Secondary Epic

Secondary Epic
by W.H. Auden

No, Virgil, no:
Not even the first of the Romans can learn
His Roman history in the future tense.
Not even to serve your political turn;
Hindsight as foresight makes no sense.

How was your shield-making god to explain
Why his masterpiece, his grand panorama
Of scenes from the coming historical drama
Of an unborn nation, war after war,
All the birthdays needed to pre-ordain
The Octavius the world was waiting for,
Should so abruptly, mysteriously stop,
What cause could he show why he didn't foresee
The future beyond 31 B.C.,
Why a curtain of darkness should finally drop
On Carians, Morini, Gelonians with quivers,
Converging Romeward in abject file,
Euphrates, Araxes and similar rivers
Learning to flow in a latinate style,
And Caesar be left where prophecy ends,
Inspecting troops and gifts for ever?
Wouldn't Aeneas have asked:--'What next?
After this triumph, what portends?'
As rhetoric your device was too clever;
It lets us imagine a continuation
To your Eighth Book, an interpolation,
Scrawled at the side of a tattered text
In a decadent script, the composition
Of a down-at-heels refugee rhetorician
With an empty belly, seeking employment,
Cooked up in haste for the drunken enjoyment,
Of some blond princeling whom loot had inclined
To believe that Providence had assigned
To blonds the task of improving mankind.

...Now Mainz appears and starry New Year's Eve
As two-horned Rhine throws off the Latin yoke
To bear the Vandal on his frozen back;
Lo! Danube, now congenial to the Goth,
News not unwelcome to Teutonic shades
And all lamenting beyond Acheron
Demolished Carthage or a plundered Greece:
And now Juturna leaves the river-bed
Of her embittered grievance--loud her song,
Immoderate her joy--for word has come
Of treachery at the Salarian Gate.
Alaric has avenged Turnus...


No, Virgil, no:
Behind your verse so masterfully made
We hear the weeping of a Muse betrayed.
Your Anchises isn't convincing at all:
It's asking too much of us to be told
A shade so long-sighted, a father who knows
That Romulus will build a wall,
Augustus found an Age of Gold,
And is trying to teach a dutiful son
The love of what will be in the long run,
Would mention them both but not disclose
(Surely no prophet could afford to miss,
No man of destiny fail to enjoy
So clear a proof of Providence as this.)
The names predestined for the Catholic boy
Whom Arian Odovacer will depose.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Thank you for posting this poem online!

I wanted to read it in its complete form for my own perusal and for use in my lesson plans on the Aeneid.
Rick said…
Glad it was helpful. It is really worth it to purchase W.H. Auden's Complete Poems. Check it out.
Anonymous said…
Who is the catholic boy and the blond princeling?
Rick said…
The blond princeling stands for any generic Germanic conqueror who may be employing a hack bard to add lines to Virgil. The catholic boy is the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustulus. Hence, the irony that Vulcan could predict Romulus and Augustus, but somehow miss the name of Rome's last emperor...
Anonymous said…
Ahh yes I the catholic boy in Romulus Augustus. I am in college and my professor says that the blonde princeling is referring to a particular early roman emperor. Any ideas?
Anonymous said…
I believe the blond princeling is actually Caesar Augustus.
Rick said…
Actually, the blond princeling cannot be Caesar Augustus. Virgil originally wrote the Aeneid for Caesar Augustus, but Auden contends that the plot device of prophecy was clumsy and left room open for a future hack-writer to add to Virgil’s 8th book by including later events. “It lets us imagine a continuation To your Eighth Book…the composition Of a down-at-heels refugee rhetorician…Cooked up in haste for the drunken enjoyment Of some blond princeling…” So the blond princeling is clearly a future ruler for whom a random poet is adding words to Virgil’s Aeneid. The idea that this ruler is some Germanic barbarian is seen by the words that the hack-poet adds to the Aeneid:

“Now Mainz [a city in Germany] appears…as two-horned Rhine [the German river] throws off the Latin yoke, to bear the Vandal [a Germanic tribesman] on his frozen back…” and so on. The interpolation ends with a prophecy of “treachery at the Salarian Gate. Alaric has avenged Turnus…” Turnus was killed by Aeneas at the end of the Aeneid to pave the way for the future founding of Rome. Alaric was the king of the Visigoths who would sack Rome in A.D. 410, entering by the Salarian Gate.

Thus, if Augustus is the blond princeling, it’s hard to see how a) a refugee rhetorician might know the events of the future in order to interpolate them into the Aeneid and b) how Augustus might respond to this interpolation which only prophecies the end of all the glory which the Aeneid ascribes to Rome.
Sarah said…
I agree with Rick's last and would add that the blonde princeling's belief that blondes are destined to "improve mankind," along with the description of Odovacer as
"Aryan," is meant to foreshadow the Nazis.
Anonymous said…
Arian in this case refers to a variety of non-trinitarian Christianity which denied the divinity of the Son. It was popular among several Germanic tribes, including the Goths. Odovacer was a Gothic king.