Aeneid Book VI, Virgil translated by Seamus Heaney

A splendid book, here is Kate Kellaway at The Guardian:

There are two things this book requires. First, it is best read aloud – it comes thrillingly to life – it sounds tremendous. Second, it repays close reading. Studying it is to listen in on a poet with perfect pitch. Getting the diction right – so that the ancient is neither modern nor archaic – is the challenge. And Heaney shows that plain words are stormproofed. It is about more than George Orwell’s tired prescription: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” It is about how plain language, like plain speaking, has integrity. And it is weight-bearing. It carries. When he introduces uncommon, eye-catching (sometimes longer) words – scaresome, asperging, hotbloods – they stand out but work harder against their plain backgrounds. Take the sighting of the golden bough. The word “refulgent” is strikingly charged, surrounded by “clear”, “green-leafed” and “cold”. Refulgent breaks Orwell’s rule and stands out like the golden branch itself. Or consider the description of Aeneas’s father, Anchises: “A man in old age, worn out, not meant for duress.” “Duress” is the pleasing surprise here (so much better than everyday “hardship”) seizing attention while “old age” and “worn out” do their unobtrusive work.

I will reread it shortly, you can buy it here.


"Asperging" (sprinkling with holy water) is a little distracting these days.

This was translated from the Latin, right? What does the below refer to? Something lost in translation... Some dude rips off the mistletoe while standing under it? That's not legal...something sexual...let me Google "Standing Under The Mistletoe Sex" on aha! It's an ancient Greek tradition (I knew it, I knew it) involving fertility since the mistletoe is evergreen, see:

So, this dude is using a fertility symbol 'stolen' since he will deal with death, and then resurrection, like Persephone and the Pomegranate it. OK carry on.

When when they came to the fuming gorge at Avernus
They swept up through clear air and back down
To their chosen perch, a tree that was two trees
In one, green-leafed yet refulgent with gold.
Like mistletoe shining in cold winter woods,
Gripping its tree but not grafted, always in leaf,
Its yellowy berries in sprays curled round the bole –
Those flickering gold tendrils lit up the dark
Overhang of the oak and chimed in the breeze.
There and then Aeneas took hold of the bough
And although it resisted greedily tore it off,
Then carried it back to the Sibyl’s cavern.

Kissing under the mistletoe might be a clue.

No, it's what I said, see also: ("The Sibyl acts like a bridge between the livings' world and the deads' sphere ... she shows the way to Aeneas, and she teaches him what he has to know facing the dangers of their journey in the underworld")

This is a reference to Hades, so the Persephone and the Pomegranate Seeds theme, which the Roman Virgil stole from the Greeks without attribution, is the theme here (rebirth, winter is over, fertility plant as symbol of rebirth).

Bonus trivia: the pomegranate seed juice is good for urinary tract infections in women and for overall health, a sort of super-food. Unfortunately if you buy the juice in a bottle it's likely saturated with sugar, which is bad for you.

It is about more than George Orwell’s tired prescription: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” -

It seems such a lazy comment, what's the point in the context of the blog about good writing??

Of course, few ancients could read, so books were written to be read aloud. That's a fundamental difference between books written then and books written now. I suppose books written then are more like scripts for a play or a movie. Manuscripts of ancient religious texts have no punctuation, no spacing between letters, with all letters in caps, which made it extremely difficult to read them if not read aloud. Moreover, since there were no printing presses, copy machines, or computers, reproducing books was a painstaking task, every word, every letter copied by hand, often by scribes who could barely read themselves, mistakes upon mistakes with each copy produced. It comes as a surprise to many, but we have no original writings by Plato. Indeed, we have no original manuscripts of the Christian Bible (New Testament), only very small fragments written (in Greek, which was not the language of Jesus and His disciples, who couldn't read or write and spoke Aramaic) decades after the originals. Much of what we "know" about ancient texts is guesswork, often scholarly guesswork for sure but sometimes what could be called "creative" guesswork.

Jesus is directly mentioned writing in the Bible, so if you believe the Bible, he could write Aramaic.

Yes, the woman caught in the act of adultery, and the crowd demanded that she be stoned to death in accordance with the law of Moses. "They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust. When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more." Of course, this is one of the most recognized stories in the Christian Bible. What Jesus wrote in the dust isn't revealed. And neither the adulterous woman nor the crowd seemed to care. Maybe he wrote the name of the man with whom the woman committed adultery.

"Maybe he wrote the name of the man with whom the woman committed adultery." Bingo! Or, he wrote a list of sins of the accusatory crowd . . .

Money quote from the Aeneid (an old translation), "Possunt quia posse videntur," "They can who think they can." Or, "They can because they think they can." "Videntur" is the third-person plural of the verb "video" which means to see, discern, perceive. Note the difficulty for the translator.

Then if you know the passage, on what basis do you claim they couldn't read or write?

The authors of the Gospels may be unknowable, but the letters to the varying churches are well attested. Several of those were written by the disciples.

By this standard, we could claim Plato could not write because we don't have his original manuscripts.

in Greek, which was not the language of Jesus and His disciples, who couldn’t read or write and spoke Aramaic)

Jesus and a lot of the people associated with Jesus use the Greek form of their names, not the original Hebrew. That may be a quirk of the text, but I would not assume they could not speak Greek. Someone wrote the Gospels in Greek after all.

And Jesus knew enough Greek to make a pun in the language - Matthew 16:18

Sn't it a Hebrew pun? He probably knew the Scripture's Hebre if he could contend with the scribes and doctors of Law.

At the speed you allegedly read books, a video of you reading this book aloud has to be very funny.

Best to read it in Latin.

Or in Greek or in a Slavic language (similar grammatical structures and, at least in Greek and the southern Slavic languages, similar distinctions among agricultural and aquatic terms) or in a Romance language (all of which - not just Italian - are as close to Latin as some forms of modern Greek are to some forms of ancient Greek). Or read it in English but refer to the Latin text once in a while. You don't need to be one of the few dozen (few hundred?) people in the world who understand Latin really well to get an idea of what is sometimes lost in translation.

Good translations of classics often include extensive translator's notes where relevant, and often capitalize or italicize key words when they have meanings that are difficult to bring across languages and/or time.

Christian Bible (New Testament) scholars believe it must be read in its original language (Greek) to accurately interpret it. Of course, doing so reveals the enormous number of differences in the text of the different manuscripts and translations that are available. A popular resolution of this problem among the pious is to rely on the King James version, a "resolution" I find amusing but one I won't contest. My "resolution" is to accept the Christian Bible as a theological document rather than a historical document, a resolution that comes easy to me because I wasn't raised in a fundamentalist or evangelical church or home (indeed, in confirmation classes we devoted far more time to the Prayer Book and the articles of religion than to the Christian Bible). My (pious) nephew is taking a religion class in a secular university, and he was shocked to "learn" that the canonical Gospels were not actually written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that the Gospels don't purport to be written by them, and that we don't know who wrote the Gospels. Oh, my! I mentioned my "resolution" of that problem, which he found about as amusing as I find the King James "resolution". In my view, every text is written by an author with an ax to grind, and that includes the Christian Bible as well as translations of any ancient text. For the pious, that concept just about sends them over the edge. A well-known Christian Bible scholar self-identifies as agnostic, making the distinction between what he "knows" and what he "believes": he doesn't believe there's a God, but he doesn't know it. How could he?

Among other things, it's rather difficult to know what "the word" (as in "the word of God") would have meant to the original writers without being aware of the diversity of possible meanings surrounding the word "logos".

General context of the word "logos" in ancient times:

"Logos" in Christian context:

You really have to have excellent knowledge of grammar in ancient Greek to enter into such discussions. And hence, I merely mention that the issue exists.

I think a lot of preachers steer clear of such discussions in their preaching, I assume for most because they don't have a clue about anything about the original languages the texts were written in, and for those who do, they may hesitate to enter into discussions which portray the "divinely inspired truth" as something that is not at all obvious. Also, I think few congregations (or rather, a very small minority of most congregations) are at all interested in such academically inclined preaching, and would rather just to be told what it means and how they might apply it today.

As a far from unique example, the pastor at my closest megachurch (Lon Solomon, McLean Bible Church) has an advanced degree in ancient Hebrew or something like that from Johns Hopkins, and every once in a while his sermons have included detailed explanations of why a Greek verbal tense (seriously, he once described the aorist tense on an ordinary Sunday morning to a crowd of thousands - the context was whether Jesus saved those he cares for once, or whether he saves them again and again), and detailed explanations of the meanings of a repeated Greek calque of a Hebrew noun )(one of the nouns dealing with the Holy of Holies and that noun's use to describe the sacrificial nature of what unfortunately had to happen on Good Friday). The point is we were created to understand the world in which we were created, and language study helps all of us to understand what the Lord was trying to communicate in the Old or New Testament. Randy Alford's most recent book - a bestseller in Christian bookstores - is based on the one or two dozen words describing happiness in Hebrew and Greek. Pope Emeritus Joseph Ratzinger has written many books with detailed discussions of what words meant in the Biblical languages 2,000 years ago. So there is a large subset of Christian preachers who competently understand the original languages of the Bible. That being said, the Lord usually does not rely on verbal and scholarly intelligence to communicate with the souls He has created - as Newman said, Cor ad Cor Loquitur (Heart speaks to heart - obviously not a situation in which dictionaries and grammars, good as they are in their place, are necessary).

"detailed explanations of why a Greek verbal tense", in the second line, should read " detailed explanations describing a Greek verbal tense": when one knows that "Cor ad Cor loquitur" will soon be cited, one proofreads less well than one would otherwise...

Duress doesn't sound like the right word. Nor does "refulgent." Translations by well known literary figures are often more about showing off their own writing abilities than the author's.

I don't mind that. All translations are interpretations, and if one wants to aim more at style than complete accuracy, that's ok with me. Read the Loeb Classical Library version if you want meaning accuracy to be the top priority.

Does the Kindle display poetry properly now? Ragged-right?

"it is best read aloud – it comes thrillingly to life". Perhaps it comes to life far more if one is dressed in the "proper" attire while reading it. I mean imagine someone reading this book dressed like hippies.

When Heaney died, I observed the occasion by rereading his Beowulf translation. His earthy style served it well and brought out the gloomy tale of feuding kin well. I have a hard time imagining Heaney's style applied to the Aeneid, but I am intrigued to hear his cover version.

And why Book VI? That's one I skipped over, so I don't know why a writer would be drawn to that one. Any ideas about the choice? Or why a poet in old age was drawn to create translations?

Book VI was a good choice for Heaney. It is, for most readers, the hardest book in the Aeneid to understand (the great scholar Norden said that he could not begin to imagine, even after a lifetime's work at the forefront of classical scholarship, being able to write an adequate commentary on that specific book) ; which leads one to believe that either (a) it is the hardest to translate (a challenge like that was almost certainly not Heaney's reason - he was too sincere to decide on the hard job of translating a book of Vergil's for such a slick reason) or (b) if one happens to get a few words right here and there one has done more than one could have done elsewhere (Heaney was, for a salaried poet, a humble guy, and I am guessing this was his reason - it is not like he was making big bucks off this translation).
The other obvious possibilities were Book One, detailing the opening scenes and the arrival at Carthage (the Latin in this book is near or above perfection, but any translation of just this one book would appear to be a poor choice because the translator would inevitably be considered to have done a clumsily interrupted job) , book 4 (the best written Roman-aristocrat love story in antiquity - DIdo and Aeneas - but Vergil, although one of the best love poets ever, was not primarily a love-story poet, so the translator choosing one book would probably want to look elsewhere), book 2 (the fantastically well presented fall of Troy - but perhaps too many echoes of Homer involved for the purposes of a translator who wanted to translate Vergil and not Vergil-sounding-like-Homer), or one of the 4 books from the Georgics (good choices all, particularly the book about the Stars and the Rivers, or the book about the Care of Horses and Dogs and Trees - but Heaney was basically a Georgics writer in his original language and he probably wanted to spread out a little bit) .
Finally, poets never ever think they are old. "Full of years" is how they put it to themselves, up to the last few months of their lives, I think. They are almost always eventually wrong about that of course but they are poets and, like the rest of us, it is part of their job description to be wrong about things from time to time.

Does he fill it with Irish-based words for political reasons, like his hack job of Beowulf?

Still can't get over he started Beowulf with "So" !? So lame.

I've got no issue with "so" - it's a proper Anglo-Saxon word.

My issue is that Seamus went out of his way to use as many words of Irish origin as possible in his translation of Beowulf into modern English, intentionally profaning the Anglo-Saxon epic. This was clearly politically motivated, given, you know, the troubles and such.

So it is- and even the Anglo-Saxons rejected it as an opener.

Its a far better and more natural opener than 'Hear!', 'Listen!', 'Hark!' etc. Fact is there is no good translation in modern English, but if you use 'So' and speak the line out loud with a pause, or imagine an Anglo Saxon bard starting his recital with quiet foreboding, it works. My problem with Heaney's translation was he took out most of the alliteration.

That takes Heaney's translation off my to-read list. Thanks for saving me some time.

Literature has words we don't know, but recognize.

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