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Render unto Caesar: World Poetry Project

Updated on February 8, 2012
Gaul, 1st century BCE
Gaul, 1st century BCE
Virgil in Roman mosaic
Virgil in Roman mosaic
The assassination of Julius Caesar did not restore the freedom of the Republic, but initiated its final death throes in strife, devastation, and fatal struggles for primacy
The assassination of Julius Caesar did not restore the freedom of the Republic, but initiated its final death throes in strife, devastation, and fatal struggles for primacy
The risk of unrestrained rivalry and competition was expressed in Rome's very story of origin, with the twins, one a victorious fratricide, Romulus and Remus.
The risk of unrestrained rivalry and competition was expressed in Rome's very story of origin, with the twins, one a victorious fratricide, Romulus and Remus.
Augustus Caesar, the founder of Imperial Rome's new order
Augustus Caesar, the founder of Imperial Rome's new order
Autumn Pastoral, Francois Boucher
Autumn Pastoral, Francois Boucher
Edmund Spenser
Edmund Spenser
Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

One need look no further than Virgil to detect the influence Roman literature had upon literature in the West through the Middle Ages and into the modern era. If he looked to Greece for his models, Elizabethans looked to him for theirs. Of all the available pagans, Dante chose Virgil to lead him through Hell and Purgatory. I wonder when the graphic novel version of the Aeneid will appear for our enjoyment, as we have already had graphic novel versions of Thermopylae, Spartacus, and the Trojan War, some of these assuredly cinematic graphic novels, following that forms rules of style, appearance, and action.

Publius Vergilius Maro, 70-19 BCE was the greatest of Augustan poets, born in Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul. His verse served his patron, Gaius Maecenas, and, through his patron, the state being re-constructed on new lines by Augustus after the assassination of Julius Caesar and the devastation that followed it. This does not mean that Virgil was wholly mercenary, although he welcomed the opportunity to write in peace and quiet, to exercise his talents and have his work appreciated. There was reason enough in the slaughters that accompanied the death throes of the Republic to praise the chance for renewal, for peace, for prosperity that Augustus offered to Rome, for the small price of his personal preeminence. Rome, and Virgil, had seen too much, suffered too much. They had had enough.

Virgil is the author of the Ecologues , the Georgics , and the Aeneid . The Ecologues are largely pastoral, although politics also enter into the text. Virgil took as his model for the pastoral elements the idylls of Theocritus of Syracuse, (an example of Theocritus' work may be found here), and brought to troubled times the vision of a peaceful, ideal rural vision of shepherds and honest labor. The Elizabethans, with Virgil as their model, returned to the ideal, not the real, rural scene in their own pastorals: Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd" and Edmund Spencer's The Shephearde's Calendar . The tradition of seeking Arcadia, some simpler more perfect time and existence, in rural life, continued and is found in more modern poets as well: Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, and Donald Hall, to name a few. Virgil's Georgics , ostensibly instructions to farmers on crops, orchards, cattle, and beekeeping, reflect the same mixture of the pastoral and the political found in the Ecologues , for certainly no real farmer would be made successful by following his instructions and those instructions are themselves arranged into no system that a farmer would find useful even if they were accurate.

The Aeneid , composition of which occupied the last eleven years of Virgil's life, is a testament to the Augustan state, a commissioned work that caused him much trouble and concern. He decided to praise Augustus within a mythological epic that did not name him as its central figure, but rather focused on that of Aeneas, the legendary Trojan refugee whose settlement in Italy ultimately led to the founding of Rome. In praising one foundation, one man's struggle to renew life and civilized existence after the destruction of war, he would be praising another seeking to do the same for the city and country so recently itself devastated by civil war. Again, Virgil looked to Greece for his models, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey . He died of a fever at Brundisium, ordering his epic burned, but this was not done. Instead, two other poets were ordered to prepare it for the public, and Augustus had the Aeneid published in 17 BCE. In this case, the state had the last word and over-ruled the poet.

Venus and Aeneas, Giaquinto
Venus and Aeneas, Giaquinto
Dido and Aeneas
Dido and Aeneas
Pastoral scene by Watteau
Pastoral scene by Watteau
Infant Jesus, Sassoferrato
Infant Jesus, Sassoferrato
Dante and Virgil in the Underworld, Delacroix
Dante and Virgil in the Underworld, Delacroix

World Poetry begins its selections from Virgil with three examples of translations from the Aeneid , an interesting choice in presentation and one that brings the problems of translation, as well as the virtues of it, in clear focus. It is a choice of presentation that also serves to illustrate the long life Virgil has enjoyed in Western culture.

John Dryden's translation of the introductory lines of the epic are archaic in the ear, as befits a Restoration poet with that era's artificialities of style and syntax. C. Day Lewis's translation of a section in which Palinurus, the helmsman, is forced to sleep and murdered in a failed attempt to wreck Aeneas by the divine forces that oppose him is more natural in tone, lighter and freer in form. Robert Fitzgerald ends the passages from the Aeneid with a scene of cremation following a battle, and his translation is the compromise position between the free flow of Lewis and the artificial rigidity of Dryden. Fitzgerald does not try to compose a fully modern, contemporary piece in his translation, but he does not tie himself rigidly to a structure that might impede whatever poetry is found in the original out of pedantic deference to the Latin text either. The translator's job is not an enviable one. There are so very many ways to get it wrong.

"Arms, and the Man, I sing, who, forc'd by Fate,

And haughty Juno's unrelenting Hate;"

begins Dryden. In the first line alone, Virgil's debt to Homer is honored, for the Iliad is a story of arms (the rage of Achilles) and the Odyssey of man, specifically the resourceful man, Odysseus. The terms of Aeneas's heroism are also set in these lines: a mortal hero who struggles against the unrelenting opposition of a goddess. All that will follow is predicated on these conditions. Aeneas is not deserving in himself of the goddess's hatred:

O Muse! the Causes and the Crimes relate,

What Goddess was provok'd, and whence her hate:

For what Offence the Queen of Heav'n began

To persecute so brave, so just a Man!

Aeneas is in the hands of an angry god, but he has allies, too, as is shown in our next selection, C. Day Lewis's episode, "The Sleep of Palinurus".

It is night and Palinurus, an experienced mariner, is on duty as all the other refugees sleep. However, Sleep has been sent for him, too:

Just then did Sleep come feathering down from the stars above,

Lightly displacing the shadowy air, parting the darkness,

In search of you, Palinurus, carrying death in a dream

To your staunch heart.

Palinurus refuses to sleep, for he is responsible for all those aboard, including Aeneas, and knows the treachery and danger a smooth sea may hide. He is true to his duty, and for this he is murdered:

But look! over his temples the god is shaking a bough

That drips with the dew of Lethe, the drowsy spell of Stygian

Waters. And now, though he struggles, his swimming eyes are closing.

As soon as, taken off guard, he was relaxed in unconsciousness,

The god, leaning down over him, hurled him into the sea

Still gripping the tiller…

His friends do not hear his cries, and the fleet continues on its course without a pilot, sure in the safe passage Neptune has guaranteed them. They near the Sirens rocky home, strewn with sailors' bones, and here Aeneas awakes to take over the ship that has lost its helmsman. Aeneas returns the ship to its correct course, but misunderstands the cause of Palinurus's death:

O Palinurus, too easily trusting clear sky and calm sea,

You will lie on a foreign strand, mere jetsam, none to bury you.

Aeneas is a hero, not a prophet, and he does not know what is not revealed to him. His duty is to continue struggling with arms and with wit to secure a safe new home for himself and his fellow refugees from fallen Troy.

The selection from the Aeneid ends in a scene of carnage, dawn over a battlefield where the survivors of Aeneas's and Tarchon's forces gather their dead in pyres. Each cares for his own dead. The surviving soldiers gather the dead up, place them in pyres, and to the burning dead give gifts of treasure, arms taken from the enemy, oxen, the blood of swine and cattle.

Then over the whole shore they stood to see

Their fellow-soldiers burning, and kept watch

On pyres as they flared: men could not be

Torn from the scene till dew-drenched night came on

And a night sky studded with fiery stars.

In this carnage, with this carnage, the battle continues in its aftermath:


Field strove with field in brightness of thick fires.

From such beginnings did Rome rise, according to Virgil, and it has not yet achieved its apex. Virgil also promises in the Aeneid through Zeus's mouth an era of peace, prosperity, and order in the reign of Augustus.

The Georgics are represented in a selection from Georgics I as translated by David R. Slavitt. He takes many liberties of tone, modernizing the spirit of Virgil's verse, so that it becomes a new thing completely. The portion translated has nothing to do with agriculture, but takes portents as its subject, specifically those manifestations and signs associated with the death of Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar's death is cast in this poem as an event of cosmological significance, an event that struck not just Rome but the entire universe, flora, fauna, and rock.

Who dares deny the burning truth of the sun?

When Caesar was destroyed, the sun was black.

At midday, in a cloudless sky, black!...

The earth shook and the sea

shuddered in its bed. It was dark at noon,

and many feared that the darkness would last forever

when Caesar died. The sun had shown it all.

Mt. Etna boils up, thunder rolled in Germany, the Alps shook, ghosts walked, and cattle spoke while humans lost their voices.

Rivers stood still. Plains yawned to chasms.

In the temples, ivory wept and hard bronze

broke into a sweat. The Po overflowed its banks

and pretended to farm--herding cattle to death,

and harvesting woods and fields in a labor of rage.

All these signs and omens, if read right then, forecast civil war, Roman blood mingling at Philippi in combat, to have their bones and their weapons ploughed up by some future farmer in a more peaceful time. But, then there is a change, and there is hope.

May the gods allow Caesar, our new Caesar,

to right this overturned time.

There is hope, but the disorder continues for now, with war throughout the world and home itself resembling war. The farms are abandoned as men flee to the cities.

No treaties hold, no laws hold, nothing

but Mars, blood red…He holds it all,

hurtling through the sky in his chariot.

I feel those wheels rumble. I feel the sway

of speed. The horses are mad and running faster.

They ought to check. They ought to answer the reins.

There ought to be reins.

But there are none.

There is no reserve in Slavitt's translation of the text. It is more than a catalogue of signs and portents associated with a dictator's murder. This is a poem in which one feels destruction crashing down upon the world with but a slim chance of salvation, and that salvation pinned to the life and fortune of one man terribly fragile, perhaps doomed to be unrealized as the devastation of war speeds to ground.

Our final example of Virgil's art is not Virgil at all, but a response to his Fourth Ecologue written by David R. Slavitt. It is a particularly modern, particularly bitter evocation of the pastoral. I think it would have been better if World Poetry had included a translation of Virgil's Ecologue as well as Slavitt's response to it, but will settle for pointing to this, a place where Virgil's version may be read while discussing the poem World Poetry included.

Hesiod wrote of the five ages of mankind: gold, silver, bronze, heroic, and iron. Virgil lived in an age of iron, but his Fourth Ecologue is centered on the promise of a new, golden dawn embodied in a child. There is some discussion in scholarly circles as to what child he is referring to, but many agree that the child whose promise Virgil paints in messianic terms within the Ecologue was Augustus's own, unfortunately born female, and thus no longer served the purpose or the promise. However it happened, the child was not the messiah, and Hesiod's linear de-evolution of man held. It is with this that Slavitt begins his poem:

The ages of the world will not turn back.

The iron rusts and will not shine again

like silver, will not be silver, and the gold…

Who believes that? Still there are golden dawns,

springs with their promises.

Despite the ongoing worsening of the world and its conditions, despite our fears and our experiences, we continue to hope, to hold faith in the next day, the next spring, in new possibilities for renewal and world redemption.

At the birth of a baby, then, who can resist

that act of faith? Springs, sunrises lie,

but he has not lied. Not yet. He has not promised

falsely or at all. And if his yowl

demands the whole world, who is to say

he has not the right? Someone must come along

to get us all out of this mess, to make it right,

to save us from what we have been, from what we are.

This poem calls into question the very structure of renewal to which Virgil appealed: the salvation figure, the individual who will right what has gone wrong and put everything again in its proper order. The redemption of the world in which all promises are kept, not only those of man to man, but the promises of earth's fertility will be realized without man's work and man's desires will be fulfilled out of nature--blue sheep for blue cloth, purple for purple, green for green, yellow for yellow. Slavitt reminds the reader that this redemption, this return to golden order, was supposed to begin in the time of Virgil, and yet remains unfulfilled:

The trouble is, with these poems, that they take time,

and he had to write it before the baby was born.

And the baby cheated him.

Marc Antony was once a man of promise, as was Octavian, but from Antony came Nero, not a savior, and Octavian gave the world Julia, banished by Tiberius for sexual crimes.

The babies were wrong, but the longing for a baby,

for health, for innocence, for the freshness of starting,

beginning again with nothing yet gone awry,

continued, continues.

The Christian world would fare no better in pursuit of this dream.

But the sheep are not yet blue

nor any of those colors. And ships and planes

scurry and wreck. Plows wound the ground

and a field smells of sweat and diesel fuel…

Despite all these failures, the wrong child at the wrong time, we must, Slavitt says, continue hoping, for we owe it to our children and to ourselves.

Let there be no child

who comes into the world without some hope,

some joy in him. And we shall have begun…

Slavitt's return to the Fouth Ecologue shows the place Virgil still holds in the Western poetic tradition, and reaffirms his capacity to inspire, to summon a response, even though he is far from us. He was close enough to Dante to accompany him through Hell and Purgatory, denied Paradise by the fact of his pagan birth, in the Divine Comedy. He was a state poet, and one can argue that the Aeneid is, at its heart, sophisticated propaganda produced for the elite by a state that wanted to create a new, glorious image of itself while it was busy in the dirty work of civil war and reconstruction. However, that it can speak to readers today, who have no interest in creating the reputation of Augustan Rome or supporting any particular political coalition within ancient Rome, eloquently testifies to its existence as a work of art, and, therefore, to Virgil's existence as an artist, not merely a propagandist in a foreign tongue.


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    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 6 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      awesome and interesting hub. I love anything to do with history. and Greek history amazes me and their poets.. wow.

      voted way up