Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by John Dryden, edited by Charles W. Eliot
As volume thirteen of the Harvard classics series, this book, sent to me by a friend of mine, provided me a chance to give a second look to a classic. About two decades ago or so I read the Aeneid and I did not find it to be all that enjoyable as a piece of literature , but I was willing to give the book another chance. And looking back on this book, I am glad I did give it another chance. I think it would have been unjust to the Aeneid as a poem to have viewed it given the prose translation of it that I first read, and given the excellence of this poetry translation, there is a lot more to the story than first met the eye, and a lot more to think about and reflect on that makes this epic far more than merely a pointless and pale imitation of the classic epic poetry of the Greeks, although there are plenty of echoes between the Greek epics ascribed to Homer and the Aeneid, such as an epic voyage full of danger and the attention paid to fighting as well as to the equipage of warriors opposed to each other.
This particular translation of the Aeneid is bracketed by the translator’s own writing. There is a very lengthy introduction of almost 100 pages that allows the translator a chance to show off his classical knowledge and serve as a courtier and a short postscript to the volume that expresses the cost he paid for having spent such a long time translating such a long work as enthusiastically as he did. The rest of the work is divided into twelve smaller books, each of which is summarized and then with some glorious poetry that provides the reader some pointed discussion of Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Italy and the twists and turns that journey took until the Trojan refugees were able to live in peace. Of course, the book itself provides plenty of opportunities for the reader to see some convenient prophecies that show Virgil was no mean courtier himself and that demonstrate some of the issues that the Romans’ myth of their ancestry from the Trojans has concerning various unfinished business in the Mediterranean with the Greeks and Carthaginians. To be sure, there is a lot of anachronistic treatment here, but as epic poetry this work is solid.
In reading this poetry, there were at least a few aspects of the poem that I thought were particularly worthwhile and made this book an obvious choice for classical literature to make young people familiar with. Throughout the poem we see Aeneas as being responsible and focused on fulfilling his destiny of settling in Italy and helping to bring about the settlement of a people destined for rule. The poem allows us to see the suffering and trouble that men must engage in so that they may do their duty, including leaving loved ones behind and facing a high degree of conflict with others. We see a wide variety of women, including the ghost of Aeneas’ wife, who urges him to leave Carthage and sail to Italy, Dido, who kills herself when Aeneas leaves, to Juno, whose hatred of the Trojans leads her to stir up all kinds of trouble for them every step of the way, until the poem ends decisively and abruptly with Aeneas killing the treacherous Turnus, at which point we may see the Trojans as finally being able to live in peace. There is clearly a lot of relevance that this work has for the present day, and many who would find the book and its point of view rather unsettling and unpleasant for the way it prefers duty and responsibility to the pleasures of romantic love.
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