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Blogging the Aeneid: Book 1, lines 157-179

Once again, this is cross-posted from http://apvergil.blogspot.com. Comments in either place are always welcome and appreciated.

Before getting into a more general discussion of this passage, I just wanted to note a couple of interesting features of the language in this passage. First of all, line 164 has a particularly apt caesura, as it falls after silent - one can imagine someone reading it out loud to linger on that pause slightly longer than normal to emphasize the silence of the sea. Secondly, we discussed in class how the alliteration of the letter s in line 161 (sinus scindit sese) might mimic the gently lapping waves in the bay (or, if you prefer to say them a bit more emphatically, one could argue they are more like the breaking of the waves against the protective island before they flow more gently into the inlet); likewise, the combined alliteration of c and s in lines 174 and 175 (silici scintillam excudit Achates/susceptique ignem foliis atque arida circum) surely is meant to recall the sound of Achates striking his flint against iron to start the fire.

I find the description of the place where Aeneas and his men land quite interesting. In lines 159-161, Vergil begins to describe a peaceful, safe harbor; this fits in perfectly with the mood of the last few lines, in which Neptune's majestic presence alone disperses the storm and calms the waves. After such an act, the reader can expect the Trojans to get a brief respite from their sufferings, and at first this protected inlet seems like it will be a perfect place for them to catch their breath. In lines 162-166, however, that all changes. Now huge cliffs hang over them on all sides, complete with quivering woods, dark groves, and bristling shadows. The verbs Vergil uses, minantur and imminet, mean 'tower' or 'overhang,' but both can also mean 'threaten,' and certainly these images must be threatening to the weary Trojans. The cave is filled with hanging rocks, another potentially threatening image, and even the line aequora tuta silent reads more ominously within the context of the surrounding words.

Right after we read about the hanging rocks, though, the tone shifts again, and suddenly this is a cave with sweet waters and seats naturally formed from the rock - a home of nymphs. It is a wild site, perhaps, but it is comforting nonetheless. The following lines reinforce the theme - chains and anchors are unknown and unnecessary here - it is a place of nature, but above all it is a place of safety.

Why, then, does Vergil interject five lines of threatening imagery in the middle of this scene? I'm not sure that I have a wholly satisfactory answer, but I'll toss out a couple of ideas. First of all, Vergil may be placing the reader in the minds of the Trojans, describing the scene as they see it. At first, they feel relief that the seas have calmed, but as the landscape around them appears, in their weary states everything seems more dangerous and mysterious. Possibly, as they enter the cave, their eyes are first drawn to the hanging rocks before they begin to pick up the more comforting aspects within. The overall impression, if we read the lines this way, is that the Trojans are feeling an almost indistinguishable jumble of hope and fear at this point.

Another way we might read the lines makes the scene representative of Libya as a whole and Carthage in particular. Just as the inlet and cave are places of quiet and safety, so the Trojans' time in Carthage will be a time of rest, recovery, and overall safety. Yet at the same time danger looms - they are in the territory of another people, one who will later be Rome's greatest enemy, and essentially at their mercy. Both Aeneas and Venus will be very cautious in the Trojans' first encounter with Dido and the Carthaginians - Venus cloaks Aeneas in mist until it is clear that he is safe. In book 4, we will have the disastrous end to Dido and Aeneas' love affair, and perhaps these foreboding woods are the first subtle hints of that scene. Interestingly enough, when Dido's shade turns away from Aeneas in the Underworld, she retreats in nemus umbriferum ('into the shade-bearing grove,' 6.473), very similar to the nemus horrenti umbra of line 165. Perhaps this is just coincidence, and groves are frequently described in this manner, but one might also draw an intriguing connection between the two scenes.

In any case, I'd love to hear what others think about these lines - does one of these explanations seem stronger? Might both be in play somehow? Might there be another explanation?

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