Epic Fail

Amit Majmudar
December 28, 2013
Comments 3

The most inflated reputation in literary history came about as the result of genuine literary merit crossed with a transnational empire and language. Many people would assume I speak of Shakespeare, but “bardolatry” has nothing on the near-sainting of the Latin poet Virgil during medieval times. Miracles, necromancy, and powers of prophecy were attributed to this writer; his work was used for the sortes virgilianae, a method of divining the future by flipping to a random passage of the Aeneid. Not even Harold Bloom would go that far in his attribution of divine or mystical traits to the Bard. Shakespeare’s literary reputation is not the sole result of, and yet is not independent of, the British Empire and the worldwide spread of English; Virgil’s, likewise, is not independent of the Roman Empire and the dissemination of Latin. With Latin optional or not offered at most schools today, and the widespread availability in translation of his superior model (Dante and his contemporaries had no access to Homer), Virgil’s reputation has fallen in recent times. Our focus on “originality” as a literary culture doesn’t look too kindly on his blatant imitation of Homer (even though, nota bene, Homer didn’t come up with his stories, either, and may well have worked preexisting oral material into unified written epics). Once the core and axis of European education, Virgil is far less important than he once was, his major poem a sound third among classical epics.

This centuries-deferred correction has probably put Virgil in his rightful place. Now that the foundation of Rome has no particular allure for us, we can look at the Aeneid for what it is: an epic poem that tried to imitate Homer but didn’t learn the most crucial thing about epic poetry from him.

Today, novel blurbs use the word “sweeping” or “sprawling” in conjunction with “epic,” and it is used to signal a story that takes place over generations or centuries. Contrast this connotation of “epic” with the actual time-frames and dramatic unity of the Iliad or the Odyssey. When I was a boy, before I had read the Iliad but after I had read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, I assumed that, what with Homer’s poem being “about” the Trojan War, the Iliad must begin with Helen’s abduction, and end with the Trojan Horse. I realized immediately that Homer was dealing with a single episode from the war, and that the “epic” was going to leave those things out and only refer to them obliquely, in the course of people’s conversations.

This is incredibly efficient, and above all, dramatically shrewd—Homer approaches his epic material as tragedians and playwrights would, centuries later. His skill is on display in the Odyssey as well, which concerns the immediate run-up to Odysseus’s return, and handles all his past wanderings in flashback form. Even the Telemachus portions could have been handled with the son hanging out at his father’s house and being generally appalled by the suitors; but instead Homer sets Telemachus in motion, has him leave Ithaca, has the suitors plot to kill him, has Telemachus return at roughly the same time Odysseus gets home. He keeps everybody moving; he jump-cuts between storylines; as a storyteller, Homer is curiously restless. He builds up to the slaying of the suitors, just as he builds up, in the Iliad, to the confrontation between Achilles and Hector, and all is subordinated to this climax; inside the poem, the time elapsed between the opening of the poem and the closing is not very long at all. A few days, all counted, in either epic.

This is the central lesson, to my mind, of Homeric epic art: A single point of maximum narrative pressure. Virgil never picked this up. Because he had two epic models, the Aeneid is constructed with two points of narrative pressure. This is not, in itself, the kiss of death for an epic; I should note that Beowulf falls naturally into two parts (admittedly related ones, Beowulf-versus-Grendel and Beowulf-versus-Grendel’s-mother). The problem for Virgil arose not just from the division of his narrative forces; but also from how successful one half was, and how unsuccessful the other.

The most successful sequence in the Aeneid, the self-immolation of Dido, is, paradoxically enough, a source of the epic’s weakness. Upon arriving in Carthage, Aeneas recounts his adventures until then in flashback form, then leaves the beautiful woman; Odysseus does this too, but none of his deserted women immolate themselves. Dido’s dramatic death scene inserts a climax, as it were, where it shouldn’t go; it really shouldn’t go there because Dido’s liebestod is more dramatic than anything after it. If you look at the history of literary remakes of Virgil, it’s always the Dido confrontation that finds its way onstage; she was the subject of Marlowe’s first play, for example, and of operas by Purcell and Berlioz. Berlioz’s five-act Les Troyens is supposed to be about the Trojans, but it spends its last two acts on Aeneas and Dido; it never follows the Trojans on to the founding of Rome, or the Iliadic confrontation between Aeneas and Turnus.

Turnus, indeed, is suspiciously absent from the remakes of and references to Virgil’s epic. Aeneas-versus-Turnus is meant to mirror Achilles-versus-Hector (this time it’s about the hand of Lavinia, not the corpse of Patroclus). Bridging Virgil’s mini-Odyssey and mini-Iliad are a few filler episodes as the Trojans find their way to and get settled in Italy; for a time, the point of narrative pressure is diffused, indistinct. When the confrontation between Turnus and Aeneas begins to heat up, what’s at stake is the foundation of a city. With Rome’s founding as with Troy’s sack, the city’s fate is foreordained and known to the reader; but destruction by fire and sword is far more dramatically impressive than the slow arduous process of construction. While Homer doesn’t describe the sack of Trojan palaces, and Virgil doesn’t describe the paving of Roman roads, the implicit violence of the former image is more dramatic than the implicit laboriousness of the other. A poet is better off having towers toppling in the chronological distance, rather than towers rising.

The other reason that the second part of the Aeneid, Virgil’s mini-Iliad, doesn’t work as well is that Homer’s Iliad derives much of its power from its strong characters, while the Odyssey derives much of its power from richness of incident. Virgil seems to be better at recounting incidents than he is at conjuring characters. Or rather, Virgil’s characterization of Aeneas was shaped by the political imperative to keep Aeneas “pious,” a Hector-equivalent; simultaneously, Virgil couldn’t make Turnus larger-than-life and semi-divine, like Achilles. These characterization-related breaks with Homer were necessary because Virgil had to break with Homer in an even more fundamental way: The Hector-equivalent had to kill the Achilles-equivalent.

So we see that Virgil broke with Homer in two ways, and that it bit him both times. First, he improved on the Odyssey-pattern by having the jilted woman immolate herself; this was thoroughly successful, but it exerted intense power where it didn’t belong and created a break point, dividing the poem structurally. In his second break with Homer, Virgil inverted the Iliad-pattern, with Hector beating Achilles and the Trojans implicitly founding a city, instead of Achilles beating Hector and the Argives implicitly sacking a city. This second break was, manifestly, not an improvement.

Virgil himself may have sensed this—after all, he did order his literary executors to destroy the Aeneid, although literary tradition assumes it was from a finicky Flaubertian dissatisfaction with minor points of diction and rhythm, invisible to anyone else. Overall, though, Virgil tried to make his epic out of sequential episodes, instead of episodes embedded in a single dramatic movement. Other Latin epic poets—Lucan, Valerius Flaccus, and Silius Italicus, among others—fell into the same architectural error. That sprawl and sweep is, contrary to what is commonly thought, antithetical to the classical epic, a secret of Homer’s power that Virgil failed to recognize, and hence failed to learn.

3 thoughts on “Epic Fail

  1. In Classical Greece it was not the quality of the flint but the “character” of the person who struck it that would light the fire. From a footnote in an Odyssey translation.

  2. To make a similar point: Virgil appears to improve upon the meeting with the dead Tiresias (in the Odyssey) in the sixth book of the Aeneid; but because Anchises’ unfolding of the future of Rome – and more importantly, his in-folding of the mythical and historical – is such a narrative and historiographical highpoint, way beyond what Homer was attempting, the subsequent books of the Aeneid are mostly interesting for incidents like the appearance of the river-god than for the plot development.

    That said, it’s probably dangerous to assume a super-historical perspective on anyone, least of all Virgil. We might prefer the sound of buildings collapsing in the distance now, but that’s part of our late-modern condition; the destruction of Troy in Aeneid II resonates in the ‘falling towers’ of The Waste Land, as indeed in the Twin Towers of 9/11. If medieval (and to some extent, Renaissance) poets admired Virgil, it may have been because the laborious creation of western Christendom found an echo in the founding of Virgil’s imperium sine fine.

    • Excellent points. However, regarding your second point, I would point out the following: Western Christendom, particularly in medieval Europe, cultivated an intense psychological emphasis on 1.) millenarian/apocalyptic fantasies based in Revelation and 2.) the overall transience of worldly glory, the opposite of the empire-without-end. That is, for the medieval mind, all towers (except those in the Kingdom of God) were built to fall….

      …I often think that the Aeneid might have been a much better epic if Virgil had rearranged his incidents. If he had placed the prophetic encounter with Tiresias toward the end, for example. His epic nails two perfect-ten setpieces that would have been a good way to close things (a barbarian queen’s self-immolation, and the prophecy of empire you mention)–but they’re both crowded in the middle of the epic.

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