…I promise I won’t bore you with any more palavering about ancient epic poetry for a while after this little essay… But this struck me as interesting: Both Aeneas and St. Paul left for Europe for the first time from the western coast of Turkey, and both of them wound up in Rome.
I am not about to consider the question of whether or not Aeneas was a real person. What I think is interesting is this:
The memorial of Aeneas’ sea-voyage to the west, across the Mediterranean to Italy, is one of the most beautiful artistic works of all time. It is a perfectly organized whole. It is an absolute literary masterpiece. It paints the picture of the ideal Roman warrior. Vergil set out to capture the spirit of ancient Rome in flawless dactylic hexameter, and he succeeded.
On the other hand, the memorial of St. Paul’s sea-voyages, which eventually brought him to the west and to Italy, is a scattershot literary patchwork. The Acts of the Apostles tells us a fair amount about what happened. But the Acts of the Apostles is NOT a literary masterpiece. And the book does not focus exclusively on St. Paul, nor does it include the climax of the Apostle’s earthly life, his martyrdom outside Rome.
We also have St. Paul’s letters to fill out the picture of his grand life. But these letters obviously were not written to be memorials of the Apostle’s heroism. They are at times poetic, but in no way are they literary masterpieces. They were never meant to be. They were written to deal with particular pastoral problems. St. Paul did not think of his “legacy” while writing them; he thought only of the salvation of the souls to whom he was writing.
So Aeneas (fictional or real) has the literary equivalent of a Michelangelo or Da Vinci portrait to keep his memory alive. St. Paul has the literary equivalent of an office-building blueprint that has been torn into a thousand pieces, and about 500 of them have been found and taped back together; the other 500 are lost forever.
The Aeneid by Virgil is one of the greatest things of all time. It is the epic poem which tells the story of how Aeneas and the Trojans fled from their burning city after the attack of the Greeks. They crossed the Mediterranean to reach the place where they were destined by the gods to live: Rome. Aeneas is confronted with temptations to give up the long journey, including the lovely Dido, but he never gives in. He is driven on by his sense of destiny. Nothing is more important than his duty to reach Rome.
Earlier this week I was thinking about the Acadians. I first learned the history of the Acadian exile from a Creole seminary classmate. The Acadians were French colonists who lived in Nova Scotia. During the French and Indian War (1755-58), they were exiled by the British and their towns were burned. They were forced to return to France or to move south in North America. Many of them eventually came to Louisiana.
I am ashamed to admit that I had never read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline, so I got up early this morning to read it.
Evangeline is the most beautiful Acadian maiden in the village of Grand-Pre. Longfellow depicts Acadia as a kind of Eden; Evangeline’s greatest pleasure is to pour bowls of fresh ale for the men. She is engaged to marry the blacksmith’s son Gabriel, the love of her life. But then the British arrive and burn the town and put Evangeline and Gabriel on different ships to send them to an unknown fate.
Longfellow refers at least once directly to the Aeneid, and his style is like Virgil’s throughout the poem. But Longfellow’s Aeneas is not a swashbuckler driven by destiny but a kind, pure, long-suffering woman driven by love. She searches the rivers, plains, mountains, towns, and cities of the beautiful America of two centuries ago for her lost love. I am not going to give away the sublime ending.
Evangeline is even more a hero than the great Roman Aeneas–more admirable, more hearbreaking. The American Aeneid is a long, sad poem. But, man, oh man, is it worth reading. It will make you fall in love with our country again. It makes you feel like our country really is something–something wonderful and storied. Don’t get me wrong: the U.S.A. has many claims to fame. But to have our own Aeneid is…well, beautiful. Many things come and go, but having your own Aeneid does not easily slip away.