I have a confession to make. Even though I’m happy to talk about my love of ‘classic’ literature, I’ve never actually read ‘Classic’ literature. That’s not to say that such books haven’t always been on my reading list or that I don’t enjoy films like ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou,’ just that I’ve never quite got round to reading the originals.
Naturally, the reason I’m making this confession online is that it’s no longer true. I have now read ‘The Aeneid’ by Virgil (trans. by David West). It has been entertaining and engaging but it has also made me question how I approach pre-modern literature.
The real reason I’ve always wanted to read these classic books is that there are few things better than the recognition moment you get when you read the original of an idea or phrase that has been copied a million times. It happens all the time in Shakespeare; I especially remember first reading Hamlet, suddenly seeing so many well-known phrases in their original context. A part of the joy of reading these older texts is that so many authors have also read them and then used them in their own works. I loved reading’Brave New World’ after ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Vanity Fair’ after ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’ and, more recently, ‘The Adventures of the Busts of Eva Peron‘ after ‘Don Quixote’. Given that the vast majority of male authors pretty much until WW1 (if not later) had been educated in the Classics to the exclusion of nearly all other branches of learning, I had very high hopes for lightbulb recognition moments in ‘The Aeneid.’
The book started well, with Aeneas, having survived the sack of Troy, meeting Queen Dido of Carthage. He is on a mission to settle in Italy, following an ancient prophesy. The plaything of various goddesses however, his journey is going to take an extremely long time, and be filled with a far above average number of detours, hinderances and curses. As a modern reader, it’s tempting to pity these surviving veterans of and refugees from the destroyed Troy. Their families and friend have been brutally killed before their eyes; their entire civilisation is close to being utterly lost. Sadly, as Classical heroes they appear to lack any subconscious urges or traumas, and there was very little for such a psychological reading to hold on to. I enjoyed the poetry and drama of the story, but I did feel like I would have to take a less modern approach to the book if I was to get the most out of it.
In fact, the overall impression of my introduction to Classical literature was that it was not what I expected. The characters were powerful, but psychologically opaque. The morals and ethics were extremely hard to comprehend, and my attempts at understanding were not at all aided by the interventions of unhelpful immortals. Lastly, aside from the iconic opening: ‘I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile, who long since left the land of Troy and came to Italy to the shores of Lavinium…’ there didn’t seem to be much in the way of phrases or characters that I recognised from later fiction. I realise this could be a point about translation or my own reading, but I think it’s more a result of my misunderstanding of traditional English education. When I really thought about it, I realised that the authors who learned so much Greek and Latin at school were mostly studying grammar. To expect them to apply this learning to their fiction is probably like expecting them to rely heavily on their maths lessons when writing novels. I know that some authors have absolutely drawn on Classic stories in their works (take Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’) but these are direct and conscious evocations; they’re not making a statement about the saturation of specific literary works into the modern lexicon or mindset.
Really what I’m saying is that I need to remember books like ‘The Aeneid’ are myths, not novels. They are great to read and think about, but they do need to be approached on their own terms. At any rate, that’s my impression after my first real introduction to them. In the future, I hope to refine my theories through ‘The Iliad’, ‘The Odyssey’ and, of course, anything by Ovid I can get my hands on.