In an early scene in Moonlight, Juan tells Chiron that he will one day have to figure out who he is, that no one else can tell him that, or force him to be someone he is not. This early scene looms over the end of the film, where a now “hard” Chiron returns to Miami to see Kevin, his first and only lover. Kevin tells Chiron, among other things, that his carefully cultivated appearance of toughness is “not you.” I’ve been thinking about this ending since I saw the film last night.

My initial reaction was confusion tending toward dissatisfaction. The first two-thirds of the film was characterized by an expertly sustained atmosphere of dread. The last third is not. It seemed somehow more dissolute, less unified, an abandonment of what the film had been building. And a similar dissoluteness characterized the storyline, with the fundamental question of who Chiron is being left unanswered. It seemed a cop-out.

But this first impression was, I am increasingly convinced, a mistake. The ending of the film does have an element of dissolution, but this is not the product of evading the question raised by what came before. It offers instead a very definite answer to that question.

The middle third of the film culminates in Chiron’s moment of self-discovery on the beach (with Kevin). At this point it can seem that Chiron has figured out who he is. The question of self-identity was raised earlier in the film in the context of Chiron being called a faggot and asking, in the heartbreaking manner of a child, “am I a faggot?” Juan’s answer — that he might be gay, but is not a faggot, and that he doesn’t need to know now if he is gay — sets up puberty as the obvious time at which Chiron will discover who he is. And the beach scene appears to confirm this. Then it can seem as if all that is left is the question of self-reliance: now that he knows who he is, will he be honest about it? Or will he cover up his true self with layers of deceit (not just to others, but also to himself)?

But to think in this way is to misunderstand the film. First, because it is only half the story. Chiron struggles not just with his sexual identity, but also with the question of whether he is hard or soft. By the normal standards, he is clearly soft (sensitive, withdrawn, not aggressive), though this is complicated by the fact that Kevin affirms to Chiron early in life that he (Kevin) knows Chiron is hard. And there is a toughness to Chiron that shouldn’t be overlooked. Nonetheless, by the normal use of the term, and by general perception, Chiron is unambiguously soft.

Still, it might seem as if Chiron has a clear identity (black, gay, soft) that he can either embrace or deny. The ending of the film is designed to show us that this is too simplistic, and its dissoluteness is in service of that end. Chiron, in Atlanta, has made himself into someone hard, at least someone with the trappings of hardness, though several scenes indicate to us that the soft interior is not vanished. We also learn that “no one has touched” him since that night with Kevin. So a first pass reading of these changes is that Chiron has been dishonest with himself, has abandoned his knowledge of who he is. That is certainly the impression I got from the very first shot of the film’s final third. But it is a mistake, a mistake the film deliberately encourages in order more thoroughly to undermine it.

If it were truly the case that Chiron in Atlanta is living a lie, a denial of who he is, then the return to Miami to see Kevin again should be a cathartic stripping back of the lies with which he has gilded himself. But it is not. It is much more ambiguous.

The basic reason is simple: human beings are not static, identity is not static. Chiron, in making his exterior hard, has changed himself. I do not mean that he is no longer fundamentally soft, but he is at least someone who, though, soft, has learned to survive in a world that demands that he be hard. Thus, when Kevin tells him that all of this is a lie, is false to who he is, it is not the voice of Chiron’s own self that speaks through Kevin. It is rather the cry of the past, of the Chiron of a decade ago. But the claim of our past selves on our present is always complicated, and cannot be trusted. The return to the old environment brings back old habits, old memories. It tempts Chiron to return to who he once was. But the attempt to be who one was previously is no less a lie than the attempt to be hard when one is soft.

Thus the ending of the film is ambiguous. Chiron goes to Kevin’s home, in a scene clearly meant to parallel the beach scene. But is this parallel to be read as a true parallel, or as a contrast? Is Chiron returning to who he truly is? Is he having a moment of rediscovery with Kevin? Or is he merely being tempted by a past that is no longer open to him? It could be either. One would need to know what happens next to be sure. What the end of the film does here is re-open the question, to throw Chiron back into a state of not knowing who he is, who he wants to be. The ending of the film is dissolute because Chiron himself is dissolute.

In The Book of Forms—which, when I was teaching myself the rudiments of meter, was perhaps the most helpful source I encountered—Lewis Turco includes a few “rules of scansion in English” (p. 19). Here is one of the rules:

In any series of three unstressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through promotion and will be counted as a stressed syllable.

There is a corresponding rule for three stressed syllables in a row: one of them will fail to take a stress. Turco calls these “rules of thumb,” an appropriate designation since they have exceptions. The famous exception to the rule for stressed syllables is Tennyson’s Break, Break, Break. The heavy pauses between each “break” allow each stress to emerge fully, without the middle being demoted.

Can something similar happen with the rule against three consecutive unstressed syllables? It can. The poem Fabliau of Florida by Wallace Stevens is a nice illustration:

Fabliau of Florida

Barque of phosphor
On the palmy beach,

Move outward into heaven,
Into the alabasters
And night blues.

Foam and cloud are one.
Sultry moon-monsters
Are dissolving.

Fill your black hull
With white moonlight.

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

The lines range from monometer (are dissolving) to trimeter (foam and cloud are one), though many lines can be scanned in multiple ways, depending on just how heavy the stress is. For this particular poem, I prefer to count only the heaviest, clearest stresses, for reasons detailed below.

The lines I am most interested in are the last two lines. To satisfy the rule forbidding three consecutive unstressed syllables, the lines must be scanned as being at least trimeter:

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

—and perhaps even as tetrameter:

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

But both of these ways of scanning the line fundamentally mishear it, and miss the rhythm of the poem. Let us drop immediately the fantasy of stressing the first syllable of each line: they both clearly open with anapests (there will nev-; to this dron-). The entire poem is lightfooted, giving each stress space to breathe, except where it takes a heavier hand for a specific, local effect: “fill your black hull / with white moonlight.”

The only real question concerns “be” and “of”, syllables that are naturally unstressed, but which seem to be likely candidates for promotion as the middle occupants of a string of three unstressed syllables. Read the lines aloud, however, and listen. Each falls into two natural units:

There will never | be an end
To this droning | of the surf.

Both “be an end” and “of the surf” are natural anapests, and this comes out in reading the line. The key is that, in reading the lines, there is the slightest of pauses where I have placed the “|”. That pause eliminates the need to stress “be” and “of”. Thus the proper scansion is (with the vertical bar now indicating a break between feet):

There will never | be an end
To this droning | of the surf.

Both lines are anapestic dimeter, with the first anapest of each line containing what might be called a mid-line feminine ending. This is the only reading of the lines that does justice to their lightness.

Why insist on this? It reveals a more general point about meter. While there is a clear distinction between heavy stresses and the complete absence of stress, there is a whole range of intermediates whose proper treatment is less clear. A system of meter should introduce some ordered way of approaching them. That is what Turco’s rules do, and they do it ably, in a way that works for the majority of metrical English language poems. But there is nothing inherent in the language that requires that syllables that take a light stress count toward a line’s stress count. It really depends on the sort of regularity one is trying to create. Stevens, in Fabliau of Florida, was writing in a loose, light meter where it is only appropriate to emphasize the heavier stresses, and that creates a context in which the very slight stresses placed on “be” and “of” should not be counted as proper stresses.

In the end, the ear is the supreme judge, and will tolerate system only so far.

The secret to good literature is simple enough, abstractly considered. Humans are complicated and beguiling. They talk to each other and fail to talk to each other, often simultaneously. They are disappointingly predictable, and yet resist easy summation. Good literature should capture this perplexity while still maintaining some sense of order. It should chart a path through the murky waters of human life without pretending the waters are clear.

Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America”, the third story in her collection Birds of America, does this well. It begins with two tragedies of different orders, the broken life and breaking body of the narrator, and the foreseeable death of her friend Cal’s young son, Eugene. These intersect when the narrator, a dance instructor, goes to visit Cal, who she has not seen in a dozen years.

Moore’s handling of these two tragedies is masterful. That Eugene is dying of cystic fibrosis is laid out upfront, but, once the narrator starts interacting with Eugene, it fades into the background. It sets the mood of these interactions, lurks in the background, but becomes explicit only in small details, as when, in the middle of a pre-bedtime dance:

…Eugene suddenly sits down to rest on the sofa, watching the grown-ups. Like the best dancers and audiences in the world, he is determined not to cough until the end.

These moments are touching, but not maudlin. And that is appropriate, for the story belongs to the narrator, and Eugene’s disease is not her tragedy. It belongs to Cal, to his wife Simone, and of course to Eugene. For the narrator, it is background, is an element of the tone of her experience reconnecting with her friend.

Much more at the center of her mind is her own tragedy. This is twofold: her marriage has failed, and her body is starting to break down. She cannot dance as she once did, and is transitioning into the mode of an instructor. And though this is less devastating than, not just the death of one’s child, but living with the knowledge that that death is coming, it is nonetheless more prominent in the narrator’s mind, and understandably so. Though she shows few outward signs of being upset about the failure of her marriage, it creeps up on her, until:

All I can think of is how Patrick said, when he left, fed up with my “selfishness,” that if I were worried about staying on alone at the lake house, with its squirrels and call girl-style lamps, I should just rent the place out—perhaps to a nice lesbian couple like myself.

This charge of selfishness weighs heavily upon her, and comes to a head in the most charged passage in the story. Cal, Simone, Eugene, and the narrator are all dancing before Eugene goes to bed. As we have seen, Eugene has stopped dancing mid-song to rest. The narrator goes to draw him back in:

“Come here, honey,” I say, going to him. I am thinking not only of my own body here, that unbeguilable, broken basket, that stiff merinque. I am not, Patrick, thinking only of myself, my lost troupe, my empty bed. I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?

This passage refuses to be simplified. I will need three passes to cover it, and that is only because I will not discuss an aspect of it that would require a fourth.

First, then, take the narrator’s perspective for granted. She is not, she says, being selfish, and indeed she is not. She is helping Eugene to dance, is overcoming her broken body to help another, even more broken. She is putting another first.

But we cannot rest in that reading. Is she not, after all, making her “selfless” act about herself, an attempt to prove to Patrick that his accusation was false? And is she not also making it about her aging, her inability to dance as she once did? It is almost a paradox: precisely by insisting that her act is not about all this, she ensures that that is precisely what it is about.

In the end, though, we cannot rest in that second reading, either. The conception of the philosophers, that the selfless act requires a certain inner purity of mind, has always been a caricature. Humans are complicated. They may act for another and yet be unable to escape themselves—such is the position of the narrator here. She is at once selfless and selfish, reaching out across the gap between minds to interact with the life of another and, simultaneously, trapped within her own mind. But that is what human communication is. Lorrie Moore is only doing justice to the facts. The secret, as I said, is simple enough.

The transition between book six and book seven of Virgil’s Aeneid is the turning point of the poem. Crudely considered, it is the moment the Aeneid changes from a Roman Odyssey to a Roman Iliad. And Virgil marks this transition with an invocation of the muse Erato:

And now, Erato, who were the kings
And what was the state of ancient Latium
When this foreign army landed in Italy?
Help me, Goddess, your sacred poet,
Recall the prelude to the hostilities,
For I will tell of war’s horror, of pitched battle,
Heroes driven by courage to meet their doom,
Of Etruscan squadrons, and all Hesperia
Pressed into arms. A higher order of things
Opens before me; a greater work now begins.

Curiously, however, these are the 44th through 53rd lines of Aeneid book seven. Why the longish preamble?

A first pass at an answer might be as follows. Book six ends with Aeneas leaving the realm of the dead and sailing to Caieta’s harbor. From there, Aeneas must still make one last voyage to reach the Tiber, the main center of action for the remainder of the poem. That voyage must be described before the invocation of Erato is proper. Since that would make for an anticlimactic ending to book six, it functions much better as the intro to book seven.

All of that is true, but shallow. Virgil accomplishes much more in those forty-three lines than simply conveying a necessary plot point. The way he describes the voyage from Caieta’s harbor to the Tiber itself signals the conclusion of the first half of the story and the beginning of the second, in two ways.

First, before the voyage even begins, death claims one more member of Aeneas’ party: Caieta, who nursed him when he was an infant. (It is from her that Caieta’s harbor takes its name.) So far as I can recall, Caieta is the last remaining familial link between Aeneas and Troy. His wife Creüsa was lost in book two and his father Anchises in book three. There is, of course, still Iülus, but he represents the Aeneas’ future line in Latium, and is not so strictly tied to Troy. Caieta’s death thus symbolizes a complete break with Troy except as a memory. Much more than the invocation of Erato, her death declares that what follows is to be something different.

Only after she dies do they set sail for their final landing spot. One reason why this trip can be described so briefly (<40 lines) is because it conspicuously lacks drama. Virgil doesn’t hide this fact; rather, he makes sure we are aware of it:

And from those shores could also be heard
Lions roaring and snapping at their chains
Late into the night, the raging of bristled boars
And caged bears, and huge wolf-shapes howling.
All these were men whom Circe had cruelly drugged
And clad in the hides and faces of beasts.
But Neptune, to save the good Trojans
From these monstrous transformations,
Kept them from landing on those deadly shores,
Filling their sails with wind, and bearing them past
The seething shoals and out of danger. (7.19-29)

What is interesting in this episode is what does not happen: the Trojans do not land on Circe’s shores, are not turned into wild beasts. They reach the Tiber without incident. Where Caieta’s death signaled Aeneas’ break with Troy, this non-episode signals the Aeneid’s break with the Odyssey.

To see this, compare this scene to that in book three, in which Aeneas and his crew land in Sicily and pick up Achaemenides, a member of Ulysses’ crew left behind to fend for his own against the Cyclopes (see my posts here and here). One reason why that scene appears in the Aeneid is to draw a parallel between Virgil’s poem and Homer’s (and, of course, to use this parallel as a way also to highlight their differences).

By contrast, in book seven, Virgil draws attention to the fact that the opportunity for another such parallel was present, but not taken. It was not taken because it was no longer appropriate: the time had come for something new.

Only after these two severances—the breaking of Aeneas’ last living tie to Troy, and the breaking of the Aeneid/Odyssey parallel—was Virgil ready to begin his “greater work,” and to ask Erato’s aid in his task.


I imagine Virgil, as he wrote the Aeneid, found this challenge most vexing: how could he make interesting a story that is inexorably driven to a fated end that is known from the start? By this I do not mean the challenge of how to keep a story interesting when the ending is “spoiled” (as we call it nowadays), for that challenge is simply that of making good art in the first place (since good art is worth experiencing more than once). Rather, fate provides a more specific challenge. What fate threatens is the moral ambiguity that is at the heart of a good story. When a certain outcome is fated, approved by the gods, it becomes easy to judge all that approaches that outcome as good, all that obstructs it as bad.

Abstractly, the solution is that fate leaves a lot of leeway for how, exactly the outcome is reached. Certainly it can be complicated, and the hindrances are real. Moreover, fate is cruel and indifferent: those outside its path get thrown away with reckless abandon. Together, these create space for the needed ambiguity. The first allows for an indirect course, as others fight, with more or less success, against the dictates of fate. The second allows that they should be innocent in doing so.

That is the theoretical resolution to the problem, though of course it takes a great artist to achieve it in practice. Virgil is a great artist, and his handling of the story of Dido in Aeneid book 4 is an especially potent illustration. At the end of the book, Virgil puts it bluntly: “Her death was neither fated nor deserved” (4.812). Not fated, not an essential part of Aeneas’ course for Italy, and not deserved, for she was fundamentally innocent. In an epic full of large and small tragedies of the innocent, the death of Dido is probably the largest.

But let us begin with the gods, returning to Dido only after an interlude. In the first book of the Aeneid, Juno established herself as a breaker of contracts, unleashing the winds that drove Aeneas to Carthage. As a result, afraid that the fierce Carthaginians would be inhospitable to Aeneas and his crew, Venus sent Cupid to make Dido infatuated with Aeneas. This is really a terrible act. Yes, it protects Aeneas. But it also causes Dido, through no fault of her own, to break her scrupulously kept vow never to remarry, in honor of Sychaeus, her murdered husband. Venus callously strips her of her honor and, in the end, her life.

The struggle between Juno and Venus continues, with Juno proposing to have Dido and Aeneas marry. Her aim is twofold, to strengthen Carthage and protect Dido (Dido is a favorite of hers) and to keep Aeneas out of Italy. In making this proposal, she confronts Venus with a bitter charge:

“An outstanding victory! What a memorable display
Of divine power by you and your little boy,
Two devious deities laying low a single woman!” (4.109-11)

What any fairminded person reading this passage must recognize is that Juno is entirely justified in this accusation. In making his reader recognize this, Virgil captures genuine moral ambiguity: even the person (or god) furthering fate can be in the wrong, can be cruel and worthy of being despised.

Despite the insult, Venus assents to Juno’s proposal, but secretly she schemes. While we don’t know quite what happened in the cave with Dido and Aeneas, it is clear that Dido emerged convinced that they had married, while Aeneas was content to consider it merely a torrid affair. I suspect Venus was behind this trickery.

Eventually, fate comes calling, and Aeneas must leave Dido behind. Recall that, in her love for Aeneas (thrust upon her against her will), she has broken the vow that was the backbone of her strength (if not happiness). There is thus a real sense in which he is all she has left. Naturally, she is upset that he is leaving. The speech in which he attempts to pacify her is a masterpiece. I give it in full:

………………………………………….“My Queen,
I will never deny that you have earned my gratitude,
In more ways than can be said; nor will I ever regret
Having known Elissa, as long as memory endures
And the spirit still rules these limbs of mine.
I do have a few things to say on my own behalf.
I never hoped to steal away from your land
In secret, and you should never imagine I did.
Nor have I ever proposed marriage to you
Or entered into any nuptial agreement.
If the Fates would allow me to lead my own life
And to order my priorities as I see fit,
The welfare of Troy would be my first concern,
And the remnants of my own beloved people.
Priam’s palace would still be standing
And Pergamum rising from the ashes of defeat.
But now the oracles of Gryneian Apollo,
Of Lycian Apollo, have commanded with one voice
That the great land of Italy is my journey’s end.
There is my love, my country. If the walls
Of Carthage, vistas of a Libyan city,
Have a hold on you, a Phoenician woman,
Why do you begrudge the Trojans
A settlement in Ausonia? We too have the right
To seek a kingdom abroad.
………………………………….The troubled ghost
Of my father, Anchises, admonishes me
Every night in my dreams, when darkness
Covers the earth, and the fiery stars rise.
And my dear son, Ascanius—am I to wrong him
By cheating him of his inheritance,
A kingdom in Hesperia, his destined land?
And now the gods’ herald, sent by Jove himself,
(I swear by your head and mine) has come down
Through the rushing winds, ordering me to leave.
I saw the god myself, in broad daylight,
Entering the walls, and heard his very words.
So stop wounding both of us with your pleas.
It is not my own will—this quest for Italy.” (4.378-415)

This speech is a mire of ambiguity. Aeneas just doesn’t know what he wants to say. He starts by attempting to tell her how much their relationship means to him, though he doesn’t seem to realize that the fact that he is leaving undermines this. This carries him for a few lines, but then he cannot help but try to explain himself, to make his course seem justified. In doing so, however, he ends up disowning, twice, his own destiny: “If the Fates would allow me to lead my own life” and “It is not my own will—this quest for Italy.” How much more must it wound Dido to find that it is not even a competing passion that sunders them, but simply a grudgingly accepted duty? Aeneas also attempts one more sympathetic justification (should he cheat his son of his inheritance), but this, too, likely wounds more than it helps, for Aeneas has not even given Dido a son of her own.

Aeneas’ thought process here is eminently understandable, on two levels. It is understandable, first, because the experience of bungling an explanation of oneself to those one has wronged is common. Second, Aeneas is trying to translate the commands of the gods into reasoning understandable to humans. And he just can’t do it. He tries to connect it to normal human motivations. If Dido, a Phoenician, can have her Carthage, why can’t Aeneas have a settlement in Ausonia? And doesn’t his son deserve the best Aeneas can give him? But even as he makes these arguments, he undermines them, forced to admit that “It is not my own will.” Aeneas’ fate makes him something inhuman, and in following it he takes on its callous indifference. Yet within him still beats a human heart, and his passion persists. His fate thus divides him in two: not only Dido, but also Aeneas is a victim of the gods. And that, perhaps, is the epic’s deepest and most painful moral ambiguity.