The unexpected page-turner: Virgil


Of late, I’ve been worrying that I’m losing it. Specifically, my ability to concentrate and … to read. (To read, you must concentrate on what you’re reading.)

I read so much all day on screens large and small that I find myself struggling to read words on paper when they are bound into packets of a certain thickness, otherwise known as books. Perhaps that is why I struggle to appreciate tomes that others are still capable of savoring.

You will appreciate that this is an odd confession from an aspiring author. Soon, in my fantasies, I will persuade all of you to read my book, once it is published. If you’re still able, that is.

So I’ve been starting and dropping books. It’s so easy nowadays — one click on Amazon, a few seconds on the Kindle. But they can’t hold my attention anymore.

And then, I returned to an old book: Virgil’s Aeneid.

Perhaps Cheri reminded me to pick it up again when she did. Perhaps I was just looking for an excuse.

And oh, what a surprise. The pages turn themselves. The pace is fast but light, the action non-stop, the tension immediate, the storytelling riveting. My concentration is complete, my effort nil.

I am reading Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, which preserves the rhythm of Virgil’s Latin. I mentioned the other day how Virgil paid attention to his words, like “a she-bear licking his cubs.” Well, this is the result. Not a word is amiss or extraneous. The poem has speed.

Perhaps I need to get my head examined. Perhaps I am an anachronism, two millennia out of date. Or perhaps there is a reason why the Aeneid is a classic. It is so good. It made me remember how to read. If you’re like me, wondering whether “Google has made you dumb” (Nick Carr), pick up Virgil.

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26 thoughts on “The unexpected page-turner: Virgil

    • Oh yes. You linked to the Dryden version — revered but dusty and arcane. Trust me, I read all of Plutarch in the Dryden translation.

      No, the story of Aeneas is one of sex, love, longing, fear, war, triumph and disaster and must be read in modern words. Even Virgil said it should be a scroll-roller.

  1. Reading the Robert Fagel version and listening to the Aeneid Stanford lectures you mentioned in a previous post. Great stuff! Thanks.

  2. I always loved Vergil too. Ironically, there is something non Roman in his works (the Aeneid too): his romanticism and deep inspection of feelings, among the rest, which make him even more precious, and modern. He was in fact born in the Italian Gallia, close to Mantua, and he received his literary education in Cremona, centuries later the land of the Stradivaris.

    But let me say about the translator, Robert Fitzgerald. He owned a mansion in San Fortunato, close to Perugia. I had some brief vacations in that house (20 years ago?) since one of my best friends being from Perugia her parents were close friends of the Fitzgeralds.

    My friend actually lived in that house for a year or more, since the Fitzgeralds were always abroad. I regret not having met him, he being either not living or away.

    I remember the refined, non ostentatious, elegance of the place, the marvellous garden with a wide view over green Umbria, and was also hit by the amazing number of books gracefully located in almost every corner, room, corridor, bathroom, stairs, closet, veranda.

    • That house sounds like I could easily suffer house arrest in it. Views over Umbria, books everywhere, non-ostentatious elegance.

      Interesting that you consider Virgil”s romanticism un-Roman.

    • The true Romans of that time were un-romantic, serious minded, and / or had a classical attitude. Even millennia later Italy won’t quite embrace romanticism.

      Virgil was a provincial from Gallia, not a Roman of Rome. When he arrived to Rome he surprised his readers with unheard-of introspection, sensibility, sadness, melancholia, magic, plus a streben for things impossible.

      Aeneas envies his companions who died a glorious dead; loves but cannot love Dido etc.. Plus Dido’s pathos and such queen humbled like a beggar out of love … the Romans were impressed. I cannot prove this romanticism comes from Gallia but it is tempting to think so. Of course Orphic, Hellenistic, Lucretious’ and Christian ideas (possibly) played a role.

  3. I hope, Andreas, that you will post your thoughts about the differences in content and tone between the first six books and the last six. I am sure you know this but for your readers–who may now be persuaded to read the Aeneid–scholars have observed that the first six mirror, in some respects, the Odyssey and the last six, the Illiad.

    Some of the most emotional moments, touching beyond words and quite comtemporary–think Vietnam–are in the last half of the poem.

    Just a thought.

    • That’s contemporary (in case Mr. Crotchety may think I didn’t notice my own typ0. Since he shamed me about my German spelling of bitchin and threatened my own sense of California jargon, I have been smarting.

    • What’s up with the “o” in “typ0” of all words? That’s a Georgian zero. Did you do that on purpose? Looks like a subtle message of some sort, as in “If I substitute one of my o’s with a zero, it means I’ve been kidnapped and someone is holding a gun to my temple.” The closing paranthesis is also conspicuously missing, which points to nervousness, thus confirming the coercion hypothesis. Should we call the police?

    • Oh my god, you two provided the laugh I have needed for a long time. Thank you both…

      And good Peter, you have a very good eye ( like Hannibal).

      I can’t believe anyone would notice that 0.


    • For sure, Cheri. I want to talk lots more about this. A mini-thread, as it were.

      But don’t wait for me. You’ve been thinking about the book for a while now.

    • Maybe after I finish the crummy Song of Roland bleecchhhhh and Lancelot and write my paper, then….I might be able to go back and think about the Aeneid.

      Remember, I don’t have the intellectual breadth that you do.

      The only reason my professor has put these two horrid pieces of literature into his curriculum is that he is French.

      We should be reading, at this point in our time-line, El Cid and Moses Maimonides.

  4. I also thought that I had lost the ability to read since I got out of college. However last year I went on vacation and took along The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Over the vacation I devoured the book. My conclusion is that part of the issue is that in my day to day life my concentration is constantly interrupted by the technology that surrounds me. While on vacation without the Internet, phone, or TV to distract me I was able to concentrate and read the book.

    Now the hard part is creating a place where I can concentrate in my daily life. The I can sit down and devour Aeneid.

    • It is fantasy in the vein of Tolkien so if you enjoy stories in that arena I highly recommend it. Sci-Fi/Fantasy is one of the main areas that I read when looking for fiction. It has an interesting narrative twist in that it is a story inside of a story. The main character(Kvothe) is retelling his life to the “Chronicler”. It is insanely hard to write a strong novel in the first person so I have to give Rothfuss credit for succeeding here even if it did take over a dozen years from start to publication!

  5. Andreas,

    A famous figure who likewise was “losing it” also turned to this tale when he found all other sources of entertainment flat and unprofitable. I will try and find the relevant initial lines on the Internet- let me see, let me see:

    “I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted;
    or if it was, not above once; for the play, I remember, pleas’d
    not the million, ’twas caviary to the general; but it was (as I
    receiv’d it, and others, whose judgments in such matters cried in
    the top of mine) an excellent play, well digested in the scenes,
    set down with as much modesty as cunning. I remember one said
    there were no sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury,
    nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of
    affectation; but call’d it an honest method, as wholesome as
    sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine. One speech in it I chiefly lov’d. ‘Twas Aeneas’ tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam’s slaughter. If it live in your memory, begin at this line- let me see, let me see:”

  6. First Player:

    “Anon he finds him
    Striking too short at Greeks; his antique sword,
    Rebellious to his arm, lies where it falls,
    Repugnant to command: unequal match’d,
    Pyrrhus at Priam drives; in rage strikes wide;
    But with the whiff and wind of his fell sword
    The unnerved father falls.

    “Then senseless Ilium,
    Seeming to feel this blow, with flaming top
    Stoops to his base, and with a hideous crash
    Takes prisoner Pyrrhus’ ear: for, lo! his sword,
    Which was declining on the milky head
    Of reverend Priam, seem’d i’ the air to stick:
    So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood,
    And like a neutral to his will and matter,
    Did … nothing.

    “But, as we often see, against some storm,
    A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,
    The bold winds speechless and the orb below
    As hush as death, anon the dreadful thunder
    Doth rend the region, so, after Pyrrhus’ pause,
    Aroused vengeance sets him new a-work;
    And never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall
    On Mars’s armour forged for proof eterne
    With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword
    Now falls on Priam.



    “Prithee, say on … Say on. Come to Hecuba.”


    “Pray you, no more.”

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