August 3: Do over

Wrong Dryden...or is it?

Today's reading is book two of the Aeneid, translated by John Dryden, a strong contender for title of Least Read Canonical English Poet. The good news is that I've already been assigned this, way back on January 6th. The bad news is that I don't like what I wrote then, because I hadn't learned yet how to not write about huge chunks of the reading. But the good news is that I can salvage this because I have a new take. Except this is also bad news because I was at the beach all day with the family and would much rather have a Clover Club (I have egg whites lying around) than gloss Virgil.

Today's more circumscribed reading is strictly about the sack of Troy -- Aeneas doesn't escape, as he did in the bigger reading, there's no hope:
You see the desp’rate state of our affairs,
And heav’n’s protecting pow’rs are deaf to pray’rs.
The passive gods behold the Greeks defile
Their temples, and abandon to the spoil
Their own abodes: we, feeble few, conspire
To save a sinking town, involv’d in fire.
Then let us fall, but fall amidst our foes:
Despair of life the means of living shows.’
And the thing that strikes me is, they knew this would happen. Paris had been prophesied as the ruination of Troy, yet they let him and his hot wife in. Cassandra told them what would happen, a couple of times. None of it mattered. The Trojans went about their war as if it would help matters. Dryden's translation, which is pretty rapid, shows that it didn't:
Ent’ring the court, with shouts the skies they rend;
And flaming firebrands to the roofs ascend.
...He hews apace; the double bars at length
Yield to his ax and unresisted strength.
A mighty breach is made: the rooms conceal’d
Appear, and all the palace is reveal’d;
The halls of audience, and of public state,
And where the lonely queen in secret sate.
Arm’d soldiers now by trembling maids are seen,
With not a door, and scarce a space, between.
The house is fill’d with loud laments and cries,
And shrieks of women rend the vaulted skies...
Introducing the trembling maids with a passive verb is not so hot there, but what can you do? The point is that the hell of war even leaks out of its pentameter cages.

When I was a kid and reading about the Greek Myths, I could never wrap my head around the idea that the characters in the stories knew the gods had it in for them, but went ahead anyway doing whatever it was that led to their doom. Now, in middle age, nothing seems more obvious; and the poets and mythmakers are to be saluted for their good taste, because they simply exclude the laundry list of rationalizations about Why This Time Is Different. It never is. And will the people who insist this time isn't different be ignored? They always are.

1 comment:

Lisa Simeone said...

Indeed This Time Isn't Different, and no one ever heeds those who point that out (well, those in power never heed, anyway).

Fascinating to read the Dryden version. I have the translation by Allen Mandelbaum, also in iambic pentameter but with no rhyme, and I think it flows beautifully. Here's an example (don't know if the line spacing is going to come out right here):

"But deep within confusion takes the palace,
anguish and sad commotion; and the vaulted
walls echo with the wail and woe of women,
lament that beats against the golden stars."