This article first appeared in the Winter 2006/2007 issue of Tidings.
VIRGIL’S LATIN EPIC The Aeneid occupies a very special place in the Classical heritage of King’s College, and in particular of the King’s Foundation Year Programme. Apparently an unfinished iddlasterpiece when Virgil died in 19 BCE, this saga of Roman origins occupied and dominated the greatest years of Virgil’s poetic maturity. Virgil’s Aeneid was plotted and composed according to the revered standards set by Homer’s incomparable Greek epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. A commonplace of Virgilian interpretation is that Virgil’s genius gave him the freedom to reverse the Homeric chronology, so that the Roman epic begins with Aeneas’ Odyssey and ends with the Latin warfare of The Iliad.
Those who remember their Divine Comedy will also recall that Virgil is Dante’s guide through both the Underworld and the Christian Purgatory, by which means a link is forged through 2,000 years of human history: from the first transcriptions of the Homeric songs via Aeneas’ sufferings as described by Virgil, through to the year 1300 in the High Middle Ages. In the figure of Virgil himself, seen both as poet and ethical guide, we achieve a unity of perhaps the three greatest poetic cycles in our entire history. These three epics are what we would nowadays call masterpieces of “intertextuality”, which is to say huge poems which arc suffused in every incident and scene with references to these earlier works, and without which they cannot be done justice. What is this but another way of pointing to the deep benefits and satisfactions of an “interdisciplinary” education, one which (at King’s) tries to begin with Homer’s Achaeans and only breaks off with the dawning of the recent millennium?
In order for this work of ethics to begin, it is necessary that Virgil be sprung from his long absence in the Underworld and charged with the divine work of leading Dante all the way down into the pit of hell, and then leading him up Mount Purgatory back to the Earthly Paradise. Virgil’s awesome assignment is then to conduct Dante from misery to bliss in this life.
For all these reasons, The Aeneid must occupy a special place in our programme of studies. We emphasize its intertextuality, its fusion of the highest poetry with the most deeply philosophical principles, its profound ethical examination of the content of the just life, and its sublime attempt to provide a complete and coherent world view, even in the face of the most appalling suffering. Virgil has written an epic to persuade his world and all of posterity that there can be a link between duty and providence: for that also this poem may be the most perfect textual expression.
The Aeneid is required to work its magic on us in the description of the most abject horrors, and weighed down both by inexpressible brutality and the crushing weight of the Latin fatum (destiny), which seems to sweep the actors off the stage in great floods of insurmountable strife. But Virgil wants us to see that the whole of this horrific history is tied together according to the strictures of amor, which is to say that the action of this recapitulation is initiated by Venus, the mother of Aeneas, but in a more complete sense by the love (amor), which will rearrange itself in the settled form of its anagram, in the founding of the eternal city, Roma.
Here we have another immediate tie to Dante’s Divine Comedy, also a work of amor, and a hymn of praise to love. First this amor appears in the person of the too soon departed Beatrice, but then also in a quotation from Aristotle, which is how the 100 Cantos of Dante’s Comedy ends. At the conclusion of this fateful journey, the pilgrim was able to behold, just for an instant, and only in Aristotle’s formulation, “the love that moves the Sun and other stars”.
The Aeneid is concerned with the origins, first foundations, the purpose and destiny to be found in the realization of Aeneas’s journey. Perhaps the poem, as this foundational document, can also serve to recall King’s to its own founding charter as “the mother of a university” dedicated to learning in all the arts and sciences, combined with a godliness of living. Aeneas is, after all, in Virgil’s description of him, always remembered as “pius Aeneas”, that is to say the hero, who through his steadfastness and piety, is able to realize the world-historical end, which is his fateful destiny.
King’s College has woven all these ideas above into the very fabric of its structure. King’s has done so, I would like to assert, as a constant reminder of this founding piety. There is an unforgettable reminder of these struggles of Aeneas above the door of Middle Bay in our stately Quad. The picture placed above the lintel is not a happy one, describing as it docs a dejected Aeneas fleeing the burning ruins of Troy and thus abandoning every hope and comfort of home. (This is a kind of physical enactment of what King’s itself had to endure after abandoning its burnt-out buildings in 1920.) Perhaps like Aeneas, King’s had to desert its old home in Windsor in order to fulfill a larger and more lasting destiny, now as the partner of Nova Scotia’s premier university.
The title quotation is Virgil’s Latin; it is taken from Book ii of his Aeneid. Anchises, the father of Aeneas, has finally been persuaded that Troy cannot be saved, and so he tells his son:
Anchises yields. I am willing to go with you, my son, and be your companion.
Above King’s Middle Bay one finds a depiction of Aeneas, now carrying his father, in his flight from a burning Troy. (Translation is by David West: Book ii, line 704.)
FYP Texts originally appeared in Tidings magazine, published on behalf of the University of King’s College Alumni Association. View the archive.