A.T. REYES is the editor of a brand new book, publishing for the first time the surviving fragments of C.S. Lewis’s translation of Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, which were rescued from a bonfire. Here, A.T. Reyes discusses his role in the fascinating and ground-breaking literary project of publishing this forgotten translation.
Article by A.T. Reyes
My involvement with C S Lewis’s Aeneid began with a phone call in December 2004 from Walter Hooper, Lewis’s former secretary. He invited me to dinner at his home in Oxford and said he had something surprising for me to look at. The following evening, he showed me an old-fashioned exercise book. Turning to a particular page, he handed it to me to read. And there, written in Lewis’s distinctive hand, was a translation of the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid.
It had long been known that Lewis had translated parts of the Aeneid. He referred to this translation in a letter written in 1935 to his friend Arthur Grieves, and J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in his letters that Lewis had read long portions of his translation in meetings of the Inklings at Magdalen College, Oxford, during World War II (in 1943 and 1944). The translation had been presumed lost, but here it was after all, in a notebook, part of the material saved by Walter in January 1964, from a bonfire begun by Major Warnie Lewis shortly after his brother’s death. Nearly five decades later, Walter’s sifting of the preserved papers was nearly complete, and the translation of the Aeneid had come to light – the largest extant fragment of C. S. Lewis’s writing to have appeared since the Dark Tower in 1977.
Walter asked me to transcribe this fragment and make notes on anything a general reader would need to understand the text. At the time, we thought the translation would be part of a proposed new edition of the collected poetry of C. S. Lewis. But when I had finished, it was clear that the notes and the transcription would take up far too much space in such a volume. Walter then suggested that the transcription and notes be published separately. And so began the search for other fragments of Lewis’s Aeneid.
In another exercise book, Walter turned up a long fragment from Book 6 of the Aeneid, clearly labeled in Lewis’s handwriting. Over the next 2 years, I read all of Lewis’s published work, as well as all of his papers stored in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Eventually, I realized that when, in his academic writing, Lewis quoted from the Aeneid in English, he often used metrical lines, each of twelve syllables. Since his translation also used twelve-syllable lines, it was easy to conclude that, when quoting from Virgil, Lewis was quoting himself. He had translated Virgil’s lines into verse, intending these to fit into a larger whole.
But why had Lewis wanted to translate the Aeneid at all? Lewis felt deeply that scholars from the Renaissance onward had translated Virgil’s poetry as if it were the heavier oratorical prose of the Roman writer Cicero, an error of judgment that destroyed the vitality of the original Latin. A Roman audience, he argued, would have appreciated a liveliness and a lightness in Virgil’s Latin that had more in common with medieval epic. With his translation, Lewis hoped to bring the Aeneid back within this medieval tradition. But he died in 1963, the translation incomplete.
Enough survives, however, to give an idea of what a full version would have been like. Through the kindness of the C. S. Lewis estate, the lost Aeneid is published for the first time, and readers may judge for themselves how well he has succeeded in his aims. Walter Hooper has kindly provided a foreword for the book. My colleague at Groton School, David Ross (Emeritus Professor of Latin at the University of Michigan) and author of a number of books on Latin poetry, including most recently Virgil’s Aeneid A Readers Guide (Blackwell 2007), has contributed a preface in which he sets Lewis’s translation against those by others. I am also grateful to Professor Philippa Goold of Mount Holyoke College for her meticulous help in preparing this edition.
A.T. Reyes, who studied Classics at Harvard and Oxford, helped Walter Hooper with the classical references in Lewis’s ‘Letters’. He teaches Greek and Latin at Groton School, Massachusetts, where he holds the Charles C. and Ann W. Alexander Chair. His other books are Archaic Cyprus (Oxford University Press, 1994), Stamp-Seals of Ancient Cyprus (Oxbow Books, 2001), Abbreviated Lays: Stories of Ancient Rome in Double-Dactylic Rhyme (Oxbow Books, 2003, with S. Edgar and C. Herrmann), and Intermediate Latin (Oxbow Books, 2008). Aside from journal-articles, he has also contributed chapters to The Legacy of Mesopotamia, edited by S. Dalley (Oxford University Press, 1998), and The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt: 300 BC – AD 700 by J. McKenzie (Yale University Press, paperback 2011)
C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid is available now from Yale University Press.