The Magazine

The Classicist

Robert Fagles (1933-2008) gave life to the language of Greece and Rome.

Apr 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 31 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Robert Fagles, the quietly competent scholar-poet and oracular channel of ancient voices, died of cancer at the end of March, and of the man and his work we must now sing.

I met Fagles only once, and though the conversation was neither long nor broad, I recall the confidential warmth of a tall, courtly man with the steady gaze and eagerness to speak avidly with a young fellow traveler in (as he might have put it with a glint in his eye and a bow to John Keats) the realms of gold. Meeting Fagles was akin to touching greatness itself, though not so much because of his own manner, which was disarmingly modest, but because of the link one sensed to greatness. He had kept company with great men; they simply happened to be dead. Yet one felt their pulse in his presence. He wore the past like a cloak.

The obituaries have duly pointed up the honors Fagles accrued over a long career, including the National Humanities Medal, the Academy Award bestowed upon him by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the PEN/Ralph Manheim prize for lifetime achievement--not to mention worldwide sales of his books running at a cool four million copies.

Yet somehow the facts have failed to reveal the man in all his stout kindness and placid curiosity. While Fagles served ably as professor of literature at Princeton for well over 40 years, and for a period headed its Department of Comparative Literature--his doctorate was in English, not classics--he became best known to the world as translator and, in a sense, spiritual midwife and latter-day mouthpiece for Homer and Virgil, the two most august poets of classical Greece and Rome. His rendition of The Iliad came out auspiciously in 1990, in time to be written about for well over a year in the looming shadow of Operation Desert Storm; and he published his version of The Odyssey to equal acclaim in 1996. Their long gestation and birthing, each taking roughly a decade, amply demonstrated the truth behind the claim of T.E. Lawrence that, in Homer, in all his breadth and earthiness and élan, we find more an aspiration than a person.

Then just two years ago Fagles released his edition of The Aeneid. This was a surprise, as Fagles had made his intellectual home with Greek, and translating Virgil's masterwork, he said, required him to reimmerse himself in Latin, a language with which he'd had little commerce since high school--a fact that made this final tour de force all the more remarkable.

Not that Fagles's achievements in rejuvenating the palpitating phrases of ancient times came without practice or preparation. He took up ancient Greek as a junior at Amherst--a launch rather late, some might say, but as he proved, not too late--before going on to Yale where he wrote his dissertation on Alexander Pope's translation of The Iliad. As long ago as 1961 he published a respectable translation of the Greek lyric poet Bacchylides. And later, before his fame ripened with the release of his Homeric translations, he took successful stabs at The Oresteia of Aeschylus and Sophocles' three -Theban plays.

Still, Fagles viewed these early efforts with an amused diffidence. "I was younger then, younger and more foolish," he said of the presumption required to give voice to the dead. But he was too humble: Those translations still enlighten and amaze.

By sway of academic credentials alone, many have been far more qualified to make these renderings, as Fagles never failed to remind anybody who would listen. But he also brought an expertise to the task of revitalizing the greatest classical works not easily matched by (and never to be assumed of) those armed solely with scholarly skills. Fagles was himself a poet, one clue to the mystery of his capacity to make the old bones live and speak again.

During the 10 long years spent on his translation of The Aeneid, Fagles sat at his desk for four or five hours every day with two piles of books before him: On the one side were his Latin text, commentaries, and lexicons; on the other were editions of modern poets such as Robert Lowell, William Merwin, Derek Walcott, C.K. Williams, and Paul Muldoon. Together--along with the incisive hunches native to a man of such broad literary sympathies--they helped him to dip deeply into what he called the "great reservoirs of memory."

Fagles always went for the direct touch; he never wished to sound literary, which is one reason he mastered idiom so thoroughly. His translations didn't strive for the literal; he sought to recreate the momentum of the original, and all tools sat ready to hand on his workbench. He could lapse into slang and he freely played with tenses--anything to make the words hit the reader (or listener) with all their primitive power and brawn. All passages he would read aloud until, he said, "I [began] to feel or find some English lurking" between the lines and, arresting the fugitive words in flight, commit them to paper.

John Dryden's translation of The Aeneid begins with the famous line, "Of Arms and the Man I Sing." Fagles sailed a little closer to the wind: "Wars and a man I sing--an exile driven on by fate," a touch not only more modern, but also more sad and sober. When asked once to identify a line that had driven him to the outer limits of his poetic imagination to translate, he thought hard and pulled from the air one line--Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit--and then laid out his idea of what the line means within its setting: "A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this."

"It's about loss," he said, "about overcoming the worst." But, he added, "the word 'perhaps' is important. It may not be a joy to remember. It may be a bloody misery." And with this we know that, while he sat in his study, Robert Fagles never left the larger world, the one where we live, feel joy, suffer greatly, and die.

Tracy Lee Simmons is the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.