»  The Straggler, No. 12

October 13, 2003

  The Tale of the Tapes

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Agnosco veteris vestigia flammae *

My morning walk with Boris, Hound of the Stragglers, is a leisurely affair. We wander as the spirit moves us, through quiet suburban streets and bosky country lanes, sometimes for an hour or more. It is around the hour mark, however, that Puritan guilt kicks in. This is unproductive! I should be pressing ahead in life, improving myself! And so, to assuage that guilt, I have recently taken up talking books. Now I sally forth with headphones on and a Walkman clipped to my belt. This has actually led to some further loss of keyboard productivity as, walking along engrossed in a story, I dawdle to hear more. Boris is happy with the extra street time, though. I am acquainting, or re-acquainting, myself with good writing, so I'm happy. And surely Amazon.com is happy, too. Thus do I spread light and joy all about.

This month I have been listening to C. Day Lewis's translation of the Aeneid, put on tape by Naxos Audiobooks (with whom neither I nor National Review has any commercial connection). The cast of readers is very fine, with Paul Scofield, who played Thomas More in that wonderful movie A Man For All Seasons, as main narrator, and Toby Stephens as Aeneas. The reader who does Mercury — I think it's John McAndrew — actually manages to sound convincingly breathless after speeding across from Olympus to deliver his messages. The text is severely edited down for recording — they skip most of Book III, and all of Books VIII-XI — but the thing still works, and this is one of my happier finds so far in the talking books catalogs.

Like many another thoughtful modern, I suffer from classics envy. I wish I could read the old languages; I wish I knew more of their literature. In my case the condition is more acute, or at any rate more rueful, than average, as I actually did four years of Latin as part of my secondary education. It was compulsory: At that time, you could not go to university in England without an exam pass in Latin, whatever major you intended to pursue. Those like me who were taking math and science electives regarded this as an imposition, of course, and construed our Caesar and Virgil with an ill grace, and took a vengeful pride in forgetting our Latin as quickly and thoroughly as possible once the exam was passed. ("Learning," a cynical Chinese friend once told me, "is like a brick you use to break open a door. When the door is open, you throw away the brick." I am ashamed to have ever cloven to such a philistine doctrine, but there is no denying the truth.) I think I was in my thirties before I again tried to read Latin, and by that time it was much too late to recover what I had so carelessly thrown away. I can't construe a single line now without a crib, or a great deal of dictionary work, and I bitterly regret my past neglect.

I regret it most of all when reading, or listening to, the Aeneid. We did "selections" in school, but they seem not to have been well selected. When, soon after I had finished with school Latin, I read St. Augustine's lament for the time he had lost in profane studies, "I wept for Dido when I should have been weeping for my soul," I had no idea what he was talking about. Reading the poem now, the most moving and colorful parts ring no bells, while some of those tedious "two falls, two submissions, or a knockout" passages from the later books are distantly familiar. Our schoolmasters might at least have left us with something worth remembering.

When I first picked up the Aeneid again after the long dark ages of philistine resentment had passed, I read Rolfe Humphries' translation, and got the point, and wished I had paid more attention in school. Though I am pleased with this new talking book, on balance I like Day Lewis's translation less than Humphries'. Day Lewis occasionally clangs: When Aeneas, catching a glimpse of Helen hiding in the temple, is filled with anger to recall how the whole business was her fault, Day Lewis has him tell us his reaction thus: "Was she going to get away with it?" Not only does that depart from the main diction, it is a poor match for Virgil's words.

You can't have everything, though, and the Naxos tapes are worth the purchase price just for Paul Scofield's voice. Listen to the growl of mingled salacity and reproof he brings to the lines where Dido and Aeneas first become lovers: "forgetting their kingdoms, wrapped in a trance of lust!" (In this particular case, I think Day Lewis has the edge on Humphries, who renders this as: "Heedless of ruling, prisoners of passion," though you might argue that this is closer to the Latin: fovere regnorum immemores turpique cupidine captos. Dryden spins it out to an entire couplet: "Forgetful of her fame and royal trust, / Dissolv'd in ease, abandon'd to her lust.") And I had forgotten that Philip Larkin's great line about death being "a huge and birdless silence," which I quoted in a column elsewhere just the other day, takes its "birdless" from Latin Avernus, the lake that leads to the underworld, whose name Virgil tells us derives from Greek a-ornis, "birdless," because the fumes rising from the lake are so foul, no bird can fly through them. The Oxford Classical Dictionary says this is a false etymology, but who cares? It gave a fine English poet a chilling metaphor. Ah, the classics — sex and death!

The Aeneid doesn't get much coverage in modern educational systems. Maya Angelou's more the thing, with immortal lines like

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.

Even in the scattered few remaining college classrooms where ancient literature is taken seriously and horizons, refusing to lean, stay resolutely vertical, Virgil is not much bothered with. The Greek epics get more curriculum space. I have no Greek at all, though I have read Homer in translation. So far as an opinion thus founded can be worth anything, I prefer Virgil. He is much more obviously a civilized man, closer to a modern sensibility. Homer's Achaeans were, let's face it, only just this side of barbarism. Seeking an informed opinion on this point, I consulted Tracy Lee Simmons, whose little book Climbing Parnassus offers the best arguments I have ever seen for studying the classics. Tracy: "I know what you mean about Homer. All that is mostly brute narrative. But that's true only in English; in Greek, both the Iliad and Odyssey play like symphonies."

That is music I shall never hear. With the help of a great English actor, a decent English poet, and the unthanked labors of some forgotten English schoolmasters, I can catch a few strains of Virgil, though, as if heard from a great distance. Like the boat captain in Book V, I hug the shore while others take to the deep water: litus ama … altum alii teneant. It is something, though — better than not putting to sea at all.

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* "I recognize / The marks of an old fire" (Rolfe Humphries); "Too like the sparkles of my former flame" (Dryden).