Thursday, June 24, 2010

Virgil, The Aeneid, Books I-VI

The Aeneid, by Virgil. A New Prose Translation, by David West (Originally composed approximately 29-19 BCE). Penguin Classics Edition (1991). 332 pages, excluding appendices. Bought for $1.00, Half Price Books.

Loved these opening lines:

"I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile, who long since left the land of Troy and came to Italy to the shores of Lavinium; and a great pounding he took by land and sea at the hands of the heavenly gods because of the fierce and unforgetting anger of Juno. Great too were his sufferings in war before he could found his city and carry his gods into Latium. This was the beginning of the Latin race, the Alban fathers and the high walls of Rome. Tell me, Muse, the causes of her anger. How did he violate the will of the Queen of the Gods? What was his offence? Why did she drive a man famous for his piety to such endless hardship and such suffering? Can there be so much anger in the hearts of the heavenly gods?"

In just a few lines, he describes: immense struggle (“the great pounding he took"); the pantheon of powerful and extremely emotional gods that we already are assumed to know (the “fierce and unforgetting anger of Juno"); the beginnings of a great people that we also know and are invested in (Rome); the greatness of our protagonist (“a man famous for his piety"); and a philosophical questioning of the gods, for the reader: “Can there be so much anger in the hearts of the heavenly gods?"

I am refreshed by the contrast between the enormous scale of Virgil's writing and the more inward-looking, lonely quality of today's writing - say, fiction pieces on The New Yorker (they have a different kind of beauty). After, say, 19th century Russia, you don't seem to get this kind of writing where men agonize about the gods and justice and love and their entire nation's existence beneath them.

The Aeneid apparently served to legitimate the rule of the Caesars by cementing a founding myth of Roman civilization that linked them to the legendary heroes of Troy, and to the gods themselves. Aeneas (himself the son of Venus), says:

"Whatever chance may bring, however many hardships we suffer, we are making for Latium, where the Fates show us our place of rest. There it is the will of God that the kingdom of Troy shall rise again... There will come a day, as the years glide by, when the house of Assaracus will reduce Achilles' Pthia and glorious Mycenae to slavery and will conquer and rule the city of Argos. From this noble stock there will be born a Trojan Caesar to bound his empire by Oceanus at the limits of the world, and his fame by the stars. He will be called Julius, a name passed down to him from the great Iulus."

I'm reminded of a fascinatingly similar passage from Luke 1 (written after Virgil):

"But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

The first six books of The Aeneid contain some of its most famous scenes: the Trojan Horse, the subsequent sack of Troy by the Greeks (“never trust a Greek bearing gifts"), the suicide of Queen Dido (who poisons herself because Aeneas cannot reciprocate her love), Aeneas's Odysseus-like encounters on the seas, and finally, his visit to the underworld. Virgil writes these scenes with such heart-shuddering emotion.

Loved the Trojan Horse scene. It is opened “when rest, the most grateful gift of the gods, was first beginning to creep over suffering mortals." Thousands of Greeks "gratefully" pour out of it. While the city burns, the anguished ghost of Hector appears to Aeneas, “full of sorrow and streaming with tears. He looked as he did when he had been dragged behind the chariot, black with dust and caked with blood…"

In the chaos, there is a glimpse of the God of War:

“It was as though a whirlwind had burst and opposing winds were clashing, the west, the south, and the east wind glorying in the horses of the morning, with woods wailing and wild Nereus churning up the sea from its depths…. We saw Mars, the irresistible God of War, Greeks rushing to the palace, men with shields locked over their backs packing the threshold, ladders hooked to the walls…."

Aeneas, the paragon of Roman virtue, is a hero, fearless, full of manly emotion, but above all, a man of duty - to his men, to his father, to his nation, and to the gods. Though Queen Dido is in a violent agony because of him, he “was faithful to his duty. Much as he longed to soothe her and console her sorrow, to talk to her and take away her pain, with many a groan and with a heart shaken by her love, he nevertheless carried out the commands of the gods…." He travels to the underworld in search of his father, and finds him in Elysium, the paradise among the underworld's different places, which are fascinating in their own right.

Duty. The word conjures up my father's most heralded virtue, his fierce loyalty, and his actual way of living life. Beyond him is the cherished virtue of a community-oriented culture - both in my religious and ethnic upbringing. Order. Self-restraint. The believed solutions for any community's longevity.

* * *
Beyond the plot, I think that, in these first books, Aeneas's dead father's words are the most significant with regard to Virgil's themes and agendas. In them we see a detailed view of the afterlife, the transmigration of souls, overlaps with Christian ideas of sin and redemption and punishment, the association with souls and the “fire "that “has its source in heaven," cosmogony ("In the beginning Spirit fed all things from within…"), and of course, the highly specific prophecies regarding the rise of Rome and its rulers (including a glimpse of the future Augustus Caesar, the “son of a god, the man who will "bring back the golden years to the fields of Latium once ruled over by Saturn…").

I end this entry with these beautiful thoughts of Elysium - heaven - in the book. A physical place where a poet, Pindar, describes:

And those that have three times kept to their oaths,
Keeping their souls clean and pure,
Never letting their hearts be defiled by the taint
Of evil and injustice,
And barbaric venality,
They are led by Zeus to the end:
To the palace of Kronos,
Where soothing breezes off the Ocean
Breathe over the Isle of the Blessed:
All around flowers are blazing with a
Dazzling light:
Some springing from the shining trees,
Others nourished by the water from the sea:
With circlets and garlands of flowers they
Crown their hands,
Ruled by the steadfast councils of
The great Judge,
Whom the Father,
The husband of Rhea,
Whose throne is higher than all