Sorrow, Unspeakable Sorrow

The Aeneid

Not only did I end up delaying my reading of The Aeneid by a month, I have also fallen behind on creating the entry for it. As of today, I have finally made it through the first book, in which Aeneas and his crew, having fled the ruins of Troy, alight on the Libyan coast in search of refuge from the ever-jealous gods who thwart their safe passage to Italy, their destination. Queen Dido of Carthage takes them in and shelters them, at least for a time.

Before venturing forth, Aeneas will spend half the book detailing the fall of Troy and his wanderings since then. It is worth noting that the episode people think they remember most from the previous works, that of the Trojan Horse, is given much fuller account here than it was in The Odyssey (although Homer did mention it briefly).

Stylistically, there are some radical departures from the previous texts, which is natural considering the provenance of this text. The switch from Greek names to Roman ones is the most immediately noticeable feature, but this is just a matter of remapping names. Far more jarring, at least for me, is the constant switching of verb tenses, from past to present. While no such instances stand out from my readings of The Iliad, The Odyssey contained some interesting verb constructions, but ONLY in reference to Eumaeus the swine-herd: here, Homer switched from third person to second person, referring to Eumaeus as “you”. But Virgil, at least as translated by Fagles, seems to take a liberal view of verb tenses, freely mixing past and present forms. It is curious and, as I said, a bit jarring.

The other immediate contrast is that, whereas I saw little self-consciousness in Homer, Virgil is aggressively so, playing up early the mythos of Aeneas as destined founder of the Roman people. We get a sense from the beginning that this is a founding myth and not merely a narrative. By the time Virgil was writing, more than a thousand years had passed since the war itself and 800 years since authoring of The Iliad and The Odyssey. This is more than enough time for both works to have gained significance in the national psychology of the city-states comprising eventual Greece, and Virgil is clearly imitating this, but at a much farther remove.

Note: This is part of a series of posts dealing with the reading of one sacred/epic work per month in 2017. See below for more information on what I’m doing and how to follow along.

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