Sunday, December 5, 2010

Dido's Fire

I did not love epic poetry at first sight. But by the time Dido stabbed herself on top of her own funeral pyre, I was hooked.

I was studying Latin by accident, really, through a long set of changes in undergraduate majors so convoluted I won’t bother to mention them here. Suffice it to say: I was one of those misguided youths who believes “professor” sounds like a good career choice. Professor of What? Hadn’t decided. Whatever. I just wanted to teach at a college. I believe at that time I thought I was going to be a Russian Medievalist. Some German professor told me it would be the next hot thing.

Not sure what Latin had to do with Old Church Slavonic, but I was studying it; I had even made it to my fourth semester. Some fantasy that I was in a British schoolboy must have gotten me through the third semester, because it sure as heck wasn’t the writings of Julius Caesar or Cicero that kept me going. I was at Brigham Young University, which isn’t much like an English boarding school. I was a college sophomore, a closeted twenty-three year-old virgin. A thirteen year-old Etonian would have been a corrupting influence on the likes of me.

My education had been sheltered enough that I’d somehow made it that far that I’d not only missed ever being exposed to the Aeneid in some translation before, I’d never even read an excerpt of the Odyssey. I remember buying the Purple Vergil, a hardback standard inflicted on generations of Catholic schoolchildren, no doubt. I remember the wonder at seeing all those lines. Every one the same length. As otherworldly as it seemed, I couldn’t imagine that anyone had ever made it through the whole thing. Twelve books. We had sixteen weeks to cover only the first four. A line could take me an hour. Each book had about 800 lines. It took Vergil the last eleven years of his life to write it. At the rate I was going I would have to live a lot longer than Vergil’s 51 years to make it through.

Then along came Dido. This was before a certain British pop singer had come along, so the name itself was strange. Even in the halting pace I kept though all the parsings—ablatives, datives, subjunctive mood shifts—Dido breathed. Duty-bound Aeneas’ pietas was as humanizing for me as a plaster wall. But the Queen of Carthage’s rage was something I understood. Two millennia later, in dactyls, in a language I could barely make a sentence of she burned.

Listen to the Aeneid IV in the original Latin.

That’s how it began: my love affair with the poetry of other people’s languages, my troubled relationship with the long poem. Long before I’d ever love my own language, let alone want to fashion my own Dido out of it.

Here's Dido's death as translated by Robert Fagles:
Then Juno in all her power, filled with pity
for Dido's agonizing death, her labor long and hard,
sped Iris down from Olympus to release her spirit
wrestling now in a deathlock with her limbs.
Since she was dying a death not fated or deserved,
no, tormented, before her day, in a blaze of passion--
Prosperina had yet to pluck a golden lock from her head
and commit her life to the Styx and the dark world below.
So Iris, glistening dew, comes skimming down from the sky
on gilded wings, trailing showers of iridescence shimmering
into the sun, and hovering over Dido's head, declares:
"So commanded, I take this lock as a sacred gift
to the God of Death, and I release you from your body."

With that, she cut the lock with her hand and all at once
the warmth slipped away, the life dissolved in the winds

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