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Poems which are easy to dislike: the Aeneid

Most people's reactions on reading the Aeneid are a bit puzzled. As in 'what is all the fuss about this poem? You're kidding me that Virgil wrote it at two lines a day and this is what he came up with?'

It has the problem of not having a very inspiring hero. Aeneas, really, is a incredibly pallid character and also a bit of a git what with the trail of dead women he leaves in his wake.* Also he is not very bright. No, honestly, he is the dumbest epic hero ever. People give him prophecy after prophecy telling him to go to Italy and he's 'oh, right you mean Thrace/Crete/where ever I happen to see next.' Mind you, his father is just as thick, and completely one with him on the misreading of prophecy. (My favourite bit: the scene where dad sees horses and says that they are either an omen of peace or war. Right. Covering your bases a bit with that one, Anchises.)

But for all that I think it is a great and horribly sad poem, mainly because Aeneas is so ordinary. Here's this bit player in the Iliad who only wants a heroic death, who is forced by his mother, Venus, to carry the glory of Troy to Italy. And he doesn't want to. All he wants to do is settle down, rebuild what he can of Troy and have a quiet life with his son and father. He keeps trying to do this again and again and it ends in disaster until he just lets himself be swallowed up by his destiny.

And in the course of the poem he loses everything. He sees his whole world ripped away from him with the destruction of Troy. He loses the woman he loves, he abandons his mercy in the final lines of the poem to kill from sheer rage. And what does he get in return? A mother who once says she'd be happy if he died as long as she can save his son, three years with a woman who probably doesn't want him, and an empire he doesn't care about. It's all about sacrificing yourself for something which will give you no pleasure because people have bigger plans for you than you can possibly imagine or want. Which is why it is both great and horrible.

*I have just realised this makes him sound like a psychopath. He doesn't actually kill the women directly, more they sort of, well, die around him.

Date: 2006-05-08 06:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] chelseagirl47.livejournal.com
Pious Aeneas the Psychopath -- kinda works for me.

I taught the Fitzgerald translation (or the first half thereof) for the past three fall semesters, and I'll have to say, students don't tend to respond to it the way they do to the Odyssey or the Inferno (the beginning and end-points of this course). But your notion that his final "victory" isn't entirely such puts things into perspective.

Date: 2006-05-08 07:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lesbiassparrow.livejournal.com
No one ever really liked the Aeneid when I taught it. I think the only way I would get people to see that it really is something they should read, is by making it just about the most depressing poem ever. And then they got all upset because it just makes everything seem so pointless and they would prefer an epic with some upward trajectory. (Funny, though, that never bothers anyone with the Iliad. But then that's a much better epic.)

Date: 2006-05-08 07:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] http://users.livejournal.com/skyglass_/
Apologies - I have come via my f'list's f'list:

You've made some really good points. He is a hero who is foreced to do what others want all the time. But I would query your description of Dido - the description that starts off book 4 is not one of a woman who doesn't care. The Dido/deer simile is where we're meant to realise that her love for Aeneas isn't natural love - though we know that from book 1. It's a destructive love visited on her by the gods (ironically enough, by Venus trying to help things along)- and Dido cares enough to be bitter and vicious about Aeneas's hasty preparations to head to Italy.
It's true that Aeneas doesn't want to go - he actually emphasises the people/things that are making him do this in the \latin "Me puer Ascanius" "me patris Anchisae" (sp), saying finally that "God's will, not mine, says'Italy'"
And the women do die around him. But only in order to make him realise that his destiny (and ultimatly Ascanius's) will not be with them.

Date: 2006-05-08 07:23 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lesbiassparrow.livejournal.com
No worries about popping by.

Oh, I think Dido loves Aeneas (why and how naturally is another question). And that love is insane enough to get her to toss everything out that she felt made her who she is - devotion to her dead husband and her people - to try and be with him and eventually to kill herself over him.

It's Lavinia who doesn't, I think - given that the only sign we have about her desire is her blush when Turnus appears, which suggests she feels something for him - and not Aeneas. And that's who he ultimately ends up with.

And in the end he does it all for...nothing, really, especially as most mythical traditions have his son by Lavinia ultimately being the start of the line that founds Rome, not Ascanius. And then three years in he gets to die.


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