By J. C. McKeown
The National September 11 Memorial Museum will be opened in a few weeks. On the otherwise starkly bare wall at the entrance is a 60-foot-long inscription in 15-inch letters made from steel salvaged from the twin towers: NO DAY SHALL ERASE YOU FROM THE MEMORY OF TIME. This noble sentiment is a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid, one of mankind’s highest literary achievements, but its appropriateness has been questioned. In the context of the Aeneid, Virgil is commemorating a homosexual pair of warriors killed while making a bloody surprise attack on their sleeping enemies’ camp. Three years ago, an article in the New York Times suggested that “anyone troubling to take even a cursory glance at the quotation’s context will find the choice offers neither instruction nor solace.” But the museum was unmoved by such objections, and its director has recently defended the choice, asserting, perhaps rather cryptically, that the quotation characterizes the “museum’s overall commemorative context.”
It is unfortunate that this controversy has arisen, especially since so few people nowadays know about the context of the quote in the Aeneid. Those who lost family members or friends in the attacks should not have their thoughts and feelings distracted in this way. The sentiments expressed on national monuments aim to be strongly and unambiguously assertive of a view held by the whole community, but perhaps they are inherently vulnerable to controversial interpretations. Ideally, of course, such quotations should resonate more deeply than the meaning of the actual words, but would it not be best to accept the obviously sincere intentions of the museum’s committee and let the matter drop?
Otherwise, where will it end? Should we hesitate about using dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”), a line by Horace, Virgil’s contemporary, found so often on war memorials? In the 1910s, it was inscribed at Arlington and at Sandhurst, the British military academy, and was even translated into classical Greek (mirabile dictu!) on a memorial honoring the dead in the First Balkan War.
Before the decade was out, however, in the most celebrated of all World War I poems, Wilfred Owen had described Horace’s line as “the old lie.” Horace’s own authority to voice such ideals may be questioned. He was writing a poem of national significance–it is one of his “Roman Odes”–but the very next line, “death pursues even the man who runs away,” might make us recall a different poem in which Horace rather flippantly admits that he had thrown away his shield and fled at the Battle of Philippi. These considerations may give us pause for thought, but the validity of dulce et decorum in a national context is not diminished.
Carpe diem is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all Latin tags, but few people are aware of its original use: Horace is trying to persuade a girl to sleep with him. In another quote from the same book of Odes, Horace assures us that a person who is integer vitae scelerisque purus (“He who lives an unblemished life and is not tainted with crime”) is under divine protection, but the poem is essentially trivial, for Horace’s guardian deity turns out to be Cupid, who keeps wolves at bay while he sings in the woods about his mistress; even so, the poem was sung for centuries at Swedish funerals.
The fundamental democratic principles of equality and unity encapsulated so precisely in e pluribus unum are surely not diminished by the possibility that it was inspired by a phrase from an inconsequential poem attributed to Virgil: color est e pluribus unus (“from being several, the color is one”), in a description of an old peasant grinding the various ingredients together to make a vegetable pâté for his breakfast.
We have difficulties enough with the nuances of our own language. How many of those who wear T-shirts emblazoned with The Road Not Taken regard Frost’s best known poem not so much as a declaration of their free spirit, but rather as “that cunning nugget of nihilism disguised as an anthem for nonconformity” (New Yorker, 10 February 2014)?
Even Virgil himself has been charged with quoting inappropriately. When Aeneas stammers to Dido’s ghost in the Underworld, invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi (“unwillingly, O queen, I left your shore”), it is an undoubted echo of Catullus’s translation of an elegant Hellenistic court poem, in which a lock of Queen Berenice’s hair laments that it is now a constellation, no longer with the queen: invita, o regina, tuo de vertice cessi (“unwillingly, O queen, I left your head”). To quote the standard commentary on Virgil’s line: “modern susceptibilities are pained by Virgil’s presumed indifference to the incongruity so produced.”
There is classical precedent for changing a memorial inscription. After the Greek victory over the Persians at Plataea in 479 BC, the Greek commander set up an inscription at Delphi: “Pausanias, leader of the Greeks, when he destroyed the army of the Persians, dedicated this memorial to Apollo.” He was ordered to remove it, and told he could put it up again when he had defeated the Persians single-handedly. Might that be the best solution to all this controversy? The task of re-writing the inscription might be given to Billy Collins, who was Poet Laureate at the time of the attacks. He would be sure to resist those who want to:
“tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.”
J. C. McKeown is Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, co-editor of the Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature, and author of A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities, A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities, and Classical Latin: An Introductory Course.