NYT Echoes Its Own Aeneid Coverage

By Neal Comment

robert-fagles.jpgIf Charles McGrath’s profile of Robert Fagles (right) in Monday’s NYT arts section seems familiar to you, perhaps it’s because you remember a 2004 article by Chris Hedges which mines much of the same territory, namely Fagles’s work on a new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. The most striking similarity is Fagles’s repeated description of the epic poem as “a cautionary tale”:

2004: “It is one we need to read today. It speaks of the terrible price of victory in war, for Virgil knew that victory is finally impossible, that it always lies out of reach. He saw the unforeseen aftermath, the way war could all go wrong whether from poor planning or because of the gods on high. He knew the sheer accumulation of death, the destruction, the pain we inflict when we use force to create empire.”

2006: “[It’s] about the terrible ills that attend empire—its war-making capacity, the loss of blood and treasure both… It’s also a tale of exhortation. It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer. The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselveslves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.”

The two articles even mention the same line of Latin, “forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit,” which is the real reason I remembered the original article. Fagles was translating the verse as “a joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this” when he spoke to Hedges, but it’s rendered in the McGrath piece as “maybe someday you will rejoice to recall even this.” (I still prefer my very loose rendition: “And maybe one day we can look back at all this and laugh.” But you’ll notice nobody’s offering me a book deal to translate Virgil.) A quick email to McGrath reveals that he came up with that version, not Fagles; he also throws in another bit of Latin at the end—”vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras”—which he then translates rather nicely as “his spirit, groaning with indignation, escap[ed] to the shades below.”

photo: Laura Pedrick/NYT