book cover imageThe Aeneid
by Virgil,
translated by David Ferry.
University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 437 pages, $35.

C. S. Lewis once said of Virgil’s Aeneid that “No man who has once read it with full perception remains an adolescent.”

That was certainly true of my first encounter with the epic at age eighteen. I worked through my teenage years and never attended high school. It was a time of uncertainty. Therecession devastated our city’s economy. The seemingly sturdy community of family and faith that I grew up in had begun to disintegrate. Within five years it would almost vanish completely.

In the midst of this I managed to get my G.E.D. I then found myself at age eighteen in Professor Charlie Schuler’s Latin class at the local community college. Schuler was an atheist, a liberal, and a college professor: three things I had been told to mistrust. But he loved his subject and he made his students love it. Over the course of a semester we read Robert Fagles’s translation of the Aeneid and my soul was hooked. Ironically, I have Schuler to thank for what faith I still have.

I have re-read the Aeneid many times and in many different translations since then. But David Ferry’s new translation from the University of Chicago Press transported me back to what it was like reading it for the first time.

From the first pages of the introduction, Ferry establishes that he gets it, understands what Virgil is trying to accomplish. The “it” of the Aeneid is not proficiency in translation or prose (or not only that), but the message at the heart of the work. T. S. Eliot conceded that Homer was certainly the better poet, and that Rome never lived up to Virgil’s romantic vision, but despite that he argued that the Aeneid still holds a special place in the Western canon because of Virgil’s vision of a world of dignity and order.

In Ferry’s words, the entire poem is about “the accounting of what men have done and what has been done to them and what they must do to mourn.” He points to a scene from Book Eleven, beautifully translated, where after a raging battle both the Trojans and the enemy Latins are burying their dead. The Trojan burials are conducted with lavish rituals and ceremony. The Latin burials are hasty, scattered, and done “without ceremony or honor.” The scene is a great contrast to an earlier one from Book Nine when, in the heat of the same battle, the Latin soldier Numanus taunts the Trojans for their love of ceremony and dance: “You’re not Phrygian men, you’re Phrygian women.”

But the ceremony and the refinement of the Trojans is what makes them admirable. And Ferry’s work captures how integral this is to the story. Unlike the Iliad, the Aeneid is not a story about a single soldier’s wrath. It is a story about how to live. And because it is a story about how to live, the fate of the world hangs in the balance. We are never led to believe in the Odyssey, for instance, that the world will be forever changed if Odysseus never makes it safely home. But in Virgil, history has meaning, and so does how we act in history.

And again, unlike the Odyssey, the story is not primarily about Aeneas, his wrath, or his adventures. Aeneas cannot act according to mere whim; we are instead taken along by his duty. And this allows for a depth and nuance largely lacking in other epics. In the first book we see our hero comforting his shipwrecked comrades:

“Be of good cheer,
Send fear away. Perhaps there will come a time
When you will remember these troubles with a smile.”

This, he says, “though sick at heart; / His face simulates hopefulness and he / Endeavours to suppress his deep distress.”

Later, in his journey through the underworld, he encounters Dido, the love he abandoned at the behest of the gods: “I swear by the stars, and the upper world, / And by whatever here below is holy, / I left your shores unwillingly.” Yet appeals to duty brings little comfort to either the heartbroken or the heartbreaker. Dido rejects Aeneas’s overtures (in “perhaps the most telling snub in all poetry,” according to Eliot) and Aeneas, most importantly, refuses to forgive himself despite the supposed justness of his actions. The outworkings of his own great destiny leave him in tears.

But it is exactly this inner war between desire and duty that makes Aeneas civilized. As C. S. Lewis says:

“I have read that this Aeneas, so guided by dreams and omens, is hardly the shadow of a man beside Homer’s Achilles. But a man, an adult, is precisely what he is: Achilles had been little more than a passionate boy. You may, of course, prefer the poetry of spontaneous passion to the poetry of passion at war with vocation, and finally reconciled. Every man to his taste. But we must not blame the second for not being the first. With Virgil European poetry grows up.”

And grown up we are indeed. Aeneas is a reluctant hero. He knows that when the gods call someone it may mean they will come to have a fulfilling life, but they certainly will not have an easy one. With Virgil we may have hope, but we may not stoop to anything so banal as mere optimism. Ferry captures this well with the passages that refer to empty hopes and dreams. Most memorably in a line describing the arrogant Turnus as one “drinking deep from an empty cup of hope.”

It was this moral view of life that brought solace and encouragement to my eighteen-year-old self. As my own world was crumbling away, I saw an example of how to live well as an exile. I have, thanks largely to Virgil, more or less kept my childhood faith, even if I sometimes find it unsatisfactory. But most importantly I didn’t let my humble beginnings become an excuse. It has been nearly eight years since I first sat in that Latin class. In the time since then I have frequently found myself in rooms full of people who are more educated and more accomplished than I. I often feel like an imposter. But through it all I’ve had Virgil as a guide. And I’ve known that if I have work to do, I’ve no excuse for not doing it.

Ferry’s translation of the Aeneid beautifully captures the world and morals that so inspired me years ago. His work has the rare effect of actually capturing the reader away. The world of gods and men becomes not only alive, but almost believable. Only on rare occasion is the illusion broken when Ferry uses distinctly modern-sounding terms. Charon’s warning at the entrance to the underworld is rendered “Depart, depart, all you who are profane! / Depart from here who are unauthorized!” Authorization evokes more the speech of the corporation than the underworld. Charon is not a ticket-puncher. The problem arises again in a passage in which pestilence brings “death and misery” to “the trees and the crops and to the human beings.” The translation is accurate, but it’s as if an anxious copy editor insisted that if pestilence were to bring anything it should bring it upon all genders equally.

But such problems are minor and rare. It is evident from Ferry’s previous writings and this product that this was a labor of love. And that love, like Aurora spreading her light, is found on every page.  

Brian K. Miller is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in Forbes, National Review, Library of Law and Liberty, and elsewhere.