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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Epic Poetry

The Aeneid (Penguin Classics)Reading the The Aeneid reminded me of my 9th grade English class, which was a lot like the movie Dead Poets Society.  We read the Fitzgerald translation of the The Odyssey and put on a play about Odysseus' long voyage home.  I drew a short straw and got to be the sea monster Scylla or possibly Charybdis ... it was a long time ago, circa the period of delicious global warming in the late Middle Ages.  

Anyway, having been weaned on the Greek side of things, one put off reading the Trojan point of view until now.  And, as predicted here, a few blog-posts ago, once I got through John Dryden's 17th century tedious and obsequious introductory prose, his translation of the actual epic poem was marvelous.  I kept admiring the talent of a translator and Latin expert in making the lines flow in smooth rhythm and rhyme. I think of poems as musical. And in the flow of the music, I stopped thinking about the quality of the translation or the age of the epic and focused on the rollicking good story that I was reading.

I also remembered, that even though I thought my 9th grade English teacher was rather full of it ... he gave us the best definition of "epic" that I have found.  It was also the longest sentence that I ever learned and still remember:

"An epic is a long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in a series of adventures, which form an organic whole, through their relation to a central figure of heroic proportions and through their development of episodes, which are important to the history of a nation or race."

In a weird way, I have also come to think of The Aeneid as an American prototype.  Take away the gods and goddesses and the courts and castles, it is about a group of people, who, having suffered a military/political defeat, were tossed upon stormy seas looking for a new land.  Like the immigrant stories we grew up with, it's a tale of suffering and hope and settlement and building and opportunity.  In its essence it is a story about real people dealing with real problems.  Not ancient or distant at all.  Who'd a thunk it?

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