Strange to confess, but this is the first time I’ve read the entire poem cover to cover (in English, quickly – several decades ago I’d read it all in Latin over a number of weeks). It came out other than how I’d expected: firstly, more straightforward and easier to get my head round and understand, and secondly, clearly less good than Homer [as I’d always felt, but I’d hoped/feared that this Virgilian drenching might tip things the other way]. In addition, reading through quickly (six books a day for two days) provides a momentum which carries you through the knots, the bits where Virgil seems to be showing Aeneas in a bad light and the victims of Rome’s mission seem to be the true recipients of the poet’s sympathies. That doesn’t go away, it’s all still there, but somehow Aeneas’ mission stops you getting too concerned, and its strength has sufficient force to breathe vigour and interest into Aeneas’ character: he’s far less of a woolly priest than I’d remembered him. Part of the problem I think is teaching just books 2, 4, and 6 (with occasional bits of 1 and 12) – the focus is on the losses of Troy, Dido and Marcellus, and not Aeneas’ determination to do the right thing and win through. At the climax of Book 12 we feel a great sense of Aeneas’ success – he’s done it! – but also the preceding books have sufficiently Romanised our sensibilities to share Aeneas’ anger in killing Turnus for his slaying of Pallas.
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“It came out other than how I’d expected: firstly, more straightforward and easier to get my head round and understand, and secondly, clearly less good than Homer [as I’d always felt, but I’d hoped/feared that this Virgilian drenching might tip things the other way].”
Tosh! Your error was not persevering with the Latin! When doing this, you pick up on nuances that just boggle the mind they’re so intricately clever. Completely lost in the English. Not only is it brilliant on this level but also the book is packed with clever allusions, from the very first line ‘arma virumque cano…’ (in his first three words saying he can do in one book what Homer did in two)* to subtle but genius ‘corrections’ of Homer’s epics in his paralleled events. I know originality will always have a golden standard from the very fact it came first but Vergil is so unbelievably clever and sophisticated in his writing that it’s hard not to see him as a god of literature whose poetic expression and brilliance flows effortlessly.
Take this post with a pinch of salt– I know it’s all a matter of taste really!
Out of interest, did you have the impression the final book felt as if it had a rushed ending? Given Vergil’s premature demise and all?
* I found an absolutely excellent piece of analysis online, in case of interest:
“Virgil’s epic constitutes a watershed in Latin literary history. The Aeneid subsumes the entire previous tradition of Greek and Latin literature. Conversely, as a text that acquired quasi-canonical status while still in the making and became an instant classic upon its posthumous publication, it exercised a profound influence on all contemporary and subsequent poets. Most obviously, Virgil’s epic is a rewriting, in Latin, of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Virgil ‘footnotes’ both Homeric epics in his opening phrase Arma uirumque cano. Arma (‘arms’) recalls the battlefields of the Iliad, whereas uirum (‘man’, in the accusative) ‘translates’ the first word of the Odyssey, i.e. Ἄνδρα/ Andra (‘man’, also in the accusative)—though Arma also picks up Andra via assonance, whereas the entire phrase arma uirumque cano (‘of arms and the man I sing’) metrically mirrors the opening imperative of the Iliad, i.e. Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ (Mênin aeide thea; ‘Of the wrath sing, goddess’). Built into this mirror effect, however, is also a Virgilian assertion of difference, and perhaps even a claim to superiority: Homer calls upon a goddess, a Muse, to sing, thus turning himself into a mouthpiece of the divinity; in contrast, Virgil states that he is doing the singing (cano). The switch from the imperative in Homer to the indicative in Virgil signals a significant difference in the authorial persona adopted by the two poets. ‘Virgil’ is far more ‘present’ in his narrative than ‘Homer’. True, a few lines later he too musters the help of the Muse (1.8: Musa, mihi causas memora…). But even here Virgil foregrounds his own role as poet to a far greater degree than the poet of the Iliad: the Muse is ordered to remind him (mihi) and he tells us.”
“Tosh!” Agreed! The Latin is much better than the English – that’s why I thought it came out other than expected… I can never decide between Homer and Virgil, though a start is “Homer in English, Virgil in the original”. As for the end – problematic for centuries. Perhaps he meant to write another 12 books to the foundation of Alba Longa and Rome, as the prologue implies? Or perhaps the audience were meant to walk out puzzled. Thanks for the comment!