Today I took an interest in Virgil.This, I think, makes me a more credible Russell Crowe fan, because the line “Strength and honor” was his idea, but he wanted to deliver it in Latin.
I had credited the Greeks with the more authentic use of quantitative meter, epic meter, but now I question my sources. I read somewhere that the Greek epics had their origins in an oral tradition that involved not memorization of every line but facility with the epic meter and familiarity with the plot, a sort of extemporaneous versifying of legends passed down by goat herds. A phenomenon of that sort had been documented in the Balkans with early voice recording technology before the traditional bar room recitations disappeared altogether. But this semester I’ve been reading Attridge on quantitative meter in the English language, and Hollander on classical musicology in poetry, and I’m beginning to think this lost source was mistaken. The Greek vernacular may have had as little use for quantitative meter as the Latin, and the Homeric meter may have been as much Homer’s contribution as heroic couplets are Dryden’s.
Attridge sees the experiments with quantitative meter in the English Renaissance as orthographic conventions, arguing that no one could hear quantitative meters in the schoolboys’ Latin that inspired the use of quantitative verse, because the lost language was profoundly mispronounced. I don’t know if the pronunciation of Latin had improved by the time quantitative meters were revived by Victorian poets, but again the enterprise was only experimental. Since then Chomsky has improved our understanding of linguistics and I’d like to look at his analysis of duration in English and Latin pronunciation next. What I’m looking for now are correspondences between meaning or part of speech and duration. Some of my favorite lines of dactyllic hexameter in English are full of spondees, and I think something in the structure of the language explains their richness and muscularity.
With that hunch already in mind, I thought the meter might come through in unrhymed verse translations. I liked the first few lines of a Theodore C. Williams translation of The Aeneid in blank verse and started searching for a preface to the translation. Instead I found a charming review on Google books:
“I’m a huge fan of propaganda, but I think I may not be a fan of fan fic. I was going into this with the hope that it would be fun, extreme, Latin propaganda, but The Aeneid is really more Trojan War fan fic, IMO. It’s the Phantom Menace to The Iliad’s Empire Strikes Back. It is seriously lame. I think Akira Kurosawa could have made a pretty decent movie of it because he likes to have people frenzy. ..And there are some seriously weird details to this story. For example, Venus is this guy’s mom, but she doesn’t raise him to know not to pull a George Costanza in running away from the Greeks? Dude. It just takes a second to wait for your wife, you loser. I mean, I’m no great fan of Venus to begin with, but that’s just weird. It seems like she would have taken a minute to say, “Don’t trample people running away from your enemies.” Maybe it never occurred to her he’d be so lame.
And then the business with Dido was just annoying. She’s the queen of all the land, has been through hell, wherein her eeeevil brother killed her seemingly pretty awesome husband, and then when Aeneas says to Dido, “btw, it was great sleeping with you, but I have a lot of heads to chop off for no particular reason, so I should prolly get going,” she goes all Kathy Bates in Misery all of a sudden. Except lamer because she’s wailing and self-mutilating instead of taking it out on him. It’s just awkward to watch. Girl needs a sassy gay friend. And none of these people are as cool as they think they are.
And the rest of the book is basically one long chest pound. I guess there’s the part where he goes to Hades, and lo, he knows folk there. I’m kind of bitter about the whole thing because Juno’s so funny and great in The Iliad and such a loser here. Again, Akira Kurosawa probably could have turned it into a pretty decent movie. I don’t really get the frenzying thing, but Kurosawa seemed to have liked it. And, if you like people to run around, chopping limbs off and then whining and blustering for a while, you might really click with this book. ” – Sparrow’s review
Since my interest in quantitative dactyllic hexameter was for the writing of an Alexander epic in the style of the Iliad, I took this as encouragement. Virgil, it seems, wrote fan fiction too.