neat structural trick: he turns Homer around. The war book, the Iliad, which depicts one segment of the Trojan War, is the model for the second part of the Aeneid: the Trojans come to Italy and they have to fight for a foothold in that country. The Odyssey, showing the hero’s wanderings in the Mediterranean, is the model for the first part of the Aeneid, and includes many of the same places where Odysseus finds himself in his wanderings.

Did Virgil think he was creating a book of quasi-religious importance, that would fulfil for Romans the role Homer occupied for the Greeks?

We know almost nothing about what was in Virgil’s head. He was the most uncommunicative of the leading Roman authors of the Augustan, early imperial era. There is, I think, a relationship between his greatness and his impersonality. That seems to be the case with Shakespeare, too. This is somebody who was wholly about his work. He almost erased himself.

We can look at his attitude only side-on. There was propaganda being put out long before the Aeneid appeared. Augustus’s circle was eagerly manufacturing buzz that this poem was going to be even greater than Homer. You have Virgil, silent in the middle of this, just working away.

The political ambition was there, at least, even if Virgil never commented. But Maecenas and Augustus were hoping he was going to produce something to rival Homer?

Apparently, but we shouldn’t read into this too much of our own ideas about propaganda. In the mid-20th century, after the great confrontation with authoritarianism, an interpretation arose that, in its extreme version says that Virgil was almost a slave, that he was forced to propagandize for Augustus, but that he was covertly resistant to blowing the emperor’s horn. This is highly anachronistic.

Let’s go on to your second book, which is Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Virgil’s greatest work, the Aeneid. Why, in particular, have you chosen this tranlsation?

It’s beautiful and poetic. Fitzgerald was a poet by calling. And I find this the most beautiful and high-flown of the mid-century American translations.

After the Second World War came the GI Bill, which funded university education for people who never could have dreamed of it before; these were the GIs returning from the war. They were now flooding into state and public and private universities by the tens of thousands. What to teach them? It certainly couldn’t be Classics on the British model, because none of these people had any Latin or Greek. Hence many translations were published, the American version of Penguin Classics.

I really like Fitzgerald on aesthetic grounds. In our culture poetry is so often lost. Ancient poetry is sometimes even presented in prose—the Penguin Aeneid is in prose. This is a travesty because, for the ancients, poetry was the primary mode of expression. You get prose developing only quite gradually, and its status is lower, with many works falling into a category modern scholars call “sub-literary.”

Fitzgerald sings. He’s simple, noble and rapid. Those are the characteristics that Matthew Arnold praised as essential in his essay on translating Homer. Of course, he’s speaking of his time, as everybody does, but I think he nailed it. I believe Fitzgerald, as an English translation, nailed it, too.

You mentioned that it was a great shame that modern reception is preoccupied with non-poetic matters. Are there particular things that particularly stick in your craw when it comes to current reception of Virgil?

As much as authoritarianism is on our minds, and on our TV screens, and is a tremendously important issue right now, we are missing the point as this big debate goes on and on: was Virgil a propagandist or was he an independent, self-respecting writer? I would say that he was absolutely neither. He was a poet. He played an important role in promoting the Augustan political program but he had a much longer, much more general life in the world’s culture, because his words transcend anything Augustus set out to do with him.

Compare the American presidential inaugural poet we saw back in January, a very lovely young person of colour in a stunning headdress. Nobody I know has in mind even a single word of the poem that she recited. The recital wasn’t broadcast in any version of the inauguration that I saw. Nobody paid any attention to it. This was apparently the best that that the ceremony’s organisers could do for her; at one of the Obama inaugurations, the crowd turned like a tide, almost ran, the moment poetry recitation was announced—I remember laughing out loud at the footage. The organisers tried to promote Obama’s inaugural poem, but it was awful, a vague hymn to the future like an investment company’s ad; I was one of the people who panned it in a review.

“We know almost nothing about what was in Virgil’s head”

This time, the public wasn’t even going to be allowed to judge the new regime’s efforts at literary inspiration: we would just be shown an image to which no decent person could object, a beautiful young person of color taking the stage to speak on behalf of another old white guy who’d been chosen to lead the country. A week later, she was rewarded with a modeling contract.

In the ancient world, the poet was both a professional, an absolute master of the forms of the craft, and someone inspired by the divine breath, uttering words of sublime beauty at the behest of the gods. It had nothing fundamental to do with politics. It was a given that you were going to be speaking for your nation; that was unavoidable. But you were first and foremost a poet. Augustus, though he presided over a stable of mostly docile poets, did not get control of poetry by any means. Distinctly independent poets kept popping up in succeeding generations, poets like Lucan and Persius; they could do this because the status of poetry was undiminished.

The next of the books you’re recommending about Virgil is Ursula Le Guin’ s Lavinia. This is a novel, isn’t it?  Lavinia is Aeneas’s second wife, I think.

One wife is left behind in Troy. She is done away with in some unspoken fashion. Aeneas has his dad on his shoulders and his little boy by the hand. His wife is following some steps behind, and she gets lost. The gods mean this to happen because he needs to marry an Italian princess at the end of his wanderings. This is Lavinia, and she is utterly silent. She appears in a very few lines of the Aeneid, though she’s often spoken of because she’s the prize: she’s already promised to an Italian prince, Turnus, Aeneas’s main opponent. In one scene she’s standing there passively and catches fire, to show a divine portent: she’s going to be the mother of Rome. She just stands there burning, unharmed, during a sacrifice in her father’s palace.

Her other appearance is in a very creepy set of lines. The war is raging away and her father, mother, and Turnus are in a terrible policy struggle. Turnus wants to keep fighting, her father wants to give up, and her mother has been egging Turnus on. A dramatic confrontation is happening in front of this poor young girl, and she bursts out sobbing and goes red in the face.

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Turnus is gazing at her. In Homer there’s a simile about a wound: there’s blood running down Menelaus’s thigh and it’s like ‘dyed ivory’. His wound becomes a thing of beauty. That simile is echoed in the Aeneid with reference to Lavinia’s blushing, while Turnus looks at the helpless, hysterical young girl. It’s the most erotic thing that he’s ever seen in his life. It gives him a violent urge to go and fight. Off he runs with words of defiance, to prepare for battle—the climactic battle, as it happens. His erotic impulse and his impulse to fight are inseparable.

The science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin gives Lavinia a voice. She talks about all kinds of things, including how this situation came to be. Virgil notes that Lavinia is both the only surviving child and a girl; clearly, this is a dynastic problem that, given a foreign incursion, becomes a military one. The original narrative provides Le Guin with plenty of room for a feminist interpretation. She explores what it’s like for a princess to lose her brother and to be blamed for it, to be carrying the entire burden of the succession, not only for the sake of the family’s future, but for the whole nation’s.

Do we get the story of Aeneas and Lavinia after the death of Turnus, as a bickering married couple or anything like that?

They’re actually depicted as quite a happy couple. She turns out to love Aeneas and to be a good wife and mother. She insists on her voice being heard but, for me, that voice sounds fairly conventional. She doesn’t have an easy time later in life. As the ancient legend continues, Aeneas is killed in a later battle, and Le Guin doesn’t depart from that. Lavinia has got plenty to complain about, but she comes across as not even inwardly very rebellious.

Does Le Guin’s book give us a particular take on the immediate story, as a poem or as a drama?

Well, there’s a pretty strong protest registered against the repression of women’s voices. That’s indisputable. But the theme seems to be ‘What are you all afraid of, in keeping women silent? Women can’t make anything different than it’s fated to be.’ It’s a far cry from the claim that women will transform the world once they get the chance.

Next up are the Eclogues and the Georgics. These are the other books by Virgil that are less well known. Can you tell us quickly what they are and why he wrote them? You mentioned earlier that these were ‘commissioned’ by Augustus or Maecenas just like the Aeneid, but what are they about?

The Eclogues are a collection of 10 pastoral poems, and they derive from bucolic Greek literature—“bucolic” is essentially Greek for “pastoral.” Virgil sourced his models from a fashionable domain of literature, that of Alexandrian Egypt, that is, the Egypt that had been ruled by Greeks since its conquest by Alexander the Great. A famous library was there, and the ruling dynasty cultivated very learned people who wrote rather precious, manneristic literature, which elite Roman youth took up during the late Republic. Virgil’s main model for the Eclogues was the Idylls of the Alexandrian poet Theocritus. These are mainly scenes of rural life, with herdsmen piping in the shade and love affairs between herdsmen and young boys and girls who are conveniently hanging around. It’s all very artificial, an urban version of the pastoral life.

Virgil adopts this mode, but he’s earthier than Theocritus. It’s a weird combination overall. On the one hand, you have exquisite Alexandrian poetry as a source. You almost get the sense that an author who was a creature of the Alexandrian metropolis had never seen a living sheep or goat, except moments before its sacrifice in a temple. But Virgil did have a rural background. He wasn’t a peasant; his family had enough money to educate him; but he knew the practicalities of keeping sheep and goats. He evidently couldn’t maintain a light touch in his depictions, no matter how derivative these were of shepherd personae as romantic poseurs and touchy aesthetes. (The actual persons in the ancient world were, as a rule, hardworking slaves.)

“He is somebody who knew the agony of civil war”

This heightened, hardened element in the Eclogues is best seen in the blatant intrusion of practical elements. Herding is, after all, not a fantasy but a business—like the business of literature itself, just an activity requiring luck, sacrifice, and negotiation, and at best winning support and lasting a while. As the first Eclogue opens, one herdsman’s been thrown off his land and is leading his flock away, with no prospect of a refuge, and nursing a ewe who has just miscarried.

He meets a carelessly piping herdsman whose livelihood is saved because the divine Augustus let him keep it. Readers from early on assumed that Virgil had sealed the deal for imperial patronage and was allowed to keep his family’s estate, though land all around it had been confiscated to pay off soldiers from  Augustus’s victorious forces. Throughout the Eclogues, there are pastoral stand-ins for friends and patrons and fellow protégés—it’s often impossible to tell the exact difference—in Augustus’s circle; the poet Gallus, under his own name, gets a long depiction as a rural tragic lover. In Alexandria, literary sucking up resulted in sickly confections, because this was in essence court poetry; but Romans enjoyed relative equality and were all political animals, who had had participatory government for hundreds of years. Political alliances were just life. Even the Eclogues, the most artificial of Virgil’s three major works, have this hard core.

And the Georgics are specifically about farming, aren’t they? Are they a kind of farmer’s manual? Why did Virgil write this book?

They are only thematically about farming. The rough model is Hesiod, a Greek poet who wrote around 700 BCE. Hesiod writes about farming, and probably was a farmer, and only a part-time poet. He has a lot of practical, hard-nosed things to say about scratching a living out of the land, in a district he frankly calls a dump. Also in the background was a disquisition on agriculture by the great Roman statesman Cato the Elder, a work from the mid-second century BCE.

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We have no reason to believe that Virgil was ever a professional farmer—as in getting his hands dirty or having to worry how the crops did; he made an excellent living from patronage and was able to spend many years away from home. The Georgics had other purposes; they open with a dedication to Maecenas, who was Augustus’s cultural director, and end with a fabulously beautiful version of the story of Orpheus and Euridice, depicting a poet who is so confident in his art that he thinks he can conquer death. He goes down and he fetches his beloved from the underworld after she has died—not that this works out very well. But the very account of his grief is an unexampled triumph of art: Orpheus does succeed, because his story is immortal when a genius like Virgil takes it up. The Georgics see Virgil starting to transcend everything: his Greek and Roman models, and patronage, and everything else.

And what is the political dimension to it? Is the farmer the ideal Roman citizen?

Roman history, in its ups and downs, depended a lot on the fate of farmers. Romans imagined themselves as hardy independent farmers, who would go off to fight Rome’s wars and then come back and farm again. In fact, the Roman state was hollowed out by the decay of farming. As Roman wealth and power grew, there came to be giant estates owned by the super-rich and worked by slaves. As the small farmers lost their land, they migrated to Rome and became a rootless mob. They were available, along with provincials, as full-time professional soldiers, but such people had much less allegiance to the Republic, and much more to the general who would pay them off with loot and confiscated land—such as, reportedly, Virgil’s farm until Augustus gave it back. The Roman Republic would not have fallen, or the Empire arisen, without the loss of the family farm. Comparisons between the US and Rome are reflexive, but only because the parallels are so persuasive: the US wouldn’t be threatened with the loss of its democracy now if the heartland weren’t hollowed out by mammoth agribusinesses.

So, this idea of the independent farmer was the foundation of Roman liberty, basically.

Right. Augustus wanted a phony depiction of Rome as it had been—peopled by hardworking, independent-minded, hardy sons of the soil. That was the remote past, and he was in power because of a very different dispensation obtained. But certainly in Roman folklore and mythology, farming continued to be very important.

Let’s move on to your final book choice, which is Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil. This is a novel published in 1945. Why have you chosen it?

It’s a novel by a man who was a refugee from the Nazis. He was born Jewish and, although he converted, he was of course persecuted. He ended up in the US and had some sponsorship from famous American writers. This is his most famous work. He sees the death of Virgil very much in terms of modern autocracy and totalitarianism. He depicts Virgil almost as a Christ figure who wants his Aeneid destroyed because this is to be his pledge for a freer world. The book is also heavily weighted toward Christianity; his Virgil imagines an anti-Augustus figure rising: not a figure of violence, but a figure of love. Virgil wants the Aeneid destroyed so that this tool of power will not fall into Augustus’ hands.

Virgil is thus depicted as a covert rebel against power, represented in the person of Augustus, who pressures and manipulates Virgil to let him have the poem. Historically it’s total nonsense, but it’s a beautiful book.

Why did Virgil actually want to burn the Aeneid?

We have the story from a biographical tradition, but almost none of the stories are very reliable. There was a contemporary of Virgil, a friend of his, who acted as his literary executor and produced a proto-biography of him, but that hasn’t survived. We have only biographies that are quite a bit later, some of them hundreds of years later. Factually, they’re all over the place, sometimes appearing to draw on the text of the literary works to fabricate biographical claims—which is typical of literary biographers in the ancient world. This means I need to be very careful in assigning motives to Virgil—by the way, I’m now a biographer of his myself (having just signed a contract for the project)! I love the poetry and know all about it, so I could fall into the same trap of presumption and quasi-intuitive leaps in the wrong direction.

So, there there’s no particularly strong evidence the Virgil did want to have his book, the Aeneid, destroyed?

It’s not particularly strong evidence, no. But the claim is basically plausible—or, I would say, it would seem a fair inference from the most plausible evidence, including the text itself. Here’s the best we know and can surmise. Virgil wrote the Aeneid very slowly; he was pushing against the limits of his perfectionism. He left a number of lines unfinished—that’s a fact.

And it’s a funny work altogether; it’s verbally gorgeous, but it’s melodramatic and stilted and there are many ‘deus ex machina’ plot turns—real garbage. Again and again, Aeneas is perplexed and troubled and tossing in his bed, and then a god comes down and solves it all. It’s a woeful thing for a translator to deal with, because the plot’s just there. You can’t change that.

The great appeal is in the Latin. You just have to try to yank as much of that beauty into English as possible. It’s, of course, pretty much impossible. You can’t show people why this poem is so important. You have so many flittering, prancing deities and a stuffed shirt of a hero. That’s mandatory; but the loveliness of the Latin is out of your reach; you can’t bring it to people who don’t read Latin.

Perhaps, then, this gap between the clunkiness and crudeness of the story’s contents and the language that reaches helplessly toward perfection offers the best means of understanding how Virgil felt at the end of his life. If I may compare petty things with great ones: I know a little of what literary patronage is like, because my own writing career was saved by it. I won a Guggenheim Fellowship for 2010, right after the financial crisis. When the foundation’s investments were running low, the directors sent a plea across Manhattan to the financial district, and some of the people blamed for the crisis chipped in, so that I could receive the entire requested amount—more money than I’d ever seen, and enough to let me think, for the first time in my life, only about putting together something as near perfect as I could, in this case a translation of Aescylus’s important but very difficult Oresteia tragedies. Did I think for a moment of turning the money down? Did I feel anything but gratitude that somebody came to my rescue as I ate my heart out, unable on my own to produce something really fine?

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If you don’t believe me, read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Was she going to turn down the inheritance that had no doubt been amassed through the iniquities of the British Empire, to which we know she objected as a woman, as a citizen, as a sensitive, conscientious person? No, she took the money with relief and set about the full-time work of making things of unprecedented beauty, of course expressing through them all the moral ambivalence she felt about her own luck in escaping into such a privileged place as allowed her to make them, but concentrating just on making them—because she was deeply convinced that if she didn’t make them, her time on earth would be wasted.

That’s what Virgil must have done in accepting patronage; and that’s why he wanted to burn his unfinished Aeneid, if the story of his deathbed request is true. He was on earth to do one thing, create beauty, and he hadn’t had time to finish his masterpiece.

Interview by Benedict King

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Sarah Ruden

Sarah Ruden

Sarah Ruden is a Quaker author and translator, whose most recent books are her revised and expanded English Aeneid and a new English version of the Gospels. Her journalism concentrates on literature, religion, and human rights, and she is also an award-winning poet. She has won Guggenheim, Whiting, and Silvers awards for her books.

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Sarah Ruden

Sarah Ruden

Sarah Ruden is a Quaker author and translator, whose most recent books are her revised and expanded English Aeneid and a new English version of the Gospels. Her journalism concentrates on literature, religion, and human rights, and she is also an award-winning poet. She has won Guggenheim, Whiting, and Silvers awards for her books.