Saturday, November 19, 2011

Virgil's Aeneid: Passion versus Responsibility

Peter Paul Rubens,  Dido and Aeneas
My favorite chapter in Virgil's Aeneid is Book 4. Here is the great love affair between Aeneas and Queen Dido of Carthage, with whom he found refuge from the storms at sea after he left Troy. Like Aeneas, it has been Dido's fate to leave her original home in order to found a new homeland for herself and her people. While hearing Aeneas tell the story of the end of the Trojan war and his subsequent journeyings, Dido falls in love with him.

In some ways, Dido echos characters like Calypso and Circe in Homer's Odyssey. Just as they did, Dido serves as a love interest who delays the hero's fated journey towards home. But Virgil gives Dido a kind of emotional depth which is totally lacking in Homer's women. Her love for Aeneas becomes a desperate passion, and we are meant as readers to see her great pain and identify with it. Of course, the depth of her feelings are not quite "real": the goddesses Venus and Juno have collaborated to curse her so.

And Aeneas certainly loves Dido back, although perhaps without quite as much of the goddess-inspired self-destructive passion that burns in Dido.

One of the most beautiful scenes in book four is when Dido and Aeneas, along with the other Tryians and Trojans, are out riding horses.  An enormous rainstorm blows in, then turns to hail.  All scatter and seek shelter.

And Dido and the Trojan leader make their way
To the same cave.  Earth herself and bridal Juno
Give the signal.  Fires flash in the Sky,
Witness to their nuptials...
...No longer is Dido swayed
By appearances or her good name.  No more
Does she contemplate a secret love.  She calls it
Marriage, and with that word she cloaks her sin.

When the gods hear of Aeneas's love affair with Dido, they immediately reprimand him.  Jupiter, pointing out that "he seems to have quite forgotten, in his infatuation, the cities given him by Fate," sends Mercury to tell Aeneas that "in sum, he must sail."  If he would not fulfill his responsibility for his own glory, he must do it he must for his son and for the future of Rome.

When Aeneas heard Jupiter's command, he realized that despite his love for Dido, his greater responsibility was to found Rome.  "He bristled all over, speechless, astounded,/ And he burned with desire to leave that sweet land,/ in awe of the commandment from the gods above."  More than any personal passion was Aeneas's responsibility to live obedient to the laws of Fate.  He begins to prepare his fleet to set sail.

Dido is furious.  As this Moreau pen-and-ink illustrates, she confronts Aeneas:

Traitor!  Did you actually hope to conceal
This crime and sneak away without telling me?
Does our love mean nothing to you? Does it matter
That we pledged ourselves to each other?
Do you care that Dido will die a cruel death?

If you had at least left me with child
Before deserting me, if only a baby Aeneas
Were playing in my hall to help me remember you,
I wouldn't feel some completely used and abandoned.

Comments Virgil, "Cruel Love, what do you not force human hearts to bear?"

Although Aeneas expected Dido to be upset upon hearing that he planned to leave Carthage, Aeneas seems quite shocked by the depth of her fury.  While he acknowleges that Dido has "earned [his] gratitude," he denies marrying her.  And he feels that rather than giving in to his own passion, his greater duty is to obey the gods, to honor his son's inheritance, and to live up to his destiny to found Rome.  He concludes, "So stop wounding both of us with your pleas.  It is not my own will--this quest for Italy."

Things do not end well for Dido: "Dido, worn down by grief, went mad."  She prepares a funeral pyre to rid Carthage of everything Aeneas had touched.  She throws herself upon it with a sword given to her by Aeneas.  And as she is about to die, she looks upon the clothes he used to wear and upon their "familiar bed."

Aeneas unfurls the sails of his ship and pulls away from shore, watching the flaming pyre from sea.

(all quotes from the Lombardo translation)


  1. This was my favourite chapter too! Now I want to reread it. :)

  2. You might really enjoy Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. I saw it on tv a few years ago and then got then got the CD, but it was important to have the visual first, for me, since the soprano, Maria Ewing, acted Dido's part perfectly, so it seemed, and Karl Daymond was equally convincing in portraying Aeneas as conflicted but ultimately selfish in his abandonment of her (though ostensibly driven by duty). Here's a link for the dvd

    It is so true what you say about Dido's continuity with Circe, yet greater psychological depth and individuality. She's more like Penelope in impressing the reader with the injustice of her position.

  3. I'll definitely go check out the opera! And I love your comparison of Dido with Penelope. Spot on. To get to the end of his journey, though, Aeneas thinks he has to reject Dido--that symbol of love and family. What do you make of that? I'm still trying to puzzle it out.

  4. Purcell's opera is also - crucial information - short, very short. The plot is only vaguely related to Virgil.

    My favorite opera, actually, which as much as anything reveals my ignorance of opera.

    I am perhaps staying at too literal a level, but Aeneas "thinks" he has to reject Dido because he is ordered to reject her, yes? Rome will not be founded otherwise. And Aeneas is above all a pious man, a servant of his gods.

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