(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

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