Thursday, June 23, 2011

High School

When I was a senior in high school, our Latin teacher, Mrs. Patla, spent the year guiding us through the Aeneid, the epic poem published by the Roman poet Vergil a few decades before the birth of Christ.  We were a smallish class and rather than scatter across the room the six of us sat bunched together in a corner by the windows.  For our textbook we used a text and commentary edited by a scholar with the wonderful name Clyde Pharr; later on I would hear classicists refer to it affectionately as 'The Purple Aeneid' because of its cover:

The epic, which we parsed and interpreted one slow line after another, day after day, for the entire school year, recounted the story of a Trojan hero named Aeneas, who was the son of the goddess Venus (and the brother of Cupid).  Aeneas survived the sack of Troy only to find himself wandering around the Mediterranean with a group of other long-suffering Trojan refugees.  They eventually landed in Italy and, after fighting a war against some suspicious Italian tribes, settled there.  Romans of Vergil's day traced their roots as a people back to this early settlement; hence, in telling the story of Aeneas, Vergil was writing a foundation epic for Rome.

However, in high school what impressed me most about the Aeneid was not the history or the mythology behind it but its evocative poetry.  The epic, like any good long story, shifts constantly back and forth between scenes of chaos and moments of bliss:   vast storms at sea or human tragedies like the suicide of Dido alternate with descriptions of placid landscapes or scenes on Mt. Olympus.   This painting by Claude Lorraine comes from a series of illustrations of scenes from the Aeneid and captures well a moment of transition between the two moods.  Dido is showing Aeneas around Carthage, the city which she founded and which Aeneas has stumbled upon.  We know that she will fall deeply in love with him and in the end will be driven insane by her love; still, for the moment we see her realm as she would have seen it herself and as she would want Aeneas to see it, bathed in a perfect, almost paradisical light:

Anyway, the point is that the experience of reading the Aeneid in Latin turned me into a fan of Vergil; and like any teenage fan this enthusiasm made me open to trying out his other works.  Mrs. Patla told us one day that before writing the Aeneid Vergil also composed two other long poems, one of which was called the Georgics and was about farming.  Intrigued, I drove over to the library at Central Connecticut State University and pulled out all the books on the Georgics I could find.  I sat there on the floor of the stacks with a pile of books and opened the first one, a translation of the poem by John Dryden.  This is what I saw:

Dryden's rendition of Vergil's Latin into English rhymed couplets is certainly polished but not otherwise a source of much magic.  What grabbed my attention instead was the illustration at the head of the page that showed Pan with his pipe and his goats watching a plowman at work while the distant sun and moon hang low in the sky.  The picture covers a lot of ground, thematically-speaking:  it is defined by the contrasts between man and nature, leisure and labor, carnal goat-god below and orderly sky above; and, what's more, if you follow the translation you can see that all of this is already there in Vergil, that the themes of the picture are the themes of the opening lines.  Together, Dryden's old-timey translation and the modernist illustrations by Bruno Bramanti were just enough to convey some sense of the power of the original.  Looking at and meditating on this page represented my introduction to the Georgics.  Having spent the past twenty-odd years meditating on the poem, I now have a book to show for it.

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