The poet and the fly

This is an introduction I wrote for David Hadbawnik's fascinating translation of the Aeneid: Books I-VI. You can read an interview with him (or two) or a review (or two) of the book for more information. But yeah, go get a copy of the book, now.

iamque faces et saxa volant—furor arma ministrat

Publius Vergilius Maro—who we call Virgil—lived through the rise of Julius Caesar, during the final days of the Roman Republic and its reformation into an Empire under the rule of a single man, the emperor Augustus, his patron. The Aeneid was written as this new Roman Empire’s foundational myth, and not only the poem, but also the writing of the poem became part of the foundational myth of empire. We are told that the work was not quite finished when Virgil died, and that he asked for it to be burned upon his death, but that Augustus—the emperor, the patron—having the final word in these matters, insisted it be published as soon as possible. Augustus wanted his foundation. The empire built upon this poem lasted for centuries. The Aeneid became a cornerstone of Latin education, the sort of thing one had to memorize in school: It was everywhere. Even after the Roman Empire collapsed, the Aeneid was everywhere. Now it was just the foundation of an educated mind, the sort of school text that was important because it was important, familiar because it was familiar. New and unexpected ideas grew on this foundation. Virgil’s poetry was understood as a pagan prophet, whose writings told of the coming of Christ. The Aeneid was, at times, a source of prophesies, of fortune telling; open the poem to a random page, let your finger alight upon a line, and you will find the oracular answer to any question. In twelfth century Naples, the idea arose that Virgil was a magician. John of Salisbury writes that Virgil once asked someone whether he would prefer a bird to be created that could capture birds, or a fly that could kill flies. He created a fly; the fly killed flies; Naples was free from flies, or from all flies except Virgil’s fly.

This is all true, in the way that these things are true. There is some historical evidence for some of these claims, but some of them could be reasonably argued with; some are contemporary traditions, some are later traditions. They are true in the way the Aeneid is true, or the way it might have been true for its original readers. The Trojan War happened, or it might have happened, but perhaps not as Homer describes it in the Iliad, or how we remember Homer describing it in the Iliad, assuming we’ve read the Iliad. Perhaps we read it a long time ago; perhaps we’ve just read about the Iliad, or read a summary of it (like the medieval Latin Ilias Latina, just over a thousand lines). Perhaps we have heard its story retold, or watched a movie about it. Even today the Iliad tells us the truth about the Trojan War (even if it is not the truth of the archaeological record, or even the truth of the poem’s text). The Aeneid changes the Iliad—it reaches back to insert new truths there. (The 2004 film Troy continues this: Aeneas makes an ostentatious appearance as Troy burns.)

Aeneas, son of Anchises: He escapes Troy as it burns and leads a group of men by boat toward Italy, where he will found a new city. He is waylaid en route and ends in Carthage, in northern Africa, where he seduces and then abandons Dido, Queen of the Carthaginians. His father dies, and funerary games are held; the fleet lands in Italy, and Aeneas visits the underworld, where he sees his father again and meets the men who will be born as great Romans in the future. So go the first six books; in the final six books, Aeneas returns to the surface world, tries to woo a young woman, and engages in war with the locals, and specifically against the man who is supposed to marry that young woman. Aeneas wins, and Rome is founded.

That is the plot, but the plot—except for Book IV, the seduction and betrayal of Dido, or perhaps Book VI, the voyage to the underworld—was not what mattered in the long run: what mattered was the words. The words served as grammatical or poetical examples, as tools of prophesy, as playthings for later poets. A genre of poetry emerged around the third century called the cento, which patched together lines of poetry—usually lines of Virgil’s ubiquitous poetry—into new contexts and meanings. Ausonius wrote a “Cento Nuptualis”, a marriage poem made out of recontextualized lines of Virgil, including a suggestive section detailing the consumation of the marriage. A premodern bricolage, the “Cento Nuptualis” drew out the latent eroticism which the words of the poem made available a reader who was willing to read them against the grain, away from the plot.

And yet the present translation returns the plot to the Aeneid. So for example, here is another truth about the text that is not reflected in the text: The Aeneid, like other classical epic poems, begins in medias res, in the middle of things, with a storm threatening the ship. But the text, in fact, does not begin here—rather, it begins with its most famous line, “Arma virumque cano...” I sing of war and of a man: A statement of purpose, followed by an invocation of the muse, and then finally the storm. This translation removes the statement of purpose and the invocation of the muse; it launches right into the shipwreck: “Clouds snatch sun from the sky.”

Translation: Etymologically, the word suggests a carrying across, from one language to another, from one culture to another, from one time and place to another. From Troy to Italy. From a culture where poets are tools of the state, to a culture where poets are magicians. David Bellos has pointed out that other cultures use other metaphors to talk about translation, such as “turning”—and we can also think of translation as turning a text-for-them into a text-for-us, with all the topological reconfiguration that such a turning requires. Does our Aeneid require a statement of purpose? Our custom is to put our statements of purpose on the backs of our books. Does it require an invocation of the muse? That...what? Who does that? I guess some poets still do that. Would Virgil be that kind of poet? This translation argues: No. This translation argues: We do not need to nervously hold onto every word of the original text as if it were a lifeline. There are enough other translations of this poem for the nervous. There is something in the original text that can only be reached by turning it. Turn the syntax of a phrase, turn the layout of a line, turn up or down the register of a speech. Turn some scenes into images, as two of the earliest surviving Aeneid manuscripts (the Vergilius Vaticanus and the Vergilius Romanus, both from about the fifth century) did; let the reader turn to the image, to rest and reconsider. Turn the poem, turn out the poem, turn and turn it again, to keep the poem in circulation, to keep its blood flowing.

There once was a person who created a fly, and that fly killed flies, and it made the city free from flies, except for his fly. There once was a person who created a poem, and the words of that poem broke free and reformed into other poems. And this is the way that flies die, and cities thrive; and it is also the way that poems live and thrive.