C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid
Reviewed by Richard C. West
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 115/116.]
That C.S. Lewis had a very high regard for the Aeneid by Publius Vergilius Maro is obvious from the many laudatory comments upon it to be found throughout his writings from early to late in his career. He re-read it often (in Latin, of course). I used to find this a little puzzling, for it is more common to prefer Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (which indeed Lewis also read in the original language and prized, just not as highly), but this book explains his fascination. For it is not only a translation but a study of Lewis’s use and understanding of the Aeneid.
Lewis approached his translation similarly to the method he praises in the fifteenth-century Scots translation by Gavin Douglas in his volume in the Oxford History of English Literature series: not to render every word literally, but to capture the overall meaning and spirit. This is evident from the beginning, where the famous “Arma virumque” is given as “Of arms and the exile” rather than the literal “of arms and the man,” the better to indicate the plight of Aeneas (or Eneas, as Lewis spells the name throughout). That he chose the alexandrine (a twelve-syllable line) in place of the Latin hexameter (with its six metrical feet), and in rhyming couplets at that, initially seems quirky. But it works. As classical scholar D.O. Ross (Emeritus Professor of Latin and Greek at the University of Michigan) puts it in his preface, this approach “attempts to clean Virgil’s canvas of the surface grime of classicism […] while it restores the archaism and poetic diction of our pre-industrial literary inheritance” (xix). There are passages in Lewis’s letters describing why he thinks an alexandrine line in English can catch much of the poetic effect of a hexameter in Latin. As Prof. Ross further explains: “The rhyming alexandrines immediately give us the sense of a classical poem, and the diction is essentially simple, yet poetic” (xxi). Prof. Ross compares a passage in Lewis’s version and three other modern translations, showing that all have the literal meaning pretty well, but Lewis best captures the mood and even the stylistic technique.
There is no definite record of when Lewis began his translation, but references in his letters show he had done considerable work on it by the early nineteen-thirties, and he read parts to the Inklings in the forties. His holograph survives in two notebooks (facsimiles of five pages are reproduced), but these are plainly fair copies (though with some handwritten changes) and there must have been earlier drafts. For instance, the fair copy has the reading, regarding the goddess Juno’s hostility to the Trojan refugees:
“Leading them far, for-wandered, over alien foam
—So long was fate in labour with the birth of Rome.”
[Aeneid Book One, lines 32-33; Lost Aeneid 39]
But in A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942), while Lewis has the same first line as above, he gives the second line rather as “So mighty was the labour of the birth of Rome” (33). Since the notebooks are not dated we cannot really tell which was the later, emended translation, but we can tell that he expended much thought and care on this project.
Lewis apparently worked on his translation off and on as the spirit moved him. We have all of Book One and substantial portions of Books Two and Six, and occasional passages from the other nine books mostly taken from Lewis’s other writings where he used a quotation from Virgil and translated it (so we see how very often he did that). This edition provides the Latin text with Lewis’s rendering on a facing page, along with summaries of the parts not translated. It makes for a very good reading experience: something more than a summary of the Aeneid along with Lewis’s quite engaging poetry. Those who have no Latin will be able to experience a good epic poem, while those who do (or, like me, have some) will have the additional pleasure of watching Lewis at work.
There is an invaluable “Introduction: C.S. Lewis and Virgil’s Aeneid” by A.T. Reyes, who teaches Greek and Latin at Groton School, Massachusetts, and who helped Fr. Walter Hooper with the numerous classical references in his edition of Lewis’s Collected Letters. It is easy to see why Fr. Hooper thought Dr. Reyes a good choice to prepare this edition, for he is very knowledgeable about Lewis’s work as well as Virgil’s. He has made note for us of every reference to Virgil in Lewis’s essays and letters (no small task) and illuminated the regard this great scholar and lover of literature had for the classical poet. His argument that “Virgil, in fact, is the link that unites Lewis’s life as a Christian apologist and his career as a professor of English literature” (1) is not something I had noticed before, but I think he is right. Lewis thought that there was something more than coincidence in the medieval notion that Virgil’s fourth Eclogue prophesies the birth of Christ (then in the near future), and appreciated the symbolism of his serving as Dante’s guide in the Commedia. And in A Preface to Paradise Lost he makes a substantial case for what he calls “secondary epic” (Virgil’s adding to Homer the idea that an epic should deal with some mighty theme) as a crucial development in literature, and thus (as Dr. Reyes puts it) “central to his [Lewis’s] work as a scholar of medieval and Renaissance English” (9). Moreover, what he saw in the Aeneid was not only the grim depiction of war and death, and not only the idea of Rome as bringer of civilization and peace (supposedly, anyway), but the theme of the “immense costliness of a vocation with the complete conviction that it is worth it” (11, quoted from a letter to Dorothy L. Sayers dated 29 December 1946, Collected Letters, vol. 2.750), and the shared Virgilian and Lewisian theme that in the trials and tribulations of life “One can do no more than trust in divine will” (1). Hence one can see why Fr. Hooper begins his Foreword to this book by saying that “Of all the literary remains of C.S. Lewis published since his death, this is the one that would have pleased him most” (xi).
- Lewis, C.S. Collected Letters, vol. 1-3, ed. Walter Hooper. London: HarperCollins, 2000-2006.
- Lewis, C.S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. Oxford History of English Literature, vol. 3. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1954.
- Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford University Press, 1942.