It is interesting to read a poem from the first century BC whose purpose was to “make Rome great again.”
At that time Augustus, having recently won a decisive battle that ended the civil war, was determined to create a great work of propaganda, a national epic that would commemorate his victory and glorify Rome. But what happens when you pick a real poet for the job rather than a propagandist, historian or documentarian? From among a field of great poets, Virgil was the man chosen for the job, and he created a nightmarish world of monsters, signs and prophecies, histrionic suicides, surreal tableaux, and gruesome battles, all amid an almost unremitting climate of dread, grief and loss. How does one square the professed purpose of the poem with the actual strange result? How was Virgil able to thread the needle to produce a work that was both real poetry and a real fulfillment of his mission?
Virgil had to make a series of very deliberate and surprising creative decisions in the making of The Aeneid. We will discuss Virgil’s amazing artistry and resourcefulness; his eagerness to “out-Homer Homer”; and the extent to which his epic might be considered, like Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” a glorious failure while being one of the greatest poems of all time. We will also talk a little about Virgil’s earlier work, especially the beautiful and puzzling Eclogues which, like The Aeneid, evoke strange other worlds, both of the past and of the future.
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