Tutors Talk (& Read) Books: Brendan Boyle on Virgil’s Aeneid
March 24, 2021 | By Les Poling / Video by Hannah Loomis
From January 4–8, 2021, Annapolis tutors David Townsend and Brendan Boyle taught Virgil’s Aeneid as part of the first-ever Winter Classics, modeled after the popular Summer Classics program. The Aeneid, a classical epic on par with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, tells the legendary tale of Aeneas and his band of refugees, who, charged with founding a new city of unparalleled destiny, establish Rome—experiencing love, triumph, and tragedy along the way.
The Winter Classics seminar sessions on the Aeneid sold out almost immediately—something that surprised Boyle, despite his love for Virgil’s work. We spoke with Boyle about the Aeneid, his relationship with the text, and its vital undercurrents of loss and love. Read the interview below, and watch the accompanying video here, in which Boyle recites and comments on two of his favorite passages. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To get started, why don’t you briefly introduce yourself? Can you tell us where you’re from and what brought you to St. John’s?
I’ve been a tutor at the college since 2013. Prior to working at the college, I was a professor of classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—which was a really lovely place, but I found that my interests were spilling over some disciplinary boundaries, as I think is true of a lot of tutors.
I could say a little bit more about my time before the University of North Carolina, since it’s relevant to our conversation here. I went to a high school where Latin was very important and started studying Latin as a pretty young person. And that was really my first exposure to the Aeneid. I can remember very, very vividly my senior year of high school; my Latin class was taught by a man named Raymond Heisler. And I remember him standing in the front of the class reading aloud a portion of lines from the Aeneid in which Priam is described as putting on weapons and armor in order to go—futilely, but go all the same—into battle against one of the Greek warriors that has breached the Trojan citadel. I can still see him crying, the teacher in the class, when reading these lines. That was a very moving memory for me. The Aeneid is, in a way, filled with tears, which is one of the very surprising things about it; Aeneas is constantly weeping.
But at the same time, the Aeneid was, for me, still a sort of museum piece, even as a student of Latin. It was a place where you went to practice your Latin, a place where one came to study classical rhetorical tropes and rhetorical forms and how to scan Virgilian meter.
I can remember when the poem became something more than a museum piece, at the end of my time in college almost four years later. I was sitting at a bar called Triumph Brewery in Princeton (where I was an undergraduate) with a visiting professor, and he was talking about how he, too, felt like classical antiquity was a museum piece for him—until he started to read the Aeneid, or maybe allow the book into his life. I can remember him talking about these two moments in the book: First, when Aeneas tries to embrace the shade of his wife—unsuccessfully, of course, because she’s dead. And second, the moment when Aeneas confronts Dido, the woman he has abandoned in order to get to and found Rome, in the underworld.
I just remember this man telling me that howsoever supernatural those scenes seem—trying to grasp the shade, being in the underworld and trying to talk to someone—that’s what it’s like to try to connect to someone that you’ve lost, and to be unable to do so. [The visiting professor] thought that was the heart of the Aeneid. I’m not sure that I felt that at the time, but at the very least I thought, “Oh, wow. Here is someone who knows something deep about the Aeneid, something that I’d like to come to learn.”
How has your experience with this text changed, if you’ve taught it since then? Are you finding any echoes of the Aeneid in life today?
One of the things I have been thinking about of late is why so many people wanted to read the Aeneid in Winter Classics. David Townsend—who was my teaching partner [in Winter Classics]—and I had three very full sessions of seminars on the Aeneid. And I thought that was surprising, in a way.
In the popular imagination—and the popular imagination is, of course, not entirely wrong—the poem is a work of triumph, of founding. It’s a poem about the establishment of a polity, a new form of civic life that will be rational and peaceful and tolerant, and in its own way modern. One could think, “Here’s a poem about a balanced, ordered, and rational polity. We sense that maybe we don’t have that; and so, we would like to read a poem about that.” I think that there’s some truth to that idea.
But to tie this into the remarks that I made earlier about the first time the Aeneid started speaking to me—it’s because this is a poem about loss. How does one go on after loss? What is the way forward, in the face of that loss—especially politically? It’s not the only text to take this up. But I think it takes it up in an epic way. In a way it’s very strange that those very private, personal questions turn out to be questions for an epic. David was really great at helping me see that [they are].
I think one of the ways the poem is a great text [is that] it looks different every time. I wouldn’t say the last time I read it (prior to this Winter Classics) it looked like a triumphalist poem of political and classical rationalism. But it might have looked more like that when I taught the poem and read the poem last, maybe six years ago. This time, it caught me at a time of great loss.
In a way it’s obvious to me now, in looking at the poem, that it’s anything but a museum piece. In a way I’m surprised [I ever thought that]. One of the reasons is because the Latin itself is very intricate, and that can cause one to keep the poem a bit at arm’s length—and I, probably to my discredit, did. Of course, the best critics will tell you that is the very place to begin; that reading the Latin very closely allows the poem to enter more deeply into your soul. That didn’t happen to me until later in my life, but I think I’m there now.
Why do you think the Aeneid is on the Program, and what do you think Johnnies get out of it as young people? I would imagine that some of the experience you’re describing is due to reading it as a young person and then reading it later with more experience.
I think that’s true, but in a way, I might have been an untypical young person, perhaps in a bad sense. My recollection of the experience that undergraduates have reading this is that it’s tremendously close to them. They are experiencing passionate erotic attachments, passionate erotic and romantic losses. Those experiences are very much at the center of at least the first half of this poem. So this is, in a way, a real poem for young people. It’s not just an older person’s reading to think that it’s a poem about loss, because young people are experiencing great loss too—maybe loss of a different kind, but the sort of losses that are present in the Aeneid. The loss of a partner with whom you have had a relationship; the losses that one has associated with a spouse; the losses that one might feel when one’s city or homeland is destroyed.
One might draw a small contrast here, though, between that interest in romantic loss or political loss and human agency in its relationship to the divine will, which is something that I found the participants in Winter Classics were very interested in. It would be too easy to think that as one gets older, one comes to recognize ways in which the sphere of one’s autonomy is smaller and more circumscribed than one originally thought. But I think that’s true, and I think that a number of the participants in the Winter Classics conversations saw [the Aeneid as] a poem that was really attentive to that. Now, that’s not to say that the poem thinks there’s no place for human agency. But it is to say that the place of human agency in the world, even a world absent Greco-Roman gods, might be a lot smaller than we think it is. And the Aeneid is a good poem to read in order to think about the ways in which it is circumscribed—even or especially in this great age of autonomy and self-determination that we take ourselves to be living in.