Academic journal article The Hudson Review

A Secondary Epic: Robert Fagles' Aeneid

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

A Secondary Epic: Robert Fagles' Aeneid

Article excerpt

A Secondary Epic: Robert Fagles' Aeneid

W. H. AUDEN'S POEM "SECONDARY EPIC" is puzzling only if you read it, as I did, before you read the Aeneid, Virgil's epic tells the story of how Aeneas, prince of Troy, his household, and Trojans almost too numerous to count escaped after Troy's fall, came to Italy, and established themselves on the Tiber River, first having to fight with the native Latins, but eventually making peace with them, all according to a prophecy, propounded by Virgil, which claimed that the two peoples would blend together and give rise to Romulus and Remus, Rome, and most importantly, the Golden Age of Caesar Augustus. Depending on how you hear Auden's lightly serious verse or serious light verse, the tetrameter of "secondary Epic" either sounds arch or deflating. Auden's answer to Virgil's epic is based on the sensible premise that all the forecast history of Rome in the Aeneid is limited in a way real prophecy would not be. It has one purpose: to reinforce the inevitability of the reign of Augustus. Auden's poem begins:

No, Virgil, no:

Not even the first of the Romans can learn

His Roman history in the future tense,

Not even to serve your political turn;

Hindsight as foresight makes no sense.

In fact, when Aeneas, like Achilles, has armor made for him at the behest of his mother Venus, it is just not believable that the history of Rome would be depicted on his shield, from his day to the present of Augustus and not beyond. Auden asks:

How was your shield-making god to explain

Why his masterpiece, his grand panorama

Of scenes from the coming historical drama

Of an unborn nation, war after war,

All the birthdays needed to pre-ordain

The Octavius the world was waiting for,

Should so abruptly, mysteriously stop,

What cause could he show why he didn't foresee

The future beyond 31 B.c....

What cause, indeed? But the Aeneid, which Virgil who died in 19 BC did not live to complete, is both a book of Epimetheal prophecy-a hindsight work of genius-and a pastiche. Wonderful and important and crucial as it is in Western literature-one can't imagine Dante's Commedia without it-it is a great second-rate classic, perhaps the first literary example of belatedness. The next, of course, are the Gospels of the New Testament, which situate all of their prophecies in the preceding Hebrew Bible and claim that they have been fulfilled. The parallels between the Aeneid and the New Testament are interesting, indeed, insofar as Luke, for example, apparently had read Ovid and possibly Virgil. He may have claimed a miraculous birth for Jesus to outshine the miraculous birth claimed for Augustus.

In any event, history, past and future, is an issue in the Aeneid in a way it is not in either the Iliad or the Odyssey. Homer's are poems of an eternal present, Virgil's is a poem of a potential future. The problems of history and its authentic representation turn up again and again in the Aeneid. One of the greatest scenes in the epic, in this regard, occurs early on (all of the greatest scenes occur in the first half of the poem), when Aeneas arrives with his party in Carthage and witnesses the mural documenting Troy's fall. Carthage is under construction, by its Phoenician queen Dido, and yet there has been time to depict, in the new Temple of Juno, the sad recent history of Troy. Aeneas regards the banner of current events and its "lifeless pictures" with complicated feelings remarkable for an epic hero. Recognizing his fellow citizens in the mural ("There's Priam, look!," he exclaims), he utters the most famous line from the epic, after its beginning: "sunt lacrimae rerum," translated in the Loeb edition of the classic as "here, too, are tears for misfortune," and by Robert Fagles in his highly readable new translation1 as "the world is a world of tears." It is almost probable that the Phoenicians, newly arrived themselves in Libya, would depict the greatest catastrophe of their world in this way, but the coincidence has a literary symmetry only a careful poet like Virgil would create. …

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