Know Vergil: No Vergil

W.H. Auden, Secondary Epic

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.

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