Saturday, May 12, 2007

BOOK: Maffeo Vegio, "Short Epics"

Maffeo Vegio: Short Epics. Edited and translated by Michael C. J. Putnam. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 15. Harvard University Press, 2004. 0674014839. lviii + 184 pp.

Vegio was an Italian author of the first half of the 15th century. Among other things, he wrote several short epic poems, four of which are collected in this book. There's also an impressively long and thorough introduction by the translator, longer than is usually the case in other volumes of the I Tatti Renaissance Library series. It runs to about 50 pages and he dissects each poem endlessly, pointing out every conceivable instance where a particular passage in Vegio has been influenced by some particular passage in a classical author (his main influences being Virgil and, to a lesser extent, Ovid and Seneca); he even gives precise counts of the Homeric similes in each poem and discusses many of them individually, again mentioning similarities with Virgil's similes where appropriate. I am impressed by this assiduity; I cannot say that I found these things very interesting, but I'm sure they will be appreciated by people who earnestly wish to study Vegio's poems and their relationship to their classical sources.

As for the poems themselves, they are somewhat of a mixed bag. But I have learned by now not to expect too much from the works I find in the ITRL volumes, so I was not terribly disappointed. Of the four poems in this book, the only one I've really enjoyed was the third one, The Golden Fleece. I often felt that I might enjoy these poems better if they were translated into verse rather than prose. I don't say that the translator isn't making an honest effort to imbue the prose with a certain poetic quality, but still it isn't quite the same as if you were reading genuine hexameters. I wonder why the English-speaking people feel that the English language isn't suitable for hexameters. Have they ever even seriously tried? I should try reading something about this subject some time. So far, the only discussion of this sort that I've read is in the letters of Edmund Spenser and Gabriel Harvey, where Spenser doesn't seem to be particularly averse to the idea of English hexameters. But, anyway, in the absence of hexameters I'd be satisfied even with ordinary English blank verse (with iambic pentameters) — whatever it is, as long as it has metre, I'd probably like it better than prose.

Book XIII of the Aeneid

Several renaissance authors tried to write continuations (or ‘supplements’, as they were often called) of Virgil's Aeneid; Vegio's supplement, which runs to some 600 lines, is probably one of the most well-known efforts of this type.

I cannot say that I particularly care for this kind of poetry. First of all, it is a very long time since I read the Aeneid; so, insofar as Vegio's supplement refers to things that should be familiar to the reader from the original Aeneid, I'm probably not in a very good position to understand those references. :-) Besides, I didn't enjoy the Aeneid anyway. There are several reasons for this. First, there's my general contempt for ancient Rome, its civilization, language, culture and everything else related to it. This contempt is as seething as it is absurd. I am fond of ancient Greece and in consequence despise the Romans as stupid, dull, witless, soulless peasants and upstarts who were good at more or less nothing except warfare, road-building, and the law, none of which strikes me as a particularly worthwhile field of endeavour. I hate the Romans for their overweening arrogance, their aggressive imperialism, for the fact that they occupied Greece and appropriated its culture. One of the reasons why I enjoyed Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire so much was precisely the fact that there you can revel, over the course of hundreds and hundreds of pages, in the story of how Rome came to a long-overdue, richly deserved, and satisfyingly resounding crash.

Of course, this contempt of Rome is absurd. First of all, the Greece I'm (equally absurdly) fond of, if it ever existed in the first place — the exotic patchwork of bickering city-states who blithely went on to build a homegrown civilization of their own due to the simple fact that they had nobody conveniently close by to borrow it from; great liars and tellers of tales, just as arrogant in their own way as the Romans, but with an arrogance so obviously absurd that it cannot help appearing cute rather than annoying — that Greece was over by the time of Philip of Macedon, if not already by the time of the Peloponnesian war. The kind of Greece that the Romans conquered was not nearly as much worthy of being lamented. But, there you have it. I always cheer on the underdogs. I hate imperialists, and what I hate even more is successful imperialists. The petty Greek tyrants and princelings you can laugh at; but when a Rome takes over the whole of the Mediterranean — that's no longer funny.

Now, don't get me wrong; I know that the Romans weren't all bad. Some parts of their political history make for a truly great read. Their crazy emperors are a rich source of amusing anecdotes, and I enjoyed Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars greatly. I've read a bit of their lyrical poets, and enjoyed Catullus, and even some Horace. I've even read a play or two by Plautus, and found his comedies much funnier than the Greek ones (I've read two by Aristophanes and one by Menander, none of which was funny at all). So I'm not altogether averse to Roman literature. But the Aeneid I really didn't enjoy. I consider Virgil a reprehensible copycat, shamelessly ripping off both the Iliad and the Odyssey in practically everything, but to what he stole from Homer he also brought an innovation of his own, namely his disgusting sycophancy. With some of the passages I don't doubt that he crawled a mile up Augustus' ass, and I hope that Augustus enjoyed it, but I, with my burning hatred of Roman emperors, definitely didn't.

I guess it all boils down to who the poets had to suck up to. The travelling poets of Homer's age had to suck up to the small noblemen, chieftains, and landowners whose hospitality and support they depended upon; these worthy gentlemen naturally liked to listen to tales of feats and adventures of people similar to them, preferrably those whom they could imagine to have been their ancestors; and so this is the type of heroes that we encounter in Homer's epics, and nobody pretends that what they were doing there was much different than what you can always expect this type of people to do: indulging in a dinky little war, little better than a bit of piracy really, perhaps over a woman but more likely out of a mere thirst for plunder. All of which is natural and human enough and I don't particularly blame them for doing it, nor Homer for singing about it.

But Virgil had to suck up to a considerably different type of person, namely to the emperor of a huge state; an emperor, moreover, who was keen to see himself as something better than merely the chief of a (very) large band of robbers; one who, unlike the petty chiefs of Homer's Greece that were satisfied to consider themselves descended from (demi)gods, also harboured a serious ambition to eventually become revered as a god himself; one who wanted to believe (perhaps even genuinely managed to get himself to believe) that his state had a purpose, a destiny, and that it was a force for the good. And so in the Aeneid we have Aeneas, who is first of all a seriously annoyingly larger-than-life character (and the poet seems to expect us to like him, doesn't he? which is what annoys me — in the Iliad nobody expected us to like Achilles; he's a stubborn and arrogant prick, just as you can expect from that type of person, and nobody's asking you to be fond of him), and secondly, neither he nor the poet can admit that Aeneas is coming there for a bit of looting and pillaging and to uproot the existing inhabitants and settle there with his own men, regardless of whether the existing inhabitants want it or not; no, here in the Aeneid, it all has to be dolled up, Aeneas is coming with practically a mission from the gods (*cough* manifest destiny *cough*), there's no end to the prattling about how successful and glorious his descendants will eventually get to be, etc., etc. All of this makes for terrible reading. I enjoyed the Iliad and the Odyssey, but I hated the Aeneid and was bored to death by it.

Anyway, it is thus not particularly surprising that I didn't care very much for Vegio's supplement to the Aeneid either. Its pupose is to provide a nicer, happier and more well-rounded end of the story — as we know, the Aeneid ends somewhat abruptly, with Aeneas having just slain Turnus on the battlefield. The supplement mostly consists of several speeches, the net result of which is that the Trojans and the Italians conclude peace, they all agree that the last bout of fighting was mostly Turnus' fault, and Aeneas gets married to Lavinia, the daughter of the old Italic king Latinus, who also adopts Aeneas as his son and successor. We also learn that the gods intend to deify Aeneas after he dies, so that he will dwell among them afterwards. I admit that all of this does (to me at least) represent a better end of the story than the sudden and abrupt ending of Virgil's poem; Vegio provides that dénouement that is so completely missing in the Aeneid. I'm not surprised that the Renaissance printed editions of the Aeneid routinely included Vegio's supplement. But anyway, for someone who, like me, doesn't care very much for the Aeneid, the supplement obviously doesn't hold terribly much interest either.


This is an even shorter poem, a bit longer than 300 lines. Astyanax was the son of Hector and Andromache, and, being just a boy, survived until the end of the Trojan war. However, the Greeks have received a prophecy that he will grow up and take revenge on them, so they decide to kill him. Venus warns Andromache in a dream and she sends Astyanax to hide in Hector's grave. The Greeks send Odysseus to Andromache to fetch Astyanax, and he threatens to scatter Hector's ashes if she doesn't disclose where Astyanax is hiding. To me it seems a rather silly threat — after all, isn't it better to have a live son and a graveless husband than a dead son and a decently buried husband? But it seems that the threat would have worked on Andromache. But anyway, she doesn't have a choice really, for if Odysseus were actually to go and try carrying out his threat, he would in the process of this discover where Astyanax is hiding anyway. So she calls the boy out of his hiding-place, Odysseus takes him away and the Greeks kill him.

I didn't particularly enjoy this poem either. Most of it consists of speeches; in this respect the situation is even worse than in the Supplement. Instead of having the story proceed through actions and dialogue, the poet tries to tell it through long orations by the principal characters. (Even the editor comments in the introduction, p. xxx, on the huge proportion of speeches in this poem.) Sure, Homer or Virgil occasionally include that sort of thing too, but not to such an extent. I guess that lovers of Latin oratory might enjoy this poem, but someone who (like me) just reads the English translation for the sake of its content will not be terribly excited.

[To be continued in a few days.]

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