"Rapt with Pleasaunce": The Gaze from Virgil to Milton
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c h a p t e r n i n e “Rapt with Pleasaunce” The Gaze from Virgil to Milton I In Book 1 of the Aeneid Aeneas and Achates enter Carthage shrouded in a protective mist and make their way to a temple sacred to Juno where they await the coming of Dido. As they wait, Aeneas sees a “wonderful thing” that for the first time gives him hope of safety and the promise of better things.1 On the walls of the temple, representations of the battles of Troy are laid out ex ordine, evidence that news (fama [457]) of the war has traveled throughout the world. “Here,” Aeneas cries to Achates, “things worthy of praise find due reward: here there are tears for human happenings (lacrimae rerum [462]) and mortal sufferings touch the heart. Be free of fear; this fame will bring you some deliverance” (feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem [463]). Eight scenes are presented, organized in pairs: first Greeks being chased by Trojans matched with Trojans fleeing before Achilles; 215 Patterson-09 9/17/09 3:57 PM Page 215 then the nighttime slaughter of the sleeping Rhesus by Diomedes balanced with Achilles’s ambush of the unarmed Troilus; next the Trojan women’s useless supplication of an implacable Pallas Athene paired with Priam giving gold to Achilles for Hector’s defiled body; and finally pictures of two later, doomed Trojan allies, Memnon and Penthesilea, the latter a vision of heroic independence and feminine grace, caught by the artist “in the act of buckling her golden girdle beneath her naked breast” (492).2 Aeneas, we are told, “feeds his soul upon these empty pictures” (pictura inani [464]); as Dido approaches he stands wonderingly (miranda [494]), stupefied and fixed fast in a gaze (stupet obtutuque haeret defixus in uno [495]). Aeneas is a hero who has entered upon his poem with unpropitious hesitancy. We see him first at the mercy of the storm and lamenting that he did not die at Troy, then offering his men an encouragement he does not believe himself. Even his mother Venus quickly tires of his self-pitying account of his misfortunes and responds to his notorious self-identification— sum pius Aeneas (378)—with cruelly feigned incomprehension: “Whoever you are, you are hardly, I think, hated by the gods” (387). But Aeneas thinks he has been abandoned, and burgeoning Carthage fills him with envy: “How fortunate are those whose walls already rise!” (437). Hence the consolation afforded by this pictured reenactment of the past: not only does it assure him that this is a country that honors the brave deeds of Troy but, more tellingly, it monumentalizes a heroism that may have been tragic but remains nonetheless preeminent, a fama that will never pass away.3 Yet Aeneas forgets that if his welcome depends upon who he has been, it necessarily ignores what he will become, the founder of the empire that will obliterate the very Carthage he now envies. Similarly, while his Trojan past may help him to find a temporary home, it is one that comes to threaten the Roman future in which he will find his true fame. But these larger understandings are, for the moment, closed to him. Suspended in passivity, Aeneas gazes at both city (miratur . . . miratur [421–22]) and ecphrasis (miratur [456], miranda [494]) with a trance-like stupor that bespeaks his incomprehension. Yet it is in this very ecphrasis, in the pictures that solicit his eye only to deaden his attention, that paradoxically resides a saving knowledge. The pictures interpret as well as represent the past, and in their interpretation provide a salutary premonition of the future.4 They expound the 216 Acts of Recognition Patterson-09 9/17/09 3:57 PM Page 216 motifs that will come to dominate Aeneas’s experience: the implacable gods, the implacable hero needed to do their will, and the innocent victims who must be sacrificed to historical necessity. Saevus Achilles (458) dominates the scenes, mentioned even before the specific pictures are passed in review; fierce to both Priam and the Atrides, he is described as an enemy to friend and foe alike. The agent of Troy’s destruction, he accounts for the deaths of all but five of the pictured Trojan victims. Moreover , that these details are not merely incidental to the gradual collapse of Trojan resistance is shown both by the animosity of Pallas and by the fact that the deaths of Rhesus and Troilus...



Subject Headings

  • Literature and society -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • England -- Civilization -- 1066-1485.
  • Historical criticism (Literature).
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
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