C. S. Lewis's Lost Aeneid: Arms and the Exile
C. S. Lewis
Yale University Press, 2011
184 pp., 30.71
C. S. Lewis as Translator
"Save me. Seek back again to Velia's port, and throw Dust on my body. Or, if thou canst the way, if thy Immortal mother can (for not without heaven's high Conduct, I ween, thou journeyest here) to thy right hand Let me but hold, and reach with thee the further strand —So even in death I shall not miss death's quietness."
This rendering buries me. The words are sonorous and beautiful; their unnatural order, giving a primordially poetic (and Vergilian) feel, doesn't fret me overmuch. But they're also massively unclear, and that starts only a little way in. Trying to leave aside the question of correspondence to the Latin (which happens to be poor) and approach on its own the sequence of thought in English, I'm honestly stymied. I can barely get through the conditional statement. The paradox (?) at the end is rather flat at best. Peeking to the opposite page where a Latin text is provided, as throughout—though, oddly, it's not the text Lewis used but a better-emended one—I see no cleverness at all, only Palinurus' pathetic wish to rest "at least" in death.
I wonder whether Lewis would have been happy, at the copyediting stage, to go through with ignoring, or actually turning upside down, a part of ancient religion that helps drive the story, not only here but at several other junctures: the belief that the unburied dead have no peace. But I can hardly be smug in this stricture: similar ones could hit every passage of my own work if belligerent manuscript readers and editors hadn't come to its rescue. Such people, of course, couldn't do the same for Lewis' translation once he was dead.
Still, in its circumstances it got a less helpful deal than it might have. I have to conclude that, granted the fragments needed to be published, they lose out through Reyes, Hooper, and the preface-writer D. O. Ross' sometimes wildly uncritical presentation, which throws suspicion even on Lewis' most accomplished lines. In a comparative treatment of a single passage as rendered by several translators (a standard technique in reviews of this genre), Ross finds Lewis better than Allen Mandelbaum, Stanley Lombardo, and Robert Fagles, all of whom have wide popular readerships and strong classroom currency—all deservedly, I think.
The worst effect of surrounding this undirected, unrehearsed performance of Lewis with flattery is the way the flattery works against his dearest purposes, the religious ones. He loved the Aeneid most deeply as a tale of suffering exile and transient joys leading toward an eternal homeland. But like Aeneas and all of us, he was inclined to halt, convinced he had come to the goal, and to mistake inspirations for their Source—a humanness that humans have to overcome, as Lewis himself explained again and again.
As a translator, he mistook his personal tastes and professional critical position for the timeless essence of a literary masterpiece, which comes from God rather than from any worldly circumstance. You could in fact ask anyone who has translated the whole Aeneid, or who teaches it regularly, and you would hear that Vergil really isn't "like" anything else. To expand Harold Bloom's formulation through religious terms of which Bloom would not at all approve, the Aeneid is not comparable to anything on earth; heartfelt prayer or trust in divine providence gives the nearest idea of its words.
To Vergil's scholars, he is a fresh and only partly traceable blend of stunts that shouldn't work, probably as surprising to his first readers as it is now. He is far stranger than the stately (if not mincing) modern classicism of Dryden's translation, which Lewis loathed, but equally stranger than the "roys in May" and "brycht and gay" medievalism of Douglas that Lewis adored. Vergil's translators need to get rid of as many preconceptions as they can and be prepared to try anything that might work, inventing a new style in every generation. Lewis might have moved in this direction—he had, after all, invented several new ways of purveying theology—but death took away the possibility. It seems perverse not even to concede that, as a stylist, he could have been a victim of time; he himself was committed to believing that no sincere Christian's shortcomings, of any kind, matter in the end.
Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Wesleyan University, where as a Guggenheim Fellow she is translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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