Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Aeneid, by Virgil

Reading the Aeneid, my first thought was kind of a silly one: I could completely tell why Dante wanted him to be his guide through Hell, instead of Homer - because Virgil looks AROUND for goodness sake! Homer, in the Iliad, spends a great deal of time telling us how people feel and what happens, but it's just that - telling, not showing. If he describes a river, it's only because that river is a God, and they're about to leap abotu and interfere in the battle. Troy itself is there, with it's tall towers, I suppose, but really, it felt like a military report, not a story, at times. All business, no time for flowers. Virgil - the TOTAL opposite. Particularly after reading osme of his other poems recently before this one, I felt an intense sense of place everywhere that Virgil took me: the craggy cliffs of the Cyclops island, the rolling hills where the exiled Arcadians live, the shining city of Carthage - this is a story written by a man with eyes. And the underworld - the underworld of Homer felt like a temple with weird rituals. The underworld of Virgil felt like the precursor of the Inferno, foreboding, powerful, and vivid. Homer was a reciter. Virgil was a writer, and a writer in the sense that we think of writer, even today.

That being said, the second point I felt the need to make about this book: Odysseus was, as far as Virgil was apparently concerned, a jerk. He comes across as a sneaky, conniving guy every time he's mentioned which, after my feelings about the Odyssey, felt great. Thanks Virgil!

But, now for the meaty question: Aeneas. In each of the three ancient epics I've read, the central hero displays an ethic, that defines them as a hero. For Achilles, this ethic was honor, for me, for Odysseus it was what I would call cleverness. For Aeneas, it was piety (and I don't THINK I'm alone in saying this is his defining characteristic). More than any other hero I've read in ancient lit, Aeneas is a worshipper, a believer. He exhibits what a Christian woudl call faith and humility. He always listens to the gods, he does not try to subvert prophecy (think of, for instance, Laertes), and his quest is very much a struggle of faith, not a struggle for personal power. In many ways, Aeneas reminded me of, say, Moses and Joshua combined, leading the exiled peoples, by the will of the Gods, to their new promised land, casting out the Canaanites, etc.

And this brings up the great question of Aeneas: is this piety a virtue? On the one hand, while he fights a war at the end (a rather brutal one), he fights only when his hand is forced by the other side, and gives very generous terms of surrender when he's beaten his foes, which is far better than I can say for the Greeks. He loves and respects his father, he loves his son, etc. But, then, there's Dido, the queen of Carthage.

For those who are not familiar with the story, at the beginning of the poem, Aeneas has been cast up by a storm on the shores of Carthage. He and his crew crawl to land, and tell their story to the queen of Carthage, Dido, who cares for them, then falls in love with Aeneas (it's a little more complicated than that, but there you have it). She helps them recover, and Aeneas and her begin an intimate relationship. Then, one day, Venus comes and tells Aeneas to leave. Dido has offered him half her kingdom, offered to make the Trojans full citizens of the country. And, Dido is deeply in love with him, and Aeneas knows that what he is doing isn't fair to her. But 'it's fate'. Fate says, he needs to go found Rome, so he goes - sneaks off without telling her, I might add. Dido, in despair and fury, kills herself (and the scene where she dies in the arms of her sister, Anna, was the most powerful, heartwrenching moment in the entire book).

Now, part of this is, of course, just to explain the traditional hatred between the cities of Carthage and Rome. But, Virgil spends a long time showing us how Dido has been hurt, and in fact, return to show her again in the underworld, and shows us how troubled Aeneas is. Maybe I'm overreading it, but I felt like here we had the essential conflict of piety - what if following God and following your conscience don't match? What if God ISN'T out to make everyone as happy as possible, or what if it isn't God you're listening to, and you just dont' know it? The Greek Gods are a perfect example of this, being terribly manipulative, and caught up in their own petty struggles at the expense of mankind, but the same struggle is one of the conflicts I read in, say, Emily Dickinson's poetry, and it's a question that, growing up in religion, I always struggled with - if I am to believe there is a God, if we accept that for a moment, what is to say he's a nice person, or that he knows what he's doing?

Anyways, the question is brought up here, for me, and was oine of the more interesting parts of th ebook. AT the moment I'm reading Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bryce Shelley. Maybe that will offer some insight.

4 comments:

Nymeth said...

"For Aeneas, it was piety (and I don't THINK I'm alone in saying this is his defining characteristic)"

No, you're not. Ursula Le Guin thinks so too. But the way she defines that characteristic is really interesting. Read Lavinia to find out more :P

I like the questions you asked here. I don't have answers (who does?), but I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Nymeth - I definitely have that one on my list :). I think a book from the point of view of Camilla would by beautiful as well, I really loved her and Dido in this book...

Rebecca Reid said...

I really enjoyed reading the Homeric classics, so I'm eager to get to this. I like hearing that it is better at showing and not telling, and I like the questions it prompts.

Jason Gignac said...

It's been fun reading different epic poems this year, I'll definitely have to continue that. I'm reading Spenser's Faerie Queene next year, and hopefully the Edda as well, so we'll see... :). You'll have to tell me what you think, Ms Reid, when you read it :)