Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 644
“Aeneas at Washington” is a thirty-nine-line poem in blank verse. It utilizes an occasional Alexandrine or six-beat line, very likely in oblique tribute to the hexameter line of the Latin poetic source, Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.) for Allen Tate’s hero/speaker, Aeneas.
The poem opens with Aeneas in medias res, recounting an episode from Vergil’s epic. In this particular episode, Vergil borrows from a narrative technique used in one of his Homeric sources, the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.). In that far more ancient epic, Homer, rather than directly relating to the audience Odysseus’s adventures on his return voyage, has Odysseus himself tell his hosts, the Phaiakians, the story of his travels. In the same way, Vergil, who is writing for a Roman audience to celebrate Imperial Roman values, has his hero, Aeneas, tell Queen Dido of Carthage the story of the night Troy finally fell to the Greek forces which had been besieging the city for nine years. So, too, Tate begins with Aeneas virtually in midsentence as he is describing the horribly bloody moment in which Neoptolemus, the son of the dead hero Achilles, mercilessly slaughters the Trojan king, Priam, and his queen, Hecuba, along with their children, as they huddle near the altar to Athena.
As the title informs the reader, however, while this Aeneas may be the man of whose exploits Vergil sang, those ancient times and places are far behind him now; he is instead in Washington, D.C., the capital of a modern, industrial state whose institutions are in many ways modeled on those of imperial Rome. If Tate brings Aeneas into the modern world, he nevertheless does not update him. That is to say, this Aeneas is the same hero found in the Aeneid, embodying and espousing the same value structure: “I bore me well,” he says, “[a] true gentlemen, valorous in arms/ Disinterested and honourable.” Details are missing, but this speaker is indeed the mythic hero whose devotion to family and duty is his foremost attribute, along with his acquiescence to the demands of destiny and the will of the gods.
If there is something vital missing from Tate’s hero, it is an upbeat attitude. For one thing, the poem is entirely in the past tense. Aeneas is looking back, true, but even the contemporary world is cast in terms that are past, as if some irrevocable closure has gripped the Republic. While the Aeneas who first encounters Dido in Vergil’s epic is bone-weary from his travails, in Tate’s hands Aeneas has become a world-weary, perhaps even cynical or skeptical figure. He is not the forward-looking hero who will bring his refugee followers to a new home in Italy; now he says that their “hunger” ultimately was fit for “breeding calculation/ And fixed triumphs” out of the “vigor of prophecy,” as if the results were not worth the centuries-long promise and the effort.
In lines that seem to echo popular patriotic songs such as “America the Beautiful,” one hears how Aeneas views those results in this later New World, America, itself the supposed flower of the same ancient Greco-Roman culture that bred Vergil and his epic hero. The “glowing fields of Troy” become “hemp ripening/ And tawny gold, the thickening Blue Grass,” reminders of Tate’s native Kentucky, positive enough images surely; nevertheless, “the towers that men/ Contrive,” rather than the towers of Ilium, are, one must imagine, the skyscrapers of commerce and smokestacks of industry, cluttering the skies.
Aeneas closes by relating how he stood once “far from home at nightfall/ By the Potomac” and, seeing the Capitol’s “great Dome” lit up at night and reflected in those waters, could no longer recognize “The city my blood had built”; instead, he thought of that older city, Troy, and “what we had built her for.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423
In “Aeneas at Washington,” Tate weaves a web of literary and historical allusion so tightly that the poem cannot profitably be explored without bringing to it a measure of the literary and cultural erudition the poet does. It is as if Aeneas traverses the intervening centuries in the course of the poem, beginning in ancient Carthage but simultaneously setting sail from Troy for America as well as for Italy. The British spelling of “honourable” and the Elizabethan “victualing,” for example, give the reader a sense that he or she might be in an intervening heroic era—Shakespearean England—which coincides with the time during which the New World was first being explored and settled.
A devoted student and practitioner of modern poetry, Tate knew that in adept hands, as T. S. Eliot had vividly demonstrated in poems such as The Waste Land (1922), the literary device of allusion could give a semblance of order and meaning to contemporary events and crises which otherwise might seem chaotic, random, and pointless. For example, in the poem, Tate applies a single extended historical and literary allusion to comment on a complex sociocultural and political process, very much as if the allusive element were a musical counterpoint to the unfolding surface theme.
To appreciate the allusion, readers must realize that Vergil’s Aeneas is not a Greek or Trojan but a Roman hero. One also needs to know that Vergil wrote not to celebrate Homeric Greece but imperial Rome, specifically in the person of the emperor Caesar Augustus. Furthermore, one needs to know that America’s founding fathers modeled many of the republic’s concepts and institutions, including the very notion of representative democracy, on Roman precedents, particularly the Roman Senate. Finally, one must keep in mind that the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., is modeled after an ancient Roman temple to Jupiter situated on the Capitoline hill and that it was Jupiter who saw to it, in Vergil’s epic, that Aeneas abandon his private life and get down to the business of fulfilling a destiny that would be a public, not a private, boon and accomplishment.
Through this tangled series of connections the poet is commenting with a compounded in irony on an America founded on the principle of individual liberty yet now serving the cause of collectivity and realpolitik. In this way, Tate is able to utilize as innocuous a device as the historical/literary allusion to comment on the crisis of individuality and self-fulfillment in the banal anonymity of the modern industrial state.
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