Falling Asleep over the Aeneid

By Robert Lowell 1917–1977 Robert Lowell

An old man in Concord forgets to go to morning service. He falls asleep, while reading Vergil, and dreams that he is Aeneas at the funeral of Pallas, an Italian prince.

The sun is blue and scarlet on my page,   
And yuck-a, yuck-a, yuck-a, yuck-a, rage   
The yellowhammers mating. Yellow fire   
Blankets the captives dancing on their pyre,
And the scorched lictor screams and drops his rod.   
Trojans are singing to their drunken God,   
Ares. Their helmets catch on fire. Their files   
Clank by the body of my comrade—miles   
Of filings! Now the scythe-wheeled chariot rolls   
Before their lances long as vaulting poles,   
And I stand up and heil the thousand men,   
Who carry Pallas to the bird-priest. Then   
The bird-priest groans, and as his birds foretold,   
I greet the body, lip to lip. I hold
The sword that Dido used. It tries to speak,   
A bird with Dido’s sworded breast. Its beak   
Clangs and ejaculates the Punic word   
I hear the bird-priest chirping like a bird.   
I groan a little. “Who am I, and why?”   
It asks, a boy’s face, though its arrow-eye   
Is working from its socket. “Brother, try,   
O Child of Aphrodite, try to die:
To die is life.” His harlots hang his bed
With feathers of his long-tailed birds. His head   
Is yawning like a person. The plumes blow;   
The beard and eyebrows ruffle. Face of snow,   
You are the flower that country girls have caught,   
A wild bee-pillaged honey-suckle brought   
To the returning bridegroom—the design
Has not yet left it, and the petals shine;   
The earth, its mother, has, at last, no help:   
It is itself. The broken-winded yelp
Of my Phoenician hounds, that fills the brush   
With snapping twigs and flying, cannot flush   
The ghost of Pallas. But I take his pall,   
Stiff with its gold and purple, and recall   
How Dido hugged it to her, while she toiled,   
Laughing—her golden threads, a serpent coiled   
In cypress. Now I lay it like a sheet;
It clinks and settles down upon his feet,
The careless yellow hair that seemed to burn   
Beforehand. Left foot, right foot—as they turn,   
More pyres are rising: armored horses, bronze,   
And gagged Italians, who must file by ones   
Across the bitter river, when my thumb   
Tightens into their wind-pipes. The beaks drum;
Their headman’s cow-horned death’s-head bites its tongue,   
And stiffens, as it eyes the hero slung
Inside his feathered hammock on the crossed   
Staves of the eagles that we winged. Our cost   
Is nothing to the lovers, whoring Mars   
And Venus, father’s lover. Now his car’s   
Plumage is ready, and my marshals fetch   
His squire, Acoctes, white with age, to hitch   
Aethon, the hero’s charger, and its ears   
Prick, and it steps and steps, and stately tears   
Lather its teeth; and then the harlots bring   
The hero’s charms and baton—but the King,   
Vain-glorious Turnus, carried off the rest.   
“I was myself, but Ares thought it best   
The way it happened.” At the end of time,   
He sets his spear, as my descendants climb   
The knees of Father Time, his beard of scalps,
His scythe, the arc of steel that crowns the Alps.   
The elephants of Carthage hold those snows,   
Turms of Numidian horse unsling their bows,   
The flaming turkey-feathered arrows swarm   
Beyond the Alps. “Pallas,” I raise my arm   
And shout, “Brother, eternal health. Farewell   
Forever.” Church is over, and its bell
Frightens the yellowhammers, as I wake
And watch the whitecaps wrinkle up the lake.   
Mother’s great-aunt, who died when I was eight,   
Stands by our parlor sabre. “Boy, it’s late.   
Vergil must keep the Sabbath.” Eighty years!   
It all comes back. My Uncle Charles appears.   
Blue-capped and bird-like. Phillips Brooks and Grant   
Are frowning at his coffin, and my aunt,   
Hearing his colored volunteers parade   
Through Concord, laughs, and tells her English maid   
To clip his yellow nostril hairs, and fold   
His colors on him. . . . It is I. I hold
His sword to keep from falling, for the dust   
On the stuffed birds is breathless, for the bust   
Of young Augustus weighs on Vergil’s shelf:   
It scowls into my glasses at itself.

Robert Lowell, “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid” from The Mills of the Kavanaughs. Copyright 1948 and renewed © 1976 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission of Harcourt, Inc. This material may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Source: Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1976)

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Poet Robert Lowell 1917–1977

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Reading & Books, Heroes & Patriotism, Mythology & Folklore, Poetry & Poets, Greek & Roman Mythology

Poetic Terms Couplet

 Robert  Lowell

Biography

Robert Lowell is best known for his volume Life Studies, but his true greatness as an American poet lies in the astonishing variety of his work. In the 1940s he wrote intricate and tightly patterned poems that incorporated traditional meter and rhyme; in the late 1950s when he published Life Studies, he began to write startlingly original personal or "confessional" poetry in much looser forms and meters; in the 1960s he wrote . . .

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SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Reading & Books, Heroes & Patriotism, Mythology & Folklore, Poetry & Poets, Greek & Roman Mythology

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Poetic Terms Couplet

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