Palinurus Takes One for the Team

Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave:

Harpies, Scylla, Charybdis, the Cyclops, Etna in eruption! Each one of the trials which the exiled pilot must have undergone could occasion an anxiety-neurosis or effort-syndrome in a man less well-balanced. One wonders how he reacted to Aeneas’ public account of them. Dido, we know, fell disastrously ‘in love” with Aeneas, and it is when he departs (Aeneas abandoning her after their cave-wedding), that Palinurus speaks again. The fleet has stolen out in the early morning and Dido has set alight her funeral pyre whose glow the sailors see, but Aeneas alone interprets rightly. At once a storm gets up.

But soon the Heav’ns with shadows were overspread;

A swelling Cloud hung hov’ring o’er their Head:

Livid it look’d (the threat’ning of a Storm),

Then Night and Horror Ocean’s Face deform.

The Pilot Palinunis ciy’d aloud,

‘What Gusts of Weather from that gath’ring Cloud

My Thoughts presage ; e’er yet the Tempest roars.

Stand to your Tackle, Mates, and stretch your Oars ;

Contract your swelling Sails, and luff to Wind’

The frighted Crew perform the Task assign’d.

Then, to his fearless Chief, ‘ Not Heav’n,’ said he,

‘ Tho’ Jove himself shou’d promise Italy

Can stem the Torrent of this raging Sea.

Mark how the shifting Winds from West arise,

And what collected Night involves the Skies

Nor can our shaken Vessels live at Sea,

Much less against the Tempest force their way;

’Tis fate diverts our Course ; and Fate we must obey.

Not far from hence, if I observ’d aright

The southing of the Stars and Polar Light,

Sicilia lies ; whose hospitable Shores

In safety we may reach with strugling oars.

The Course resolv’d, before the Western Wind

They scud amain; and make the Port assign’d

It seems clear that Palinurus who had led the fleet between Scylla and Charybdis, recognized that his storm could not be ridden out because he knew it followed on Aeneas’ betrayal of Dido. He also read the true meaning of the fire which they had seen and from that moment realized that was guilty of hubris and impiety; he was ‘not the Messiah’.

In Sicily Aeneas celebrates his arrival with elaborate games. In these — although they include various sailing contests — Palinurus himself does not join and lets the other pilots fight them out. One can imagine him brooding over the storm and his leader’s conduct while the noisy sport proceeds around him. Finally, to prevent the men leaving, the women set fire to the ships and four are destroyed. Here occurs an incident for which no scientific explanation is forthcoming, and which, if the narrator were Palinurus and not Viigil, we would be tempted to ascribe to a delusion of reference. Venus begs Neptune to guarantee that her beloved Aeneas and all his men will not be subjected to any more disasters and storms at sea by their enemy, Juno. Neptune agrees, but warns her that ‘In safety as thou prayest shall he reach the haven of Avernus. Only one shall there be whom, lost in the flood, thou shalt seek in vain; one life shall be given for many.’

Leave a Reply