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.
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.