Scholia Reviews 3 (1994): 10

S. Farron, Vergil’s Aeneid: A Poem of Grief and Love. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993. Pp. xii + 174. ISBN90-04-09661-2. Gld 75/US$43.00.

William J. Dominik
University of Natal, Durban

In what F. regards as a heretical departure from modern interpretations of the Aeneid, he argues that the purpose of the Aeneid was to present a series of emotionally-arousing episodes. According to him, this was what nineteenth-century scholars considered to have been the purpose of the Aeneid, a belief consistent with the purpose of literature to the Greek and Romans. Claiming that scholars of the last hundred years have laboured under the misunderstanding that the Aeneid had to _mean_ something, F. hopes to `enable readers to enjoy the Aeneid for the reasons it was always enjoyed’ (p. ix). Accordingly, the chapters are consistent with his purpose of demonstrating that `the Aeneid is basically a poem of grief and love’ (p. 1).

In chapter 1 (`Nisus and Euryalus’) F. maintains that the only interpretation that can be sustained by the text is that the purpose of the Nisus-Euryalus episode (9.176-502) is to portray an intense and tragic love. But is it really the case that the `only important characteristic’ of this episode is the love and loyalty of the Trojan pair for each other (p. 30)? F. discusses what he deems to be the four main approaches to the episode and rejects them all (pp. 24-26, 155-65). The third approach (p. 26, 158-60), which considers Aeneid 9.446-49 to be ironic, is dismissed with the argument that irony can be imposed on any passage that does not accord with a critic’s preconceived ideas about the lines in question (p. 26). No effort is made to take into account how the passage functions within its particular context and the work as a whole. In fact the entire Nisus-Euryalus episode is tinged with irony, for at the time the pair are slaughtering the sleeping Rutulians in 9.324ff. (conduct that is paradigmatic of Trojan behaviour in the second half of the poem), Aeneas is surveying the future site of Rome and, as he bears upon his shoulders the shield given to him by his mother, takes pleasure in the various ideological representations of Rome’s destiny on it (8.730f.).

Chapter 2 (`Ancient and Modern Literary Attitudes’) endeavours to show that the main function of literature to Vergil and his contemporaries was to depict emotional, especially pathetic, episodes and that ancient literary critics were unconcerned with the meaning and unity of literary works. F. contends that the characters and passages that pertain to the meaning of the Aeneid are dull and uninteresting and that the Aeneid has been regarded as a great work of literature because of its portrayal of grief and love. The main thesis of the book is elaborated upon in chapter 3 (`The Poem of Grief and Love’), which maintains that the Aeneid‘s purpose was to arouse the readers’ emotions in order to present emotional episodes, something loved by the characters. Dido’s love for Aeneas, of course, is the supreme example of such a love in the Aeneid. According to F., the only purpose of the Dido episode in book 4, like the Nisus-Euryalus episode in book 1, is to arouse pity through the depiction of a tragic love. There can be no doubt that book 4 is concerned with the tragedy of Dido. But is Vergil’s purpose limited merely to showing a tragic love and not to mean anything by such a description? In extremely personal terms the responsibility for the downfall of Dido, with whom Vergil’s sympathy predominantly lies, can be said to be partly her own, but her tragedy ultimately illustrates in vivid personal terms the human cost of Aeneas’ pursuit of empire. Dido is a victim not only of the gods but also of Aeneas and his destiny. She is a sacrifice upon the altar of Rome’s imperial greatness. On a more general level F. rightly observes that virtually all the major figures in the Aeneid die or are in some way related to someone who dies (p. 65), but he argues that the main purpose behind these deaths is to arouse pathos in the poem’s readers. Is this all there really is to the scenes of human wastage scattered throughout the narrative of the Aeneid? One can stop at the point that F. does here or look further and observe that this human loss and suffering is the result of Trojan efforts to found an empire and to fulfil Rome’s destiny.

F. is essentially descriptive and anti-interpretive in his approach. He insists throughout that his view of the Aeneid is in accordance with what Vergil and his contemporaries expected to find and appreciate in the literature. But his belief that modern criticism is heretical and that to interpret necessarily means to impoverish means that he takes little or no account of the way particular scenes function in the work or within the entire Vergilian corpus. Unsurprisingly, therefore, F. rarely quotes directly from the Aeneid in support of his thesis. He is really more concerned with what ancient and modern critics say about the Aeneid than the text itself. As F. himself observes in his `Postscript’, the `test of any hypothesis is whether it explains the facts better than other hypotheses’ (p. 146). If one pays close attention to the textual details of the Aeneid and the entire Vergilian corpus instead of pre-modern commentators such as Servius and Donatus, who are not the most sensitive literary critics, then the elements of grief and love assume dramatic and thematic importance. The achievement of this book lies in its emphasis on these elements, but little attempt is made to account for their significance.

F.’s approach to the Aeneid and ancient literature generally is not really all that heterodox or radical, since it is based mainly on a disinclination to interpret the text. Although the text has been misread and misunderstood by ancient and modern scholars, the Aeneid is a _readable_ text. It is only lately that the Aeneid has been read both in terms of the intratextual connection between events, images and scenes and in terms of its intertextual relationship to the Georgicsand the Eclogues. The AeneidÔ between it and other Vergilian works. This intertextuality in fact substantiates the pessimism of the Aeneid. The Dido and Nisus- Euryalus episodes illustrate the disparity between the ideology of empire and its manifestations in terms of human cost. They are certainly more than scenes of grief and love included for their own sake.