The prayer of the god-forsaken

This is the first of a series of posts to come on Virgil’s Aeneid. They will be gathered here. I am working from the Robert Fitzgerald translation (Everyman’s Library).

In book IV of the Aeneid, as Dido grieves and hates Aeneas for forsaking her for Fate, she prays a pitiful prayer:

She prayed then to whatever power may care
In comprehending justice for the grief
Of lovers bound unequally by love. (IV.720-22)

“Whatever power” – suggesting there is none, at least none familiar to Dido. It is a desperate attempt, a hopeless plea released into a godless wind. It is a prayer utterable only by one who knows herself forsaken by the gods.

Not a hundred lines later, Aeneas makes a parallel comment, drawing attention to their divergent situations. He is sleeping on his ship (we have been told that Dido, by contrast, cannot sleep), preparing to leave in the morning, when he is visited by a god and

Holy one, whatever god you are,
We go with you, we act on your command
Most happily! (IV.800-02)

This repetition of ‘whatever’ – so felicitous in this translation, though my monolingual tongue can but hope it is present in the original Latin – is last in a series of contrasts Virgil draws between the parted lovers. Most generally, both are exiles, though at different stages: Dido has founded her new home at Carthage, while Aeneas is still seeking his.

This incompatibility of timing is essential to the plot: it is the reason why Aeneas must part from Dido and thus the cause of the lament with which we began. To understand the episode, however, we must go beyond the plot and look at the spiritual interplay between personal and impersonal in the episode.

At a first glance, exile is for both Aeneas and Dido an intensely personal affair. Aeneas has seen his city go up in flames, Dido her husband murdered by her brother. Both are unable to live in the place they know as home, and so must found a new life elsewhere.

Indeed their respective exiles are quite personal – or, at least, they begin so. The crossing of their paths marks, however, an irruption of the impersonal into both of their fates. Paradoxically enough, it centers around that most personal of relationships: love.

At the heart of Dido’s exile is her love for her husband. Since his death, she has been chaste, deliberately spurning new attachment, “sick to death / At the mere thought of torch and bridal bed” (IV.24-25). This celibacy is the stronghold securing her new home, keeping her single-mindedly focused on its protection. Yet Aeneas “move[s her] soul to yield” (IV.31), and, encouraged by the advice of her sister Anna, she allows her inchoate desire – which Virgil aptly describes as “a wound / Or inward fire eating her away” (IV. 2-3) – to fester. Thus she forsakes the memory of Sychaeus. This spells her downfall. She forsakes her city first: “they reveled all the winter long / Undmindful of the realm, prisoners of lust” (IV. 264-65). Then, when Aeneas is compelled to leave her, she forsakes her life.

Dido’s actions are, throughout, almost wholly personal: her exile, her passion for Aeneas, her death. She is true to herself. The trouble is that this truth is self-contradictory: her chastity in memory of her husband and her love for Aeneas are incompatible, though both “true.” The trouble is that Dido chose the wrong truth, and by giving up the memory of Sychaeus gave up as well the home she had built. Thus, while not quite actively impersonal, it is nonetheless the loss of something personal that brings about her end.

Aeneas is a different case. His affair with Dido marks a turning point, after which his fate becomes increasingly impersonal, increasingly an external imposition placed upon him by the gods, but foreign to himself. (I thank here a nameless friend who first pointed out to me, in the abstract, this feature of the Aeneid.) Up to this point, Aeneas has several times been visited by figures who foretell his fate. Each time, the figure is one from Aeneas’ past, one that ties him to his home.

First there is Hector, who as the city starts to fall visits Aeneas in a dream, telling him to leave the city, take Troy’s hearth and household gods, and “find for them the great walls that, one day / you’ll dedicate, when you have roamed the sea” (II. 396-97). Then Venus (his mother), who stays his hand as he plans to kill Helen to avenge her crimes. And finally there is Creüsa, Aeneas’ wife, who mysteriously vanished as they fled Troy.

Each presses him forward to his exile, yet each is a tie to his former home. Yet, when it comes for Fate to drive Aeneas from Dido, it is not any of these figures (nor Anchises, his recently deceased father) who remind him that Carthage is not to be the site of his new home. Rather, it is Mercury, sent by Zeus who chides him:

……………………………………….Is it for you
To lay the stones for Carthage’s high walls,
Tame husband that you are, and build their city?
Oblivious of your own world, your own kingdom! (IV.361-64)

Later still, Mercury visits, or at least a god that resembles Mercury:

In dream the figure of the god returned
With looks reproachful as before: he seemed
Again to warn him, being like Mercury
In every way, in voice, in golden hair,
And in the bloom of youth. (IV.773-77)

Perhaps it is Mercury: it would still make my point, for Mercury is not attached to Aeneas in the way Hector and Creüsa are, nor even Venus, who, though a god, is at least Aeneas’ mother. But it does not matter if we, the readers, know who it is who visits Aeneas’ dream. What matters is that Aeneas himself does not know:

Holy one, whatever god you are,
We go with you, we act on your command
Most happily! (IV.800-02)

Aeneas neither knows nor cares to know who has visited him. It is enough that he is a god, and that his commands are therefore to be followed.

Aeneas, moreover, realizes how impersonal his fate is. We know this, because he insists upon it to Dido:

The god’s interpreter, sent by Jove himself –
I swear it by your head and mine – has brought
Commands down through the racing winds! I say
With my own eyes in full daylight I saw him
Entering the building! With my very ears
I drank his message in! So please, no more
Of these appeals that set us both afire.
I sail for Italy not of my own free will. (IV. 492-99)

The passage is striking and, to modern ears, perhaps a little pathetic. Aeneas disclaims responsibility, urging Dido not to make her personal appeals, appeals “that set us both afire.” Dido, naturally, is unconvinced, and rages at Aeneas. In book six, when Aeneas sees Dido’s shade in the underworld, now reunited with Sychaeus, he again tries to absolve himself:

………………………………..Dido, so forlorn,
The story then that came to me was true,
That you were out of life, had met your end
By your own hand. Was I, was I the cause?
I swear by heaven’s stars, by the high gods,
By any certainty below the earth,
I left your land against my will, my queen.
The gods’ commands drove me to do their will,
As now they drive me through this world of shades,
These mouldy waste lands and these depths of night.
And I could not believe that I would hurt you
So terribly by going. (VI.613-25)

It is no more compelling than the first time, and Dido is appropriately unmoved, “Her face no more affected than if she were / Immobile granite or Marpesian stone” (VI.632-33).

What this brings out is a general conflict, throughout the Aeneid, between fulfilling one’s fate and being human. Dido chooses being human, perhaps too human. Her human love for Sychaeus drives her exile, and her human yet almost inhuman chastity sustains it. Her passion for Aeneas is an all-too-human weakness, a mistake only a god could condemn. Aeneas, by contrast, chooses to follow Fate, with all the self-sacrifice that entails. Not a sacrifice of material goods (though that too), but literally of himself, of what makes him Aeneas the man, something more than a mere vessel for the schemes of the gods. Dido, though equally such a vessel, maintains her humanity. Aeneas, it often seems, does not.

I do not mean by this to judge Aeneas, to say that he chose wrongly in pursuing his fate. I only mean to draw attention to the consequences of his decision, the ways in which it made him impersonal, even inhuman, and, even more than that, the ways in which it impinged on the wholly personal lives of those external to his fate. One may have a fate hoisted impersonally upon one, but, as Dido so clearly shows, this does not make the pain it brings to others any easier for them to accept. It is this that Virgil so masterfully shows throughout the Aeneid.



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