Reading Lessons

Virgil’s Aeneid

A tale foreign and familiar

By Willard Spiegelman | April 13, 2015

 

Robert Frost said he first heard the speaking voice in poetry by reading Virgil’s Eclogues. This is a surprising claim for several reasons. First, the voices Frost heard were in a language long dead. Second, they were coming from lines of pastoral poems—the most artificial, certainly the least “natural” of all poetic genres.

But I shared at some level Frost’s experience. It was the Aeneid, read in my senior year under the sway of a marvelous high school Latin teacher that awakened me to the powers of language and of poetry itself. We plowed our way through the first six books of the epic, page by page, line by line, sentence by sentence. We read slowly. We translated. We felt the heft and delicacy of Virgil’s words as we repeated them aloud, the burden of building the Roman Empire being equaled by our own heroic literary burden. Tantae molis erat (“So great a task”): indeed. I understood grammar and sentence structure in ways I never had by reading in my native tongue, or even in the French books I was reading simultaneously. The very foreignness of Latin alerted me to the foreignness of all literary language, as well as an understanding that the only reading worth its name is close reading. I got Latin, and through it, all language, into my bones. I understood what poetry could do.

St. Augustine famously said he wasted his tears on Dido, the Carthaginian queen who commits suicide after being forsaken by Aeneas. We felt no such shame. That warfare and national destiny come with their own tragic cost, that all human endeavor is tinged with lacrimae rerum (“tears of things”), that love can burn and destroy as well as ennoble, that a woman can head a state (“dux femina facti”), were thrilling lessons learned on the path to adulthood and, for me, to literary sophistication.

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