Poetry offers many things to its readers and listeners. One thing I have thought a lot about recently is how it offers an important emotional resource in times of hardship. When there is a felt need for reflection, for contemplation, for grief, or – perhaps in response to these – for renewal, as of course there will be in most human lives at some point or other, recourse to a poet’s voice represents a certain kind of therapeutic possibility, a way to heal (or at least to accompany) the troubled or weary spirit.
I have found in my adult life that accessing poetry as a source of consolation can be less a question of painstaking analytical reading (which I seem to recall was the chief characteristic of my experience of dealing with poems while growing up) and more a matter of soothing contemplation. Just a few short verses or phrases, for whatever reason, can resonate, opening the way for meditation. A poignant line can reappear, as if from nowhere, in my (as in others’) consciousness. When it does, I have found, it can help illuminate one’s approach to an area of concern (if one does not become aware that it has already long *been* illuminating said area), or even to the business of life and its vicissitudes more generally.
When Virgil’s hero Aeneas contemplates the destruction of his home city and the terrible deaths of so many of his countrymen and relatives, including the tragic death of his wife Creusa, he understandably experiences – and sometimes attempts to articulate – tremendous sadness. Reflecting in just this fashion midway through book 1 of the Aeneid, Aeneas utters the following plaintive phrase: ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.
The phrase is awkward to render literally, though the translation of Robert Fagles is pretty good. He has it as follows: ‘the world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart’. To capture the essence of what I take to be the meaning of these words a little more closely, I would depart (still) further from their literal sense. My version of a loose but hopefully not unfaithful translation is: ‘there are tears to be shed for worldly things, and the realities of mortal existence touch me in my depths’.
Any reader of Virgil will know that a melancholy mood suffuses much of his writing. But, for me, the Latin phrase ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’ captures more than any other that I can call to mind something important not just about Virgil’s depiction of the psychology of Aeneas, but about Virgil’s own poetic temperament. For this is a phrase, I think, in which Virgil tries to tell his readers about something more than just how Aeneas, his lead protagonist, is feeling.
The tone of his words also suggests that he wants to intimate to his readers that their/our own contemplation of human affairs may engender a tearful response. A cautious interpretation of such a sentiment might be that Virgil is pointing toward the sad presence of unfortunate realities (such as death, misfortune and injustice) in the world, and suggesting that tears are indeed a fitting response to these. A bolder interpretation than this, though, would be that Virgil is hinting that there is something to lament and mourn in the very nature of human affairs per se. From this perspective, he can be taken to be suggesting that tearfulness must lie at the heart of any genuine response to our human predicament itself, and that this is so particularly in relation to the awful brutality of the military and political realities we may find ourselves confronting.
One does not need to find in the phrase ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’ a precursor to Christ’s tears in the Garden of Gethsemane (as did the German critic Haecker)* to identify an area of possible commonality between Virgil and Christianity here. If (for Virgil) a tearful response to human affairs may be a fitting one, then how far are we from the Biblical world of the Book of Lamentations? And how far from the notion (one that is of course fundamental to the doctrine of original sin) that there is something utterly broken and flawed (and, thus, presumably lamentable) in our all-too-human world? Having said this, however, it ought still to be conceded that the Christian tropes that Virgil’s readers in the Middle ages purported to identify in his pre-Christian poetry appeared most clearly in other areas of his writing.**
The subjects of melancholy and lamentation are broached in literature in many ways I have yet to discover. One author I have come across recently who handles them with considerable tenderness and depth of feeling is Giorgio Bassani, in his beautiful series of novels about the Jewish community in Ferrara in the run-up to the second World War. I intend to write something soon about this writer and the heartrending ways in which he deals with sadness and tragedy (amongst other themes) in his novels.
For the time being, though, I will conclude with the admission that, if there is a single short phrase more gently expressive of the simple reality and sorry experience of human melancholy than that of Virgil, I have not yet found it. For this reason, the phrase which offers the go-to point of contact for what melancholy means to me remains ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.
*As described by Philip Hardie, The Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid, pp. 143-4.
**As identified by P. Hardie, op cit. I recommend Hardie’s book, which I read and greatly enjoyed a few months back, to anyone interested in this topic.
***The featured image is from Ingres’s Virgil Reading the Aeneid.