From The Aeneid of Virgil (circa 29-19 BC)
Arms, and the Man I sing, who, forc’d by Fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting Hate;
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan Shoar:
Long Labours, both by Sea and Land he bore;
And in the doubtful War; before he won
The Latian Realm, and built the destin’d Town:
His banish’d Gods restor’d to Rites Divine,
And setl’d sure Succession in his Line:
From whence the Race of Alban Fathers come,
And the long Glories of Majestick Rome.
O Muse! The Causes and the Crimes relate,
What Goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate:
For what Offence the Queen of Heav’n began
To persecute so brave, so just a Man!
Involv’d his anxious Life in endless Cares,
Expos’d to Wants, and hurry’d into Wars!
Can Heav’nly Minds such high resentment show;
Or exercise their Spight in Human Woe?
On this sixth day of my poetry project, I’ve decided to visit Virgil’s Aeneid, which takes as its source Homer’s Greek epics. Book XX of the Illiad tells of a battle between Aeneas and Achilles, during which readers (or listeners) learn about Aeneas’s lineage: this inspires Virgil to write a history wherein Rome is essentially descended from Troy (Aeneas flees Troy after the Trojan War to found a new city).
The Romans were quite adept at borrowing from the Greeks (not just stories, of course, but politics, art, science, military strategies, etc.). Later societies, including perhaps most famously and effectively (though the current climate might speak to the contrary) the United States, then borrowed from Rome. Indeed, there’s an excellent book by John C. Shields called The American Aeneas which puts Aeneas, rather than Adam, at the heart of American foundational cultural theory. Virgil was the most celebrated Roman poet of his age, and for many ages afterward. It took him eleven years to write The Aeneid, but even after all that time and effort, and just before his death, Virgil wanted his manuscripts burned because he felt the story was incomplete. Fortunately, Emperor Augustus (Octavian), published the work anyway.
The passage I’ve chosen to consider is the first stanza of the poem, as translated by John Dryden (1631-1700). Dryden’s translation is generally out of fashion these days, but I still find it to be one of the more beautiful versions. The stanza itself should read quite similarly to the first stanza in Homer’s Illiad. Just as in the original Greek version, this Roman stanza introduces us to the plot, setting, and major conflict, as well as some of the characters, human and godlike. Virgil intentionally paralleled Homer’s introduction and techniques because he was both paying homage to the master as well as writing a new Roman story for his Roman audience — by telling a Roman tale in a style they would be familiar with, there was a greater chance that the population would understand, accept and essentially assimilate it as their own. The English would eventually do something similar, centuries later, and the Americans likewise followed suit centuries after that.
One interesting difference in this first stanza is it alludes to the two Homeric epics, Illiad and Odyssey, in the verse “warfare and a man.” That is, there is something of the journey to come (recalling Odysseus) as well as a great battle (the Trojan War). Virgil reverses the tale, however, first giving us Aeneas’s odyssey and then following it with the war to establish Rome.
We learn, too, that Virgil will face off against nature and the gods, just as Homer’s heroes did. In addition, we have a first-person voice singing introduction to Aeneas story, followed 10 lines later by a call to the Muse to tell the singer why the goddess was angry and hateful, intent on punishing Aeneas. This is a striking difference from Homer’s version, where the Muse is evoked in apostrophe in the very first verse and asked to relate the whole tale. Here, the muse is encouraged only to fill in the blanks, as it were, clueing-in the audience to the whims of the gods; in other words, the information to which we couldn’t possibly be privy.
Contemporary critics tend to agree that Homer was the better poet, and the Illiad and Odyssey the better tales; still, I respond quite well to Virgil’s Aeneid and especially this Dryden translation. There are some problems in his choices, the use of “heavenly,” for example, is far too Christian for this ancient Roman tale; but of course he was writing to a Christian audience, much like Virgil himself was adapting a Greek story for Romans. That divine justice is being questioned (“For what Offence the Queen of Heav’n began / To persecute so brave, so just a Man!”) is fascinating, particularly as this translation would be read by devout monotheists who would be soundly discouraged from questioning the will of god; did Dryden consider this purposefully when introducing certain Christian phrasing, as Chaucer and the Medievalists often did?