Introductions to the Aeneid – 1. W.F. Jackson Knight

‘The best poem of the best poet’
(John Dryden on Virgil’s Aeneid)

I own three English translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1970 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin classics prose translation by David West

The next three blog posts consist of detailed analyses of the introductions to each of these translations. The third one, about David West’s introduction, also give examples of each of the translators’ work.

1956 introduction by W.F. Jackson Knight

William Francis Jackson Knight (1895 to 1964) was an English classical scholar. After private school and Oxford he served in the First World War where he was badly wounded. You would expect this to give him to give him special insight into the brutal fighting in the Aeneid but it doesn’t. After returning to civilian life he taught Classics at another private school for ten years before securing a place at a university (Exeter) in 1936. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1945 and spent 4 years doing a translation of his beloved Aeneid, which was published by Penguin in 1954.

There’s a very full Wikipedia article about him. In it a contemporary, M.L. Clarke, is quoted as saying of him:

‘Knight had little gift for sustained and coherent argument and exposition, and he could, under the influence of whatever book or article he had just been reading, write what can only be described as nonsense.’

With friends like that… Even more striking, we learn that in later life Knight became consumed by a belief in spiritualism:

‘When he began his Penguin Aeneid translation, T.J. Haarhoff, ‘who had for years claimed spirit-contacts with Vergil himself…now put his powers at Jack’s service’… Vergil visited Haarhoff ‘every Tuesday evening’ and wrote out answers to questions raised by Knight, whom Vergil regularly called ‘Agrippa.’ ‘He still does,’ writes Haarhoff in January 1968… Vergil then began to contact Knight ‘directly at Exeter’ warning him ‘to go slow and be extra careful about the “second half.”‘ Knight gratefully dedicated his [Penguin] translation to Haarhoff. After Knight’s death … Haarhoff [was] assured by a medium that ‘Vergil met him when he went over.’ (Reminiscences of W.M. Calder, 1977)

So some aspects of Jackson Knight’s Penguin translation are influenced by what he thought Virgil told him. In person. This is a more interesting fact than anything in Jackson Knight’s introduction.


Jackson Knight’s 20-page introduction to his translation of Aeneid is typical of a type of old bufferish, old fashioned, romantic, wishy-washy, gushing, hero worshipping and idea-free literary criticism which surrounded me as a boy in the 1960s. I read it before I read the Wikipedia article and so took JK’s frequent mentions of ‘the beyond’ and ‘eternal truths’ and the ‘deep truth’ and ‘truth to life’ to refer to Christian beliefs. Reading the Wikipedia section about his increasing obsession with spiritualism makes sense of the entire orientation of his introduction which is to make Virgil a great teacher of eternal values etc, and to take a soft-lens, romanticising view, emphasising Virgil’s gentleness and sweetness of spirit and thus completely ignoring the testosterone-fuelled hyper-masculine anger and violence which dominates the actual poem, rather than his rose-tinted version of it.

Here’s a summary of key points:

Jackson Knight calls the Aeneid the ‘gateway between the pagan and the Christian centuries’. ‘Virgil is the poet of the Gate.’

Rome rose from being an obscure town in the middle of Italy to running an empire which stretched all round the Mediterranean, slowly and arduously, over a period of some 500 years of continuous warfare.

As the Republic reached its height it was undermined by unparalleled wealth and bitter rivalries for power. Romans who lived through the increasing political violence of the last 50 years of the Republic (which is generally thought to have ended in 27 BC) looked back at what they took to be the noble virtues of their predecessors, their courage, their nobility, their civic high-mindedness. Educated Romans became increasingly interested in antiquarianism and the study of their city’s roots. By going right back to the very original roots of the city, by moulding a new, vastly powerful version of legends about Prince Aeneas of Troy, Virgil distilled this nostalgia and these feelings for a better, nobler world, into imperishable art – and helped to pass it on to the new Christian culture which began to rise soon after his death (in 19 BC). [This is all wish fulfilment. Obviously Christianity didn’t exist until after Jesus was executed in 33 AD, or until Paul began formulating his theories about it in the 40s, and was just one obscure oriental sect among many until well into the second century AD.]

It was on a journey accompanying Augustus to Greece that Virgil fell ill and died, aged just 51. He wished his literary executors, Varius and Tucca, to destroy the Aeneid but they talked him out of it. [The poem is, in my opinion, visibly unfinished, both in structure and many details, but thank God they succeeded.]

Jackson Knight (JK) rather naively claims that Virgil foresaw that Augustus would bring the Roman world peace and order, and supported him. That said, it may be one can read subtle criticisms of Augustus’ early brutal methods in some of Virgil’s poetry. JK optimistically says the influence of gentle Virgil and his friend, Horace, may have helped reform Augustus in later life. [Naiveté and rosy-tinted optimism are Jackson Knight’s key notes.]

JK thinks the Eclogues are full of charming thoughts and imagery. [It was reading statements like this that for years gave me a completely misleading impression of the Eclogues, which in actual fact contain passage of bitterness and emotional turmoil.]

JK’s description of the Georgics as ‘poetry of the farm’ containing advice to farmers about crops, trees and animals also omits the harsh punitive tone of some of them, the descriptions of total war, of a devastating plague, a denunciation of sexual passion, and the long mini epic which takes up half the fourth Georgic. Nothing at all of ‘the poetry of the farm’ about any of these bits.

JK limply defines an epic poem as a long narrative poem full of action which tells us about human life and makes us think about the relation between man and superhuman powers; featuring ‘heroes’ who are above ordinary mortals in skill and strength, while not being divine.

Epic poems consist of two types: oral poems developed by illiterate cultures; and written poems composed in literate cultures, but usually copying the form and conventions of their oral predecessors.

The legend that Aeneas escaped the sack of Troy, sailed the seas to Latium and founded a settlement near modern Rome was ancient. Virgil rewrote it at epic length for his own purposes.

JK points out, pretty obviously, that the entire story is threaded with divine appearances and admonitions with commands, advice and help from various gods. They work through dreams, visions, omens, the worlds of prophets and clairvoyants. Virgil gives the impression of literally believing the human world is subject to the powers of another world. [I wonder whether JK was a Christian. I wonder whether this is why he describes the poem in such positive glowing terms, ignoring the rage and hatred and bitterness and destruction.]

JK is confident that everything in the poem is ‘true to life’, as if that is the measure of an epic poem, when, quite obviously, the opposite is true. From its characters to its diction an epic poem is meant to be a supremely heightened and idealised vision of the lives of gods and heroes.

JK thinks the Aeneid contains many moral messages [as literary critics in the 1950s optimistically believed literature, in general, did.] He thinks the poem displays a Greek moral – avoid excess – and a Roman one – be true (to gods, homeland, family). This is a neat antithesis, but very simplistic.

Thus JK interprets book 4, the love affair with Dido, as describing an unwise relapse by both the protagonists into excessive love, which led them both to abandon their duties to their people and cities, and then led to an excessive counter-reaction when she killed herself at being jilted.

A comparable example of excess occurs at the bitter end of the poem when Aeneas lets his instinct for moderation and forgiveness be overwhelmed by bitterness at Turnus for killing sweet Pallas. This so blinds him with anger that he slaughters his opponent instead of forgiving him.

Following straight on from this observation, JK rather contradicts himself by going on to talk about Virgil’s sweetness and tenderness. He points out, accurately enough, that this quality can sometimes be found in the epic similes which sometimes provide homely human or natural imagery to counterpoint the extreme emotions of fierce battles. He singles out the epic simile which compares Vulcan hammering out the armour for Aeneas to a humble housewife who works all night weaving (8.407 to 415). JK says this is typical of the way Virgil’s deeper meanings ‘softly’ emerge from the text. [It’s a very tendentious example, because many of Virgil’s similes are the opposite of gentle and soft, and depict destructive natural forces, rampaging gods or wild animals.]

As an example of the subtlety and depth Virgil brings to so many aspects of the story, JK compares it with another poem which describes the sack of Troy which was published during his lifetime. In this one, Menelaus comes across Helen hiding from the attacking Greeks and is tempted to kill her – but Venus intervenes to say what a waste that would be since she will still make a perfectly good wife. JK says this is simple and blunt, almost humorously practical and limited.

But in Virgil’s version, it is Aeneas who comes across Helen hiding from the ransack and is momentarily tempted to kill her. By changing the male protagonist of this moment, the scene is transformed and now becomes charged with all kinds of poignancy, Aeneas having all kinds of mixed feelings about the woman responsible for the destruction of everything he holds dear. Then, when Venus intervenes, it is not just as the love goddess as she is in the earlier version, but as Aeneas’s mother, counselling motherly tenderness. She says no humans are to blame for any of this, not Helen nor Paris: it is entirely the gods’ concoction. Thus Venus evokes a complex broil of emotions in Aeneas to turn away anger and bring forgiveness. I thought JK is a Christian because he says this reimagined scene has ‘a moral depth and a certain universality which are almost Christian’ (page 16) and claims that Virgil gets ‘nearer to ultimate truth’ than any poet before him. JK is concerned to make Virgil a sensitive spiritual person, like himself.

JK goes on to generalise about the nature of great poetry. He claims the great poets collect an ‘enormous amount of observations of life’ and then condense it under strong pressure so that when they compose even a few words, they have a great power of suggestion and persuasion. JK claims this is one way in which Virgil developed a style capable of communicating ‘universal truth’.

And it is this which allowed Virgil to condense into a single statement the experience of many generations, in fact of the entire civilisations of the Greeks and the Romans.

JK elaborates this thought by pointing out that Virgil read very widely and remembered everything he read, and so was able to keep in touch with many people, past and present, and ‘be friends with them’. [It feels mean ganging up on a man who was severely injured in the Great War, but this is baby talk.]

Thus JK claims Virgil ‘lived in an ideal world of poetry’. He reorganised the existing ‘poetic thought-world’. Which is why his poetry is so allusive, and works on so many levels.

JK then declines into the kind of hero worship which afflicts so much older Shakespeare criticism. He claims Virgil was sensitive ‘to all points of view’ and all kinds of people, ‘even wicked ones’. Only he could reach the underlying sense of his story. His allusive method helped him tell ‘the truth of art’ not ‘the trivial truth of fact’ [a trite antithesis which, I think, comes from F.R. Leavis].

JK claims Virgil created portraits with a few ‘inspired brush strokes’ rather than detailed realism showing every wrinkle.

Virgil’s wide reading meant that every line and character and plot development contains multiple references to all previous narratives. Thus Virgil’s Aeneas contains bits of the Aeneas who appears in Homer, plus aspects of Homer’s Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, some of Hercules, and also flashes of Augustus.

JK says Virgil uses ‘hundreds’ of phrases of Epicurus in the Aeneid but violently disagreed with Epicurus’s fiercely materialistic philosophy and so sometimes uses Epicurus’s phrases to describe the idealist notions of his philosophical enemy, Plato.

He describes the way the golden bough which Aeneas has to find and pluck in order to visit the underworld almost certainly is a quote from a Greek poem published during Virgil’s lifetime, in which the works of Plato are described as a ‘golden bough, sparkling all round with every virtue’. JK says this is indicative of the importance, for Virgil, of moral goodness leading to ‘spiritual discernment’. [Recurrence of JK’s central obsession with morality and spirituality.]

Virgil spent 11 years writing the Aeneid. He intended to devote a further 3 years to revising it, but died before he could do so. He was a perfectionist. Sometimes he wrote only one line a day. JK points out there are many places in the poem which require a final revision and completion, places where ‘a period of time or a distance’ contradicts what he says elsewhere. [I’ve flagged up some of these discrepancies in my summaries.]

There are discrepancies of fact, like how the Trojans managed to transport the vast amount of treasure and household gods and fabrics and so on which are regularly described, in just 20 ships which they knocked together after the sack of Troy. The reason is the imagery and symbolism are more important than any practical consideration. After all [JK banally comments] it’s not as if anyone believes any of this is true!

And the battle scenes sometimes contain irreconcilable details, techniques and weapons. Specifically, sometimes the warriors fight like Homeric heroes, sometimes like Caesar’s legions. This anachronism, says JK, is deliberate. Virgil is like a portrait painter who tries to capture not the face in front of him but all previous stages of the sitter’s life. And so his poem tries to capture all previous phases of warfare, up to and including the present, in so doing reaching down to show ‘what all war is like.’

The reader new to epic poetry may be taken aback by the exaggerations, of the heroes’ size and strength. But JK hastens to assure us these are not ‘childish’, no, no, they are ‘serious and important symbolic means’ ‘for expressing deep and true meanings.’

[By this stage you can see how JK’s fetishising of the concept of the ‘true’, assigning it ‘depth’ and ‘universal’ meaning, are a kind of magnet. Whatever point he sets out to make, his discourse is drawn back to the magnetic pole of what a genius Virgil is, how he expresses ‘deep’ and ‘universal’ truths. How these truths anticipate the ‘universal truth’ of Christianity. How he encapsulates all time, how he understands all types of people. This is, to be blunt, an inadequate mental system or ideology with which to describe such a vast multifaceted work of art. It is sentimental because it keeps relapsing back into the same comforting hymns of praise. Often JK’s introduction reads like a eulogy. It is more compliments than criticism, in any analytical sense.]

JK picks two moments which distinguish the two protagonists: Turnus holds a bowl of water and it boils over into steam. He is too fiery. Aeneas hold a bowl of water and it reflects rays of light off it; as the water settles the rays settle. Turnus is described as emitting flames and sparks when he gets ferocious for battle. He will burn bright and burn out.

JK points to the many descriptions of dawn or nightfall to illustrate how Virgil used the same basic event but cast it in an infinite variety of words, the start or endings of words being chosen for their sound and how they complement similar words nearby.

Virgil employed several types of rhythm, some governed by long and short syllables, some by stress accents, some by vowel sounds. The delicate interplay of these different systems across numerous lines creates ‘the music of Virgil’.

The translator knows more than anyone that Virgil’s art is subtle because it is often difficult to understand exactly what he means. Often his elliptical and allusive statements need to be expanded in prose in order to convey the full richness of implication and the challenge for the translator is knowing when to hold back and not fully explicate the allusions or implications which he is aware of.

JK tells us Virgil is capable of great variety of tone from ‘apocalyptic majesty’ to a ‘still, small voice’ [characteristic of JK to use a Christian phrase]. Virgil’s general tone is of dignity and formality but he sometimes uses colloquialism and, rarely, something like slang.

The aim of JK’s translation is to let the story tell itself in an impersonal English, removing his own personal style as much as anyone can. But oddities are sometimes permitted because Virgil himself is sometimes ‘odd’. In his day, using Latin for literature was still experimental and hadn’t become as smooth as it was to be even a generation later, for Ovid, for example. It is hard to know exactly how some of the unevennesses in his poems were received in his time, and so difficult to know exactly how to translate them in modern English.

Suddenly JK switches tack from a narrow consideration of Latin style to consider the poem’s place in the entire Western tradition. He announces that the Aeneid was the principle and best known secular book in the Western world. Soon after his death, Virgil began to be worshipped as a divinity. He was awarded a place in Christian worship and art as soon as such things came to be arranged. His imagery in the Eclogues – the picture of a shepherd sitting under a tree piping love songs – influenced every European literature.

The compactness of some of Virgil’s sayings led to the Sortes Vergilianae, where people opened a page of Virgil at random and place their finger blindly on the text and then interpreted its secret meaning. Apparently, Charles I did this before the Battle of Naseby.

On the final page JK’s introduction collapses into hero-worshipping cliché and waffle. ‘The power of Virgil’s poem is like a seed in the ground pushing up into the light; and it is still growing‘ – the force of that last clause meant to convey the impression that the author is ‘still growing’ with it, as if he is part of this great triumphal procession. This is high-sounding bilge.

JK notes that some critics, even in Virgil’s day, wrote against him – this could be interesting if JK quoted any of them and explained what Virgil’s critics said against him, but instead JK collapses into inexcusably weak poetic prose, here, as throughout his introduction, preferring his high-sounding references and allusions to any solid ideas or analysis. Yes, there have been critics of his adored hero, but:

disparagement of Virgil’s overwhelming reputation has always sooner or later collapsed like the walls of Jericho.

This is brainless hero worship. JK compounds this descent into humanistic hogwash by saying it is likely that ‘Virgil, the poet of fidelity, still likes mankind’s fidelity to him‘. This is dire sentimentality devoid of meaning or interest.

In the short introduction to his thorough and useful glossary (pages 343 to 361) JK makes the interesting point that the Aeneid contains nearly 900 names, most of them names of human beings or divinities, though many are place names. Typical of JK not to be precise enough to say how many in each category, which might have led onto interesting analysis. Interesting but doesn’t follow through.


Over-ripe, out-of-date impressionistic tripe, all-too-pleased with the sound of its own references (the walls of Jericho etc), while palming the reader off with hardly any hard ideas and a dogged determination to make Virgil sound like a gentle, high-minded spiritualist instead of the far more complex, contradictory, daunting and unpleasant poet he actually is, Jackson Knight’s introduction is a typical slice of the high-minded tripe which dominated conservative criticism in the 1950s and 60s.

Roman reviews

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