Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Reading Vergil

Robert Graves (1895-1985), "The Anti-Poet," On Poetry: Collected Talks and Essays (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969), pp. 301-322 (at 315-316; some misprints corrected by me):
    Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant ...
    (They kept silence and, being attentive, held their mouths.)

This hexameter, which opens Book Two, was the first line of the Aeneid which Augustus heard Virgil recite. Reading it again, after a lapse of fifty years, I seemed to be back in my classroom at Charterhouse, teasing gentle old Tommy Page, the Sixth Form Beak: "Who all kept silent, sir? And why write the same thing in two different ways? ... Yes, sir, I know—the notes say that 'all' means Dido's courtiers; but why doesn't Virgil?"

Tommy replies: "You suggest, my boy, that he might have written straight out:

    Intenti comites Didonis conticuerunt ...
    (Dido's courtiers preserved an attentive silence.)

"Well, Virgil, as it happens, thought that Lucretius and Homer, who did not mind ending a hexameter line with a single, five-syllabled verb, were inelegant; so conticuerunt had to begin the line and take the poetic form of conticuere. That suggests omnes as a means of removing the final 'e' by elision—conticuer' omnes. Virgil's readers could be allowed to guess at the meaning of omnes, in return for the elegant trope, borrowed perhaps from the Orient, and often miscalled hendiadys, of saying the same thing, differently, twice over. He uses it several times, you'll have noticed, when telling us about the Wooden Horse. The Greeks 'enclose chosen bodies of men in the sides of the horse' and fill the mighty central cavern with armed soldiers. When they have sailed away, the Trojans 'find the Greek camp deserted' and the shore abandoned. Thymoetes then orders the Trojans to push into the sea 'the wiles of the Greeks' and the gifts they suspected (but that's true hendiadys, not repetition); whereupon Laocoon hurls his spear 'into the side' and the carved flank of the animal; as a result of which the stomach being struck, its 'hollow interior makes a sound' and the caverns groaned."

"Thank you, sir! Another thing we can't make out is what wood the Trojan Horse was really built of."

"Fir, my boy. Line 16."

"Yes, sir, it's fir in line 16, but it's maple in line 112, and oak in line 186, and pine in line 258, and oak again in line 280..."

"Yes, now I remember. But in Virgil's time a poet was licenced to use any particular sort of timber as a synonym for timber generally, even if it involved him, as here, in apparent contradictions."

"Thank you again, sir!"
"Gentle old Tommy Page" is T.E. Page (1850-1936).

Thanks to Graham Asher, who points out that "line 280" is a mistake for "line 260".

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