It is Virgil's habit to look at familiar things as though they were strange... [and in the Aeneid] he takes the landscape of Italy and... makes us see the familiar as strange. It is also his practice in the Aeneid to look at people and things from various different viewpoints... The Sibyl calls Turnus a second Achilles, but in the end he will play the role of Hector. To Juno and Amata Aeneas seems like a Paris (or so they unjustly claim), but at different times we see him in lights that suggest Hector, Achilles, Jason, Augustus and so on. Virgil walsk round his characters, so to speak, examining them from different angles, casting different lights upon them...
Let us then... apply [these two practices of Virgil's] to the voyage up the Tiber. He allows the reader to the scene from four or five separate points of view, and in each of them the familiar is made strange in at least one way.
First there is the Trojans' viewpoint. They are witnessing a miracle, and they are penetrating into the unknown: the 'cutting through the green woods' is splendidly jungly, and the fine phrase longos superant flexus, which has them 'conquering' each new bend, conveys the sense that they are discovering and exploring things utterly unkown before. Then there is the viewpoint of ourselves, Virgil's Italian readers (I say that because we must imagine ourselves to be Italians of the Augustan age if we are to get into the spirit of the poem): we see the familiar stretch of river between Ostia and Rome made strange in two ways. We see what in our own day is the most densely populated area in the world turned into jungle; and we see the turbulent silty Tiber turned by miracle into a glassy calm (Tiber was notoriously yellow from the mud it carried; we see it in this form, yellow and eddying, near the start of the seventh book)...
One last point of view remains, that of the landscape itself. The passage is flooded with words for wonder: 'mirantur... miratur' But by a stroke of genius Virgil attributes this not to the Trojans - we can take it for granted that they marvel - but to the woods and waters... Virgil makes us suppose that the wonderment of nature here is not just a loose way of talking but a reality, part of the wonder itself: one aspect of the miracle is that the landscape comes alive and feels.
Friday, June 13, 2008
Landscapes of emotion: Aeneas and the Tiber
For my year 12 class, studying hard over this weekend for an assessment task, here are some excerpts from an article (by Richard Jenkyns) I found in a back issue of Omnibus: