C. S. Lewis's Lost Aeneid: Arms and the Exile
C. S. Lewis
Yale University Press, 2011
184 pp., 30.00
C. S. Lewis as Translator
It is exciting that C. S. Lewis' Aeneid translation fragments are now available. And the story of the drafts' survival, as revealed in this edition's front matter, adds drama to their publication. If the attitude of Lewis and his brother had prevailed, we would have no trace of a great writer's efforts to render the great Roman epic in English. In a somewhat similar way, the intervention of Vergil's friends saved the original, half-finished Aeneid from the flames to which its author, on his deathbed, was keen to send it.
But in Lewis' case the intervention is not as easy to praise. Vergil gave the last third of his adult life to the Aeneid. Though he left it incomplete, the poem became an instant, undisputed classic. There is no toil or achievement of that kind in Lewis' partial translation (all of Book 1, and out of the remaining eleven books, portions ranging from 500 lines to short prose summaries to a single, incomplete line).
As a youth, Lewis did know the Aeneid well, and throughout his life he drew inspiration from it; and among other long-standing projects to take up again during his retirement, he chose its translation. But he was not a classical scholar, and early on the reception (too positive a word, actually) of his book of lyrics Spirits in Bondage (1919) and his narrative poem Dymer (1926) had conveyed that, for him, versifying was a barren tree. He made only brief efforts during later years to prove this wrong. Though by 1963 he believed that more work on his Aeneid was worthwhile, I'm not sure I can agree. As an Aeneid translator myself, I'm not an impartial judge, but I think that the amount of competitiveness I could muster against C. S. Lewis (without feeling like a presumptuous fool) is offset by my sympathetic awareness of what he was up against in Vergil's Latin.
In his foreword to this book, Walter Hooper, Lewis' last secretary and later his controversial literary executor, begins with very different sentiments: "Of all the literary remains of C. S. Lewis published since his death, this is the one that would have pleased him most." A.T. Reyes, this book's editor, quotes Hooper in the introduction as well:
The Lewis brothers felt little of that veneration for manuscripts so typical of many of us, and Major Lewis, after setting aside those papers which had a special significance for him, began disposing of the others … . Happily, however, … Fred Paxford [the Lewises' gardener] knew that I had the highest regard for anything in the master's hand, and when he was given a great quantity of C. S. Lewis's notebooks and papers to lay on the flames, he urged the Major to delay till I should have a chance to see them.
"Veneration," "the master's hand," applied to relics of a human being, particularly one who himself had well-known and important insights into human limitations—those words jar. Apparently within days of Lewis' death, the Lewis myth was animating the manuscripts.
But what's so bad about that? We do want more C. S. Lewis, and why shouldn't we have it, especially when it comes with extensive commentary? This book shows the translation as fascinating evidence of his formation, imagination, and critical drive. And yet, anyone looking in the translation for the clarity and verve characteristic of Lewis' prose will be disappointed—and left to deal on his own with the disappointment. In this edition, the aesthetic judgments offered, though deeply learned, are highly partisan and remind me more of Lewis at his narrowest—he never opened up even to the soulful modernism of his fellow Anglican convert T. S. Eliot—than of common sense.
Lewis depended, during a strenuous education and career, on the joy he found in revocations of the Middle Ages. Before he could access the original texts, he delighted in William Morris, and his scholarly concentration on the older literature of the British Isles equipped him for an opinion startling in a Vergil translator: that Gavin Douglas' 16th-century Scots translation of the Aeneid is the best. Lewis excuses, as "pierc[ing] to the very heart of the Aeneid," a whole couplet in Douglas that does not connect to a word of Vergil's Latin; and, as Douglas did, he includes in his own translation four opening lines that are definitely inauthentic, part of a corrupt manuscript tradition. The broadest influence both of Douglas and of Lewis' general inclinations, however, on the latter's translation is archaic language. I pick a Lewis passage at random, the plea of Palinurus' ghost in Book 6 (lines 365-371):