Reading · Teaching

Primary and Secondary Epics, or Why Virgil is Harder than Homer

Primary vs. Secondary Epics, or why students have more trouble with the Aeneid than the Odyssey

My students finished the Odyssey last week. I think it went well. We had good talks about all the things—from the mythic underpinnings to the historical details to the glory of oral formulae and the literary delights of the epic simile. (They found the animal similes charming—Odysseus as lion, as octopus… I still prefer Odysseus imaged as a sausage rolling in a pan, close to bursting.) We even discussed translation issues, and the fact that class issues are not obscured in Emily Wilson’s new translation—slave status was clearer than ever.

And we wrapped up, thinking this old tale is still beautiful, provocative, useful, and relevant. Mission accomplished.

Then we started Virgil’s Aeneid. And many of them balked.

It’s harder to read. They feel like they’re missing something. It’s so dense. And they’re absolutely right.

The Odyssey is a primary epic. Even though we pin our hopes on someone named Homer, it doesn’t feel authored. It feels straightforward, accumulative, formulaic, inevitable. It feels like it has been composed orally, around hundreds of hearths. It reads quickly, and it’s full of action. Everyone felt able to comment because it invites everyone inside. It builds its lessons by comparing examples of how to treat guests, for instance.  

The Aeneid, in contrast, is VERY authored. Commissioned by Augustus Caesar to give weight to the destiny of Rome, this story follows the Trojan survivor, Aeneas, on a comparable path through the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, but continues on to the west coast of Italy, where he will found the city of Rome. The content is comparable, but everything else is different.

First, Virgil has a commission. He’s writing for the emperor—the most glorious audience, about the origins of Rome—the most glorious of subjects. So he’d better make it sound glorious. He does. But what makes a poem glorious can also make it difficult. He uses elevated language; he relies on his audience for allusions he makes to other texts and myths; he weaves in subtext about the possible collateral damage on the way to Rome. Especially for the protagonist, Aeneas, the founding of Rome must take precedence over anything he might want for his personal life—a happy second marriage in Carthage, for instance.

So we have a lot to unpack that we didn’t when reading The Odyssey. The poem begins, for instance, with Juno raging about Aeneas’s relative success. It summarizes neatly three main reasons Juno despises Aeneas. (Trojans have spurned her beauty and taken her daughter’s job, not to mention the fact that Trojan-founded Rome is destined to overthrow her cherished Carthage in the Punic Wars.) Virgil expects that his audience is familiar all these intertexts, and that they know the history of Troy and its many founders, and all the variant names of Roman gods. Spoiler alert: we don’t.

This means the first day of the Aeneid discussion was more literary and history lecture than most. It was more damage control and me assuring them that it was a really good story, worth the time to sink in to. Fortunately, there’s plenty to appeal. All I have to do (with any text, really) is show them where to look.

What you gain with an author over a folk composition is detail. Virgil details scenes and the emotions they evoke with painstaking, breathtaking precision. When the old Trojan king, Priam, dies at the hands of Achilles’s son, all the pathos of the young, disrespectful thug desecrating the sacred altar of the Trojan gods bring one to tears:

                “…he dragged him to the very altar stone,
                with Priam shuddering and slipping in
                the blood that streamed from his own son. And Pyrrhus
                with his left hand clutched tight the hair of Priam;
                his right hand drew his glistening blade, and then
                he buried it hilt-high in the king’s side.
                This was the end of Priam’s destinies.” (Aeneid II. 738-43)

And when Dido falls in love with Aeneas, tempting him to linger in Carthage, his divine mandate to leave and get back to his destiny makes Dido desperate, and she lashes out at him:

“Deceiver, did you even hope to hide
so harsh a crime, to leave this land of mine
without a word? Can nothing hold you back–
neither your love, the hand you pledged, nor even
the cruel death that lies in wait for Dido?” (IV. 410-14)

She vacillates between outrage and despair, and she sounds at once timeless and current–psychologically real. That’s what an author adds that oral formulae don’t achieve. These characters pulse and bleed. We feel we know them. The emotions  they feel are real and immediate; we feel with them.

So it may take a little longer to get in to, but when we do, all will be well. Authored texts offer different experiences, and they’re usually the kind that English majors respond well to—ones where we can talk about how knowledge of the culture and the author add to our understanding. Folk texts are not less cool, with their archetypes and patterns and regional “flavors.” But they are different. It depends on whether you’re in the mood to read about “Jack” or Jay Gatsby. You get to choose.

Except when it’s assigned for a class. Then you read what is assigned. Yes, there will be a quiz.

Reading · Teaching

Beginning Dante, or Reading our Way to Paradise

I’m teaching Dante again.

I teach the Infernoin my Epics class, after we have read Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. It works beautifully, since we first encounter the Greek version of the aftermath of the Trojan War, then the Trojan/Roman; then we get to Dante, and he puts lots of those characters in his afterlife. Odysseus goes to Hades. So does Aeneas. It’s kind of a thing.
But nothing prepares them, really, for Dante.
The Type Scene of the Underworld Journey (Greek katabasis) is present in most epics, really.  The hero crosses over—literally dies—and brings back otherworldly knowledge to help his people. Gilgamesh, Hercules, Odin, Vainamoinen, Gandalf—so many heroes go and come back, and it’s a dramatic event in their storied lives.
But for Dante it’s the whole work.
For one canto at the beginning, poor Dante is lost, halfway through his life, wandering and trying to get somewhere, but he can’t do it alone. We can all relate to this. And it’s how he hooks us. Then his favorite poet appears, a literary and spiritual guide—Virgil, the Roman author of The Aeneid—and he offers to lead Dante along his edifying journey for as long as he can.
Dante the poet has a poet laureate lead him. Who would be our guide, we wonder? Someone whom we revere; someone who led us by example before they passed on. But before we can get too bogged down in thought, the journey begins.
Dante journeys to Limbo where he sees the spirits of Homer and other classical authors. This is where Virgil has been called from and where he will return when Dante’s tour is over. And we are introduced to Dante’s method and his mania at one stroke. He can put anyone who ever lived—real or literary—in the place he sees fit. It is a hugely ambitious task and a minor miracle that he completed it. So I guess it wasn’t mania—just drive.
The first sinners Dante encounters are the Lustful, and it’s one of my favorite passages in the whole Commedia. I spend a good deal of time on Canto V of the Inferno, unpacking it and reading it carefully with my students. One of Dante’s techniques is to have a soul tell her story (in this case, Francesca da Rimini, who had an affair with her brother-in-law), so he can understand the sin or virtue through a firsthand witness.
Francesca tells of how ill she was treated—trapped in a loveless marriage, she found what she thought was love just a little left of legal. And she first committed adultery at the instigation of a book. She calls the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere a “Galeotto” or go-between. It is after they read together the salacious details of the royal affair that brings down Camelot that Paolo first kisses Francesca.
Dante faints at this moment, and some read it as guilt. He, too, has loved where he should not have.
But I think it’s something else entirely. In an age where books are copied by hand, they can get miscopied very easily.  And in the case of Francesca and Paolo, they didn’t read thoroughly—they stopped before the lovers’ consequences were realized, so were tempted in to the same sin.
As Dante begins to tell of countless sinners and sins, he feels the weight of his responsibility and collapses under it. What if his text inadvertently–through sloppy copying or sloppy reading–leads others to Hell?
And so my students and I start another ambitious task—that of reading judiciously—with the hopes of making it to Paradise.