Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Of Arms and the Man

It is the famous first line of The Aeneid that gave us that oft-quoted phrase, but I would like to begin these further random observations about the great epic poem by citing the concluding lines, which are as follows:

“Then, rous'd anew to wrath, he loudly cries
(Flames, while he spoke, came flashing from his eyes)
"Traitor, dost thou, dost thou to grace pretend,
Clad, as thou art, in trophies of my friend?
To his sad soul a grateful off'ring go!
'T is Pallas, Pallas gives this deadly blow."
He rais'd his arm aloft, and, at the word,
Deep in his bosom drove the shining sword.
The streaming blood distain'd his arms around,
And the disdainful soul came rushing thro' the wound.”

Is that not a striking image, a highly dramatic way to end this great epic poem? Yet why do I post is here on The Thread? The most succinct answer is: why not? Lines as powerful as these ought to be shared. But beyond that simplistic explanation, there are other reasons why I decided to share them in this forum. First, I think they provide an adequate taste of what the experience of reading this classic is like: there is such emotion and passion in these verses (the translation I read and have quote above is John Dryden's), and I think it comes through loud and clear in a passage like this. One of the wonderful things about reading these ancient epics is the emotional experience of it: I would say that very few writings of any age evoke as much human feeling as these do. I was moved by the loyalty and fidelity to a friend expressed in Aeneas' words, even if he does follow through (literally) with a sword to the chest! "To his sad soul a grateful off'ring go"... to me, the inclusion of the word "grateful" in there is interesting. Aeneas seems to be saying not only that he remembers his friend, but that he cherishes those memories, and refuses to allow them to be tarnished. His loyalty to Pallas, admirably, extends beyond the grave.

And of course, there's the violence. I don't celebrate violence in any way, yet in the context of an epic "of arms and the man," the portrayal of bloodshed is inevitable. "War is hell," from Troy to Iraq... and certainly the classic authors do not shy away from such portrayals. The modern reader may well be surprised at how bloody works such as The Iliad and The Aeneid truly are. I know I was. And yet, thinking back, I'm not sure why I was so surprised. Think of ancient Rome, for example, and what images come immediately to mind? For most of us, the Colosseum would have to be near the top of the list. And what was the Colosseum? Basically, a Great Big Theater of Blood. (I often wonder at these older cultures, how their lust for blood seems to have been insatiable... not just the Romans either, think of the Aztecs and their great public sacrificial rites... it is puzzling to me that in our own age, which is so accustomed to seeing violence broadbast on our 24-7 news channels and TV shows with such mind-numbing regularity, we still seem to maintain somehow a sqeamishness towards violence, even as we celebrate it. The ancients seemed to celebrate it as we do, yet they seem to have lacked, generally speaking, the sqeamishness. Why is that, I wonder? Does that not seem strange somehow? A subject for another post, or blog, I guess...)

No doubt about it, these great epics are blood-feasts, and The Aeneid is no exception. The ancients (at least the Greeks and Romans) possessed a fascination with death, but it was not, I think, a morbid one... more of a desire on their part to know and understand this great mystery and its implications on the living. Notice how, when Aeneas kills his rival Turnus there, Virgil does not just mention his death: he also feels compelled to include the release of the soul from Turnus' body. Unlike more modern thinkers, the ancients were not so arrogant to insist that life is absurd and death is The End. Instead, they embraced its mysteries and regarded it as a passage to something other, something outside of themselves. (These are the seeds within the history of human thought that would eventually flower into the belief in eternal life and the resurrection of the body, an intuition within us that Jesus would ultimately affirm and put on vivid display for the world to know and understand.) Anyway, the point is that they cultivated a healthy respect for the profundity of death, and the references to souls and ghosts and the frequent forays in these epics into the underworld bear this out in memorable fashion.

I hope that in this aimless blathering I am getting across, if nothing else, the powerful impact an epic poem such as The Aeneid can have on even the modern reader, if he/she is willing to take the time to immerse himself in the culture and mindset so vividly and passionately rendered. There's that word again: if I could choose only one word to describe these ancient epics of Greece and Rome, I think I might choose "passionate." They are vivid, emotional, bloody, and passionate in their telling... arrows from some ancient Hellenic archer aimed right at the heart. They sing most often "of arms and the man," and as any recent news broadcast will show you, with such a subject there cannot be anything other than deep sorrow, pain, heroism, cowardice and the horrible futility of war. The Aeneid expresses all of this powerfully, beautifully, and any reader in 2005 who takes up the challenge will appreciate and remember the experience, I have no doubt.

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

O mighty Duke Altum! He hath slain yet another epic read. Yes, Duke is constantly on my case to read the ancients, which I have not done - never read the Iliad, Odyssey, let alone books like The Aeneid. Yet Duke makes a powerful case for doing so (and of course I know there is no avoiding it). Having talked with Duke all along through most of his explorations into the ancients, I'm no stranger to most of his thoughts related to such writings, and yet he has expressed himself coherently here. Makes me wonder if I should be bumping some of these reads up in the ol' 'on deck circle', as I like to call it. So many books to read, so little time. You got to hand it to people like Duke, who are willing to go back and explore this really old stuff and take on the formidable mental challenge of delineating what aspects of these ancient works are applicable to our present situation. That's some mental gymnastics that most people just don't take the time for. But if you note the evidence of growing cultural understanding in Duke's comments on books, there are obviously dividends.......if anyone is reading these blogs, and I have my doubts, consider rising up to retrieve the gauntlet bravely chuck'd by the Duke!!!!