Monday, October 12, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Frederick Ahl (trans.), ALSO SEEN: Virgil: Aeneid. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. lxii, 468. ISBN 978-0-19-923195-9. $29.95. $15.95 (pb).
Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, Georgetown University

Not every book received by BMCR is reviewed, for many reasons, not least the inevitable slips between good intentions of reviewers and their ability to deliver on those attentions, to say nothing of the editors' insistence on timely reviews. I would be sorry to see Fred Ahl's Virgil unnoticed here, for its many virtues. I should not venture a review, not least because it is scarcely appropriate to review the work of someone who once gave me a job when I badly needed it.

The book appeared in a handsomely compact hardcover and now in a more typical trade paperback of the Oxford World's Classics, new style. It has a long introduction by Elaine Fantham, translator's note, maps, and extensive annotation and index (130 pages for 330 of translation). The most unusual of its excellences, however, is metrical. With great patience, ingenuity, learning, and wit, Ahl has devised an English representation of the dactylic hexameter, each line comprising 12-17 syllables in 6 feet accented on the first syllable. The effect is not procrustean (as were the specimens W.H. Auden showed long ago in his commonplace book A Certain World). I will leave it with a sample of a famous passage (4.437ff) and encourage readers to sample further for themselves, comparing this version to others. (It takes a few tries to get the hang of the meter, which then proves hypnotic.)

Such her insistent plea; and such lamentations her sister,
Saddest of all, has to act, re-enact. To laments, he proves passive,
Motionless; and to their voices, the words that he hears, unresponsive.
Fate blocks, god obstructs what he, as a man, would hear calmly.
So, in the Alps, wild gales from the north gust this way and that way,
Vying among themselves to uproot some vigorous oak tree,
Massive with centuries' growth: there's a roar, and the uppermost foliage
Flies off and carpets the ground as the trunk shudders. Yet the old oak tree
Sticks to the crags, and as high as its crest reaches up towards heaven's
Brightness, its roots stretch down just as low into Tartarus' darkness.
Such was the pounding of voices, this way and that way, the hero
Underwent ceaselessly; he, in his great heart, felt all the anguish.
But, in his mind, he remained unmoved; tears flood, but are wasted.

He captures in the last words the ambiguity that would exercise Servius, Augustine, and others after. A Latin text for comparison:

Talibus orabat, talisque miserrima fletus
fertque refertque soror. sed nullis ille mouetur
fletibus aut uoces ullas tractabilis audit;
fata obstant placidasque uiri deus obstruit auris.
ac uelut annoso ualidam cum robore quercum
Alpini Boreae nunc hinc nunc flatibus illinc
eruere inter se certant; it stridor, et altae
consternunt terram concusso stipite frondes;
ipsa haeret scopulis et quantum uertice ad auras
aetherias, tantum radice in Tartara tendit:
haud secus adsiduis hinc atque hinc uocibus heros
tunditur, et magno persentit pectore curas;
mens immota manet, lacrimae uoluuntur inanes.


  1. Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm for this book. The passage you selected makes compelling reading both in Latin and in English. Great choice. I'm hooked.

  2. I couldn't agree more; it's a brilliant translation, and I've found it successful both in large civ courses and in Latin classes when discussing philosophies of translation.

  3. Judging from the passage JOD quotes, this is a truly great translation. Thank you, Fred!


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