THE LIGHT TOUCH IN THE AENEID
I once presented a paper on Roman humor, which was heard by several people who had to work out future programs. Since then, I have been called upon to look for humor in everything. Not that I mind. No one takes his humor more seriously than I do.
When Mr. Abel and I got around to the AENEID in this quest for humor, we found ourselves a bit baffled. Vergil obviously had sensitivity, delicacy, majestic style. But humor? Somehow I doubt that he told the jokes at Maecenas’ parties. Besides, an epic by its very nature is a serious poem.
But Vergil, as a great Roman poet, embodied the best characteristics of classical literature. In English classes we refer to such people as Ben Jonson and Walter Savage Landor as writing a"classical" style. When puzzled students ask what we mean by such a term, we name characteristics like simplicity, restraint, and - the "light touch." This last quality is what I am going to point out in the AENEID.
Vergil’s light touch is most evident in certain small descriptive phrases and in some of his delicate figures of speech. Twice, for instance, he gives us vivid pictures by simply describing a person’s walk: when Ascanius is following his father out of Troy, he trots beside Aeneas non passibus aequis; and Barce, sent on an errand by Dido, bustles along with the nervous eagerness of an old woman.
There is an interesting repetition (with only minor variations) in a question used by both Aeneas and Dido on vaguely similar occasions. With Aeneas is about to desert Dido, she says,"Mene fugis?" Later, when Dido will not speak to Aeneas in the underworld, he says, "Quem fugis?" The similes in the AENEID are a study in themselves, but some of them beautifully illustrate Vergil’s light touch. The dead Pallas is compared to a flower which some girl has picked and dropped; it is fading, but has not yet lost its freshness. And the mortally wounded Euryalus’s head droops like a flower cut by a plow, or like a poppy that has been beaten over by a heavy rain.
Book viii has a bit of very effective personification. As Aeneas and his warriors are rowing up a quiet stream in search of Evander’s city, Vergil says that the waves and the woods of this rustic, peaceful region stare in amazement at the shining armor and the ornate ships.
In the archery contest of Book v, a little dove tied to the mast is the target. The first contestant frightens it and causes it to flutter; the second man, pitying it, aims for and hits the cord that holds it; as it flies away, the third man strikes it in flight.
Then Vergil says:
It falls dead and leaves its life among the stars,
And slipping down carries back to earth
The arrow fixed in its breast.
And in Italy when Ascanius is sending Nisus to his father, he keeps calling out messages to the departing Nisus which, Vergil says,"the winds bore away and carried off to cloudland."
A person could go on indefinitely listing descriptive passages which illustrate the light touch of Vergil. Actually, the only time that he completely loses his light touch and becomes obvious and heavy-handed is when he pauses in his story in order to carry out his DUTY of praising the household of Augustus. Although he was very fond of Augustus personally, these compliments made to order become stiff and awkward and somewhat artificial sounding. Anchises’ speech to Aeneas in the underworld reminds us of Desraeli’s comment that when dealing with royalty, flattery should be spread on with a trowel.
Also the books which deal primarily with battles are treated less lightly than the others. The descriptions of the fighting are vividly gory, with only occasional light touches like the picture of a delicately woven tunic splattered with a red which seems out of place, and of course such similes as those I have mentioned. I somehow feel that the goriness is a conscious attempt to emulate the Iliad; and the delicate touches are Vergil.Vergil never allows his reader to become too involved in one situation or in one character. He shifts from scene to scene frequently. His favorite transitional word is interea (meanwhile, back at the ranch...), which occurs at least thirty times. This transitional word is found in every book of the AENEID, twice in the first line of a book.
Another method that Vergil uses to keep his reader conscious of the fact that this is a STORY is that he, as the story-teller, addresses his audience directly with such side remarks as mirabile dictu or miserabile visu. By simply turning pages, I counted sixteen occurrences of such phrases.
Although the AENEID is essentially a serious work, there are three phases of what could loosely be classified as humor in it: there are those things which Vergil and the Romans found amusing, but which we do not find so; those which Vergil meant to be amusing, and we do find so; and those which Vergil did not intend to be funny, but which we cannot help smiling about.
The Greeks and Romans seem to have considered outwitting another person as just good clean fun. And so Vergil entertains us with various instances of this kind of skullduggery. The classic example of this, of course, is the wooden horse. But there are other, less drastic cases of trickery in the AENEID. We are told how the Tyrians got the land for Carthage by cutting a bull’s hide into strips; and how Nisus won the footrace not quite according to Hoyle at the funeral games. We do not admire the ability to dupe other people as much as the ancients did; therefore, these anecdotes do not delight us as they did the Romans.
Vergil seems to have thoroughly enjoyed writing Book v with its funeral games. The events here are described with all the gusto of a TV sports announcer; and just like the sports announcer, Vergil likes to give entertaining little sidelights, such as how Menoetes got angry during the boat race and dived overboard in his frustration, and how the arguments arose after the handsome Nisus won the footrace unfairly. But Vergil observes that the crowd as a whole favored Nisus because, as he slyly remarks: Merit is so much more satisfying when it comes in a handsome boy. This is like the saying that of course I'll marry for love, but there’s no harm in falling in love with a RICH girl.
In addition to this book being like a modern sports review, it also takes on many of the characteristics of another type of show - the give-away program. In all the contests both winners and losers get prizes. Everybody entering the footrace, for instance, gets a Cretan spear and a silver-embossed ax instead of a year’s supply of shaving cream. Then, in addition, there are first, second, and third prizes for win, place, and show.
As I have said, some things are funny only from the point of view of the modern reader. Three remarks in the AENEID amuse me every time I read them, although I am sure that they were not intended to be amusing. When Dido says in Book i,"I wish your leader, Aeneas, were here," that is the cue for Aeneas to burst from the mist surrounding him with the naively egotistical remark: "Coram quem quaeritis, adsum." (Here I am - in person!)
Also when Aeneas leaves Actium, he inscribes on the entrance to Apollo’s temple there:
Aeneas Haec de Danais Victoribus Arma
That always reminds me of a tree in Frankfort, Kentucky, on which is carved the profound statement: Dan’l Boone killed a bar on this tree.
And Turnus says to the Trojan Pandarus, whom he is about to kill:"I have a message tor Priam. Tell him Achilles was here." Could this be the origin of "Kilroy was here"?
To me the most amusing part of Vergil is his conception of women. Most of Vergil’ s human females are either foolish, colorless, or dangerous; or they make nice prizes and bribes. As evidence of the bargaining value of a pretty woman, we find Juno very early in Book i bribing Aeolus by promising him a pretty wife, and in Book ix Ascanius promises Nisus twelve lectissima matrum corpora, if he successfully carries a message to Aeneas.
Among the women who have a name and an individuality, Camilla is an interesting person, a Penthesilia in Italian costume. But some of my admiration for her disappears when she loses her life by attacking a man just to plunder his expensive equipment. As Vergil says, she is overcome with the feminine love of acquiring material possessions. I have difficulty believing this of Camilla, but since Vergil created her he ought to know.
Vergil doesn’t come right out and say so, but he implies, that the love of women is the root of all evil. Helen caused the Trojan War; the Sybil prophesies to Aeneas that he will wage wars in Italy, and the cause will AGAIN be a woman. Dido had almost deterred Aeneas from his destiny. And Venus convinced Mars how deserving the Trojans were in their fight with the Latins, not by reasoning with him but by making love to him. Vergil seems to warn that you should never underestimate the power or a woman; she is a dangerous toy.
Mercury minces no words when he comes to tell Aeneas to leave Carthage. He doesn’t even bother to say hello. His first statement is to sting Aeneas with the insulting epithet uxorius (henpecked). Mercury arrives, delivers his message, and departs before Aeneas has time to go through his usual reaction of his hair standing on end and his voice sticking in his throat.
Mercury’ s next conversation with Aeneas ends with the generalization: varium et mutabi1e semper femina. This is the favorite line of the entire AENEID for ninety-five per cent of my male students, and it invariably brings a smile to the face of every student. Mercury’s thought was complete without this line. I feel sure that Vergil simply "threw it in" with the knowledge that it would arouse the masculine reaction of "ain’t it the truth!"
The only three sensible women in the entire poem are the aged Hecuba, the dead Creusa, and Dido’s sister Anna. Anna could have collaborated with Ovid on the Art of Love. After telling Dido all the practical reasons she needs a man around the house, she turns to the question of just how to " hook" Aeneas. She says: "Just keep him amused until winter comes, when NOBODY would start out on a sea voyage. Then, by the time spring rolls around, he won’t WANT to go."
Dido’s actions must be explained as Cupid’s work, for sometimes her behavior is that of a bobby-soxer with a "crush." Throughout Book i she is a very real woman to me, a woman who is falling in love and who simply doesn’t want to say goodnight at the banquet. So she searches desperately for questions to keep the conversation going, and she comes up with such feminine queries as: What were the horses of Diomedes like? and How big a man was Achilles?
But the Dido of Book iv bothers me. I am not convinced that this woman would ask Aeneas to tell the same story of his adventures two nights in succession. Surely she had more ingenuity than that. Also she goes on the hunting party dressed in purple and gold as if she were going to a formal dinner. Perhaps this is the appropriate costume for what she is hunting, but it is as out of place for a real hunt as high heeled shoes are for a woman weeding her vegetable garden.
Nor does Aeneas show to great advantage in his relationship with Dido. After he determines to leave Carthage, I am fascinated by watching the male mind at work on the dilemma of how to escape from a passionate woman who loves him. He tries to figure out what kind of explanation he can use to ambire (quite literally"get around") Dido. He seeks the mollissima fandi tempora - the psychological moment for breaking the news to her.
No wonder Vergil never married. The flimsiest speech in the entire AENEID is Aeneas’ answer to Dido’s question of "What do you think you’re doing?" His first comment is: "You’ve been awfully good to me, and I’ll never forget you, dear." That is no answer to anything, and is the best way I can think of that he could have made Dido furious. Next he says, "I want to say a few things in my defense." This is a simple declaration of war. Then he makes his first frontal attack. "I never married you, nor did I ever promise to marry you." After he has said that, I wonder how he thought Dido would even be listening to the more reasonable statements that follow. But he is not through saying the wrong things even yet. After his explanation of his actions, he says that he must do what the gods will. Then he adds, "So stop upsetting yourself and me with your complaints!" In other words, stop nagging. This man who has been trying to figure out the best way of talking the situation over with Dido has just succeeded in delivering the most inept farewell speech I have ever heard. This is, incidentally, the last words we have any record of Aeneas speaking to Dido while she lived.
I’m not sure whether Vergil intended for Aeneas to look ridiculous in this interview or whether he simply lacked insight into the intricacies of feminine psychology. But to me the great hero who becomes completely ineffectual in the presence of an angry woman is amusing - and human.
There is one other angle to my subject which I wish to speak about briefly. I find the AENEID delightful reading, but I am not sure that I did when I was a student. This could be explained by many things, but I wonder whether as teachers we don’t sometimes approach the AENEID with too much seriousness. The result is that our students turn the story into dignified but stuffy English. How would you want your students to translate the words or Latinus when he is trying to get Turnus to give up Lavinia? He says: Sunt aliae innuptae. In my estimation, "There are other fish in the sea" is a much better translation than "There are other unmarried girls."
Rolphe Humphries’ poetic version of the AENEID does an admirable job of maintaining the original vitality. One line that especially delights me is Juno’s comment in Book vii (1.312) where she has failed to get Jupiter’s cooperation and is planning to seek Pluto’s help. She says to herself (in Mr. Humphreys’ translation):
If I cannot bend Heaven, at least I can raise Hell.
I encourage my students to use modern terminology. When I first translate a line by a slang expression, I notice a look of disbelief and consternation on the faces in the class. But the students soon catch on, and enjoy it. I have no objection to their writing such statements as:"Creusa got lost in the shuffle," and "Aeneas is his own public relations man." The student must interpret Vergil in terms that have meaning for him. Perhaps the AENEID loses some of its majesty and dignity by being translated in current adolescent language; but unless the student can feel that Aeneas and Dido are ALIVE, they have no more appeal than figures on a billboard. I cannot (and my students cannot) imagine Venus disguised as a hunter meeting a couple of men in the woods and saying, "Greetings, young men." I think that she would say "Hi, fellows." And when Dido is raking Aeneas over the coals for what she considers his attempt to sneak away from her, I doubt seriously that in her intense anger she addressed him as "oh faithless one." Vergil uses perfide. I would classify the literal translation of this among the New Yorker’s file of exclamations we doubt ever got exclaimed. I suspect that Dido would have searched frantically in her mind for the most insulting epithet she could think of. Since she is a lady, there are many words she would not think of, or if she did she would discard them. But I believe that in her anger and frustration, she would have finally spit out at him the Roman equivalent of "You - you cad!" A student of mine the other day translated this as "You louse."
The people who make out vocabularies for Latin textbooks are responsible for many of the student’s awkward and unnatural translations. Perfidus is defined in the book I use as "unfaithful, treacherous, perfidious." But none of these words fits the occasion here. Students have a fear of ad libing. They will choose one of the meanings listed. The result is often a translation without color or - worse still - with the wrong color.
The AENEID is to me a vivid and lively book. The fact that it is one of the most highly respected pieces of world literature should not awe us into approaching it with uncomfortable solemnity.
Miss Bernice L. Fox
note: Herb Abel was professor of Classics at Loyola, then the most prominent center of Classical Studies in the Midwest. Like Bernice Fox, he had started out in English, then realized that his true love was Classics. She considered him the most intelligent man she ever men. Her reference to Daniel Boone reflects her Kentucky upbringing. Bernice Fox was a very popular lecturer, largely because she was both wise and funny, but also because she so obviously loved teaching Classics.