The Death of Virgil: part I

The first section of The Death of Virgil, “Water—The Arrival,” tells of Virgil’s arrival at Brundisium along with Caesar Augustus and his retinue. Already ill, Virgil has submitted to the “importunity” of Augustus and agreed to return to Italy from Athens, where he had hoped “that the hallowed and serene sky of Homer would favor the completion of the Aeneid,” which would have allowed “the boundless new life which was to have begun…a life free alike of art and poetry….”

Instead, the old man is about to land at Brindisi, where, “[s]teel-blue and light, ruffled by a soft, scarcely perceptible cross-wind, the waves of the Adriatic streamed against the imperial squadron….” This opening passage of the novel, as BC noted yesterday, is the only one told not through Virgil’s “wild perceptions,” and it’s quite different from what we’ll find elsewhere. It continues:

And here, as the sunny yet eathly loneliness of the sea change with the peaceful stir of friendly human activity where the channel, softly enhanced by the proximity of human life and human living, was populated by all sorts of craft—by some that were also approaching the harbor, by others heading out to sea and by the ubiquitous brown-sailed fishing boats already setting out for the evening catch from the little breakwaters which protected the many villages and settlements along the white-sprayed coast—here the water had become mirror-smooth; mother-of-pearl spread over the open shell of heaven, evening came on, and the sound of life, a hammering of a summons, was blown over from the shore.

Virgil doesn’t care for the soft waves—they make him sea-sick. He also doesn’t care for the signs of human life and settlement; in “Water—The Arrival,” humans are like water too, a streaming mob. And they likewise make Virgil ill. As the servants assigned to him attempt to carry Virgil’s litter through the city streets to the imperial palace, “[h]e gazed over a sea of heads, he glided over a sea of heads, surrounded by a human surf, for the present, however, only at its edge, the first attempts to overcome this surging opposition having until now utterly failed.” Closer to the palace, the human stream begins to foreshadow the next part, “Fire—The Descent,” as the blaze of its lights

gleamed like some magic luminary which converted all that moved about into a compulsorily automatic stream, one could almost think that even the litter swam with it, floated with it automatically, scarcely that it was being carried, and with every step, with every forward glide, the power of that mysterious, calamitous, senselessly-magnificent lure became more definitely felt, became more terrifying, more urgent, more intrusive, near and nearer the heart, growing, growing, growing, till at one stroke it revealed itself in that instant when the litter, shoved, pulled, carried high and swimmingly afloat, suddenly came to the entrance of the street; for here, quite abruptly, wreathed by fire, surrounded by tumult, stripped of every shield for light, of every shield for noise, in an unshielded dazzle of light and noise, gleaming and glittering, the imperial palace came to view, partly residence, partly fortress, arising vulcanically, infernally, glaringly, from the center of a shield-shaped, hunched, almost circular plaza, and this plaza was comprised of a single conglomerate flood of creaturekind, a massed, formed, forming, boiling human-humus, a flood of glossy eyes and glossy glances, all of them rigid in their ardor as though dispossessed of every other purport, directed toward the one and only goal, shining without a shadow, a human stream of fire avid to lick this fiery coast.

Virgil needs a shield from all this because creaturekind is disgusting. At first it seems his main source of disgust is human greed, which causes ships “laden with people, laden with arms, laden with corn and wheat, laden with marble, with oil, with wines, with spices, with silks, laden with slaves” to ply around the world, “bartering and bargaining, one of the worst among the many depravities of the world.” The imperial flotilla that has brought Virgil to Brundisium is full of gluttons who have spent the whole voyage stuffing themselves with food and drink, the smells of which make the poet feel even sicker. But it goes deeper than wanton greed and gluttony; Virgil has realized now that the problem is “a tide of evil, an immense wave of unspeakable, inexpressible, incomprehensible evil [that] seethed in the reservoir of the plaza”—more water imagery for you. Virgil is obsessed with “the people’s profound capacity for evil in all its ramifications, their possibilities for human degradation in becoming a mob, and their reversion therewith to the anti-human, brought to pass by the hollowing out of existence, by turning existence toward a mere thirst for superficialities, its deep roots lost and cut away, so that nothing remained but the dangerous isolated life of self, a sad, sheer exteriority, pregnant with evil, pregnant with death, pregnant with a mysterious, infernal ending.”

“Superficialities,” though, seems to include an awful lot. Virgil is just as disgusted by eating and drinking apparently done out of genuine necessity as he is by real gluttony. He is revolted by the miserable alley he travels through full of the poor, barely able to eke out a living. Sexuality too is evil and like death. Anything human, it would seem, is like death, a concept that obsesses the dying man before us.

Stylistically, most of the first part is like the passages I’ve quoted here, except that opening description of Brundisium’s harbor and some dialogue Virgil has with a slave boy. The stream of consciousness is relentless, all the more for being the consciousness of such a troubled soul. Jean Starr Untermeyer’s translation is lovely, though.

6 comments to The Death of Virgil: part I

  • Roman poets hate being at sea. If it were not so long since I read them, I would supply numerous examples. It occurs over and over. Greek and Hellenistic poets had so such neurosis.

    I’m delighted to see the return of the disgust theme.

    Did you leave out a lot of the head of that second sentence, or is that pretty much it? It’s plenty long as it is, but looking ahead to Thomas Bernhard, it could be longer.

  • Didn’t all Romans hate being at sea? Like cats.

    And I knew I had left out a lot of that sentence, but didn’t realize quite how much: well over half a page, trade paperback style. So it’s more than twice as long as what I have. Pretty sure there are longer.

  • Except that the Romans, were, in fact a seafaring nation. Some of them must have liked the water.

    Maybe the sailors were all non-Roman Romans, so to speak. Greeks and Iberians and so on.

    You should write a one-sentence post on Broch. A single 500 word sentence.

  • I became aware of this book only recently (from Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies) and was planning on adding it to the TBR stack. I’m so glad to your and BC’s comments on it!

  • For some reason, looking at this dizzying stuff, Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian passed through my head. Is that a good challenge title? Kind of in the same world? What do I know?

    Keep up the great work!

  • Memoirs of Hadrian? Am I going to be the only Challenged participant who follows the dang rules?