This is a striking piece of poetry. Nine books and a good 6,000 lines of poetry into his epic, Virgil breaks from the narrative to address the audience directly and tells us that his work will be read for as long as the Roman Empire lasts.
‘si quid mea carmina possunt,nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo, dum domus Aeneae Capitoli immobile saxum accolet imperiumque pater Romanus habebit.’
Aeneid IX, 446-9
‘If my poems have any power, no day will ever wipe you from Time’s memory, while Aeneas’ house still dwells on the immovable rock of the Capitol and the Father of Rome holds sway.’
Now the epic poet doesn’t tend to be short on self-confidence but Virgil may have undersold himself here. After all, when he referred to the ‘Father of Rome’ I strongly doubt Virgil had an Argentinian monotheist (aka Pope Francis) in mind.
Yet, a millennium and a half after the fall of Rome, the Aeneid is still being read and appreciated, showing that it possesses much more than its status as a national epic which Virgil claims for it here; it is rather a piece of poetry that touches at the root of the human condition, presenting characters, reflections and dilemmas as relevant now as they were to the contemporary audience.
Let us take as an example the story that precedes this famous passage. Virgil has introduced us in Book V to two characters of his own invention, Nisus, a soldier in Aeneas’ army, and Euryalus, his comrade and young lover. Here, in Book IX, both men give in to their desire for glory, disobey the orders Aeneas left on his departure and embark on a frenzied spree of bloodshed and pillage through the sleeping enemy army.
However, following the pattern of Tragic drama, their failure to control their desires proves their downfall as Euryalus is spotted when the moon reflects from a helmet he stole in his plunder and is captured by the enemy. Nisus, tries to save his lover’s life but fails and dies himself in revenging his friend. His final act is to throw himself onto the body of his lover, rendered here with his customary majesty by John Dryden:
|…and, stagg'ring on the plain,
With swimming eyes he sought his lover slain;
Then quiet on his bleeding bosom fell,
Content, in death, to be reveng'd so well.
It is a story that still holds resonance today. An understanding of homosexual love before centuries of Christian opprobrium; the youthful desire for glory; the need to control ones desires: all of these are themes worthy of reflection and study.
However, it is Virgil’s capacity as a poet that has marked him out across the centuries and the image that ends Nisus’ and Euryalus’ adventure showcases his mastery. Nisus, knowing he is dying, wishes only to intertwine his body with his lover’s and so they remain for eternity, captured in a flash of poetic symbolism. Though they may have brought about their own deaths, the lyrical beauty of their end is transcendental.
That is why Virgil addresses his message of poetic immortality to them and in this light we might reread the passage that started this post. Virgil is not boasting that his poetry will last as long as the Roman empire; rather he is complimenting the Emperor, Augustus, with the idea that his dynasty might have a chance of achieving the sort of immortality he knows awaits his poetry!
In a GCSE landscape where English Language set texts are comprised of the Your Guide to Beach Safety leaflet and the like, while the study of modern languages revolves almost solely around the mundanities of finding one’s way to the ice rink, Latin provides one of the few opportunities for GCSE students to interact with great literature. It may not be quite the immortality Virgil had in mind but it’s an opportunity any secondary school student ought to seize with both hands.