You Read it Here First

The Aeneid
Virgil, trans. by Robert Fitzgerald

aeneidThat headline is a tad misleading because it’s only true if the proper sequence is followed. Given that it’s taken me a year to get around to writing about this work, I ‘m the last person to talk about timing but indulge me, it’s been a busy 12 months.

As a precocious 8-year old set free in a pretty good children’s library, I stumbled across a book of Greek myths. I was immediately captivated. So much so that I became at an early age that most lamentable of male types: the lunatic completist. I read the Greeks. Then the Romans. The Egyptians. The Norse. Who needed super heroes? These guys and gals were much cooler and somehow more believable than the characters in a comic book.

Here’s the problem with precocity coupled with a retentive memory: once the names and story lines get embedded there seems to be less and less reason to actually read the originals. Call it the shortcomings of short cuts.

So it took me more than 40 years and almost two decades of formal education to actually get around to reading The Aeneid by the great Roman poet Virgil. Virgil was smitten with Homer and intended to pay homage with his own epic. Alas, Virgil was the first of many great artists in the western canon to expire before he scribbled ‘fin.’ Shame on me for taking so long to get here but at least I made it before the last frame.

Virgil 70  BCE--19 BCE (The lasses are the Muses Clio and Melpomene)

70 BCE–19 BCE
(The lasses are the Muses Clio and Melpomene)

What  Homer did for the Greeks in the Trojan War, Virgil does here for the Trojan side, using the post-war activities of Aeneas to tell the story of the founding of the Roman state and nation.

Well, that’s not even the half of it. The tale begins while the war still rages. We see the Trojan horse story from  the Trojan perspective and Aeneas, handily informed of the Trojans impending  rout by a dream, escapes with a coterie of followers.

What follows is a meander around the Mediterranean and almost the greatest hits of mythology. The whirlpool of Charybdis (or is it a sea monster)? Here. All that marital bullshit between Juno and Jove (could it be because they’re brother and sister, too)? Here. The petty, Junior High politics of the Gods played out on the field of human interaction? Here. An underworld that eerily resembles Dantes uber-Catholic creation? Sure. The great love of Dido and Aeneas? It’s here, too.

The last one needs especially to be called out. This is one of the classic tales of a woman scorned, it is, perhaps, the archetype of the form. (Professors of Classics and Literature are heretofore invited to bemoan the pathetic state of my literary knowledge and point out the true archetype.) Dido is the queen of Carthage, where the Trojans land after fleeing their fallen city.

Sacchi Andrea 1599-1661: Didon abandonnée ou Didon sur le bûcher. Musée des beaux arts, Caen.

Sacchi Andrea (1599-1661) Didon abandonnée ou Didon sur le bûcher. Musée des beaux arts, Caen.

Aeneas quickly becomes an item with the queen. And, then, his fate calls and he makes plans to leave the city behind on the QT. Dido learns of this and her despair knows no bounds; indeed, it sends her into a suicidal rage.

But before the climactic act Dido delivers the greatest woman spurned speech I’ve ever read. Here’s a meaty chunk:

“I took the man in, thrown up on this coast
In dire need, and in my madness then
Contrived a place for him in my domain
Rescued his lost fleet, saved his shipmates’ lives.
Oh, I am swept away , burning by furies!
Now the prophet Apollo, now his oracles,
Now the gods’ interpreter, if you please,
Sent down by Jove himself, brings through the air,
His formidable commands! What fit employment
For heaven’s high powers! What anxieties
To plague serene immortals! I shall not
Detain or dispute your story. Go,
Go after Italy on the sailing winds,
Look for your kingdom, cross the deepsea swell!
If divine justice counts for anything,
I hope and pray that on some grinding reef
Midway at sea, you’ll drink your punishment
And call and call on Dido’s name!
From far away I shall come after you
With my black fires, and when cold death has parted
Body from soul I shall be everywhere
A shade to haunt you! You will pay for this,
Unconscionable! I shall hear! The news will reach me
Even among the lowest of the dead!”
Book IV, Lines 515-538

Does she spare anyone in her rage? Too many women allow too many men to behave badly. Dido should be their lodestar and they should memorize this speech, especially the part about being everywhere a shade to haunt you. I’m going to teach it to my daughter.

Aeneas does not listen and departs, seeing the evidence of Dido’s self-destruction from the sea as he sails towards Italy. Eventually, after a lot of politicking and hand-to-hand combat, Aeneas helps found the settlement that will become Rome. The poem ends before the city really gets put together in any truly recognizable form, but those are the breaks.

Robert Fitzgerald 1910-1985 Poet Laureate of the United States 1984-1985

Robert Fitzgerald
Poet Laureate of the United States 1984-1985

I read the Robert Fitzgerald translation which is important to note since different translators publish widely differing interpretations. Fitzgerald translates in verse which I came to realize is the only way to read and understand the appeal of this sort of epic.

I also think it’s the best way to enjoy them because the sole tool is language in all its wild and wonderful glory. If poetry is language distilled then reading epic verse is like drinking moonshine from a fire hose.

It took  me too long to get around to reading this and I’ll have to add Homer  to my list. Don’t tarry as I did. Read the Aeneid, you’ll have a blast.


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