One of the saddest, yet most beautifully described, scenes I’ve ever read comes at the end of Chapter 2 of Virgil’s The Aeneid, as Aeneus recalls his lead of the exodus of survivors from the besieged city of Troy, as it fell to the Greeks. Upon successfully fleeing the city with his father Anchises and his son Ascanius, Aeneus realized his wife, Creusa, had fallen behind, no longer with them among the survivors. Determined to find her, he threw himself back into danger, back into the fallen city of Troy, as the ruthless Argives pillaged on…
“Why, I even dared fling
my voice through the dark, my shouts filled the streets
as time and again, overcome with grief I called out
‘Creusa!’ Nothing, no reply, and again ‘Creusa!’
But then as I madly rushed from house to house,
no end in sight, abruptly, right before my eyes
I saw her stricken ghost, my own Creusa’s shade.
But larger than life, the life I’d known so well.
I froze. My hackles bristled, voice choked in my throat,
and my wife spoke out to ease me of my anguish:
‘My dear husband, why so eager to give yourself
to such mad flights of grief? It’s not without
the will of the gods these things have come to pass.
But the gods forbid you to take Creusa with you,
bound from Troy together. The king of lofty Olympus
won’t allow it. A long exile is your fate . . .
The vast plains of the sea are yours to plow
until you reach Hesperian land, where Lydian Tiber
flows with its smooth march through rich and loamy fields,
a land of hardy people. There great joy and a kingdom
are yours to claim, and a queen to make your wife.
Dispel your tears for Creusa whom you loved.
I will never behold the high and mighty pride
of their palaces, the Myrmidons, the Dolopians,
or go as a slave to some Greek matron, no, not I,
daughter of Dardanus that I am, the wife of Venus’ son.
The Great Mother of Gods detains me on these shores.
And now farewell. Hold dear the son we share,
we love together.’
“These were her parting words
and for all my tears- I longed to say so much-
dissolving into the empty air she left me now.
Three times I tried to fling my arms around her neck,
three times I embraced- nothing . . . her phantom
sifting through my fingers,
light as wind, quick as a dream in flight.
Not only does Virgil brilliantly and beautifully write this passage, but he pays homage to Homer, bringing us back to a moment in the the Odyssey, when Odysseus recalls his adventure down to The House of Death, encountering the ghost of his mother:
“And I, my mind in turmoil, how I long
to embrace my mother’s spirit, dead as she was!
Three times I rushed toward her, desperate to hold her,
three times she fluttered through my fingers, sifting away
like a shadow, dissolving like a dream, and each time
the grief cut to the heart, sharper, yes, and I,
I cried out to her, words winging into the darkness:
‘Mother – why not wait for me? How I long to hold you!-
so even here, in the House of Death, we can fling
our loving arms around each other, take some joy
in the tears that numb the heart. Or is this just
some wraith that great Persephone sends my way
to make me ache with sorrow all the more?’
My noble mother answered me at once:
‘My son, my son, the unluckiest man alive!
This is no deception sent by Queen Persephone,
this is just the way of mortals when we die.
Sinews no longer bind the flesh and bones together-
the fire in all its fury burns the body down to ashes
once life slips from the white bones, and the spirit,
rustling, flitters away . . . flown like a dream.
But you must long for the daylight. Go, quickly.
Remember all these things
so one day you can tell them to your wife.’
And so we both confided, trading parting words…”