Ibant obscuri

A fond memory of tutoring, back when Chris Tudor, a.k.a. Massolit, was still an undergraduate, so one or two years ago. We were discussing a passage from Aeneid VI, the terrifying initial entry into the Underworld by Aeneas and the Sibyl of Cumae (6.268-81; David West’s translation, lightly versified):

ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram,
perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna:
quale per incertam lunam sub luce maligna
est iter in silvis, ubi caelum condidit umbra
Iuppiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem.
vestibulum ante ipsum primis in faucibus Orci
Luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae;
pallentes habitant Morbi tristisque Senectus,
et Metus et malesuada Fames ac turpis Egestas,
terribiles visu formae, Letumque Labosque.
tum consanguineus Leti Sopor, et mala mentis
Gaudia, mortiferumque adverso in limine Bellum,
ferreique Eumenidum thalami et Discordia demens
vipereum crinem vittis innexa cruentis.

They walked in the darkness of that lonely night with shadows all about them,
through the empty halls of Dis and his desolate kingdom,
as men walk in a wood by the sinister light of a fitful moon
when Jupiter has buried the sky in shade
and black night has robbed all things of their colour.
Before the entrance hall of Orcus, in the very throat of hell,
Grief and Revenge have made their beds
and Old Age lives there in despair, with white-faced Diseases
and Fear and Hunger, corrupter of men, and squalid Poverty,
things dreadful to look upon, and Death and Drudgery besides.
Then there are Sleep, Death’s sister, perverted
Pleasures, murderous War astride the threshold,
the iron chambers of the Furies and raving Discord
with blood-soaked ribbons binding her viperous hair.

Here you can listen to Matthew Hargreaves reading this passage in the original Latin.

Chris, characteristically forthright even in his youth, offered a searching critique of Virgil’s simile at 270-2. It wasn’t much of a simile, he remarked, if it explicated a walk in darkness by analogy with a walk in darkness. A very good point. Similes are by definition comparisons of different things. A simile is in some respect like the thing it illustrates, of course, the clue’s in the name, but must also, for it to be something different from a literal comparison and do some metaphorical work, be essentially different, too. In “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, it is obviously essential to the impact of the figure of speech both that Wordsworth is not literally a cloud and also that he has in certain (unanticipated) respects behaved like one.

In Virgil’s example, by contrast, the simile seems to be all similarity and no difference, not so much “I wandered lonely as a cloud” as “I wandered lonely as someone wandering lonely.”

My answer to Chris back when–and some might consider this a desperate defence of Virgil–was that maybe this striking lack of figurative colour was actually the point. One of Virgil’s achievements in this book of the Aeneid is to conjure up for the Underworld the eerie character of a place both animate and dead, a space full of shades of former humans who can interact with Aeneas, but whose existence is nevertheless of a fundamentally lesser kind. Aeneas, a live human moving through the Underworld, stands out from its inhabitants by possessing physical characteristics of the living such as weight (as when Charon’s ferryboat, designed for insubstantial shades, ships water when he steps into it, 412-14), colour and even a voice (489-3, Aeneas’ vivid encounter with his insubstantial former enemies at Troy, including the gorgeous image of Aeneas’ fulgentiaque arma per umbras, “weaponry blazing through/amid the shadows”). The difference between the dead and the living for Virgil is light, definition and colour.

The passage we’re looking at here offers the first glimpse of this gloomy, achromatic world. But Virgil calculates, I think, that introducing metaphor to this scene, in other words a simile doing the work a simile should do, will contradict the picture he’s painting of a place lacking something essential to the world of the living; or to put that positively, seeking to convey the dreariness of the Underworld, he lets that lifelessness penetrate deep into his poetry. Virgil introduces a simile, a figure of literary embellishment (metaphor is readily described in ancient literary criticism as a matter of brightening a piece of writing, bringing light to it, e.g. Quintilian 12.10.36), but a simile that itself loses its life and colour as the poem accompanies Aeneas on his journey down to Hell.

I don’t think Chris bought that all those years ago, and there’s no reason why anyone else should.

I gave you Matthew Hargreaves’ beautiful reading of these crepuscular verses earlier. He’ll be reading them again, alongside many more, equally lovely, at King’s College, London on March 28, alongside Dame Emma Kirkby, Lizzie Donnelly, George Sharpley, and the author—and tickets are available here.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

4 responses to “Ibant obscuri”

  1. Ross McPherson says :

    Yes, the shadow of a simile, ghosting through the Underworld – a nice explanation! It reminds me of Aristophanes and Wasps (819-23), where the infamous non-man Cleonymus is the image of some household object, which is the image of a statue outside some court, which is the image of the hero, Lycus – an even more severe declension of being than Virgil’s feeble simile. Which makes me think that Plato’s notion of forms may have been borrowed from comedy.

  2. John Schafer says :

    Here’s what I have on the simile: take ‘quale… est iter’ subjectively of Aeneas and the Sibyl, of their *apprehensive* steps. Then rack up all the correspondences on either side, which are mostly of rather aggressive sameness, as you point out:
    ibant obscuri sola sub1 nocte2 per3 umbram4,
    perque domos5 Ditis6 vacuas et inania regna5:
    quale per3′ incertam lunam2′(?) sub1′ luce maligna4′(?)
    est iter in silvis5′, ubi caelum condidit umbra4′
    Iuppiter6′, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem.
    What’s most clearly different is: ‘per…domos…vacuas et inania regna’ =/= ‘in silvis’
    Walking at night in a selva oscura, you watch your step, lest you trip over roots, bump into trees. But the human world is full of *stuff*, obstacles, as against the supernal Jovian emptiness that (sometimes) enlightens it, and as against the ‘total emptiness forever’ of the Plutonian realm. Aeneas and Sibyl’s caution comes from their reasonable ignorance of the unenlightened terrain they walk through. What they don’t know is, what’s *really there* is: nothing.

    And that leads immediately to the unreal apparitions in the vestibule.

  3. adastrapermundum says :

    I think you make a very convincing case!

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