In the Introduction to his collection of Oxford lectures, The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney excerpts Robert Frost’s Directive, calling it “in some important but oblique way, an apologia for all art.” Directive, which is a semi-allegorical poem about a journey to a deserted town and the discovery of a children’s playhouse, has had its share of admirers and detractors; here, Heaney writes:
“Frost suggests, in fact, that the life endured by the occupants of the actual house find its best memorial and expression in the house of ‘make-believe’. He convinces us that the playhouse has the measure of the other house, that the entranced focus of the activity that took place as the make-believe on one side of the yard was fit to match the meaning of what happened on the other side, and in doing so Frost further suggests that the imaginative transformation of the human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it. What Virgil called lacrimae rerum, the tears of things, can be absorbed and re-experienced in the playthings of the playhouse – or in the words of the poem.”
This sense – that the purpose of poetry (or, more broadly, of art) is to take raw emotion and, in a certain sense, ‘aestheticise’ it, is an old one. It has its echoes in the Greek idea of the role of tragedy being to induce catharsis; in Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot famously wrote that the task of the poetic mind is to “transmute the passions which are its material”, and that “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion“; and in praising the short stories of Danilo Kis, Joseph Brodsky wrote that “[Kis] can afford to treat tragedy as a genre, and his art is more devastating than statistics…[in such a way that] the reader’s ethical evaluation of the phenomena described ceases to be merely a matter of his distraught sentiment and comes out as a judgment made by his profoundly offended supreme human faculties.”
But what interests me here is Heaney’s almost off-hand reference to Virgil: “lacrimae rerum, the tears of things“. The quotation is from The Aeneid, Book I (line 462): “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”. The context is that while staying with Dido, Aeneas is taken to the building of a Temple to Juno. There, he sees a mural depicting some of the scenes of the Trojan War (in which he himself, of course, was a participant) “in their correct order“. This sight gladdens his heart, and he says:
“Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Solve metus; feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem.”
Which translates to:
“Here, too, the praiseworthy has its rewards;
there are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind.
Release your fear; this fame will bring you some safety.”
Interestingly, in his essay, The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid, Adam Parry invokes precisely this scene to describe something he calls “sublimation” – “a conscious feeling that the raw emotions of grief have been subsumed in an artistic finality of vision.” Parry writes:
“The perfection of the lines itself imposes a kind of artistic detachment, and we are put in the position of Aeneas himself, as he sees, in Carthage, the destruction of Troy represented as paintings in a gallery of art… these paintings remind Aeneas of all that has been, of the tears of human things; and at the same time, Virgil tells us, they fill him with hope. In a larger way, the whole poem is such a painting. It is about history, but its purpose is not to tell us that history is good, or for that matter that it is bad. Its purpose is rather to impose on us an attitude that can take into account all in history that is both good and bad, and can regard it with the purer emotions of artistic detachment, so that we are given a higher consolation, and sorrow itself becomes a thing to be desired.”
As we can see, Parry’s idea of “sublimation” is close to what Heaney is saying when he writes about how the tears of things can be “absorbed and re-experienced… in the words of a poem“. The task of art is the “imaginative transformation” that makes this possible. In the Aeneid itself, of course, there is a two-layered meaning: Aeneas experiences the feeling of sublimation while gazing at the mural depicting the scene of his own tragedy, and Virgil uses this to convey to his readers the manner in which poetry and art can bring about such sublimation. And it is precisely this double-layer that Heaney attributes to Directive.
The throwaway Virgil quote, therefore, turns out to be much more than that. It is an intertextual reference that locates both Frost and Virgil in a poetic tradition, and as poets committed to – in the words of the collection – “the redress of poetry“.