Analysis of Book IV of the Aeneid

I had to write this paper for my honors class. If anyone feels like reading, be my guest. Otherwise, skip to the next entry for more of my usual ramblings.

Book IV of the Aeneid showcases the literary prowess of Virgil. The ongoing theme of love portrayed as an all-consuming and uncontrollable fire reveals itself in the life, and also in the death, of Dido, the tragic queen. His use of language reinforces his themes and values throughout Book IV, and throughout the entirety of the Aeneid as well.

Virgil recounts the story of Dido, the tragic queen, in Book IV. Although Dido had pledged not to marry after the death of her first husband, she finds herself irresistibly attracted to Aeneas. The Trojan warrior and the Queen of Carthage take a hunting expedition together but are forced to seek shelter in a cave during a storm. Dido considers the experience a wedding and no longer hides her love for Aeneas. Jove, however, sends Mercury to warn Aeneas against staying in Carthage. The god tells Aeneas that he is wasting time in Libya, depriving his son of a glorious destiny in Italy. Aeneas heeds the order and readies the ships. Dido hears of the preparations and lashes out at Aeneas, pleading with him to stay. Duty-bound Aeneas holds his ground and continues the preparations for setting sail. At this point, Dido loses control and wishes for death. She asks her sister Anna to build a pyre with all of Aeneas’s clothes and armor, and her sister complies. Dido uses the pyre as her own deathbed, using a Trojan sword to commit suicide.

Virgil begins Book IV with a description of Dido, Queen of Carthage. His description of the overwhelming feelings of Dido for Aeneas liken love (especially the love of a woman) to an all-consuming fire:

But the queen – too long she has suffered the pain of love,
hour by hour nursing the wound with her lifeblood,
consumed by the fire buried in her heart.
The man’s courage, the sheer pride of his line,
they all come pressing home to her, over and over.
His looks, his words, they pierce her heart and cling –
no peace, no rest for her body, love will give her none. (1-7)

The love of Dido is no fleeting feeling; Virgil emphasizes the long-lasting effects of the love spell of Cupid in his diction. Virgil draws out her pain in the phrases “too long,” “hour by hour,” and “over and over.” The harsh sounds in words such as “pressing” and “pierce” emphasize the pain Dido feels. The repetition of the word “no” and the use of “none” in the seventh line amplifies the absolute, intense ache Dido feels, allowing the reader to realize the extent of her pain. Dido has “no peace, no rest” because “love will give her none.” The use of the hyphen accentuates the word “cling” in line 7, since the reader must continue reading to the next line, clinging to each word. The passage builds upon itself from the beginning, creating a crescendo that climaxes in line 7. The crescendo demonstrates the building of passion inside Dido.

In an attempt to seek the approval of the gods in winning Aeneas as her husband, Dido prays at the shrines of the gods, making sacrifices. She looks for signs from the gods in the entrails of the sacrificed animals. This, however, is useless to someone so caught up in the insanity of love:

But, oh, how little they know, the omniscient seers.
What good are prayers and shrines to a person mad with love?
The flame keeps gnawing into her tender marrow hour by hour
and deep in her heart the silent wound lives on.
Dido burns with love – the tragic queen. (82-86)

Virgil reinforces the uncontrollable passion of love by utilizing irony in line 82, stating that the “omniscient seers” actually know very little when love is involved. The fire allusion reappears in line 84 and again in line 86. The fire of love devours the queen from the inside out. Virgil names Dido “the tragic queen,” separating the Homeric epithet from the rest of the passage with both a hyphen and a period to accentuate the finality of her fate. The use of the verb “gnawing” likens love to a carnivorous animal, eating at the “tender marrow” of Dido. This predator-prey relationship continues:

She wanders in frenzy through her city streets
like a wounded doe caught all off guard by a hunter
stalking the woods of Crete, who strikes her from afar
and leaves his winging steel in her flesh, and he’s unaware
but she veers in flight through Dicte’s woody glades,
fixed in her side the shaft that takes her life. (87-92)

Dido has been driven insane by her love. The word “frenzy” depicts the queen’s whirlwind state of mind. She “wanders,” lost because of her love, yet also lost because of her impending doom. Her love will end in her death; her love is “the shaft that takes her life.” The pacing of the passage enhances the reader’s sense that Dido is a lost cause, caught up in love. The passage wanders from line to line, taking the reader along winding paths of thought all within the same sentence. Dido has no control; she is merely a “wounded doe.” Although Virgil expresses love as a “hunter,” this hunter is “unaware” of the damage it wreaks. This imagery personifies an emotion as a tangible entity.

The internal turmoil created by uncontrollable love forces Dido to cling to any part of Aeneas she can obtain:

She’d speak her heart but her voice chokes, mid-word.
Now at dusk she calls for the feast to start again,
madly begging to hear again the agony of Troy,
to hang on his lips again, savoring his story. (95-98)

The word “chokes” abruptly ends the clause, demonstrating the inability to speak. The hyphen in “mid-word” further illustrates this point by creating a physical break in the sentence and in the word itself. Dido has lost all propriety as she “madly beg[s]” Aeneas to tell his story just to hear his voice. And once again, love is depicted as insane and uncontrollable. The metaphor “to hang on his lips” and the subsequent use of “savoring” illustrate the hunger that love has instilled in Dido for Aeneas. The addition of the final clause “savoring his story,” reiterates the reluctance of Dido to let go of the words of Aeneas. Dido “flings herself on the couch that he left empty” (102). His choice of the verb “flings” shows the desperation of the queen. Line 102 exemplifies the need of Dido to be with Aeneas. The couch becomes empty when he leaves, but the heart of Dido also feels empty in his absence. Virgil juxtaposes the wanderings of Aeneas with the path the heart of Dido by writing “Lost as he is, she’s lost as well, she hears him, sees him” (103). While Aeneas is considered lost on his journey to fulfill his destiny, Dido is lost in her love for Aeneas, driven mad by her feelings.

During the fateful storm that forces Aeneas and Dido to seek shelter in a cave, the tragic fate of the queen is sealed. Virgil begins his description of the event with the two-word phrase “Too late” (202). The finality of the phrase shows that fate is already decided; Dido is doomed. According the Virgil, the wedding day is more like a funeral:

Primordial Earth and Juno, Queen of Marriage,
give the signal and lightning torches flare
and the high sky bears witness to the wedding,
nymphs on the mountaintops wail out the wedding hymn.
This was the first day of her death, the first of grief,
the cause of it all. (209-214)

This wedding lacks the typical torches; instead, lightning flashes in the sky. Virgil uses the verb “wail” to describe the nymphs singing the wedding hymn. As “wailing” is usually associated with a sad event, the word is unfit to describe a joyful wedding. Virgil writes out the fate of Dido, stating the inevitable. The repetition of “first” in line 213 emphasizes the finality of her situation. Once the wedding occurs, it is only a matter of time before Dido dies. The coordination of the nouns “death” and “grief” just after the mention of a “wedding hymn” sharply contrasts the joy of a wedding with the sadness of a funeral.

Once Aeneas heeds the message of Mercury and the will of Jove, the love of Dido comes out in full force. She stoops to both taunting and tears to keep Aeneas with her, but her attempts amount to nothing. Virgil once again compares Dido to prey, running from “Aeneas the hunter, savage in all her nightmares” (584). The tragic queen “always feels alone, / abandoned, always wandering down some endless road, / not a friend in sight” (585-587). Dido loses herself when Aeneas leaves. The wandering direction of the passage reiterates the wandering of Dido down an “endless road.” Virgil offers his own opinion of the power of love in the form a rhetorical question:

Love, you tyrant!
To what extremes won’t you compel our hearts?
Again she resorts to tears, driven to move the man,
or try, with prayers – a suppliant kneeling, humbling
her pride to passion. So if die she must,
she’ll leave no way untried. (518-523)

The use of alliteration in “pride to passion” juxtaposes the proud, proper Dido with the pleading, desperate Dido love had created. The verb “driven” likens Dido to a slave, with love as her master. The pacing of the passage, quickly switching from one clause to the next, illustrates the desperate attempts of the queen to keep Aeneas at her side. Her despair leads her to contemplate suicide; Dido cannot live without Aeneas. As at the start of her infatuation, Dido is given no rest, even at night when all others sleep:

But not the tragic queen . . .
torn in spirit, Dido will not dissolve
into sleep – her eyes, her mind won’t yield tonight.
Her torments multiply, over and over her passion
surges back into heaving waves of rage –
she keeps on brooding, obsessions roil her heart [.] (661-666)

Once again, as in line 86, Virgil refers to Dido as the tragic queen. He emphasizes the role of fate in her life and in her death. Instead of “dissolv[ing] into sleep” and lessening her pain, her passion “multipl[ies]” and “surges.” His use of a hyphen in line 663 illustrates the word “torn” in line 662 by dividing the sentence. The word “multiply,” coordinated with “over and over,” demonstrates the building passion inside of Dido. The verbs “surges,” “brooding,” and “roil” give the reader a sense of foreboding. The “heaving waves of rage” express the emotional turmoil of Dido. “Her eyes, her mind” is reminiscent of line 103, where Dido “hears him, sees him,” further illustrating her continuous obsession.

Mercury spurs Aeneas on his journey, appearing to him in a dream while the warrior slept peacefully on his ship. The god insists Aeneas leave at once, claiming “[w]oman’s a thing / that’s always changing, shifting like the wind” (710-711). Mercury acts as the voice of Virgil, depicting women as fickle in their love. The punctuation and arrangement of lines further emphasize the idea of change.

Dido climbs up on the pyre created from the belongings of Aeneas and proceeds to stab herself. Rumor carries the news, and the city reacts through “sobs, and grief, and the wails of women ringing out / through homes, and the heavens echo back the keening din [.]” The “wails” of the women are similar to the “wails” of the nymphs in line 212 during the fateful wedding of Dido and Aeneas, once again demonstrating how the wedding was more like a funeral. Virgil only mentions the women mourning, not the men. This implies the emotional instability of women in general.

Fated from her encounter with the love spell of Cupid, Dido is doomed to die from the day of her wedding. The Trojan sword Dido uses to commit her deed seems fitting; Dido uses the sword, a gift from her lover, to end the pain he caused her. Although she stabs herself in line 823, Dido is not set free from her pain until the last line of Book IV, line 876, as though to highlight the length and intensity of her pain. In the final two lines Iris releases Dido from her body and, consequently, from her pain. She could find solace only in death as “the warmth slipped away, the life dissolved in the winds” (876). Dido could not “dissolve into sleep” in lines 662 and 663, but death became her sleep in line 876.

Intense, powerful love controls Dido and ultimately leads to her death. Her love grows into an uncontrollable obsession which later morphs into rage and despair at abandonment. Virgil emphasizes the strength of love and the inevitability of her fate throughout Book IV in his use of language. He constructs his language to echo the content of the story.


2 thoughts on “Analysis of Book IV of the Aeneid

  1. I’m amused by how people are finding this post.
    Apparently searching for The Aeneid…
    and coming up with my little paper?

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