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When I am Laid in Earth

I read Augustine's account of weeping over Dido before I read the Aeneid.

Recalling his early education, Augustine can't believe how deeply his heart could break over Dido's horrible tragedy while the reality of his own depravity aroused no emotion in him at all.  Augustine is a little hard on himself about it.  To me, this shows why we need art to shine bright lights on the dark corners of our own souls.  

I had that in mind as I was reading the Aeneid this fall, but, in spite of Augustine's word of warning, the tragedy of Dido's story knocked me out.  I can replay my reading of Aeneid Book IV like a movie in my head - that first image of glorious Carthage humming like a beehive with industry, and the building and building of anticipation before the first glimpse of the glorious queen.  Strong, gorgeous, noble Aeneas and the powerful, beautiful, magnificent Dido - what a couple.  

The two spend a lot of time together.  There is talk in the town of what will happen if Dido's reign is somehow compromised by her love for Aeneas, but she doesn't care.  He would make a great Carthaginian king.  One day there is a hunt in the woods, and the two of them find themselves alone near a cave.  When they emerge, Dido revels in the bliss of the new marriage that, in her mind, has now officially begun.  Aeneas, as we will soon find out, doesn't recall any wedding.

Soon the gods are hot in Aeneas' heels to force his departure from Carthage to pursue his destiny to found Rome.  Compiling one piece of evidence at a time, Dido suspects the worst, and turns to look at the harbor just in time to see Aeneas' ships packing up the last provisions and weighing anchor. 

She has lost everything.  She can no longer be respected by her subjects because she has lost her virtue and her fortune, and gleaming Carthage begins to decay.  Her suicide is too tragic.  Henry Purcell's "When I am Laid in Earth" immortalizes her suicide note, and every note of this lament cuts deeper than the last.  

(I keep watching things this week that make me cry in the library.  I need to reserve these for times when I am in my apartment!)

I started thinking about this today while I read Purgatorio 27-28, in which Dante passes through the purgative flame on the terrace of lust and stands on the banks of the rivers Lethe, whose waters make us forget our transgressions, and Eunoe, which makes us remember our good deeds.  Matelda stands on the other side of the water, beautiful and perfect.  It's Eden.  The picture of the created order exactly as God meant it to be.  Verdant, the seed-bed of the world, free from labors, and a realm bursting with erotic love that has had every trace of lust, deceit, manipulation, and self-interest barred from entry.  

Against Dante's Eden, Dido's sorrow burns even hotter.  So, so close.  Beautiful city.  Magnificent, powerful woman.  Strong, brave man.  Brightly burning flame of love.  And yet - ah.  So close.  The earthly things that are most glorious when they go right are the very worst of earthly things when they go wrong.  Eve and Adam are the picture of human thriving and happiness.  Dido and Aeneas are unbearably tragic.  Eros often seems like the mightiest god in the Pantheon. 

My apologies for posting this extremely sad piece.  But I'm right there with Augustine - until we ourself wade the crystal waters of Lethe, the piercing of this sorrow is indelible in a reader's memory.  


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