Friday, October 31, 2008

from the Aeneid
Virgil, trans. Robert Fagles

[describing a boat race]

Mnestheus riding high, the higher for his success--
oars at a racing stroke, wind at his beck and call--
shoots into open water, homing down the coast.
Swift as a dove, flushed in fear from a cave
where it nests its darling chicks in crannies,
a sudden burst of wings and out its home it flies,
terrified, off into open fields and next it skims
through the bright, quiet air and never beats a wing.
So Mnestheus, so his Dragon speeds ahead, cleaving
on her own forward drive.

I think the sudden shift from the boat race to the dove comparison is breathtaking. Virgil makes these same exquisite shifts in his Eclogues as well, although they are very different poems--pastorals rather than epic narratives. The Aeneid is a remarkable poem, however; and what particularly strikes me at this reading is the poet's skill at relaying the timeless emotions and behaviors of men and women caught in faltering love affairs. When it comes to histrionic agony, Anne Sexton has nothing on Dido, queen of Carthage . . . and this emotional continuity makes me stop and think about what "confessional poetry" really is. Certainly it is not merely a late-twentieth-century self-absorption: the mere existence of Dido shows us that poets have long been consumed by the drama of self-absorption. What Virgil does is remove himself from the scene rather than make himself the centerpiece. Nonetheless, he clearly had deep knowledge of those feelings, an issue I have already taken up with Milton in one of the chapters of my memoir about reading Paradise Lost. Third-person omniscience doesn't necessarily equal detachment. Otherwise, how would a writer be able to imagine a particular emotion so intensely?

And Aeneas that jerk: so focused on his mission to found a new nation that, with only a passing twinge, he single-mindedly leaves his lover in the lurch. Dido throws herself at his feet, begging for love, in the way of passionate, infatuated young women since the beginning of time (you have Dido in one of your classes; I know you do), and what does Aeneas say?

He ventured a few words: "I . . . you have done me
so many kindnesses, and you could count them all.
I shall never deny what you deserve, my queen,
never regret my memories of Dido. . . .
[But not] once did I extend a bridegroom's torch
or enter into a marriage pact with you."

It's the old "Honey, it was fun, but I never said I loved you" line, written somewhere around 19 B.C.

Ugh. You have Aeneas in one of your classes too. He probably plays basketball.

Dinner tonight: grilled-cheese sandwiches and candy.

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