Publius Vergilius Maro was born on the Ides of October, 2086 years ago last weekend. His work, the Aeneid in particular, is always with me—I like very much having a phrase or a verse pop up in my mind; I very much wish I knew more Vergil by heart.
Vergil is without question the reason I am still reading Latin. I read Vergil first in 1971-72, my junior year in high school, led willingly but slowly through the antiqua silva of the purple Pharr by Jack Lynch, a man who had been a Benedictine novice in Germany in his youth and who seemed older than Charon–iam senior, sed cruda deo uiridisque senectus. Jack wasn’t that old, of course; and his age was indeed green and fresh: he loved to run around and climb the furniture, dramatizing Vergil’s words. He certainly was old enough to have had his novitiate training in Latin, and he had many funny stories about it. Jack’s grading was interesting—really an old-fashioned recitation grade. He had a series of cards—8 and 1/2” by 11” inch card stock sliced in half the long way—and he would shuffle these and let the Parcae call on you. How well you translated and answered grammatical questions determined your grade for the class, which he recorded with a fountain pen in very cryptic symbols that none of us ever figured out.
Oblivious to the paleolithic methodology, being a talented student, I loved Vergil. The strangeness of the interlocking word order, transferred epithets, assonance and alliteration just held me spellbound. What I remember getting at the time was that here was a poetic voice who really understood that life was not for sissies: sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt. Since this was a year in which my parents separated, after some physical violence and a lot of alcohol, I got the part about the lacrimae rerum.
My next big Vergil moment happened in graduate school, when, along with a couple of other grad students, I was in charge of what we called The Classics Discussion Group at Cornell. We had some splendid plaster casts of the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia in the coffee house in the basement of the humanities building, and we used a photo that someone found of a group of northern European women in the Olympia Museum looking rather intently at Apollo’s midsection, clutching their purses quite protectively, as our group logo. This discussion group decided to hold an event to read the whole of the Aeneid aloud, in Latin, nonstop, in late September, 1982, in honor of the 2000th anniversary of Vergil’s death.
We managed to do it in about 10 hours, as I recall; we got volunteers from all over the university. I remember reading Anchises’ misguided prophecies in book 3, camping it up to make Anchises a doddering idiot (those of you who have heard Justin Slocum Bailey’s senex Romanus know what I was about, although Justin is a splendid actor and I am not). What struck me at the time, though, was the remarkable variety of ways that people read Latin verse aloud and how remarkably dull some of them were. This is a pity, because Vergil’s writing shines when read aloud with expression. We may not be able to recreate Vergil’s remarkable delivery, but any thoughtful expression is better than little or none.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I made my way in the degree mill through to the ABD-stage of things without learning anything about the Georgics—Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi finem di dederint. Now, as I find myself working in a small school dedicated to teaching students to understand what a life in harmony with the natural world really means, my hour has come. Haud facilis ascensus ad res rusticas (as if that were really what Vergil’s completed great poem is about). But it is nice to learn new things.
This modern and disjointed feuilleton is hardly the place to venture into serious criticism of Vergil’s work. But, speaking as one who was nurtured on the critical approaches of Michael Putnam, Ralph Johnson, and Fred Ahl, I don’t have a lot of patience for those who view the Aeneid as a masterwork of Caesarean propaganda. At floreant centum flores. Just please don’t tell me that you are in sole possession of a magic key to the meaning of the Aeneid. If you think you are, I shall cheerfully await you on the dark side of the gate of ivory, not of horn. I hope the shy Mantuan will be there to tell us.