An Epic Undertaking
The influence and resonance of Virgil's 'Aeneid' still echo
By WILLARD SPIEGELMAN
December 29, 2007; Page W12
Alan Bennett said that a classic is “a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have.” Better still: It's the book you want to have read but don't want to suffer through again or even for the first time. You want points for sophistication, education and possession of cultural capital as compensation for long-ago pain and boredom.
The “Aeneid” is Europe's most important written epic. Schoolboys have cursed it for more than two millennia. Thomas Jefferson's copy was the most scanned, indeed dog-eared, book in Monticello's library. Robert Lowell entitled a poem “Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid.” Many readers have known similar somnolence. But no one has denied its importance.
Translators, dramatists and opera composers have adapted it. Poets in many languages have imitated it. Dante took Virgil for his guide through two-thirds of “The Divine Comedy.” Lowell, a summa cum laude classics major, and a man of soaring ambition from adolescence on, knew what he was doing: Virgil represented for him — and every other Western writer of epics — the model of The Poet. Virgil's predecessor Homer is much easier to absorb, especially in the “Odyssey,” but Homer, whoever he was (we know nothing about him), sang his poems. Virgil wrote a book. The Book. It is not boring. Although everyone also acknowledges the longueurs of part two, the first half — what many of us read in school — is gripping, and even the second contains plenty to admire.
Much of the epic's enduring importance resulted from a famous misreading of the fourth of Virgil's “Eclogues” (37 B.C.). The author, writing about the newborn son of the Consul Pollio, said that the child would initiate a new golden age in which lion would lie down with lamb and peace and plenty come again. Bravo! Early Christians got a look and found a prediction of Christ. They took Virgil for a Christian in all but name, a magic prophet, all of whose works deserved close attention. And that's why Dante could use him as a guide, the repository of classical, pagan wisdom whose rationality suffices to get Dante through Hell and then up to the top of the mountain of Purgatory where reason must be succeeded by Christian faith. Dante turns around and finds that Virgil has vanished, replaced by Beatrice, the embodiment of love. It is one of world literature's saddest moments.
On its own, even without our sense of its cultural heritage or literary primacy, the “Aeneid” continues to astonish; it is as much a book for our millennium as it was for Dante's and for Virgil's contemporaries. Ezra Pound called his own epic “Cantos” “a poem containing history,” and Virgil's epic is, as every Latin student remembers, the roll call of Roman, especially Augustan, glory. Following decades of civil war, after the death of Julius Caesar and the takeover by his great-nephew Octavius, whom the Roman Senate subsequently rechristened the August One, Rome began to develop and solidify its empire and also to establish peace at home. Home, of course, came to include most of the known world, which Rome had conquered.
The “Aeneid” is patriotic propaganda, written at the request and for the pleasure of the emperor, but it's also much more. It acknowledges the price and sadness of empire as well as the glory. Its characters have free will, but they also operate under the will of the gods. People are both accountable for their actions and exonerated. Destiny controls everything, except when it doesn't.
“Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt” — “Here are the tears of things, and the facts of mortality touch our minds”: The famous line distills Virgilian sorrow. The first book of the poem begins, as an epic is supposed to, in the middle of things. Aeneas and his tempest-tossed ragtag band of survivors from Troy have washed up on the shores of Carthage in North Africa. The remnants of one empire are looking for the land they have been fated to settle, where their new kingdom, the second Troy, will arise.
In Carthage another new kingdom is rising, that of Dido of Sidon, another refugee. The Trojans look at the pictures on the walls of her city and they find . . . themselves! Their story, the whole tragedy of Troy, has preceded them, has entered the realm of history and myth. They are looking at their past, the source of their tears. Virgil's epigrammatic concision — “lacrimae rerum” — neatly, dispassionately embodies a stoic wisdom about history and human life. Mortality and its touches get to us all.
Ever since St. Augustine said that he wasted too many tears as a young man crying over Dido, readers have been most drawn to Book 4, the love story of two national leaders, each widowed, each resistant to and finally succumbing to the force of Eros. Venus and Juno concoct a trick to make them fall in love, but we know that Virgil's gods are merely part of his epic machinery; the love affair can be understood perfectly in human terms alone. It's the heart of Virgil's tragic vision, and it still leaves us wondering: Is the hero a dutiful, perhaps priggish man who must go off to Italy? “Italiam non sponte sequor,” he says to Dido when commanded by Mercury to lift anchor and raise sails. “I'm not seeking Italy out of my own choice.” Both falling in love, and then relinquishing it, the motto is the same: Don't blame me.
Or is he just like any other fellow, taking his caddish pleasure and then heading into the sunrise? Enjoying a roll in the Carthaginian hay before sailing off to the as-yet-undiscovered land where the gods have guaranteed him a new bride and a new legacy. What's a guy to do?
And what's a woman to do? Unlike that other spurned heroine, Medea, Dido has no children to kill. She can't get back at her man in that way. As an early desperate housewife — a raging queen, rather — she has but one choice, the classic one. Seduced and abandoned, Dido places a curse on Aeneas, asks for eternal enmity between their two nations, mounts her funeral pyre and kills herself as the Trojans sail away.
She asks for an avenger to arise. Roman readers would know him: Hannibal, who tried to cross the Alps hundreds of years after Dido's demise and would suffer defeat as well. The same first readers would have also been alert to a more contemporary parallel. A noble leader seduced and detained by an African (read: foreign, untrustworthy) woman? They would remember Cleopatra, the serpent of the Nile who led a noble Roman named Anthony off course and destroyed his manhood. Such struggles — between love and duty, commitment to self and to nation — have echoed down history's, and literature's, corridors ever since.
Virgil had an impossible task, which he succeeded in performing. He wrote a great political and historical poem that transcends propaganda and remains new and fresh because of its humanity. Also because of its style: Virgil took Homer's fluid hexameter lines and hammered them into Latin, an uncongenial language. In so doing he set the standard for any artist who tries to do the impossible.
Like his hero, Virgil was fated to establish a new empire, in this case a literary one. His excellent modern translators, from John Dryden, at the end of the 17th century, to Robert Fagles, two years ago, have all tried to “English” the original Latin, to represent their poet in a way that does justice to both the past and the present, to the original and to contemporary audiences. Every generation retranslates the masterpieces of the ancient world. Such efforts prove that a classic is something that is perennially young.
Mr. Spiegelman first read Virgil at Cheltenham High School in Wyncote, Pa.