Talking through Dido: the failure of forthright tenderness in Aeneid 6

When Aeneas catches sight of the ghost of Dido, his abandoned lover and the former Queen of Carthage, amongst a group of shades he passes on his journey into the depths of the underworld, he stops to try to talk to her. The conversation does not get off the ground. Hearing Aeneas speak, Dido shows no emotion in her facial features, which are left ‘unmoved, like hard rock’. This is in spite of the fact that we know ‘her mind is burning’. When Aeneas finishes speaking, she avoids all eye contact, staring at the ground, before retreating back into the shadows without saying a word.

Aeneas’ attempt to start a conversation with Dido is a striking failure, not least because Dido’s ghostly reticence stands in stark contrast with the outspoken, though increasingly troubled figure whom Aeneas has known in her earthly life. When he last saw her, she was in a state of furious indignation and deep melancholy at his impending departure from her kingdom. She had certainly had things to say to him previously. Why are things different now?

One reading of her response (or lack of response) to Aeneas in the underworld is that, in light of the devastation he has caused her (devastation which seems not entirely to have subsided), she really has nothing to say to him anymore. Coming face to face with him here perhaps gives Dido an opportunity to show Aeneas that she is now in a new state of mind, detached from the emotions which brought about her premature death. She is showing him that she has moved on from her state of earthly passion; that she has cried more than her share of tears for this man; and that she has perhaps found some peace of sorts in the company of the shade of her prematurely deceased husband Sychaeus (whose presence she seems to retreat toward).

Despite being plausible enough as far as it goes, for me this reading of the meeting of Aeneas and Dido in the underworld misses much of the richness and subtlety of Virgil’s presentation of their encounter. I think we can read more deeply into the dynamics of their responses to one another by looking carefully at the tone Aeneas adopts in his address of Dido and focussing on this as the likely cause of her response to him. Dido’s body language and withdrawal from Aeneas may best be seen, I think, as an implicit rejection – above all – of his tone, and the buoyant self-confidence and forthright and assertive, yet seemingly well-intentioned tenderness, it conveys.

If this is correct, one can perhaps imagine Aeneas’ words not only passing literally through Dido’s ghost, failing to register a physical impact on a phantasmagorical entity now bereft of its mortal existence. One can also imagine him talking through her, in the sense of missing the mark: missing the mark, that is, insofar as he adopts an emotional and rhetorical pose which falls well short of the kind of delicate sensitivity which an appropriate handling of this interaction would have involved.

Aeneas has entered the underworld to try to find his dead father Anchises. His motive is not simply that of a devoted son. He wishes to benefit from his father’s wisdom and foresight. He will rely on these to strengthen him as he strives to find a new homeland for his band of refugee Trojan warriors. His quest for a new home is not simply about finding appropriate land to settle. It is shown by Virgil to link profoundly to the story of the foundation and future greatness of Rome, not least insofar as Aeneas – despite being a Trojan hero – is made to embody many of the paradigmatic virtues of first century BC Augustan Rome.

Aeneas in the Underworld, by Rubens

Part of Aeneas’ problem is that he is so deeply caught up with the serious business of being the hero, leader of men and all-round man of action and adventure that he is. Virgil tells us that Aeneas addresses Dido with ‘sweet love’ in his voice (6.455), but just how much sweetness is this Odyssean swashbuckler capable of?

‘infelix Dido’ (‘unhappy/unlucky Dido’), he begins. This is a phrase which echoes other passages in the Aeneid, but it doesn’t obviously stand out for its sweetness, nor does it speak volumes for Aeneas’ capacity for sensitivity. Dido may indeed be unhappy, though why mention it – especially given that he himself is right at the root of this unhappiness?

He proceeds to ask two questions. The first aims to clarify whether Dido did indeed meet her death with a sword. The second asks if he himself had been the cause of her suicide. Aeneas immediately confronts Dido, then, with two of the most traumatic details of her existence. And, what’s more, he asks with a self-interested tone. Was Aeneas, by any chance, on her mind as Dido experienced her deepest moments of desperation?

One can understand Aeneas’ curiosity, perhaps, but why does he need to know this as a matter of urgency? One might even suggest that it is more than a bit cumbersome and unthinking of him to ask the question at all. He is rather like the person who, although he may have well-meaning concerns for an individual on his mind, just can’t help leaping into a conversation by voicing these concerns directly and straightaway, quite without regard for the emotional turbulence that doing so may cause the other party.

Aeneas continues by protesting that he didn’t want to leave Dido when he did (‘invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi’: ‘I left your shores unwillingly, O queen’). This is not exactly new information. He has already told Dido, right on the brink of his departure from Carthage, that he is not leaving of his own accord. Here he seems to assume that she simply didn’t believe him first time round.

So now he uses emphatic words in a dramatic tricolon to promise that it really is true: ‘by the stars, by the gods and by whatever kind of faith exists within the depths of the earth’. But even if (on a charitable reading) Dido may now be better convinced of something she wasn’t before, what should this matter now? The deed has been done: Aeneas seems more concerned to justify and perhaps exculpate himself to Dido, than he does to empathise seriously with her feelings during her desperate last moments of life.

He then tells her that he cannot believe that such great grief was caused to her by his leaving Carthage. Clearly he was not paying sufficient attention during her extended emotional outpourings in Book 4. While speaking of her distress, Dido had pointedly referenced her own mortality, even claiming she was ‘going to die’ at one point (4.307). Has Aeneas simply forgotten this? Was he himself too distressed to register it when he heard it first time round? Or was he, rather, just insufficiently sympathetic to Dido’s pain properly to grasp it, being rather too focussed (for instance) on his own divinely ordained prerogatives to recognise it?

Toward the end of his speech, Aeneas issues a pair of direct commands, telling Dido to ‘stop’ and instructing her not to remove herself from his sight. Rather than telling her so abrasively what to do, could he not have implored her with soothing words, gently inviting her to share some words with him? The direct language Virgil employs helps, I think, to underscore the fact that this Aeneas is inescapably a forthright man of action who is used to commanding others with a strutting confidence. A less forthright (and more effective) approach would, perhaps, have involved a more delicate appeal to the sensibilities of his tragically jilted lover.

It is a commonplace to point out that Virgil’s Aeneas, as a prototypical Roman, simply tramples over the Carthaginian Dido in a way that represents the later Roman trampling of Carthage itself in the Punic Wars.* Aeneas stands for Rome, then, and Dido for Carthage. Many readers of Virgil sense that he is profoundly alert to the darkness and tragedy of military conquest and (specifically also of) Roman imperialism. In my opinion, Aeneas’ speech to Dido in the underworld sustains this reading. Through Aeneas, Virgil conveys something of the tactless bluster of the conquering Roman mentality, as it comes face to face with the tragic queen it has (seemingly unwittingly) brought to ruin.

TS Eliot found in Aeneas’ address of Dido in Book 6 something rather different from what I find here. For Eliot, Aeneas’ words disclose ‘civilised manners, and a civilised consciousness and conscience’.** Many other readers have found something similar, and some have admired Aeneas for his emotional articulacy in the passage, finding in him something approaching an exemplary figure who plainly and directly speaks his mind in a difficult interaction. My own reading challenges this view, which to me seems altogether too tidy and clipped. Even if Aeneas has to leave Carthage to fulfil his destiny, he still manages to get things wrong with Dido in the way he talks with her, I suggest.

Book 6 of the Aeneid, with its account of Aeneas’ descent into the underworld, enjoyed an extended afterlife as an inspiration for medieval and early modern Christian imaginings of hell. Both Dante and Milton made features of Virgil’s account central to their own epic poems.

Virgil and Dante in Hell, by Delacroix

Contemporary readers are unlikely to look to Virgil as a resource when trying to picture any possible life after death. But Virgil’s characters, and his art as a storyteller, may still hold lessons not only for how to think about human relationships, as I have explored here, but (also, among other things) for contemporary attempts to do theology.

It is a truism of many such attempts in recent Christian writing that God is a God of love who can somehow be found through the experience of love in human relationships. As a rich resource for helping people to think through the meaning of sensitivity, sympathy and love in their relationships, Virgil’s writing could arguably be as instructive to this sort of theology now as it was in stimulating the religious thought and experience of medieval Christianity.

*For example, Bruno Currie, Epilogue, in Epic Interactions: Perspectives on Homer, Virgil and the Epic Tradition, pp. 351-2.

**TS Eliot, What is a Classic? p. 20

The featured image is a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder of Aeneas with the Sibyl in the underworld.

Tears for things

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.