Because of Of Men and Poets next week, the Aeneid is rather on my mind. I must confess I quite hated it back in my school days, and still can’t make myself like Aeneas… My sympathy goes to Turnus, the young king of the Rutuli, who is minding his business, ruling his kingdom and wooing his cousin, princess Lavinia, when Aeneas barges in, armed with divine favour and Fate’s plans for Rome…
To his credit, Aeneas never seems overly happy with what he has to do – but he still proceeds to tear apart everyone’s lives – that of Turnus very literally, in the most uneven duel in all epic poetry, a foregone conclusion if ever there was one…
And here is Rosanna Warren‘s take on it:
Not lion, not wind, not fire, not sacrificial
bull, not in strength and sinew god-
like, not even as stag, Silvia’s gentle
one, tame, tower-antlered, awash in the sweet blood
of his groin where the Trojan arrow struck—
no beast, no simile, Turnus, but a man alone
when your knees buckle and you look back
at the ashen city, the girl with her eyes cast down,
away. You’ve crashed to your side, the spear
has whispered its only message through the air.
And when you speak, and He seems inclined to hear,
it’s the woods that reply, the shadowed hilltops near
and farther, and what they speak is a groan
for a lost world, for leaflight, the childhood grove
where the small stream stammered its rhymes in amber and green.
And if He pauses? If His sword hovers above
your chest? Here’s where you tear a hole in the poem,
a hole in the mind, here’s where the russet glare
of ships aflame and the pyre and the amethyst gleam
from the boy’s swordbelt rise and roil in a blur.
We are trapped in meanings that circulate like blood.
The sword descends. And He who kills you is not
a myth, nor a city. His eyes searching yours could
be a lover’s eyes. It was love He fought.
I’m not quite sure I share the certainty that Aeneas is not a myth, nor a city. To my mind, in the poem there isn’t much to make Aeneas a man, as opposed to the obedient tool of Rome’s great destiny… And I know that in my play, blaming this on Virgil’s early death before he could fine-tune Aeneas’ humanity, I’m playing with modern sensibilities, and concerns that hardly existed in Virgil’s days. But still Turnus, the man who earnestly tries to stand up against Fate – and is crushed for it – appeals to me a good deal more. Which is not why I wrote Of Men and Poets – but certainly is why I wrote it the way I did, and might even not be finished with it.