Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1191
The imperial fleet returns from Greece to Brundisium, bearing with it Emperor Augustus and his poet, Virgil, who is dying. Augustus sought Virgil and brought him back from the peace and calm in Athens to the shouting Roman throngs—to the mob with its frightening latent capacity for brutality, its fickle adoration of its leaders. These are, however, the Romans whom Virgil glorified; the nobles he saw on ship greedily eating and gaming are their leaders. Dapper, sham-majestic Augustus is their emperor.
Fever-ridden, the poet hears a boy’s song as the ship enters the harbor. Later, as he is carried from the ship, a beautiful boy appears from nowhere to lead his litter away from the tumult surrounding the emperor, through narrow streets crowded with garbage ripening into decay and full of the miseries of the flesh where women jeer at him for being rich and weak. The women’s insults make him aware of his own sham-divinity and of the futility of his life. Dying, he at last sees clearly the hypocrisy of his life, like the shining, hollow emperor whom he serves.
At the palace, he is taken to his chambers. The boy, Lysanias, remains with him as night falls. In the depths of a violent seizure, Virgil recognizes his own lack of love. Conscious of his dying body and the infested night, he knows that, like the Augustus-worshiping masses, he followed the wrong gods; that in his devotion to poetry he from the beginning gave up the service of life for that of death; that it is too late for him to be fulfilled, for even his Aeneid remains unperfected. Some recurrence of vigor drives him to the window. Looking into the night, he knows that not only his poem remains to be fulfilled; some knowledge still lies ahead for him to achieve. The necessity of the soul is to discover itself, since through self-discovery it finds the universe: The landscape of the soul is that of all creation. Human beings must learn, not through the stars but through other human beings.
Two men and a woman interrupt his thoughts when they come through the streets quarreling and shouting good-natured obscenities, guffawing their bawdiness with that male laughter whose matter-of-factness annihilates rather than derides. This laughter in the beautiful night reveals something of the nature of beauty itself. Beauty is the opponent of knowledge; because it is remote, infinite, and therefore seemingly eternal, it is pursued wrongly for its own sake. The same nonhuman laughter is hidden in it. The artist who pursues beauty plunges into loneliness and self-idolatry; because he chooses beauty rather than life, his work becomes adornment rather than revelation. This path Virgil chose: Beauty’s cold egotism instead of love’s warm life, which is true creativity. Thus he died long before, even before his renunciation of the lovely Plotia, whom he now remembers.
The need for contrition because of his refusal of love—a refusal of the pledge given to all—overwhelms him. The fever rises within him, bringing strangely prophetic visions of Rome in ruins with wolves howling, of giant birds droning. As reality returns, he knows that for his own salvation he has to burn the Aeneid.
Lysanias reads to him as he drifts into a calm dream, shining with a knowledge of all past earthly happenings and a vision of something to come. Not yet, but soon, will come one in whom creation, love, and immortality will be united, one who will bear salvation like a single star, whose voice he seems to hear bidding him open his eyes to love, for he is called to enter the creation. As the fever leaves him and dawn breaks, he momentarily doubts the voice. Then comes the vision of an angel and, at last, undisturbed sleep.
Virgil awakens to find two old friends who come to cheer him. Their bluff reassurances change to incredulity when they hear that he plans to burn the Aeneid. Their arguments against his own conviction that his book lacks reality because he lacks love are blurred by his fevered perception. Lysanias, whose existence seems questionable to his friends, appears with a Near Eastern slave to reaffirm that Virgil is the guide, although not the savior. Plotia comes and calls him to an exchange of mutual love and the destruction of his work, the renunciation of beauty for love. Suddenly he and Plotia are exposed, and power thunders around him.
Augustus comes to ask Virgil not to burn the Aeneid. In the ensuing interview, Virgil’s rising delirium makes him not only supernaturally aware of truth but also confused as to reality: The invisible Plotia guards the manuscript; the invisible Lysanias lurks nearby; the room sometimes becomes a landscape. Augustus insists that the poem is the property of the Romans, for whom it was written. Virgil tries to explain that poetry is the knowledge of death, for only through death can one understand life; unlike Aeschylus, whose knowledge forced him to poetry, he, Virgil, sought knowledge through writing poetry and therefore found nothing.
Augustus and the slave seem to be talking, and Augustus is the symbol of the state he created, which is order and sobriety and humanity’s supreme eternal reality. The slave, awaiting the birth of the supreme ancestor’s son, is steadfastness and the freedom of community. The truth of the state must be united to the metaphysical by an individual act of truth, must be made human to realize perfection. Such a savior will come, whose sacrificial death will be the supreme symbol of humility and charity. Virgil still insists that he must sacrifice his work because he did not sacrifice his life, that destroying a thing that lacks perception will redeem both himself and the Romans.
Augustus, growing angry, accuses Virgil of envy. In a moment of love, Virgil gives him the poem, agreeing not to destroy it. He asks, however, that his slaves might go free after his death. As he talks of his will to his friends, renewed attacks of fever bring him ever stranger hallucinations. He calls for help and finds he can at last say the word for his own salvation.
After he finishes dictating his will, it seems to him that he is once more on a boat, one smaller than the one that brought him into the harbor the day before, rowed by his friend Plotius and guided by Lysanias. About him are many people he knows. Gradually, all disappear as he floats into the night; the boy becomes first a seraph whose ring glows like a star, then Plotia, who leads him into the day again. Reaching shore, they enter a garden where, somehow, he knows that she becomes the boy and the slave and that he becomes all of them; then he is also the animals and plants, then the mountains, and finally the universe, contained in a small white core of unity—and nothing. He is commanded to turn around, and the nothing becomes everything again, created by the word in the circle of time. Finally, he is received into the word itself.
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