#137: ACROSS THE MOUNTAINS. Elio, the bookish adolescent who narrates Andre Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name, says, “Everybody in Italy has read Dante, Homer and Virgil…Doesn’t matter whom you’re talking to, so long as you Dante-and-Homer them first…Virgil is a must.” Homer (in Robert Fitzgerald’s wonderful translation) has long been a touchstone for me, and recently I was lucky enough to discover the Hollanders’ version of Dante, but until recently the Aeneid had escaped me. Its existence as an ordered-up epic on the founding of Rome, its required optimism about this momentous event, its unfinished state, and its preoccupation with the martial ethos all left me a bit cool. (At this late date I have a hard time getting wound-up happy about empires and such.) But I'd loved David Ferry’s translations of the Eclogues and the Georgics, so when I’d heard of his new (2017) version of the Aeneid, I leapt at it, and was not disappointed. I have a few quibbles with the translation, odd prolixities and such, and the edition has been criticized for wanting notes, which would have been helpful; but after having stalled out on several older versions (Lewis, Dryden, even Fitzgerald) I found this was the version that pulled me in and helped me understand its almost intimidating status. It really is one of those wonderful moments when a contemporary poet has successfully taken on, not only a classic work, but the author’s voice. April Bernard has suggested that it’s not so much a new translation as a new iteration: “Another version but also—perhaps, almost—the thing itself.”
So what do we get, at this vast distance, from Virgil? The discovery that all those dusty tales we got stuffed with in high school still have force and blood in them. I hardly expected to be moved by the story of Aeneas’s fatal romance with Dido, which has been refurbished and sold in who knows how many poems, operas, eighteenth-century paintings, lithographs, etc.—and yet, by the end of Ferry’s telling, I was in tears. We get the sense too of how warfare in those times happened person to person: we get the name of who killed whom, how it was done, the terrible fall of a slaughtered body. Virgil famously likes to pique us by shifting in mid-tale from past tense to present, a device which can make scenes remarkably vivid, fully visualized. In these current days of increasing right-wing political threat, I have read very few things more terrifying than the goddess Juno’s recruitment of Alecto, one of the Furies, to create havoc where peace had reigned, compared by Virgil to boys having set a spinning top on its destructive path. In the Aeneid the gods and goddesses are the unpredictable and mad-tempered instruments of our fates, never to be guessed at, never to be trusted. All these folk, fleeing from the destruction of their homes, sailing into the unmapped and unknown, are perhaps no poor image of how so many live today, and Ferry has caught Virgil’s concern and passion for them, so that we finally can feel the founding of Rome—the dream of safe harbor and the rule of rational law—with the glory it was meant to have. And now, a few weeks after my first reading, I’m finding that parts of the story have started breaking into my thoughts with an intensity almost like being kidnapped. I’m just beginning to realize that the story of Aeneas’s descent into the underworld, to encounter his dead father—found so many years after my own father’s death—is an image that’s going to be with me for a very long time. The power of this tale—the uncanny and the tragic so tightly wound—is a reminder and example of why we brave the classics, and how they may become our common and permanent possessions.
Dante of course arrived a millennium and more later, as the Middle Ages were easing into the first years of the Renaissance, as did Francesco Petrarca, born in Arezzo in 1304 and known to us as Petrarch. He was an important figure in a dozen ways, ushering in the Renaissance with his recovery of Cicero’s letters, and writing prose works in Latin that reflected the preoccupations of the humanist movement. He was a close friend to Boccaccio, and their works were installed, with those of Dante, as a model for the written Italian language. He labored for years in the papal courts, and was crowned with laurel in the capitol, the first poet to be so honored since antiquity.
None of this matters. What matters is that at the age of twenty-three he caught sight of the woman who figures in his poetry as Laura—usually identified with Laura de Noves, wife of the Count Hugues de Sade (yes, the Marquis’s ancestor). He was visited with a passion that stayed with him until his death forty years later, and that resulted in the 366 Italian-language poems gathered in the Canzoniere. If influence is any measure of a poet’s importance, few poets are more important than Petrarch. Perfecting the sonnet form that he inherited from Giacomo da Lentini, the influence of Petrarch’s poetry went north into translations of his work into French, Spanish, German and Czech. They finally got as far north as England, where they were translated by Chaucer, Spenser, Wyatt and Surrey; his influence can be felt everywhere in Shakespeare’s own sonnets, and Romeo has been called a walking Petrarchan trope. John Synge translated some of Petrarch into his Anglo-Irish idiom (very effectively), and translations keep happening.
For centuries Petrarchan copiers burned and froze, loathed and loved, ‘til it all wore down and came to dust. Hence the shock of returning to Petrarch’s originals, where what became a conceit is torturously felt and native to his voice. Here, not just the phrasing is antithetical; what Petrarch perceived were the antitheses in the experience of love itself. Hope and disillusion, chastity and venery, physical passion and religious faith, absence and presence—these are not just the manner but the matter of Petrarch’s verse, the experience he draws on. And in contrast to Dante’s Vita Nuova (published a decade before Petrarch’s birth), where the prose sections can seem like some mad docent who refuses to leave us in peace to look at a painting, and where the track from romantic to spiritual love is never left in doubt, Petrarch’s sequence trusts the verse to find its own way. The poems written after Laura’s death, where his love for her becomes a fire to warm himself by but still has the ability to burn, and the final hymn to the Virgin, do end somewhat as Dante’s work does, but the path is not so insistently shepherded—and hence more convincing.
From early on there was concern for what would happen to Petrarch as he went “across the mountains,” into translation. His medieval Tuscan dialect, I am told, is at some distance from modern Italian. Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Poems (Harvard, 1976) has an Italian text on one page and Robert M. Durling’s surprisingly graceful prose ponies facing it. The Poetry of Petrarch, translated by David Young (Farrar Strauss, 2004) is a complete translation into blank verse; good as it is, I kept waiting for the rhymes, which seem so integral to the construction of a sonnet. David Slavitt’s Petrarch: Sonnets and Shorter Poems (Harvard, 2012), metrical rhymed versions, is quite good, but my favorite translation, considered as English poetry, is the selection by Anthony Mortimer (Alabama, 1977). Perhaps the best approach is to triangulate among the four, working your way back to the Italian. The Mortimer is not common, but many of the earlier translations can be found online.