Bill Long 3/30/09
There are few things more horrifying in Dido and Aeneas' "breakup" in Book IV of the Aeneid than the oppressive dreams that Dido has when she realizes her quest to regain Aeneas' attention/affection is unsuccessful. The Scriptures may say that God gives rest to His beloved, but this Roman "Scripture" knows better. Dido has no rest, no peace, no calm after Aeneas has resolutely determined to head to Italy. But Virgil doesn't just stop after the mere recitation of this fact or even a description of her grief; he uses imagery both from nature and from Greek mythology, as well as from Dido's dreams, to show the abject desperation and immense pressure she now faces. Virgil skillfully shows how she begins to "lose connection" with reality when she hears her dead husband's voice calling her from the temple she has set up to cultivate his memory. But then there is a solitary owl, screeching out its song, and then a series of dreams in which she feels abandoned and alone. Finally, Virgil closes the passage with a simile expressing the likeness between her experience and that of Pentheus or Orestes as they are hounded to suicide or despair by the gods. Let's discuss each feature in lines 462-473 briefly, focusing especially on her dream(s).
The Owl (462-463)
The lines are not easily translated. "And alone upon the house top with funereal note the owl often seemed to complain and prolong its lingering cry into a wail." Fagles (2006) has:
"and over and over a lonely owl perched on the rooftops drew out is low, throaty call to a long wailing dirge."
Owls inspire the literary imagination not simply to think about wisdom, but also about loneliness and forlornness. Listen to the Scriptures:
"I am like an owl of the wilderness, like a little owl of the waste places. I like awake; I am like a lonely bird on the housetop," Ps. 102:6-7.
So in this Virgilian text the presence of the owl in her vision, in her hypnopompic state, emphasizes her desolate and desperate condition.
The Prophetic Words (464-465)
Curious to me are the next words:
"And worse yet, the grim predictions of ancient seers keep terrifying her now with frightful warnings."
Had she been warned against this man? Or, had there been vaticinations that were well-known? Greek mythology is replete with monitions that are ignored only to the subject's destruction. The feeling of terror is beginning to rise in Dido.
The Dreams (465-468)
What anchors this entire passage for me, however, are these grim lines describing the terror of her dreams. Again, the theme is present in Biblical literature. Job, in attempting to find a moment of peace in his desperate situation, finds himself unable to sleep. He says plaintively:
"When I say, 'My bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint,/ then you scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions," Job 7:13-14.
Job provides good company for Dido. What interests me about her dreams is the way that they reverse the reality of her waking experience. In her waking life, she is pursuing Aeneas lest he rush off to Italy. In her dream, however, Aeneas is pursuing her.
"Agit ipse furentem in somnis ferus Aeneas"
"The cruel Aeneas himself hounds her frenzied in her dreams." Fagles has, "Aeneas the hunter, savage in all her nightmares, drives her mad with panic."
Second, Book IV of the Aeneid emphasizes how Dido is always thronged by people. She is a beloved queen, and is perpetually surrounded by her well-wishers and companions. A whole retinue emerges from her palace when she sets out for the hunt earlier in Book IV. But what is characteristic of her dreams is how alone she is. Four times in three lines this aloneness is stressed. She is "left behind;" she is "by herself;" she is seen going along the way "unaccompanied;" she seeks her Tyrians "in deserted land." When she wandered through the city earlier, she was accompanied by Aeneas; she had "lost her head" by then in love, yet she never felt more "together" with someone. But now she is starkly alone. Aloneness just doesn't befit her--the queen. But that she sees this repeatedly in her dream means that it is teaching her the truth about her life--she is abandoned now. She has nowhere to turn; even her Tyrians can't be found. No one seeks her out. She is a frenzied, alone person. There is also a double use of the word semper (always)--which serves to emphasize the endlessness of the quest.
Greek Mythological Figures (469-473)
Even the two things she sees about herself are contradictory--she is pursued, which means that someone is nearby, and she is totally alone. But the point that Virgil emphasizes about her is her being hounded--like Pentheus driven mad; and like Orestes chased by the Furies for killing his mother Clytemnestra.
Utter desolation accompanies Dido now. Not only is she disoriented and harassed by her dreams, but she is truly at the end of her psychological rope. Everything she had that was dear to her has been taken away. She lost her love. Since she gave up her life, as it were, to love the man, now her life is a shambles. It won't do her any good to try to return to Carthage, give up her throne and live the life of a humble peasant. She is ruined, purely and simply. Her name is as unredeemable as Madoff's name is now in American finance. Her life is constricted beyond measure.