My previous post discussed the way Augustine sets up his City of God as antithetical to the Aeneid. Auden’s witty poem “Secondary Epic” may be seen as a kind of pendant to Augustine’s critique. It focuses not on the prophetic narration of Anchises in Book VI, but rather on a complementary moment, the description in Book VIII of the Shield of Aeneas. About this description Auden has some questions:
How was your shield-making god to explain
Why his masterpiece, his grand panorama
Of scenes from the coming historical drama
Of an unborn nation, war after war,
All the birthdays needed to pre-ordain
The Octavius the world was waiting for,
Should so abruptly, mysteriously stop,
What cause could he show why he didn’t foresee
The future beyond 31 B.C.,
Why a curtain of darkness should finally drop
On Carians, Morini, Gelonians with quivers,
Converging Romeward in abject file,
Euphrates, Araxes and similar rivers
Learning to flow in a latinate style,
And Caesar be left where prophecy ends,
Inspecting troops and gifts for ever?
Wouldn’t Aeneas have asked: — ‘What next?
After this triumph, what portends?’
And then the poem concludes, returning to Anchises:
No, Virgil, no:
Behind your verse so masterfully made
We hear the weeping of a Muse betrayed.
Your Anchises isn’t convincing at all:
It’s asking too much of us to be told
A shade so long-sighted, a father who knows
That Romulus will build a wall,
Augustus found an Age of Gold,
And is trying to teach a dutiful son
The love of what will be in the long run,
Would mention them both but not disclose
(Surely no prophet could afford to miss,
No man of destiny fail to enjoy
So clear a proof of Providence as this)
The names predestined for the Catholic boy
Whom Arian Odovacer will depose.
The names of that “Catholic boy”? Romulus Augustulus. What poet could resist the irony?
Auden borrows the title of his poem from A Preface to Paradise Lost, in which C. S. Lewis distinguishes primary epic — poems like the Iliad and Beowulf that show no obvious awareness that what they’re doing is, you know, epic — from secondary epic, which is always aware of its tradition its inheritance. Poems like the Aeneid and Paradise Lost are always gesturing towards their predecessors to make sure you know they are indeed epics. Secondary epics tend therefore to be at least somewhat polemical, in tension with their predecessors, because after all if those predecessors has said everything and said it perfectly there would be no need for later poems. Virgil has therefore set himself up to make an argument through his narrative, an argument about the destiny of Rome and the nature of heroism, and Auden joins Augustine in pointing out that the argument doesn’t work: No poet writing in the midst of history can plausibly convince us that a historical city is eternal and that heroic service to it can therefore have eternal consequences. The Pax Romana is not a telos, it’s merely an event among other events, subject to varying interpretations and to the power of change. “No, Virgil, no.”