Why Blog?



Because writing is thinking.


I study a work that the modernist poet T. S. Eliot once called “the classic of all Europe.” Emily Wilson has written that Vergil’s Aeneid “is the classical poem that has had the greatest and most continuous influence over post-classical literature in the West … We are all descended from the Trojans.”


An idle claim? You’re thinking, how can a work that I’ve barely heard of, much less ever read, be that influential? Well, try this on for size: a mere representative sampling, a fraction of the works of literature, art, and music that have been indisputably influenced by the Latin poem.  


Ovid, Metamorphoses (1st c.)
Lucan, Pharsalia (1st c.)
Statius, Thebaid (1st c.)
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica (1st c.)
Silius Italicus, Punica (1st c.)
St. Augustine, Confessions (397-398)
anonymous, Roman d’ Énéas (c. 1160)
von Veldeke, Eneide (1170-1190)
delle Colonne, Historia destructionis Troiae (1287)
anonymous, Roman de la rose (13th c.)
Boccaccio, Amorosa Visione (1342-1343) and De claris mulieribus (1356-1364)
Chaucer, House of Fame and Legend of Good Women (14th c.)
Petrarch, Africa (14th c.)
Dante, Commedia Divina (14th c.)
Vegio, Aeneidos Liber XIII or Supplementum (15th c.)
Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1510)
Raphael, The Fire in the Borgo (1514)
Pazzi de Medici, Dido in Cartagine (1524)
Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata (16th c.)
Vaz de Camões, Os Lusíadas (16th c.)
Vida of Cremona, Christiad (16th c.)
Gager, Dido (1583)
Spenser, The Fairie Queene (1590-96)
Marlowe, The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage (1594)
Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida (1602)
El Greco, Laocoon (1608)
Bernini, Aeneas, Anchises, and Anchises (c. 1619)
Poussin, Aeneas and Dido (1630s)
Rubens, The Death of Dido (1640)
Monteverdi, Le nozze d’Enea con Lavinia (1641)
Scarron, Virgile travesti (17th c.)
Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)
Purcell, Dido & Aeneas (c. 1680)
Dryden, Aeneid (1697)
Amigoni, The Combat of Aeneas with Turnus (1721-1722)
Tiepolo, Aeneas Presenting Ascanius with the Features of Amor to Dido (1757)
Barlow, Columbiad (1807)
Turner, Lake Avernus (c. 1798) and Dido Building Carthage (1815)
Berlioz, Les Troyens (1863)
Tennyson, To Virgil (1882)
Owen, “Arms and the Boy” (1918)
Cather, My Antonia (1918)
Munthe, The Story of San Michele (1929)
Roberts, The Great Meadows (1930)
Eliot, “Ash-Wednesday” (1930)
Tate, “Aeneas at New York” and “The Mediterranean” (1932); “Aeneas at Washington” (1933)
Bishop, “Experiences in the West” (1936)
Connolly, The Unquiet Grave (1944)
Broch, Der Tod des Vergil (1945)
Lowell, “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid” (1948)
Ungaretti, La terra promessa (1950)
Lowell, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951)
Burgess, A Vision of Battlements (1965)
Warren, A Place To Come To (1977)
LeGuin, Lavinia (2007)
Graham, Black Ships (2008)


I am interested in large questions about the Aeneid. Here’s an excerpt from an article I’m working on. It concerns a character who appears near the end of the poem. Camilla is a sort of Italian Amazon commanding cavalry in a battle against Trojans, recently arrived in Italy after the Greeks destroyed their city in what is now Turkey, and their allies from the cities of Etruria, which we call Tuscany. In this excerpt, if you have read other posts of mine, you will see that I use Traces to try out ideas, to think more deeply about what I am reading, to quiet the white noise in my life (is the mail here yet? did I respond to that email? why did that HVAC guy not call me back?) so that I can move forward.




Criticism of the Aeneid has been vexed by an unbridgeable gap between its own complexity and the limits of our imagination. The epic’s baffling intricacy and indeterminacy are the combined result of several factors, among them the ambiguity inherent in and made possible by the Latin language; différance, that is, the chains of signification instigated by its every meaningful word and phrase, which serve to create the impression that everything in the Aeneid is connected somehow to everything else; the apparent contradictions and discrepancies within the poem; the poet’s intertwining of history, myth, and legend; his multiplying of points of view; the boldness with which he deploys figurative language; the many gaps and obscurities in the plot; and above all the poem’s pervasive and layered intertextuality, which Farrell 2006: 224 rightly claims is “at work in almost every syllable Virgil wrote.”


If it is true that the Aeneid is an especially perplexing and even labyrinthine work of art, the question arises whether critics can do more than wander around in it, for the sake of reveling in its ingenuity and perhaps mapping a few of the dead ends. Many clearly believe, however, that we can aim much higher, even to a God’s eye view of the poetic design. For them, it is simply a matter of reading the signs to reveal the truth, the real meaning of, say, the episode in question. So Camilla is actually Cleopatra. Or she is a lycanthrope: that explains everything! But Johnson 1976: 1-22, for one, exposed the fallacy of this approach almost four decades ago. The Aeneid is not a problem or a crime to be solved. To treat it as such, as Johnson is correct in saying, is to reduce it to “an intensely private cipher” or a “private myth.” Moreover, once we have recast the poem in this way, we “all but make certain that we will not, cannot hear much of what the poet is trying to show us or tell us” (17).


The chief difficulty is failure to realize that every interpretation of the Aeneid is itself metaphorical. For the sake of illustration, substitute “world” for “Aeneid.” In a Silliman Memorial Lecture in 1967, Jacob Bronowski, starting from the proposition that every event in the world is connected to every other event, that every fact has some influence on every other fact, illustrated how it is that even science is wholly dependent on metaphor (1979: 43-63). For every experiment, after all, the scientist must decide what to deem relevant and irrelevant. The scientist puts the experiment, as it were, in a box. But every assertion of irrelevance with regard to a system where in fact everything is relevant – the flap of a single butterfly’s wings, a single photon striking a cloud of atoms – is a lie. It follows that every scientific explanation of nature is a distortion, a convenient simplification. As Bronowski 1979: 70 says, “We cannot extricate ourselves from our own finiteness. And, therefore, we do this decoding by a highly imaginative, creative piece of guesswork.”


With respect to literature, Derrida 1981: 63 expresses a similar view when, comparing text to textile, he claims that it is impossible for a critic to survey all its threads at once or to critique without risking the addition of a new thread. Quantum mechanics, an epic poem: the principle is the same. To observe is to create, and to read is (to some degree, at least) to write. All this is old hat, at least for some. The real crux is how to create the right metaphors, because not all metaphors are the same. Potentially helpful for this purpose, I believe, is what Reckford 1987: xi describes as arrière-garde criticism. The approach is simple to explain. We open the closed system (Camilla is the apotheosis of Italian heroism, the committed virgin who must be deflowered, the doomed heroine in a proleptic civil war, the avatar of transgressive women in Vergil’s own day, the epitome of Vergilian polysemy, and so on seemingly ad infinitum) not by dubious inferences drawn from verbal parallels or arbitrary Quellenforschung or cherry-picking the evidence, but by taking back to Vergil the same sorts of questions that we ask of today’s society, its art, its politics, its culture, its religions, and so forth. How might the design of the Aeneid be similar to a fractal? What was Augustan Rome’s version of our culture wars? What would Vergil say to Barthes about the death of the author? The hope is that one of these atypical, even ridiculous questions will lead ultimately to the creation of a new metaphor, a more nearly true or better or more apt one that enables us to see a greater number of those tightly woven threads in Derrida’s web.


So. Is Aeneas, the vir of arma virumque, human or machine? A question that only we, who live in the age of the computer, might think to ask.


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