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  • Leaving School
  • Susan Ford Wiltshire

I did not notice it when I first read the Aeneid at age seventeen or even during an intensive yearlong reading in graduate school. But eventually I started noticing that in every book of the Aeneid, whether in simile, [End Page 123] allusion, or narrative detail, Vergil refers to laments of mothers at the plight of their children. For example, in Aeneid 9.59–64 Turnus is compared to a wolf stalking a sheepfold for prey as the Trojans huddle inside the walls. The figure is familiar from several instances in Homer. In Iliad 12.299–306, for instance, Sarpedon is compared to a lion harrying the sheepfolds as he attacks the Trojan defenses. All other elements of the Homeric simile appear in the Aeneid lines except one: the bleating lambs seeking safety under their mothers: tuti sub matribus agni / balatum exercent (9.61–62).

Both Andromache and Dido mourn for children they do not have. The lament of the mother of Euryalus in Aeneid 9 comprises a small epic all its own. Many men who long for the honor of a past culture fail to mention the costs of that culture to women. Vergil is the clear exception; he does not fail.

Eventually I came to see a similar tension between public and private in other conflicts in the Aeneid (see Wiltshire 1989). How can one function as a leader when one's heart is broken? Spem vultu simulat, premit altum corde dolorem ("he simulates hope on his face, presses the pain deep in his heart," 1.209). How can one properly grieve for a lost homeland when required to create a new home in an unforeseeable future? (illic fas regna resurgere Troiae, "it is necessary for the kingdom of Troy to rise again there," 1.206). What does love mean to a man who can say to his lover that his amor is for Italy, not her: hic amor, haec patria est ("this is my love, this my country," 4.347)?

Adam Parry (1963) confirmed my sense of duality within the poem, and I was grateful for that. I did notice, however, that Parry's discussion focused almost entirely on Aeneas himself, while mine encompasses the Aeneid as a whole. Vergil's poem is not about Aeneas. It is about Vergil and about life.

Vergil was an outsider: as a north Italian in Rome; as a poet in a doggedly prosaic culture; as an introvert, probably gay, in a world of unmitigated manliness; as a farmer who preferred cultivating his fields in Nola to the hurly-burly of Rome. It may be easier for outsiders to grow and change since they have had so much practice at it. Vergil grew and changed, as a thinker and poet, from the small poems of the Appendix to the Bucolics, to the Georgics, and finally to the Aeneid.

The Aeneid too is a poem of change because it concerns youth, middle age, and old age. It teaches us to revere the old without becoming old. It teaches us that it is all right even for the old to make mistakes, as [End Page 124] Anchises famously does in mistaking Crete for Italy. It teaches us that the more we know, the more we will honor diversity. To know anything is to trade its entirety for a constantly changing variety. In poetry as in politics, adherence to a single belief system or school is always tempting and always wrong.

Schools define and categorize and limit growth. Whether there is or ever was a Harvard School, I do not know. I do know that it is a good thing that readings of the Aeneid change with time. Otherwise, Vergil might still be a proto-Christian or a medieval necromancer or an optimist or a pessimist or a semiotician or worse. As I once wrote for Vergil, on his birthday (2015: 168):

Your poem ends with umbras.Once I found that sad. No longer.Now I like shadows. They are companions—bread for the journey.

Shadows change, lengthen, contract,fade and come again,like kindness or a friend.What you see depends on where you stand.

Susan Ford Wiltshire...


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