Behind your verse
so masterfully made
we hear the weeping
of a Muse betrayed.
About half a year ago, I discovered the poetry of a German author named Stefan George (1868-1933). Even though I do not understand everything he wrote, I am impressed by his words. The man, however, was also a proto-Nazi. Yet, George’s political opinions do not really matter to me; art is art and should be judged as art in the first place, and as a political message only after that.
I can also appreciate Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious movie Triumph des Willens and Sergej Eisenstein’s October. I am fully aware of the repugnant political ideologies, but when I see those films, I can somehow dissociate from their messages, and focus on the artistic merits. The same goes for other artists: David was court painter of Napoleon, Raphael and Michelangelo served a papacy that was in desperate need of reform. Yet, their paintings are dear to me, or at least some of them.
So if I can make a distinction between art and political message, why can’t I just appreciate Virgil’s Aeneid, which I just reread, a bit more? I do not find it difficult to admit that his Georgics are among the finest that was written in Latin. The Eclogues do not irritate me either. And yet, there’s something that I find terribly annoying about the Aeneid.
Partly, it’s the use of outdated artistic forms. Those interfering deities had, somehow, a reality of their own in the days of Homer; for him, it was a fact that the gods were present during the fights. For Virgil, the use of the same motifs must have felt empty. As survivor of the civil wars, he must have known better and must have had different ideas, and I think that his contemporaries must have appreciated the divine interventions as a literary jeu d’esprit only.
Another aspect is the ridiculous scene in which Anchises teaches “Roman history in the future tense” (as W.H. Auden aptly phrased it). It was avoidable; the same aim – the idea that all history is just a prefiguration of the coming of Augustus – might have been achieved by mirroring scenes from Roman history in the adventures of Aeneas. The effect would have been less terrible, yes even amusing; now, it is hard to take the poem seriously after the sixth book.
But my main criticism is that Virgil is making his art subject to a political system. I know I am inconsistent: I can ignore the political opinions of Michelangelo, Raphael, David, Eisenstein, Riefenstahl, and George, so why not Virgil? I wish I understood why. Maybe one of the reasons why I dislike Virgil, is that I see my own inconsistency.
He isn’t so bad after all!
What if the gods in the Aeneid function as a poetic means of (purportedly) exculpating human deeds, especially those of Aeneas? Which then is, of course, to be read the other way round: In fact he isn’t so innocent – neither in leaving Dido nor in killing Turnus. The same with Anchises’ telling of the future: Virgil’s “Iliad” of Aeneid books VII to XII is a dark epic of faults, false decisions and at the end a terrible crime of the protagonist. How to combine this with the splendid panorama of Roman history Anchises depicts? I think it was this contrast Virgil aimed at. He didn’t mean his epic to be just “amusing”. He wasn’t content with his achievement either, but why not reconstruct it this way?
(I take my username from my German wikipedia entries …)
I have a computer translation of Aenid if anyone is interested. But the main reason I love the Aenid… he tells the true location of the Pillars of Hercules. They are the same as Virgil’s “Pillars of Proteus”. It’s in Canopus, home of Heracles the Canopian”.
I think you’ll love reading O’Hara’s book “Inconsistencies in Roman Epic.” Vergil knew what he was doing, and it wasn’t creating a boot-licking paean to Aeneas. Au contraire. He is all too willing to let show the prior tradition about this hero: that he was Troy’s betrayer.