July 2, 2017

Review Corner

  But Aeneas
is driven by duty now. Strongly as he longs
to ease and allay her sorrow, speak to her,
turn away her anguish with reassurance, still,
moaning deeply, heart shattered by his great love,
in spite of all he obeys the gods' commands
and back he goes to his ships.
Virgil adds romance to the Homeric epic. I suggest that this cements The Aeneid as the foundation of Western literature. Even though Virgil draws heavily on Homer, The Aeneid, we are told, becomes true literature by its being written and not spoken. Fair point, but the Dido story at the beginning represents one plotline unimaginable in Homer.

All the good bloodthirsty and grizzly war scenes and all the Gods' interference seem equally at home in Iliad, Odyssey, or Aeneid. But the Aeneas-Dido story is only Virgil, only Latin, and its reverberations set Virgil's epic apart. We open with a great storm as some God has chosen to doink with the Trojan Fleet and scatter the last of her sons. But they land in Carthage and are welcomed. Queen Dido sends ships to rescue them and welcomes all as heroes with a great feast.

Dido importunes Aeneas to tell the story, no matter how painful, of the fall of Troy and their circuitous journey to Libyan shores. And the next staple of Western Literature is born: the expository section. In Book Two, we are all brought up to date on the last days of Troy, the fames wooden horse, and the trials of escaping the sack and trying to bring wife Andromache, father Anchises, and son Iulus.

Homer has characters tell stories so that plotlines are not completely linear, but Book Two has a Hollywood flashback quality -- the reader is brought current in a short time with a sizable amount of important information. I daresay Homer would have needed a couple hundred pages, or in his case, an extra performance evening to pull it off.

Dido and Aeneas become, just as surely, the Hollywood romance. Both have divine blood in their lines, Venus' son being naturally quite the looker. Aeneas and the lads need a home and Carthage needs men. The End. They all lived happily ever after, right?

Aeneas is fated to found what will be the Roman Empire. ("Bring his Gods to Latium, the source of the Latin people, the Alban lords and the high walls of Rome") and cannot be lazing about the beach in Carthage with some demigoddess bimbo, So he leaves in the dead of night. Buffy fans: this is the Riley Story, though thankfully the slayer just mopes a bit. Dido throws herself on the funeral pyre so that the Trojans can see it as they sail out.

All the while Aeneas, steeled tot a mid-sea passage,
held the fleet on course. well on their way now,
plowing the waves blown dark by a Northwind
as he glanced back at thewalls of Carthage
set aglow by the fires of tragic Dido's pyre.
What could light such a conflagration? mystery --
but the Trojans know the pains of a great love
defiled, and the lengths a woman driven mad can go,
and it leads their hearts down ways of grim foreboding.

When this tale is told, we get back to Homeric action: ten more books of hopeless deity interventions and guys chopping each other up with swords.

I'm not sure the academic world would accept my innovation. True, Odysseus loved Penelope, and there might be some love/loss in the Calypso tale, though I read that as more captivity than seduction. I am taken by Aeneas-Dido story because the rest of the story becomes optional. Ten more books of "blows on land and sea from the Gods above" could have been avoided had Aeneas said "no thanks, Mercury, tell old Zeussy-boy I am rather happy in Carthage."

No war with the Italians, no Rome -- but no Punic Wars. Nobody ever says it out load, but I think it carries under the rest of the epic. And makes it the foundation of Western literature, underpinning the next two books in the course: St. Augustine's "Confessions" and Dante's "Inferno."

And Buffy, Seasons Four & Five.

Again, get the Robert Fagles translation. It is like reading it for the first time. Five stars.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at July 2, 2017 10:05 AM
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