The Spirits of Those Who Have Been Destroyed By Love

By Sean Carroll | April 24, 2007 11:30 am

It’s going to be Poetry Month all month long! But really, aren’t all months Poetry Month? Especially when time for substantive blogging is hard to come by?

Today we dip back a few millenia, to offer an excerpt from Virgil’s Aeneid, in the Robert Fagles translation. The backstory is that Aeneas has fled from the fall of Troy, charged by Jupiter with traveling to Italy and founding a new city (Rome). Along the way his party is diverted to Carthage by winds whipped up by the wind god Aeolus. (Who was in turn urged on by Juno, Jupiter’s wife, who was piqued at Aeneas because his mother, Venus, was judged to be better-looking than Juno by Aeneas’s countryman Paris. Gods have rarely risen above the standards of their humans.)

So anyway, in Carthage Aeneas is smitten by the widowed queen Dido, and they become lovers. Eventually Jupiter becomes impatient with this lollygagging, and urges Aeneas on his way. Dido, heartbroken, kills herself in her grief. Once in Italy, Aeneas does what any great epic hero would do, and takes a detour to the Underworld. There he comes across the shade of Dido, and appeals to her.

      “Tragic Dido,
so, was the story true that came my way?
I heard that you were dead. . .
you took the final measure with a sword.
Oh, dear god, was it I who caused your death?
I swear by the stars, by the Powers on high, whatever
faith one swears by here in the depths of earth,
I left your shores, my Queen, against my will. Yes,
the will of the gods, that drives me through the shadows now,
these moldering places so forlorn, this deep unfathomed night–
their decrees have forced me on. Nor did I ever dream
my leaving could have brought you so much grief.
Stay a moment. Don’t withdraw from my sight.
Running away — from whom? This is the last word
that Fate allows me to say to you. The last.”

Aeneas, with such appeals, with welling tears,
tried to soothe her rage, her wild fiery glance.
But she, her eyes fixed on the ground, turned away,
her features no more moved by his pleas as he walked on
than if she were sent in stony flint or Parian marble rock.

A great article in the New York Review (subscription required) by Hayden Pelliccia unpacks the layers of meaning behind the simple line “I left your shores, my Queen, against my will.” Although to us the scene is poignant, the emotional center of the entire poem, that particular line is an echo of a comic line in a poem of Catullus that would have been well known to Virgil — “I left your head, my Queen, against my will,” spoken by a shorn lock of the hair of Queen Berenice, cousin of the Egyptian king Ptolemy. So is the scene tragic, or secretly facetious? The answer is ambiguous, but involves an intricate digression into Roman politics and the loves of Cleopatra. That’s why every month is Poetry Month.

  • Blake Stacey

    Nabokov’s Lolita also drew upon Catullus — Humbert’s repeated invocations of “this Lolita, my Lolita” and related forms all follow a Catullan template (poem 58).

  • Twosheds

    My high school Latin class read the Aenied, and our running joke throughout the year was how often Aeneas was bursting into tears. The fact that it can rarely be quoted without a reference to weepy Aeneas, just goes to show that this was an accurate observation. I’m glad I remembered the most important parts…

  • Ike

    Change “Tragic Dido” to “Tragic Dodo” and you have a whole new poem with an entirely different meaning.

  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    “So is the scene tragic, or secretly facetious?”

    I get it. It’s either tragic, or it’s tragedy to the nth power.

  • spyder

    Just want to share a Robert Hunter love poem, when he was digging into Rilke.

    Look out of any window
    any morning, any evening, any day
    Maybe the sun is shining
    birds are winging or
    rain is falling from a heavy sky –
    What do you want me to do,
    to do for you to see you through?
    this is all a dream we dreamed
    one afternoon long ago

    Walk out of any doorway
    feel your way, feel your way
    like the day before
    Maybe you’ll find direction
    around some corner
    where it’s been waiting to meet you –
    What do you want me to do,
    to watch for you while you’re sleeping?
    Well please don’t be surprised
    when you find me dreaming too

    Look into any eyes
    you find by you, you can see
    clear through to another day
    I know it’s been seen before
    through other eyes on other days
    while going home —
    What do you want me to do,
    to do for you to see you through?
    It’s all a dream we dreamed
    one afternoon long ago

    Walk into splintered sunlight
    Inch your way through dead dreams
    to another land
    Maybe you’re tired and broken
    Your tongue is twisted
    with words half spoken
    and thoughts unclear
    What do you want me to do
    to do for you to see you through
    A box of rain will ease the pain
    and love will see you through

    Just a box of rain –
    wind and water –
    Believe it if you need it,
    if you don’t just pass it on
    Sun and shower –
    Wind and rain –
    in and out the window
    like a moth before a flame

    It’s just a box of rain
    I don’t know who put it there
    Believe it if you need it
    or leave it if you dare
    But it’s just a box of rain
    or a ribbon for your hair
    Such a long long time to be gone
    and a short time to be there

  • spaceman

    There is a fundamental dilemma in many of our chases after romantic love: we often want the other to love us and for our time with them to be filled with joy and unconditional love, but we also want novelty and excitement. And if we are very sure and know how things will work out ahead of time, then the sense of novelty and excitement wanes. Is this perhaps part of the reason why some people cheat on their significant others and have flings– because the fling allows one to have novelty, excitement, and risk whereas a long term relationship should, at least in theory, be based on nearly unconditional love and security?

  • Amara

    “Along the way his party is diverted to Carthage by winds whipped up by the wind god Aeolus”

    That ol’ prankster Aeolus…! Even Odysseus could not keep those winds in hand.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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