The Poem

“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,...

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Forms and Devices

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...

(The entire section is 423 words.)