C.S. Lewis's Lost Aeneid
Classicist A.T. Reyes describes the background to his C.S. Lewis's Lost Aeneid: Arms and the Exile (Yale)...
I have no doubt that, like a sort of tutelary divinity, the spirit of Virgil was present at meetings of the Inklings literary circle in Oxford. In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien delivered the Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture to the British Academy on the subject of Beowulf, which considered, in part, the similarities and differences between that Anglo-Saxon epic and the Aeneid. When he joined the Inklings in 1939, Charles Williams had already published a small volume re-telling the adventures of Aeneas, and in his Arthurian poems, Virgil appears as a central symbol of civilisation. But it was C.S. Lewis whose thoughts and writings were most deeply affected by Virgil's masterpiece. His correspondence and writings make clear that he had begun a translation of the Aeneid in 1933, the very year, according to the biographer Humphrey Carpenter, that the Inklings came into being. Lewis is known to have read out portions of his translation during meetings in 1943 and 1944, and in 1962, he wrote that the Aeneid was one of 10 books that had done the most to shape his "vocational attitude and philosophy of life."
Two themes moved him in particular. First, Virgil's depiction of war – its tragedy and its costliness – affected him deeply as a veteran of the First World War. Then there was the search for a home. The younger Lewis saw himself as Aeneas, a traveller heading to an unknown land he would recognize as home once he had found it. In Christianity, Lewis found that home, and like Aeneas, he understood that his destiny lay there all along.
To explore these themes, he read and re-read the Aeneid. But as a master Classicist and as a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature, he felt that translations of the Aeneid since the sixteenth century failed to capture the vitality of the original. Dryden's translation in particular, "hoodwinked" by humanist conceptions of Latin and the primacy of Ciceronian oratory, had succeeded in mummifying Virgil's epic – a terrible betrayal of the liveliness of the language. He began, therefore, his own translation, intending to bring Virgil's epic back to a medieval tradition, in which Aeneas does not apparently move within poetry that is no more than the equivalent of an empty Classical Temple: grand and imposing, but essentially lifeless.
The medieval reading was the true Virgil, Lewis argued in his History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, and, happily, all of book 1, most of book 2, and a significant section of book 6 are now published to further Lewis's argument. For their kindness and help with this material, I am especially grateful to the C.S. Lewis estate and to Walter Hooper, Lewis's former secretary who rescued the translation before it was destroyed in a bonfire built by Major W.H. Lewis preparatory to moving in 1964 from the Kilns, the family house. Readers may now hear the Aeneid as Lewis himself heard it when he read Virgil's great poem.