Revelation in Aeneid IX

The ninth book of the Aeneid contains what are in my opinion (and I admittedly know the book only in translation) two of its most beautiful passages. Both deal with the characters’ reactions to apparent revelation or inspiration from unknown sources.

Here is Robert Fitzgerald’s pitch-perfect rendition of Turnus addressing the divine messenger Iris:

Glory of the sky,
Who brought you down to me, cloudborne to earth?
What makes the sudden brilliance of the air?
I see the vault of heaven riven, and stars
That drift across the night-sky. I’ll obey
This great presage, no matter who you are
Who call me to attack.

And here is Nisus addressing Euryalus before their foray into the enemy camp, as rendered by Allen Mandelbaum:

Euryalus, is it
the gods who put this fire in our minds,
or is it that each man’s relentless longing
becomes a god to him?

*

(Fitzgerald’s and Mandelbaum’s are the two best Aeneids of which I am aware, decidedly superior to those of  Patric Dickinson, Theodore C. Williams, and John Dryden. Having no Latin myself, I base that judgment on the poetic power of their verse, not on their fidelity to the original. Fitzgerald handles some of the passages better; Mandelbaum, others.)

*

For Turnus, as Fitzgerald so convincingly portrays, the sheer aesthetic glory of his experience carries an authority of its own, so much so that he is willing to answer the call to battle without caring overmuch who it is that calls him. In fact it is the malevolent Juno, and she is calling him to his death — but even we who know that still feel that Turnus’s reaction is the right one, that it is an expression of his greatness of soul more than of his gullibility.

Joseph Smith has Moses apply a similar standard in his Book of Moses:

And it came to pass that Moses looked upon Satan and said: Who art thou? For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee? For behold, I could not look upon God, except his glory should come upon me, and I were transfigured before him. But I can look upon thee in the natural man. Is it not so, surely? Blessed be the name of my God, for his Spirit hath not altogether withdrawn from me, or else where is thy glory, for it is darkness unto me? And I can judge between thee and God (1:13-15).

For Moses, glory is a guarantee that the revelation is not a malevolent one. Virgil is not so sanguine. We take our chances, we mortals.

*

In the same spirit, Nisus’ question is a rhetorical one, the answer to which is not truly important to him. Whether god-given desire or desire-turned-god, he intends to follow it. And because this is the relentlessly pessimistic Virgil we are reading, we know that he, too, will follow it to his untimely death. We never find out whether he and Euryalus were following a god or their own desires.

In Virgil, everything noble, without exception, comes to a bad end. But it is still noble for all that. That, I suppose, is the point of the Aeneid and what makes it, against all odds, an inspiring read.

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4 Comments

Filed under Revelation

4 responses to “Revelation in Aeneid IX

  1. “For Moses, glory is a guarantee that the revelation is not a malevolent one.”

    Surely not – the standard here being applied is negative: that absence of glory implies not-of God.

  2. Yes, I suppose you’re right.

  3. Although, looking deeper as to what is implied – it sounds like the Devil could not fake glory convincingly (or else he presumably would have done so) – and if the devil cannot fake glory, then glory would indeed constitute a kind of guarantee. So maybe your interpretation was correct after all!

  4. Good grief, Bruce. I just opened this post so that I could add a comment saying that, on second thought, I was probably right because if the devil could have faked glory, etc. — but you beat me to it!

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