I will start by discussing one of my favourite lines in all of poetry.
Arva neque Ausoniae semper cedentia retro
(Virgil, Aeneid, Book III, 496 – 7)
My Fitzgerald translation has this down as:
“No quest for dim lands of Ausonia/ Receding ever.”
Here is the full context: Aeneas has escaped from the sack of Troy, and has been charged with the burden of founding Rome (Virgil sums up the gravity of Aeneas’ task with another line, beautiful for its brevity – “Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem” (Bk I, 33), translated by Fitzgerald as “so hard and huge/ A task it was to found the Roman people). He has been sailing the seas, seeking Italy, the pre-destined place, the only place where he can come to land permanently, and he has been meeting one peril and misfortune after another. At length he arrives in Epirus, where his kinsman Helenus has established himself, and rules in peace and plenty. He is also an augury, and he predicts a long and troubled journey for Aeneas before he can succeed in his task. When the time then comes to say farewell, Aeneas can scarce forbear to weep; and he laments:
“‘Be happy, friends; your fortune is achieved,/ While one fate beckons us and then another./ Here is your quiet rest; no sea to plow,/ No quest for dim lands of Ausonia/ Receding ever.‘”
In his beautiful article, “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid“, Adam Parry cites this as one of the examples of a “private voice” in The Aeneid, that sets itself up in opposition to, and regularly subverts the dominant, commonly understood “public voice”, that is, the paean to Augustus Caesar and the Roman Empire. In this line, the private voice suggests that although, of course, Aeneas will eventually reach Italy and establish Rome, in another, more meaningful sense, his labours are destined to have no ending, and, in Parry’s words, the “end… will see him as far from his fulfillment as his beginning. This other Italy will never cease receding into the distance.” (Parry, 1963). I’ll take the truth of this argument as my starting point.
Let me try to explain my response to this understanding of the lines by quoting one of my most-loved poets, Lord Byron, at his most Byronic:
“Man’s greatest tragedy is that he can conceive of a perfection that he cannot attain.”
This, of course, is the tragedy of Manfred, maybe of Childe Harold, in parts, and certainly of Byron, in his last poem, “On This Day, I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year.” Byron’s words are simple, blunt, almost brutal – and for that reason, utterly compelling. Their power, I think, lies in the fact that they identify the truth, and present it to us unvarnished and unadorned. For anyone who has ever struggled with anything that seems greater than himself, be it the writing of a poem or the building of a bridge that for all its elegance, still seems incomplete in some unidentifiable way (take any other example here – details don’t matter) cannot, I feel, fail to be profoundly moved by this line. Camus understands this aspect of the human condition perfectly when he makes one of his characters, throughout all the pages of The Plague, struggle with the opening line of his planned novel, struggling for a perfection that he knows exists, but which always evades him, eludes him, flees from him even as he grasps futilely for it. He dies of plague before he can finish the first page.
What Byron achieves through a perfect phrase and Camus through a perfect example, Virgil does in an infinitely more powerful way – through a perfect image. In that one line and a bit, by presenting a single picture of your destination that is receding from you even as you’re striving to reach it, he enters your soul. The Ausonian fields are a metaphor for life. You are always striving, striving for that goal, that destination, a destination that, like those Ausonian fields, you know nothing about apart from the fact that you’re striving for it, and like the horizon, it always recedes from you, so that it doesn’t matter how fast and how long you run, how determined and resolute – or lucky – you are. There it is, at the edge of your vision, so that you always know that it exists, and you’re always reaching, trying, running (sigue corriendo!), and yet deep inside you, you’re aware of the Sisyphean futility of the endeavour, because the horizon will always remain as far away as it is when you begin.
And that, I think, sums up the greatness of Virgil. A single line and a word. A perfect image. And you come out of it deeply affected, deeply troubled, and deeply moved.
Of course, not all poets are so pessimistic. C.P. Cavafy, in his brilliant – and justly famous poem, Ithaka, compares life to Odysseus’ journey home after Troy. Only, Cavafy’s traveler faces no Scylla or Charybdis, no annoying sorceresses with a penchant for turning people into pigs, and no terrifying one-eyed cannibalistic monsters. On the contrary, there are summer mornings of pleasure and joy, when you discover new harbours, Phoenican traders with exquisite wares, and Egyptian cities with great scholars. And in the end, you do reach Ithaka, in your old age, and the journey has made you rich beyond your dreams.
It is a beautiful poem. Cavafy inspires and makes us dream. But Virgil, I feel, plumbs the truth.
They are both brilliant poems, although in very different ways. Much recommended