“The formula of Virgil’s poetic chemistry”

the operation of a sort of tidal wave which swings to and fro through the bowels of the earth. (Virgil’s Road to Xanadu, 3: 17)1

Eric Havelock’s essay, ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’, was published in three parts in the first three issues of the new (in 1946) University of Toronto journal, Phoenix.2 He characterized his essay as a “search for the formula of Virgil’s poetic chemistry” ( 2: 7).3

The essay treats the last 251 lines of Virgil’s Georgics which weave together two mythological narratives: the tale of Aristaeus, god of agricultural cultivation — shepherding, cheesemaking, beekeeping — whose colony of bees dies off and who must find a way to engender it again; and the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice.

In Virgil’s telling, Aristaeus becomes desolate when his bees die and he appeals to his goddess mother, Cyrene, for help:

His mother was a princess who lived at the bottom of the sea with her mermaid attendants. She heard his cry, and at her command the waters parted asunder to allow her son to descend to the caverns where they dwelt. There he beheld the confluences whence issue with a mighty noise all the rivers of the world. (1: 4)

Parallels with Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom and with Plato’s Phaedo are evident. Like Poe’s mariner, Aristaeus must descend into the sea to obtain insight that is essential to him; and his finding there “the confluences whence issue with a mighty noise all the rivers of the world” matches Socrates’ description of the aquatic structure underlying the earth in Phaedo (112a):

all the rivers [meet] in confluence [there], and out of it they issue again, each afterwards taking on the individual character of the territories through which they happen to flow. (Cited by Havelock at 3: 17)

By way of anticipation (and as discussed further in Poe’s Maelstrom and Plato’s Phaedo), “all the rivers” with the “territories through which they happen to flow” may be taken to constitute the spectrum of the forms of experience — an elementary table of media.  A spectrum is, indeed, just what Poe’s mariner perceives at the bottom of the Maelstrom: “the rays of the moon seemed to search the very bottom of the profound gulf (…) over which there hung a magnificent rainbow”. A katabasis into this matrix of experience is necessarily chaotic and dangerous precisely because it exacts, willingly or unwillingly, the excision of all particular identity. Such a transformation is recorded by Poe in Descent into the Maelstrom:

Those who drew me on board were my old mates and dally companions — but they knew me no more than they would have known a traveller from the spirit-land. My hair, which had been raven-black the day before, was as white as you see it now. They say too that the whole expression of my countenance had changed.4

Poe terms such a katabasis a journey into “the spirit-land” or realm of the dead — as, indeed, both Plato and Virgil explicitly describe.5 For McLuhan it was to go “through the vanishing point”. 

From his matrix mother, Aristaeus learns that, like Homer’s Odysseus, he must wrestle with the shape-shifter, Proteus, to force him to divulge the knowledge he requires.  But Proteus, too, lives with his seals in a cavern beneath the sea. The journey to the bottom of the sea is in this way explicitly identified with the need to wrestle with multiple forms of being and experience and with the question of how to select the appropriate singular one out of this plural many. This question becomes overwhelmingly intensified once it is realized that it must be answered before the plurality is encountered — if that plurality itself is to be encountered appropriately. But how to select the proper form out of a spectrum of forms before that spectrum is encountered? And further, since identity results from this peculiar sort of ‘selection’, it is eminently questionable just who is to achieve this improbable action.6

It is exactly this sort of unsolvable riddle, akin to that posed to an infant learning to speak, that, McLuhan maintained, can be answered only by “magic“.  And it is just such “magic”, he then added, that is implicated in all human perception and in the birth of all the arts and sciences.

Aristaeus finds Proteus, successfully wrestles with his shapes and finally learns from him, as Havelock describes, that he, Aristaeus, with the loss of his bees and his grief over them,

pays the penalty for Orpheus’ grief. For Orpheus had loved Eurydice, but once upon a time the shepherd god [Aristaeus] had given chase to her upon the river bank, and in her fright she had run upon a snake which had killed her beside the stream. All the hills and valleys wept for her, and Orpheus made of his uncontrollable grief a song, and played it on his harp. Nay, he even went down after her into the vasty halls of the dead, playing all the time, so that he cast a spell over Tartarus, and the spirits were enchanted, and their grim guardians struck dumb. So he was able to draw her back after him towards the daylight of life once more. But at the last moment he looked back, and lo, the spell was broken, and with an anguished cry she vanished once more into the shadows, and all he could do was clutch at the darkness where now nothing was.
His grief and remorse were now beyond remedy. He made of them a song again, and in a cavern of the northern hills he played it continually, casting upon animals and trees the spell of his music. Thence he roamed over the ice-fields, wrapt in his music and his grief, indifferent to all womankind, till the Bacchant celebrants of the orgies of Dionysus turned upon him and tore him to pieces, and cast his limbs in the river. Even then the severed head continued to mourn with its last breath, and the river-bank caught the echo “Eurydice, Eurydice” as it floated down the tide. (1: 4)

Like the mariner in the Maelstrom, Orpheus learns that there is a primordial harmony — in this case, a melody — that encompasses even death.7 If he entrusts himself to this harmony he can penetrate even Hades and retrieve Eurydice. But what he cannot do in the realm of multiple forms is look back (cf, McLuhan’s rear-view-mirror), for this betrays a particularity that is too “desirous of the body” (as Socrates has it in the Phaedo).  It is just such a rear-view assessment that causes the mariner’s brother in Poe’s tale to cling to his familiar ship — the ship that takes him to his doom.

The required excision of particular identity and experience in the matrix of all media can hardly be more forcefully expressed than through the image of Orpheus’ severed head, still looking back for Eurydice and crying out for her, being carried away by the tide. As Plato comments: “the soul that is desirous of the body (…) after much resistance and many sufferings is led away with violence” (Phaedo 108b).

In the realm of multiple forms, humans can and must entrust themselves to the in-between as Poe’s mariner does.  McLuhan: “Managing The Ascent from the Maelstrom [an ano-kato play on Poe’s The Descent into the Maelstrom] today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going Through the Vanishing Point” (Take Today, 13). But as soon as particularity is invoked the in-between is lost. Havelock translates Virgil on Orpheus’ terrible moment of forgetfulness as follows:

Alas, he forgot; his heart’s longing overcame him and he looked round and at once
All his labour was thrown away and the bond granted by the pitiless monarch [Tartarus]
Was abrogated
. (1: 7)

In this terrible moment, the awful might of the in-between shows itself. It appears to be nothing, since it is outside8 all particular being and experience: “she vanished once more into the shadows, and all he could do was clutch at the darkness where now nothing was”. But it is actually the power of “the bond”: the power that separates and differentiates the particular forms of being and experience in their spectrum while yet uniting them in it. And that therefore gives access to that spectrum from any particular form of it. (Poe’s mariner takes this way between vehicles to save himself in the Maelstrom.)

On the mythological level, all that remains is for Aristaeus to atone for his sin of initiating the destruction of Eurydice and Orpheus and to recover his bees in the process of the required expiatory sacrifices. But for Havelock great questions had still to be considered. Especially, what is the relationship between these tales and Virgil’s poetry? Or even, between these tales and poetics in general? Or, as both these questions together may be put, since a science must consider the particular as expressing general law, what is “the formula of Virgil’s poetic chemistry”?

Addressing himself to the magic worked by Virgil in his poetry. Havelock asks:

What is the mechanism of this spell? The answer apparently lies in that level of the mind below the surface of conscious attention to fact, to situation, or to idea. The consciousness moves through a series of image-situations… (1: 5)

These “surface (…) image-situations” in which consciousness moves are sometimes called “panels” by Havelock:

These ingenuities of arrangement lie on the surface, and are the stock-in-trade of the Alexandrians. They exploit the device of juxtaposing items, which are functionally distinct, to form a symmetrical series of panels. Aesthetic pleasure derives from the antithesis between them, an antithesis cancelled by the [the Alexandrians through] purely formal connection. Such is the geometric genius of the Hellenistic epyllion. [But] to stop there is to miss the significant quality [and quality of significance] of Virgil’s specimen. It uses this kind of geometry and yet utterly transcends it (…) The poetry of the whole symphony develops a sustained power of quite another order. (1: 5)

The great question, then, concerns this “other order” lying “below the surface of conscious attention” to “panels” and (musical) “movements”:

These [“panels” and “movements”] are focused, if that is the best word, in certain master images, of fountains and rivers, of gorges and caverns, and of rivers in caverns. The first movement [the tale of Aristaeus] introduces the boy “weeping at the sacred river’s source”. The mother who responds is “in her chamber beneath the river’s depth”; her mermaids reside “in their glass-green abodes”. The boy descends “to the pools set deep in caverns and plangent glades”. This key-note once struck is sustained [in the second movement] in the resonant sea-cave of Proteus, [in the third in] the river bank on which Eurydice dies, [and then in further movements in] the solitary shore (…) on which Orpheus laments, the vasty halls of death through which glides the “awful stream”, the icy caverns of the north, and the gorge where Orpheus’ last cry still echoes down the tide. These [master] images are the real stuff of the poetry. They interpenetrate the panels of the composition and dissolve their [independent] integrity. (1: 5-6)

This dissolution of independent “integrity” through “master images” does not, however, cancel difference:

This kind of poetic composition is not dismayed by the incongruous. Rather, it exalts incongruity into a principle. (2: 4)

What is at stake, then, is a source that does not lose itself in the generation and maintenance of difference, but neither does it cancel difference in maintaining itself in its original-originating primacy. For the Greeks and Romans, this source was often conceived as ‘water’:

Finally, lurking behind the roar of these romantic waters [comprising the series of “master images”] was that ancient pre-Socratic cosmology of the “waters under the earth”, the “vast sea…in the depths of the earth” (the phrases are Seneca’s). This subterranean sea was the source at once of all the world’s great rivers (…) to which [source] they all return. (2: 6)

As Socrates explains in the Phaedo, water outflowing from the source takes on “the individual character of the territories through which they happen to flow”. However, since it is equally the power of their inflowing, it remains their “confluence”. Virgil’s poetry is seen by Havelock as operating through this power:

And so, as primitive geography merged into the likeness of primaeval cosmology, there began to be heard from far the distant roar of Virgil’s rivers of the world, rising in their subterranean caverns, ranging over the earth from equatorial mountains to the ice-fields of the north. The navigators long ago had sighted landfall and found mighty rivers and explored cataracts at peril of their life. (…) And the geometer and the scientist had listened and told them where they had been (…) And the philosophers had meditated and learnedly said of water that it surely is a powerful thing and permeates all and controls all and moves beneath us. Surely the earth itself must lie on water. And the poet listened to them all, and his enchanted ear caught the rumble of subterranean seas beneath his feet. Before his mind’s eye magic fountains issued from the depths and sprang into the air. Torrents cascaded between cliffs that had stood since the world began. He felt the icy breath of northern ranges, and was borne as in a dream on the bosom of irresistible currents. The road to Xanadu was open. (3: 18)

Havelock’s take on the road to Xanadu is that it is a foundational ano-kato dynamic or pathway which Virgil was able to express in, and through, his poetry. The idea may be imagined as a series of panels arranged, however, not horizontally in the Alexandrian manner, but vertically.

The top panel presents tales like those of Aristaeus and Orpheus, both of which involve a katabasis into the sea or into the underworld and a subsequent anabasis from them.

The next panel below consists of what Havelock called Virgil’s “master images” of descending waterfalls and ascending fountains with their own katabasis-anabasis movement that both illustrates and underlies the tales in the top panel.

The third panel shows what Havelock called “a change in levels of poetic description”. Here Virgil’s poetry is seen as itself taking on the synchronic ano-kato movement depicted in the scenes in the panels above it:

The smooth and dignified surface of the theme is continually violated by the upthrust of something emotionally uncontrolled and violent, an internal disturbance (…) which almost cancels the poem’s basic faith in heaven, history, and man.9

A calm surface previously prepared is suddenly and deliberately disrupted (…). The shift, that is to say, from bright light to the colors of gloom, is also a shift from the description of events occurring in the external world, the world of action (…). A change in levels of poetic description has occurred. The poet’s verse has taken a plunge downward below the surface…10

In this third panel, the focus is not on individual images, scenes or tales. Instead, its subject is Virgil’s artistry in juxtaposing different images or scenes belonging at once to “a calm surface” and to a “nightmare” below. Here plural scenes are at stake in simultaneous or synchronic ano-kato relation.  And this sort of incongruous juxtaposition is said to be what constitutes and reveals Virgil’s poetics: “The Aeneid is a work of divided genius”; “Not action, but reflection, and not sinuous sweep, but interruption and arrest, constitute the genius of the lines”.

In the fourth and final panel, Virgil’s artistry as portrayed in the third panel may itself be seen as a product of his own “plunge downward below the surface of the conscious life” where it has been energized and complicated in the “internal world”. Havelock calls this “the psychological dimension”: “the upthrust of something emotionally uncontrolled and violent” producing or reflecting “an internal disturbance”.

The narrative epic of action is (…) devised to put on parade a series of states of the inner consciousness. The poem is to some degree a dream, or more correctly a nightmare.[1.1949 abstract.]

Virgil, according to Havelock, was able to take the energy and complication available to him through this katabasisanabasis dynamic of the fourth panel to craft the poetry displayed in the panels above it.

his enchanted ear caught the rumble of subterranean seas beneath his feet. Before his mind’s eye magic fountains issued from the depths and sprang into the air. (…) He (…) was borne as in a dream on the bosom of irresistible currents. The road to Xanadu was open.11

  1. References to ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’ are given to the three sections in which it was published in Phoenix in 1946-1947 — issues 1:1, 1:2 and 1:supplement — followed by the page number in the corresponding issue. Some background to the essay is given in The Road to Xanadu and in The Maelstrom, Xanadu and Plato.
  2. Havelock was the founding president of the Ontario (later: Canadian) Classical Association and a co-founder of Phoenix, the association’s journal.
  3. Compare Havelock on Plato in his 1951 ‘Introduction’ to Socrates and the Soul of Man, a translation of the Phaedo by Desmond Stewart: “Platonism would seem to be not so much a system — for its quality still eludes the textbook writers — as a chemical solution which impregnates the syntax of the sentences and paragraphs in which thought is deployed.”
  4. Plato describes this moment of transformation of the soul with some frequency: “And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state; and therefore the utmost care should be taken. Let each one of us leave every other kind of knowledge and seek and follow one thing only (…) to learn and discern between good and evil, and so to choose always and everywhere the better life as he has opportunity” (Republic 618); “this is the hour of agony and extremest conflict for the soul” (Phaedrus 648a).

  5. For Plato, see McLuhan and Plato 1 – Phaedrus and Er and McLuhan and Plato 9 – on the plain of oblivion ; for Virgil, see The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land.
  6. See note 7 here.
  7. Further discussion in “Great change” in Descent into the Maelstrom.
  8. Not to say that it is not also inside!
  9. 1949 abstract for Havelock’s lecture, ‘The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land’.
  10. The Aeneid and Its Translators‘, The Hudson Review, 27:3 (Autumn, 1974), pp. 338-370; as discussed in The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land, this 1974 essay was developed out of Havelock’s 1949 lecture.
  11. What Havelock here describes lyrically as Virgil’s “enchanted ear” and “eye magic” being “borne as in a dream on the bosom of irresistible currents”, he styled a couple years later as “more correctly a nightmare”. The great question is how this remarkable change in tone, which was by no means restricted to Havelock, took place.  For discussion see the forthcoming post on Havelock and the question of ‘water’.