Polyphemus’ groan

Perhaps the greatest attraction of the Aeneid is Virgil’s masterful depiction of the ways that the actions of those called onward by their fate affect those around them, often negatively. (My previous post looks at this in the context of Aeneas’ brief relationship with Dido.) Indeed, some scenes seem to serve little purpose but to show this mastery.

Take, for instance, the scene in book three, as Aeneas’ crew land on the Cyclops’ shore (III.758-900). Very little happens: they find a Greek soldier who fought at Troy, hear his story, and allow him to join their party. He warns them of the Cylcops, and especially of Polyphemus (who had been wounded by Odysseus during his return home). They see Polyphemus and flee to their ships, escaping safely. They are never in great peril. See for yourself:

………………………….We made haste
To get away, and far, taking aboard
The suppliant for his pains: in dead silence
We cut our hawsers, launched, and put our backs
Into a racing stroke. He heard the splash
And turned back toward it – but he never got
The range of us to reach us, could not breast
The full Ionian sea, wading behind. (III.881-88)

There is here no tension, no moment where it is difficult to see how they might survive. Morever, the suppliant is, to my recollection, never heard from again. So what is the point of this scene, so devoid of activity and excitement?

I can think of three reasons. One is simply to provide a link between the Aeneid and the Odyssey, perhaps to pay tribute to Virgil’s great model. Second and more substantially, the story of Aeneas showing mercy to the Greek soldier, a man in part responsible for his exile, is quite revealing of Aeneas’ character. It shows his compassion for one who has become a fellow exile, and perhaps shows more generally how shared exile status can erase old antagonisms. If you have lost your home, how can it still be held against you? (Juno, of course, does not get this message.) At the same time, it shows perhaps his gullibility, for it was this same compassion, this same tendency to be taken in by a sob story, that led to the downfall of Troy. It was, after all, just such a story that Sinon told to convince the Trojans to accept the fatal horse. Aeneas has, apparently, learned nothing from this – perhaps to his credit.

But it is the third reason that does most, in my eyes, to justify this scene: it exists to show how the course followed by one in the thrall of fate has ramifications for those who are, in effect, bystanders, outsiders who get in the way of that fate. In this case, however, it is not Aeneas’ fate whose effects we see, but Odysseus’. In his voyage home, he gouged out Polyphemus’ eye. Here is how Virgil describes Aeneas first catching sight of the blinded monster:

……………………….He had no sooner spoken
Than we all saw, high on the mountainside,
The shepherd Polyphemus’ giant mass
In motion with his flocks, advancing shoreward.
Vast, mind-sickening, lumpish, heaven’s light
Blacked out for him, he held a pine tree staff
To feel his way with, and the woolly sheep
Were all his company and all the ease
Or comfort that he had.
On reaching the seashore and the deep water
He washed the fluid from his gouged eye-pit
And gnashed his teeth and groaned, then waded out
To the middle depth where still the swell came short
Of dampening his haunches. (III.868-81)

How often does Aeneas lament this misfortune or that, while I feel not the slightest twinge! But this, this sad image of Polyphemus tending first his sheep and then his wound, his groan (unqualified by any needless adjectives) – this moves me.



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