Poetry likes to deceive its readers into thinking they are seeing what the poet’s words are describing. But there aren’t many poets who are better than Virgil at making you confuse what they’re saying with what they’re talking about.
In the sixth book of the Aeneid Virgil describes how the hero Aeneas, guided by two doves sent by his mother Venus, searches in a deep forest for the mysterious golden bough: this, the Sibyl of Cumae has told him, will allow him access to the Underworld, and a meeting with his dead father.
Here is Robert Fitzgerald’s translation:
Then he stood still to see
What signs the doves might give, or where their flight
Might lead him. And they fed, and then flew on,
Each time as far as one who came behind
Could keep in view. Then when they reached the gorge
Of sulphurous Avernus, first borne upward
Through the lucent air, they glided down
To their desired rest, the two-hued tree
Where glitter of gold filtered between green boughs.
Eventually the doves settle in a tree, and Aeneas can dimly perceive the gleam of the golden branch. The line translated by Fitzgerald as “Where glitter of gold filtered between green boughs” is in Latin
discolor unde auri per ramos aura refulsit
There’s been lots of discussion of this line, because Virgil uses a very strange expression for the gleam of the bough: auri … aura literally means “the breath (or “breeze”) of gold”. Perhaps the strangeness is the point: how better to convey an outlandish metallic tree branch than with a verbal expression that’s hard to grasp?
But there’s something else going on here. In the four words auri per ramos aura, “the glint of gold through the branches,” he has two words of very similar look and sound, auri and aura (“of gold” and “glint”), separated by the branches, per ramos. And what that gives the reader, besides everything else, is the momentary impression that the text they’re reading is the dense forest, through which the golden gleam of the bough shines, and then is hidden by trees, and then shines again.
I believe this is an example of ‘concrete poetry’, where the arrangement of the words emphasises or reflects the meaning. Much easier to use in Latin than English, with its stricter insistence on word order!
As an A-Level Latin student, there is an excellent example of this in Aeneid 4.7:
umentemque Aurora polo dimoverat umbram
‘and Aurora parts the dewy shadows from the sky’
The adjective-noun pair (umentem… umbram) are at opposite ends of the line, with the subject and the verb acting as buffers literally separating the dewy shadows from the sky.
The real question is whether this was Virgil’s conscious intention… I have to wonder if he might be mystified by our discussion!
Definitely deliberate. Virgil’s artistry certainly extended to the architecture of individual lines. Try scanning 3.658, on the Cyclops. Ugly, shapeless, just like Polyphemus. Thanks for the comment!
Interesting stuff… I do sometimes think that great writers are so in tune with language that they don’t necessarily consciously think through every decision they make – so for example, I would suggest that onomatopoeia is not always deliberate, but simply comes naturally due to the author’s skill. But I guess Virgil probably was more ‘intentional’ with his poetry, considering his working method of compressing his original ideas into only a few lines – and therefore he certainly would have been aware of very subtle details. Thanks for the blog!