Tag Archives: Virgil

Poems cut short by death

I recently read this Telegraph article about a study of the effects of poetry on the brain, which quoted the last quatrain of “She dwelt among the untrodden ways,” one of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems.

Volunteers brains have been scanned while reading four lines by Wordsworth: “She lived unknown and few could know, when Lucy ceased to be. But she is in her grave and oh, the difference to me.”

As I read this, I was expecting “the difference to me” to be the subject of a full clause, and it was a bit jarring when the verse suddenly stopped short of the anticipated predicate, forcing me to go back and reparse it as an exclamatory fragment. How appropriate, I thought, what a perfect marriage of form and meaning. What a powerful way of evoking the suddenness of death, the sense of an expected dénouement canceled without notice, the abrupt transition to nothingness which the mind misses at first and must circle back on to process fully.

I quote a quote of Wordsworth rather than the original because I find that the effect is stronger when the lines are embedded in an ordinary paragraph. Reading the original, one can see at a glance, in advance, that “The difference to me!” is the end, and there is no expectation of more to come. Also, Wordsworth’s exclamation point, replaced by the Telegraph‘s Julie Henry with a more discreet period, subtly undermines the effect.

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Attempting to duplicate Wordsworth’s effect in the simplest way possible, I came up with this:

Roses are red,
And blue the sky.
Lucy is dead.

Going beyond the vague expectation of more to come, this little suicide-note of a poem should (if it works as I expect) generate a ghost-line of an ending, whispered subaudibly in the reader’s mind, unwritten because if written it would be a lie. The conventions of the roses-are-red genre leaves no doubt as to what the omitted ending should be. The strong expectation of some specific ending makes it unlike Wordsworth’s poem, and also unlike death. It is also structurally incomplete as a poem, leaving the second line hanging rhymeless, whereas Wordsworth’s is, once you realize it, structurally complete as it stands.

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The following poem uses something like the reverse of Wordsworth’s technique, but the purpose is the same — to draw the reader’s attention to the contrasting possibilities of the poem’s continuing and its being cut short.

I worry so for dear old Bill,
So long abed, so very ill.
For if old Bill does not get well,
Then he will die and go too soon
To tell the tale he came to tell
And sing out his appointed tune.

If this works as expected, the mental echoes of the unwritten word hell should leave the last two lines in a limbo of ghostly half-existence; the reader reads them but knows that in a parallel universe the poem ended without them.

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A larger-scale example of a poem which ends abruptly with death, leaving the reader expecting more and not immediately assimilating the fact that the poem is over, is the Aeneid. It’s not clear whether or not Virgil intended to end the poem that way. We know that he left it unfinished when he died, demanding on his deathbed that it be destroyed, but opinions differ as to whether he had just wanted to do a bit of editing or had planned to double the length of the poem, bringing the number of books up to the Homeric 24. But whether intentionally or not, the poem ends as abruptly as the life of Turnus — or as that of Virgil himself.

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The unfinished Faerie Queene was also cut off at a very appropriate point by the death of its author.

When I bethinke me on that speech whyleare,
Of Mutability, and well it way:
Me seemes, that though she all vnworthy were
Of Heav’ns Rule; yet very sooth to say,
In all things else she beares the greatest sway.
Which makes me loath this state of life so tickle,
And loue of things so vaine to cast away;
Whose flowring pride, so fading and so fickle,
Short Time shall soon cut down with his consuming sickle.

Then gin I thinke on that which Nature sayd,
Of that same time when no more Change shall be,
But stedfast rest of all things firmely stayd
Vpon the pillours of Eternity,
That is contrayr to Mutabilitie:
For, all that moueth, doth in Change delight:
But thence-forth all shall rest eternally
With Him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight:
O that great Sabbaoth God, graunt me that Sabaoths sight.

And with that the poem became fixed forever, no more to change, and the poet went on to his eternal rest.

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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?

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(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.)

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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.

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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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