Aeneid (Conington 1866)/Preface

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The Æneid of Virgil  (1866)  by Virgil, translated by John Conington


The publication of a new translation of Virgil's Æneid is a thing which may not unreasonably be thought to require a few prefatory words of excuse. It is true that the ground has not been pre-occupied of late years by any version which has attained any great degree of popularity. Previous to the present century, the extant translations of the Æneid outnumbered those of the Iliad and Odyssey in the proportion of nearly three to one: now, while the press is sending forth version after version of one or both of the Homeric poems, scarcely any one thinks it worth his while to attempt a translation of the Roman epic. But it may fairly be doubted whether Dryden did not close the question a hundred and seventy years ago for any one not, like himself, a poet of commanding original power. In the century which succeeded him many literary men thought that they could improve upon him in various ways: but the verdict of posterity has shown that they judged wrongly. Pitt is the only one of these whose version can be said to be at present in existence: a dubious privilege which it owes to the fact of its having been included in the successive collections of English poetry of which Johnson's was the first. Dryden's style in poetry is sufficiently unlike that which finds most favour in the present day: but it cannot be said to be obsolete. And though in its minuter shades it affords rather a contrast than a parallel to Virgil’s, they have at all events the common quality of being really poetical; that inner identity which far outweighs a thousand points of external similarity, supposing these to be attainable. Pope, writing according to his own genius, has produced something so utterly different, in all its circumstantial features, from the product of Homeric genius, that an artist of confessedly inferior powers need not be discouraged from attempting the task again: but there was no such radical difference between the poet of Augustan Home and the poet of Caroline England as to render it impossible that the masterpiece of the one should be adequately represented by the work which crowned the literary labours of the other.

True as this doubtless is, it is perhaps nevertheless possible that a justification may be found for an attempt like the present. It may be said that the great works of antiquity require to be translated afresh from time to time in order to preserve their interest as part of modern literary culture. Each age will naturally think that it understands an author whom it studies better than the ages which have gone before it: and it is natural that this increased appreciation should take the concrete form of a new translation. The translation, if in any degree successful, will contribute in its turn to extend and deepen the appreciation. It is not merely that different passages will be better understood as criticism advances, though that is something: it is that the work itself is better comprehended as a literary work; that the poet’s art is more fully realized, as shown in the thousand minutiæ which make the poem what it is. A translation, as I have elsewhere remarked, may have as a piece of embodied criticism a value which it would not possess in virtue of its intrinsic merit. Again, there is something in the mere fact of novelty; something in disturbing the cluster of conventional associations which gathers round an author, and compelling the reader to regard what he has hitherto admired traditionally from a new point of view. It is well that we should know how our ancestors of the Revolution period conceived of Virgil: it is well that we should be obliged consciously to realize how we conceive of him ourselves.

Some may think that the metre I have chosen possesses few recommendations beyond the novelty of which I have just spoken. I certainly do not pretend that it is the one true equivalent of the Virgilian hexameter. Probably a better case could be made out for both heroic blank verse and the heroic couplet: the ottava rima of Tasso also, as has been suggested to me, might put in a claim, not of course as giving the effect of particular lines, but as representing the impression made by the whole. But the question is not so much what is absolutely best as what is best for the individual translator. Blank verse really deserving the name I believe with my lamented friend Mr. Worsley to be impossible except to one or two eminent writers in a generation. The heroic couplet would be difficult to wield to any one who was constantly reminded that he was exposing himself thereby to a comparison with Dryden. A regular stanza has trammels which would be more sensibly felt in attempting to deal with Virgil’s elaborately complicated paragraphs, than in endeavouring to reproduce the less highly organised structure of Homer's narrative. My chief reason for adopting the metre which Scott has made popular was that it seemed to give me my best chance of imparting to my work that rapidity of movement which is indispensably necessary to a long narrative poem. An ode of Horace is something to dwell on, to scrutinize minutely: a poem like the Æneid is something to read rapidly and continuously. A metre which gives the translator the hope of making his work interesting as a story is so far successful: a metre which does not give this hope fails. Marmion has been read by multitudes who would find the perusal of the Paradise Lost too severe an undertaking: and there can be little doubt that Scott would have done unwisely had he tried to produce a Miltonic poem. It is true of course that if Homer's heroes are, as my friend Mr. Arnold so strongly contends, not mosstroopers, Virgil's have still less of the Border character; but it is better to run the risk of importing a few unseasonable associations than to sacrifice the living character of the narrative by making it stiff and cumbrous. Apart from associations, I believe that the metre of Marmion and the Lord of the Isles is one that possesses high capabilities, even for a translation of Virgil. It is not without dignity; it has lyrical tones which lend themselves well to occasions of pathos. Its variety enables it, by a change of measure, to mark those transitions of feeling which no poet exhibits more frequently than the author of the Æneid. No doubt it is the part of a great artist to do as Virgil has done, and draw out all varieties of expression from one and the same instrument: but to most of those who engage in the work of translation it cannot but be an advantage to employ a measure which is really several measures in one. I will only venture to say that in more than one passage, where I have myself been habitually most affected by the cadence of the Latin, I have seemed to myself, rightly or wrongly, to have been able to produce something of a corresponding effect by in one way or another varying the measure. While wishing under all the circumstances to guard carefully against anything like a servile imitation of Scott, I have yet regarded him as my master rather than Byron. Unlike as the spirit of Border warfare may be to the spirit of the Æneid, the spirit of Oriental passion is still more unlike. Even the ballad-like peculiarities of Scott have some similarity to the epic common-place which Virgil felt himself obliged by the laws of his work to borrow from Homer. It must be remembered too that Scott's poems, in respect of style, differ not a little from each other. The style of the Lay is comparatively rude and unpolished: the style of the Lord of the Isles is comparatively cultivated and elaborate. I need not say that it is the latter type that I have made my model rather than the former. I have sedulously eschewed what Mr. Arnold calls the ballad slang, even where it offered itself without the seeking: such expressions as 'out and spoke,' 'well I wot,' 'all on Parnassus' slope,' I have left where I found them, I have not indeed denied myself an occasional archaism, any more than Virgil himself has done, as I cannot see that 'mote' for 'might' and 'eyne' for 'eyes' are more objectionable than 'faxo' for 'fecero' and 'aulai' for 'aulæ.' But I have excluded all such primitive peculiarities as seemed inconsistent with high finish, expletives like 'did say' and 'did sue,' and inversions like 'soon as the wildered child saw he.' In the versification I have avoided, with scarce a single exception, that tripping anapæstic movement which deprives the Lay of dignity, and makes Harold the Dauntless read like a burlesque: where I have introduced a redundant syllable into a line, it has generally been in the case of polysyllables, by the use of which I hoped to give the line of eight syllables something of the stateliness of the heroic. Once and once only have I ventured on a double rhyme. These details are sufficiently trifling; and I mention them merely to show that in appropriating a measure of considerable laxity to a heroic subject I have been more anxious to curtail than to extend the freedom I have gained.

It would be vain to deny that during the progress of the translation I have often been made sensible of the profound difference between poetry like Scott's, which, with all its antiquarianism, is still modern, and poetry like Virgil's, which, with all its modern affinities, is still ancient. An ancient narrative is minute where a modern one is brief: it is brief where a modern one is diffuse. Virgil is full of details, but always rapid: the reader is carried past a number of objects in succession, without being allowed, except on very rare occasions, to pause at any. Scott too is rapid after his fashion: but it is the rapidity of one who loves motion for its own sake, and to whom time is of no particular value: after a gallop of a few miles he is glad to pull up and descant on anything that he may be passing on the road side. Even the constant recurrence of 'sic ait,' 'talia voce refert,' and the like, after every speech in the Æneid, which of course it would be unjustifiable not to represent in a translation, is enough to remind the translator that the taste of the readers for whom Virgil wrote is different from the taste of those whom he must himself endeavour to please. No doubt this disparity between the ancient and the modern manner would have made itself felt had I chosen a metre less connected by association with the present century. Even Dryden, though his manner is far less distinctively modern than that of Scott, surprises us from time to time with something which we feel he would not have said had he not been translating: even Pope, though he has taken almost unlimited license to omit or recast anything which did not suit his notions of good taste in narrative, makes us occasionally sensible that the story he is telling is not his own. But I have sometimes thought that the style which I had adopted imposed on me difficulties peculiar to itself, from which a more judicious choice might have preserved me. Virgil was a more careful composer than Scott or Byron, not only in the selection of his words, but in the structure of his sentences. He was a great rhetorician, and a master of that terse pointed style of which the Latinity of the silver age is a development and an exaggeration. Sentences occur repeatedly in his writings which require to be rendered as briefly and compactly as those of Horace. Whether the octosyllabic metre is congenial to that mode of writing I will not presume to say: but it has not yet been applied to it, except, it may be, by writers like Gay, whose style is confessedly too low for heroic poetry. Consequently, I have frequently had to write in a manner which I was conscious was not the manner of my model, attempting to impart to the shorter couplet some of that dignified sententiousness which belongs more properly to the longer. If I have failed in this, I can only excuse myself by pleading the necessity of choosing among difficulties which appears to be the inevitable condition of the translator's work.

Perhaps I may be judged to have some advantage over my rhyming predecessors in respect of closeness to the original. It would be discreditable to me if the minute study which it has been my duty and my pleasure to give to every line, I might almost say every word, of my author in the prosecution of my commentary did not reflect itself to some degree in the translation. It is even possible that a casual reader may overlook many instances of close rendering; that he may suppose various forms of expression to be gratuitous which have been really adopted in order to bring out more fully the force, as I conceive it, of the Latin. The characteristic art of Virgil's language, I must own, is a thing which I have made no attempt to represent. Whether that peculiar habit which I have mentioned elsewhere as common to him and to Sophocles, the habit of hinting at two or three modes of expression while actually employing one, is capable of being transferred into English, I do not know: certainly none of his translators has effected the transference. It is obvious that the experiment is one to perform which would require the utmost nicety: everything would depend on the exact poetical equivalence of the various turns of phrase, either severally or as presented in combination: and a shade more or less in each case might produce not beauty but deformity. Such felicities, in fact, though well worthy of critical investigation, are hardly to be discovered by critical search: while the translator was seeking them, any spirit that there might be in his verses would be apt to evaporate. It is only one to whom they would suggest themselves naturally, in conformity I mean with his natural genius, who would be able to employ them in translation without injury to the character of his work: and he must be another Virgil or another Sophocles. A translator not so constituted will be better employed in endeavouring to bring about resemblance to his author by applying a principle of compensation, by strengthening his version in any way best suited to his powers, so long as it be not repugnant to the genius of the original, and trusting that the effect of the whole will be seen to have been cared for, though the claims of the parts may appear to have been neglected. Even the simpler peculiarities of Virgil's style, such as his fondness for saying the same thing twice over in the same line, I have not always been at pains to copy. What is graceful in the Latin will not always be graceful in a translation: and to be graceful is one of the first duties of a translator of the Æneid. It has often happened that by ignoring a repetition I have been able to include the entire sense of a hexameter in a single English line of eight syllables; and in such cases I have been glad to make the sacrifice. Not the least of the evils of the measure I have chosen is a tendency to diffuseness: and in translating one of the least diffuse of poets such a tendency requires a strong remedy. Accordingly, the duty of conciseness has always been present to my mind; and the result is that my translation, with its lines of eight and occasionally six syllables, does not, I hope, exceed by much more than one half the number of lines in the original, where fifteen syllables on the average go to the hexameter.

A similarity will occasionally be found between my own and other versions. In the few cases where this arises from intentional appropriation, or where I had reason to think that I had unconsciously recollected the words of others, I have made the requisite acknowledgment in the notes. Possibly in other instances also there may have been unconscious recollection, as a comparison of the three rhyming translators, Dryden, Pitt, and Symmons, used to be a favourite occupation of my schoolboy days. My coincidences, I believe, are oftener with Pitt's version than with either of the others; a fact which I incline to attribute to the more conventional character of his verses, which are seldom so individual that they might not easily occur to two writers independently. My knowledge of the different blank verse translations is very slight and occasional. I have not thought it necessary to say anything in the notes of the renderings that I have adopted, as what I have to urge in their favour will be found elsewhere. In one or two instances I have ruled a disputed question in one way as a commentator, in another way as a translator, but only of course where a case could fairly be made out for either view.