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.

The last time I read book 3 of the Aeneid, I wrote about the strange episode where Aeneas and his crew flee from Polyphemus. The scene is strange for its lack of any real tension. It is not a thrilling escape from danger. Excitement was not Virgil’s intent in placing that scene in his poem. I tried to find another motivation in his sympathy for Polyphemus, whose eye Odysseus had gouged out.

But there is another reason for the scene as well, and that will be my focus here. Just prior to their flight from Polyphemus, Aeneas and his crew meet Achaemenides, a holdover from Odysseus’ crew. In their escape from Polyphemus’ cave, Odysseus and his men had apparently forgotten Achaemenides, and he had spent the next three months on the island, surviving on wild fruit and roots in the forest. On seeing Aeneas arrive, he approaches and, seeing that they are enemy Trojans, chooses to place himself at their mercy rather than condemn himself to continued existence in Sicily.

Now, surely, part of the reason why Virgil places this scene here is to take a swipe at Odysseus, the conniving and evil Greek. This serves two purposes: it gratifies Roman sentiment, and it establishes Virgil’s hero as superior to Homer’s. Aeneas would never leave a crew member behind out of negligence, after all.

But there is more to it than that. The Aeneid is, above all else, a book of exiles. Where the Odyssey is dominated by a morality of host-guest obligations, the moral fabric of the Aeneid concerns exiles and the community between them. Indeed, it might not even be a morality properly so called. It is less ordained by the gods than a natural consequence of empathy: those who have known exile are friendly to the wayward Trojans, and the Trojans are, in turn, friendly to the exiles they meet. (It was, of course, friendliness toward a pretend exile that caused the fall of Troy in the first place.)

The encounter with Achaemenides illustrates this. Even though he is a Greek who fought at Troy, and even though he is a former companion of hated Odysseus, Aeneas and the Trojans accept him into their ranks. This is doubly remarkable because the last time they showed sympathy to a Greek with a sob story, they were tricked into bringing the fatal horse inside the city walls. Yet they still accept Achaemenides as a “worthy suppliant” (3.770).

What we are to take away from this, I think, is that, in the world of the Aeneid, the status of being an exile creates a bond between all who share it. Who cares that Achaemenides was a Greek, and thus an enemy of the Trojans? That antagonism was between two established homes. When the homes are destroyed or otherwise lost, so too the grounds for hostility. Exileship trumps nationality.

Poem: Infanta Marina
Poet: Wallace Stevens

Her terrace was the sand
And the palms and the twilight.

She made of the motions of her wrist
The grandiose gestures
Of her thought.

The rumpling of the plumes
Of this creature of the evening
Came to be sleights of sails
Over the sea.

And thus she roamed
In the roamings of her fan,
Partaking of the sea,
And of the evening,
As they flowed around
And uttered their subsiding sound.

A woman steps out on her terrace, carrying a fan, and as she opens up the delicate instrument and begins those familiar movements of her wrist, her mind reaches out and makes of the fan a world, a boat on the sea, carrying her nowhere in particular, carrying her over the sea that gives to the evening air a briny tang.

And then it ends and, we imagine, she goes back inside.

Poem: ‘Out, Out—’
Poet: Robert Frost
Link: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/53087

At the outset, I must acknowledge a debt to several friends with whom I read and discussed this poem tonight. The insights (if such they are) I recount below are as much theirs as mine.

I first encountered this poem well over a year ago now, but only this evening did I quite grasp it. On the surface, the poem tells the grim and brutal story of a boy’s injury and death. As a telling of that story, it is gripping and horrifying, well told, and a good poem. But in fact that is merely the occasion for the real poem.

What is the real poem? Start with the title: ‘Out, Out—‘. This is an allusion to Shakespeare’s famous “out, out, damned spot,” from Macbeth, famous because it expresses so concisely and yet so forcefully Lady Macbeth’s overpowering guilt. This title clues us in that the narrator of this poem is not some outside observer who just happens to know what has happened. No, the observer is someone who was involved in that day’s fateful events, and who feels he could have prevented it from happening.

Once this is recognized, small cracks in the objectivity of the storytelling start to show through. When the narrator says, “Call it a day, I wish they might have said,” we can now recognize the thin illusion of distance that the “they” creates. For the narrator really meant, “I wish I might have said.” It is doubly depersonalized, changed to the third person for one, changed to the plural for two. This same “they” recurs throughout, but now we know better.

The scene in Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth makes her famous, despairing cry is, as I recall it, hardly subtle. She proclaims her guilt openly. Frost’s poem captures a rather different kind of guilt. The narrator is not a murderer. He is not even morally culpable in any real sense. What could he reasonably have been expected to do differently? Nothing, of course. But that doesn’t stop the brain from imagining what might have been done differently.

Because it is a different sort of guilt, it calls for a different kind of expression. The narrator tries, with every trick he has, to suppress it. Had he fully succeeded, there would be no poem. But he fails, and his failure is the poem’s success.

Poem: Invective against swans
Poet: Wallace Stevens

Invective against swans

The soul, O ganders, flies beyond the parks
And far beyond the discords of the wind.

A bronze rain from the sun descending marks
The death of summer, which that time endures

Like one who scrawls a listless testament
Of golden quirks and Paphian caricatures,

Bequeathing your white feathers to the moon
And giving your bland motions to the air.

Behold, already on the long parades
The crows anoint the statues with their dirt.

And the soul, O ganders, being lonely, flies
Beyond your chilly chariots, to the skies.

It is a rare thing, the poem-as-polemic that succeeds at both tasks. This poem manages that balance. This success begins with the invective itself, which may be found in the middle four stanzas. Here, Stevens summons the clichés of bad poetry to attend their own public humiliation. The difficulty, of course, is that Stevens must himself not lapse into cliché. This he manages in a few ways. The “bronze rain” is saved by Stevens’ wise choice to have this beleaguered description be endured, not by the reader, but by time itself. The “listless testament / Of golden quirks” is livened, in Stevens’ hands, by the just-strange-enough invocation of the “Paphian caricatures” (suggesting illicit sexual love).

The entry of sex into the poem brings out a clever pun that Stevens leaves below the surface, as he ought. A “gander-moon” is the month after a woman’s confinement, i.e. childbirth. Thus Stevens quietly hints at the consequences of this illicit love, consequences likely lost in the vapid descriptions of “golden quirks.” Meanwhile, “bequeathing” hits just the right note of purple, and Stevens doesn’t pour it on too thick, allowing the swans’ “motions” to be, not bequeathed, but more modestly given. And then, of course, comes the most direct satire, the contrast between the swans and the crows that come in droves in autumn and shit on everything (I know from experience). Here, again, we Stevens brings out the consequences that are absent in the poems he is mocking: if summer is ending, that means the crows are arriving, and with them their shit.

But what takes this poem out of the realm of mere invective and makes it into something more satisfying is the pair of stanzas that bracket the poem. Here we get a sense of the loneliness that the narrator feels upon reading such uninspired poetry. He cannot fly with them. Even if it is haughty and aristocratic, it gives the poem a human touch. It is not mere mockery.

I was at first surprised that this poem should have appeared second in Harmonium, Stevens’ first collection. But, on reflection, it makes some sense. For the crows that tell the end of summer usher in the cold, and it is in the cold that Stevens thrives as a poet, as I have discussed before on this blog.