Classics lovers binge on poetry at college

MIDDLEBURY — Poetry readings generally last one hour — not even the most devoted versaholic is expected to sit still any longer. So when I heard that the Middlebury College Department of Classics had organized a three-day marathon reading of a single poem, Virgil’s epic The Aeneid, I had to see for myself.
The event began on Oct. 24, a chilly, gusty Friday afternoon, on the steps of the college’s Davis Family Library. Mike McCann, a senior from Maine, settled a bushy green laurel wreath on his head and began to declaim. The poem is long, just under 10,000 lines. In the course of the weekend it would take nearly 40 volunteer readers, each giving a half-hour performance of an English verse translation of the Latin original, to get through it, sustained only by ambrosial slices of baklava. Organizers, including classical studies major Erika Sloan, a junior from Connecticut, had hoped to stage the entire reading outdoors, but by the time McCann finished his shift amid spatters of rain, all agreed to retreat to the shelter of the library’s foyer.
McCann passed the laurels to classics professor Ian Sutherland, who polished off Book I. In Roman numerals, that left XI to go. When it debuted MM years ago, Virgil’s epic was an instant hit; once printing was invented, it never went out of print, and to this day is required reading wherever Latin is taught. Like the TV show “Frasier” after its progenitor, “Cheers,” the poem is a spinoff from an older franchise, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Aeneas, only a minor character in the Iliad, finally got his own show when Emperor Augustus claimed him as a noble ancestor.
Aeneas is a prince of Troy and the son of love goddess Aphrodite, a.k.a. Venus. He survives the city’s catastrophic defeat by the armies of Greece and leads a flotilla of Trojan citizens hoping to find a new place to live. But Aeneas is informed by the gods that he has been tagged with an even higher destiny — he must sail to Italy, subdue the locals, and found the great nation of Rome. Aeneas, an extremely dutiful fellow, accepts the mission.
Next up was Julia Sprague, a freshman from Washington, D.C. Sprague started Latin in seventh grade, eventually devouring all the Latin courses her high school offered.
“I particularly enjoy Latin because it offers a great deal of insight into rhetoric and syntax,” she said after her half-hour at the lectern. “The passages I read actually included several parts that I have translated from the original Latin, so it was fun to read. I find Laocoön’s death quite moving and unfortunate.”
Day II opened on a glorious, sunny New England autumn morning. The marathon moved back outside into sight of a constant stream of library users, admissions tour groups and passersby. It was Parents’ Weekend, so many out-of-town moms, dads, younger siblings and dogs also dropped by. The seated audience varied in size, rarely more than eight or 10 listeners at a time. This would have discouraged a rock band or a lacrosse team, but for a poetry reading it was quite respectable.
In the spirit of participatory journalism, I embedded myself to read on Saturday afternoon. The laureate two slots ahead, as dutiful as Aeneas, had extended her turn to a full hour when the next reader was a no-show. My passage from Book IX recounted a memorable if gory episode from Aeneas’s war against the Italians. Nisus and Euryalus were a pair of young Trojan warriors, assigned only to guard a gate but far too ambitious to stay put. Itching for a glorious battle, they carried out a daring nighttime raid on an encampment of sleeping Rutulians. With sword and spear the two slaughtered 20 of the foe before they were apprehended and killed. Of this brave and doomed duo, Virgil wrote, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” That phrase took on new life in 2011 when it headlined New York’s 9/11 memorial, in a 60-foot-long inscription in letters fashioned from steel scraps of the wrecked Twin Towers.
Virgil is famously quotable. Bob Dylan in “Lonesome Day Blues” took off from a speech of advice delivered to Aeneas in Book VI by his father Anchises, laying out the proper Roman etiquette for world domination: “I’m gonna spare the defeated, I’m gonna speak to the crowd / I am goin’ to teach peace to the conquered / I’m gonna tame the proud.”
Last weekend’s public reading of The Aeneid, the 10th such event in an annual series also featuring works by Homer and Ovid, showed again how even the oldest art from the past, in the right hands, can still come alive.
Editor’s note: David Weinstock is a freelance writer, editor and creative writing teacher in Middlebury. Starting in January he will teach an evening storytelling course for the StoryMatters organization. Contact him at [email protected].
A SPORADIC AND ever changing audience at the Davis Family Library on the Middlebury College campus listened this past weekend to a public reading of The Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem about Trojan prince who founded Rome. Photo by Todd Balfour

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