from Aeneid, book III

by SF

Virgil, To few great Jupiter imparts this grace

From the “Aeneid, book III”, tr. by Dryden

(…) Then thus replied the prophetess divine:
“O goddess-born of great Anchises’ line,
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.
To few great Jupiter imparts this grace,
And those of shining worth and heav’nly race.
Betwixt those regions and our upper light,
Deep forests and impenetrable night
Possess the middle space: th’ infernal bounds
Cocytus, with his sable waves, surrounds.
But if so dire a love your soul invades,
As twice below to view the trembling shades;
If you so hard a toil will undertake,
As twice to pass th’ innavigable lake;
Receive my counsel. In the neighb’ring grove
There stands a tree; the queen of Stygian Jove
Claims it her own; thick woods and gloomy night
Conceal the happy plant from human sight.
One bough it bears; but (wondrous to behold!)
The ductile rind and leaves of radiant gold:
This from the vulgar branches must be torn,
And to fair Proserpine the present borne,
Ere leave be giv’n to tempt the nether skies.
The first thus rent a second will arise,
And the same metal the same room supplies.
Look round the wood, with lifted eyes, to see
The lurking gold upon the fatal tree:
Then rend it off, as holy rites command;
The willing metal will obey thy hand,
Following with ease, if favor’d by thy fate,
Thou art foredoom’d to view the Stygian state:
If not, no labor can the tree constrain;
And strength of stubborn arms and steel are vain.
Besides, you know not, while you here attend,
Th’ unworthy fate of your unhappy friend:
Breathless he lies; and his unburied ghost,
Depriv’d of fun’ral rites, pollutes your host.
Pay first his pious dues; and, for the dead,
Two sable sheep around his hearse be led;
Then, living turfs upon his body lay:
This done, securely take the destin’d way,
To find the regions destitute of day.”
(…)
These rites perform’d, the prince, without delay,
Hastes to the nether world his destin’d way.
Deep was the cave; and, downward as it went
From the wide mouth, a rocky rough descent;
And here th’ access a gloomy grove defends,
And there th’ unnavigable lake extends,
O’er whose unhappy waters, void of light,
No bird presumes to steer his airy flight;
Such deadly stenches from the depths arise,
And steaming sulphur, that infects the skies.
From hence the Grecian bards their legends make,
And give the name Avernus to the lake.
Four sable bullocks, in the yoke untaught,
For sacrifice the pious hero brought.
The priestess pours the wine betwixt their horns;
Then cuts the curling hair; that first oblation burns,
Invoking Hecate hither to repair:
A pow’rful name in hell and upper air.
The sacred priests with ready knives bereave
The beasts of life, and in full bowls receive
The streaming blood: a lamb to Hell and Night
(The sable wool without a streak of white)
Aeneas offers; and, by fate’s decree,
A barren heifer, Proserpine, to thee,
With holocausts he Pluto’s altar fills;
Sev’n brawny bulls with his own hand he kills;
Then on the broiling entrails oil he pours;
Which, ointed thus, the raging flame devours.
Late the nocturnal sacrifice begun,
Nor ended till the next returning sun.
Then earth began to bellow, trees to dance,
And howling dogs in glimm’ring light advance,
Ere Hecate came. “Far hence be souls profane!”
The Sibyl cried, “and from the grove abstain!
Now, Trojan, take the way thy fates afford;
Assume thy courage, and unsheathe thy sword.”
She said, and pass’d along the gloomy space;
The prince pursued her steps with equal pace.

Ye realms, yet unreveal’d to human sight,
Ye gods who rule the regions of the night,
Ye gliding ghosts, permit me to relate
The mystic wonders of your silent state!

Obscure they went thro’ dreary shades, that led
Along the waste dominions of the dead.
Thus wander travelers in woods by night,
By the moon’s doubtful and malignant light,
When Jove in dusky clouds involves the skies,
And the faint crescent shoots by fits before their eyes.

Just in the gate and in the jaws of hell,
Revengeful Cares and sullen Sorrows dwell,
And pale Diseases, and repining Age,
Want, Fear, and Famine’s unresisted rage;
Here Toils, and Death, and Death’s half-brother, Sleep,
Forms terrible to view, their sentry keep;
With anxious Pleasures of a guilty mind,
Deep Frauds before, and open Force behind;
The Furies’ iron beds; and Strife, that shakes
Her hissing tresses and unfolds her snakes.
Full in the midst of this infernal road,
An elm displays her dusky arms abroad:
The God of Sleep there hides his heavy head,
And empty dreams on ev’ry leaf are spread.
Of various forms unnumber’d specters more,
Centaurs, and double shapes, besiege the door.
Before the passage, horrid Hydra stands,
And Briareus with all his hundred hands;
Gorgons, Geryon with his triple frame;
And vain Chimaera vomits empty flame.
The chief unsheath’d his shining steel, prepar’d,
Tho’ seiz’d with sudden fear, to force the guard,
Off’ring his brandish’d weapon at their face;
Had not the Sibyl stopp’d his eager pace,
And told him what those empty phantoms were:
Forms without bodies, and impassive air.
Hence to deep Acheron they take their way,
Whose troubled eddies, thick with ooze and clay,
Are whirl’d aloft, and in Cocytus lost.
There Charon stands, who rules the dreary coast-
A sordid god: down from his hoary chin
A length of beard descends, uncomb’d, unclean;
His eyes, like hollow furnaces on fire;
A girdle, foul with grease, binds his obscene attire.
He spreads his canvas; with his pole he steers;
The freights of flitting ghosts in his thin bottom bears.
He look’d in years; yet in his years were seen
A youthful vigor and autumnal green.
An airy crowd came rushing where he stood,
Which fill’d the margin of the fatal flood:
Husbands and wives, boys and unmarried maids,
And mighty heroes’ more majestic shades,
And youths, intomb’d before their fathers’ eyes,
With hollow groans, and shrieks, and feeble cries.
Thick as the leaves in autumn strow the woods,
Or fowls, by winter forc’d, forsake the floods,
And wing their hasty flight to happier lands;
Such, and so thick, the shiv’ring army stands,
And press for passage with extended hands.
Now these, now those, the surly boatman bore:
The rest he drove to distance from the shore. (…)

The hero, looking on the left, espied
A lofty tow’r, and strong on ev’ry side
With treble walls, which Phlegethon surrounds,
Whose fiery flood the burning empire bounds;
And, press’d betwixt the rocks, the bellowing noise resounds
Wide is the fronting gate, and, rais’d on high
With adamantine columns, threats the sky.
Vain is the force of man, and Heav’n’s as vain,
To crush the pillars which the pile sustain.
Sublime on these a tow’r of steel is rear’d;
And dire Tisiphone there keeps the ward,
Girt in her sanguine gown, by night and day,
Observant of the souls that pass the downward way.
From hence are heard the groans of ghosts, the pains
Of sounding lashes and of dragging chains.
(…)
Now, in a secret vale, the Trojan sees
A sep’rate grove, thro’ which a gentle breeze
Plays with a passing breath, and whispers thro’ the trees;
And, just before the confines of the wood,
The gliding Lethe leads her silent flood.
About the boughs an airy nation flew,
Thick as the humming bees, that hunt the golden dew;
In summer’s heat on tops of lilies feed,
And creep within their bells, to suck the balmy seed:
The winged army roams the fields around;
The rivers and the rocks remurmur to the sound.
Aeneas wond’ring stood, then ask’d the cause
Which to the stream the crowding people draws.
Then thus the sire: “The souls that throng the flood
Are those to whom, by fate, are other bodies ow’d:
In Lethe’s lake they long oblivion taste,
Of future life secure, forgetful of the past.
Long has my soul desir’d this time and place,
To set before your sight your glorious race,
That this presaging joy may fire your mind
To seek the shores by destiny design’d.”-
“O father, can it be, that souls sublime
Return to visit our terrestrial clime,
And that the gen’rous mind, releas’d by death,
Can covet lazy limbs and mortal breath?”

Anchises then, in order, thus begun
To clear those wonders to his godlike son:
“Know, first, that heav’n, and earth’s compacted frame,
And flowing waters, and the starry flame,
And both the radiant lights, one common soul
Inspires and feeds, and animates the whole.
This active mind, infus’d thro’ all the space,
Unites and mingles with the mighty mass.
Hence men and beasts the breath of life obtain,
And birds of air, and monsters of the main.
Th’ ethereal vigor is in all the same,
And every soul is fill’d with equal flame;
As much as earthy limbs, and gross allay
Of mortal members, subject to decay,
Blunt not the beams of heav’n and edge of day.
From this coarse mixture of terrestrial parts,
Desire and fear by turns possess their hearts,
And grief, and joy; nor can the groveling mind,
In the dark dungeon of the limbs confin’d,
Assert the native skies, or own its heav’nly kind:
Nor death itself can wholly wash their stains;
But long-contracted filth ev’n in the soul remains.
The relics of inveterate vice they wear,
And spots of sin obscene in ev’ry face appear.
For this are various penances enjoin’d;
And some are hung to bleach upon the wind,
Some plung’d in waters, others purg’d in fires,
Till all the dregs are drain’d, and all the rust expires.
All have their manes, and those manes bear:
The few, so cleans’d, to these abodes repair,
And breathe, in ample fields, the soft Elysian air.
Then are they happy, when by length of time
The scurf is worn away of each committed crime;
No speck is left of their habitual stains,
But the pure ether of the soul remains.
But, when a thousand rolling years are past,
(So long their punishments and penance last,)
Whole droves of minds are, by the driving god,
Compell’d to drink the deep Lethaean flood,
In large forgetful draughts to steep the cares
Of their past labors, and their irksome years,
That, unrememb’ring of its former pain,
The soul may suffer mortal flesh again.”