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Virgil’s Latin epic written in dactylic hexameters (six feet per line of verse with generally three syllables per foot, the first syllable stressed followed by two lighter syllables) translates well into English. The verse translations are far more easily readable than the prose translations, which tend to be strangely stilted and even difficult of grasp at certain times. This is specially the case with the Modern Library translation by J.W. Mackail. Verse translation at times become interpretative but from the seventeenth century, Dryden’s translation to the modern English one by C. Day Lewis, they read fluently.
Elements of Style
The elements of Roman epic writing. - The epic reflects the civilization from which it emerges so The Aeneid presents a picture of ancient Greek civilization and customs, which were with modifications still current in Virgils’ Rome and Italy. The epic is a genre that allows for a vast canvass so that digressions and obscure contemporary historical allusions may co-exist with the legendary main story. Allusions may be simple descriptions or symbolic or allegoric. In the case of the Aeneid allusions specifically refer to those structural incidents that are borrowed from Homer. The Homeric invocation in Book first has already been commented on in the notes. Then the invocation at the start of Book Seventh on the landing in Rome is problematic, but here the poet admits that he needs help to detail the momentous incidents that follows (ll 37ff). He is still in command of the narration, not a mere medium through whom the Muse speaks. Other allusions refer to the visit to the Underworld as in the Odyssey or the Roll-call of the armies of Italy as in the Iliad the Greek generals are identified for Priam. Another motif is that of friendship like that between Achilles and Patroclus. Virgil uses this tradition with Aeneas always accompanied by “trusty Achates”; young Aty is dearly loved by Iülus (Book Fifth) but these relationships are not as well developed as the one between two minor characters, Nisus and Euryalus. At the Funeral games in Sicily Nisus prevents Salius from winning the race by falling in his path to ensure Euryalus’ victory. And in Book Ninth Nisus who was safely out of the enemy’s path returns to rescue his dear fair friend.
The most significantly used Homeric device of a visit to the Underworld, which constitutes the Sixth Aeneid, requires further elucidation. Virgil’s usage is not limited to a structural tribute to Homer. Through the sights in Tartarus there is the Homeric device of revealing the fate of some personages from Aeneas’ past. But with Anchises in the Elysium fields the real purpose of the scene is revealed. Before Aeneas’ eyes pass those figures who will play a part in the history of Rome and Italy. In order to make this acceptable to the reader, Virgil makes Anchises expound a theory of purification of some souls and their reincarnation which his earlier critics considered a borrowing from Pythagoras, but which was in fact a commonly held theory among eastern religions of the time. Some critics have even read the whole descent allegorically as for instance, Taylor in “Dissertation on the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries” sees the soul seeking higher intellectual wisdom not mere forgetting and purification.
Allusion through “ekphrasis” is another stylistic device maternal objects are poetically described as Homer describes Achilles’ shield on which vignettes of Greek rural life are interspersed with scenes of war. In The Aeneid, the shield is sculpted to show the future of Aeneas’ descendants and the history of Rome reaching a climax with the battle of Actuim as the centerpiece. “Ekphrasis” used as a historic device goes beyond a description in another medium of what the poet is singing about . Similarly Pallas’ swordbelt taken by Turnus is described in Book Tenth 499-502 telling the story of Danae. Stylistically, throughout, the allusions are used for a purpose other than mere reverential echoes. Beye compares the Dido episode to that of Ulysses ensnared by Calypso and the historical reference to Cleopatra by equating the two queens on the African continent. But more interesting is the allusion to the singing bard in Odyssey who recapitulates the adventures so far. Virgil makes Aeneas sing his own story which however has been beautifully prefaced in Book First (last section) where Dido’s long- haired bard Iopas chants to his “guilded lyre” the origins of natural phenomena and the heavenly spheres.
The devices of irony and simile have been pointed out in the notes of the books where they occur. The epic simile or the extended comparison is a special device of the grand style. While vivid descriptions of religious rituals or heated battles have brilliant imagery, the extended simile when really effective may be symbolic or it may anticipate an event or delineate a character. It was pointed out how the prowling wolf simile of Turnus round the Trojan camp has a reiterative effect in the course of the epic while it hints at the blood thirsty character of Turnus. Some other epic similes are composite and function as imagistic or symbolic comments on the action they portray. Very few of Virgil’s epic similes have reference to legends and myths Aeneas anger compared to Aegean (Book. ll. 608ff). The frenzy of Dido is one compared to Bacchie frenzy and its later connection has been pointed out in the notes to Book Fourth. Epic similes are a challenge to the reader to use his intelligence and make associations and they are a literary device not as effective in oral as in written poetry.
The use of personification is not too common. Virgil revels in the description of Rumor in Book Fourth ll.169ff, which spreads the secret of Aeneas’ ships being built, and before that the “marriage” of Aeneas and Dido. A more effective series of personifications are given to dawn which several times in homage to Homer is treated as a person specially as Aurora leaving Tithoruis’ saffron bed (Book Fourth ll584-5). Or Dawn in her rosy car over the reddened sea (Book Vll24-25) is a fine image as a precursor of the bloodshed which is being prepared for in Book seventh.