Vergil’s Aeneid, describing Aeneas’ long and arduous journey towards the founding of Rome, has been known to be one of literature’s greatest epics. The Aeneid is significantly noted for Vergil’s impressive approach in respect to themes such as divine intervention, fate, and human suffering. Vergil is able to successfully address these themes in such a distinguishing manner by conveying their complexities through Aeneas’ trying experiences. The fact that Aeneas, a proud and loyal Trojan man, is seen in various situations as going through the motions of humanity makes him seem that much more relatable, despite the severity of his journey. On the other hand, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, an epic poem in its own rights, addresses the same, if not similar, issues in a different manner than Vergil. Nevertheless, Ginsberg’s chant on the struggles of disillusioned life is quite momentous in its significance. The premise of Howl explores the lives of those who are the rejects of their time, as they bear the scrutiny of the mundane lifestyle. Although we do not see the same emphasis on themes such as divine intervention or constant awareness of fate, as evident in the Aeneid, we still hear of the perceived consequences of such disregard to human life in our realistic setting.
The theme of divine intervention is quite significant to a very large portion of the Aeneid, indicating not only the cultural belief in the Gods’ influence but also the ability of one’s life to be directly affected by the Gods’ actions. This is important in understanding the Aeneid as it is by divine intervention that Aeneas is able to keep on track with his journey to establish the founding of Rome. The first instance of this was seen in Juno’s disruptive intervening in Aeneas’ journey at sea with his crew, with whom he has to face the riled winds and seas, both of which were acting upon Juno’s request. Juno states: “Am I, defeated, simply to stop trying, unable to turn back the Trojan king from Italy? No doubt, the Fates won’t have it” (I. 55-58). Her pride not only prompts her to assume that the Fates would allow for her defeat, but also emphasizes her determination to prevent Aeneas from fulfilling his destiny, a realization that would render Juno’s city of Carthage to be less important. Of course, Aeneas’ doting mother, Venus herself, intervenes by seeking the aid of other Gods, including Jupiter, in order to steer Aeneas out of harm’s way. Jupiter states to Venus: “I set no limit to their [Aeneas and his crew] fortunes and no time; I give them empire without end... His empire’s boundary shall be the Ocean; the only border to his fame, the stars” (I. 389-404). By having Jupiter explicitly expressing favorable will towards Aeneas, Vergil is able to indicate how divine favor ensures one’s glorious future, despite the many various obstacles throughout the journey.
In contrast, Ginsberg’s approach towards divine intervention is not only less prominent throughout Howl, but also indicative of the detachment between people and their slipping faith in God. Ginsberg writes: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by / madness, starving hysterical naked / …angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly / connection to the starry dynamo in the machin- / ery of night / ...who bared their brains to Heaven”. Ginsberg’s statement illustrates not only the struggle for the “best minds”, but also for their longing for the “burning… connection” to the starry heavens. The weight of this imagery, the maddened individuals yearning for the heavens, is found in Ginsberg’s brilliant to convey their vulnerability as they “bared their brains”. This is a stark contrast to Vergil’s approach towards divine intervention as in Howl, there is a great lack of it. In the Aeneid, there are many instances where the Gods pay special attention, either good or bad, to Aeneas and his journey regardless of whether or not he needs it. In Howl, although the individuals bare themselves to the Heavens, they are left unattended to as they continue to struggle past through life’s mundane existence.
The Consequences of FateEdit
In relation to the theme of divine intervention is the involvement of fate as a determining factor in one’s life. Both Vergil and Ginsberg focus, in one way or other, on the consequences of fate, as the subjects of each respective works experience a breakdown of sorts due to the lives they were or were not destined to carry out. For Vergil’s Aeneas, his love for Dido suffered under his superior fate to establish the founding of Rome, of which results in a deadly end for Dido and a guilty conscious for Aeneas upon seeing her shade in the Underworld. Aeneas states to Dido, who finds out that he is leaving her after their intimate time together, that “If fate had granted me to guide my life by my own auspices and to unravel my troubles with unhampered will, then I should cherish first the town of Troy” (IV. 460-463) and that “It is not my own free will that leads to Italy” (IV. 491-492). In response to Aeneas’ curt “No longer set yourself and me afire” (IV. 489), Dido eventually kills herself after seeing his ships depart and realizing he, in respect to his duties, will never stay with her. Both Aeneas’ obedience to his destined fate and Dido’s consequent suicide illustrates how the fate of certain individuals overtakes other aspects of their lives, thus leaving them not entirely complete.
Similarly in Howl, Ginsberg explores the consequences faced by those who are fulfill the American Ideal, as they are equally identified as being the unwanted rejects of their world, despite their achievements. Ginsberg already establishes them as the unwanted outcasts of society, despite being “the best minds”, at the start of the poem. By following their early address in the poem with consecutive and rhythmic listings of life experiences, some of which are raunchy, painful, and emotional, Ginsberg is able to draw continuous flashes into the lives of those who were deemed “crazy” and reveal the real humanizing aspects to life. He recounts those “who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits / on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse / & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments / of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the / fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinis- / ter intelligent editors, or were run down by the / drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality”. This is similar to the notion of the fulfilled destined fate as the particular individuals mentioned in this verse are already those have jobs (as indicative of the “suits” and “intelligent editors”), an aspect that is symbolic of success in life. However, it does not seem as if these individuals are getting their worth in morale within these occupations, as they “were burned alive” and are in “iron regiments”. These images encompass nothing for the human soul, despite their success on Madison Ave (of which is associated to wealthy material possessions); in the end, even living the American ideal is relative to the rigidity and detachment of the standards.
A Look at Human SufferingEdit
A noteworthy aspect to this theme, consequences of fate, is the prevalence of human suffering found in both the Aeneid and Howl. Human suffering is worthy of being looked at separately because both Vergil and Ginsberg convey it in such a way that denotes an underlying humanity found in all. Vergil approaches this by way of Dido’s grief, of which was caused by profound love, after Aeneas leaves her. Vergil writes: “Then maddened by the fates, unhappy Dido calls out at last for death… she always finds herself alone, abandoned, and wandering without companions on an endless journey” (IV. 620-645). Dido’s descent to such insanity and eventual suicide may perhaps be an extreme not seen in all cases of love gone wrong; but nevertheless, Dido does suffer at the whims of unrequited love, an aspect that is shared by everyone capable of human emotions. Vergil is able evoke our sentiments for Dido in this manner, as we sympathize with her pains at seeing yet another man whom she loves leave her (the first being Sychaeus, her husband, who was murdered by her brother). Our sentiments for Dido grow even more upon her suicide as we are progressively witnessing her experience subsequent pangs of personal abandonment by others. Until ultimately, we reach a climax when we witness the utmost form of abandonment, her determined will to leave behind her humanly pains at the hand of death.
In Howl, Ginsberg’s method of continuous flashes into the struggles of other, set off by his fast rhythmic meter, reveals the painful side of being deemed unwanted by society, further contributing to the theme of human suffering. Those suffering at the hands of reality include those who: “who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked / and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons… who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccess- / fully, gave up and were forced to open antique / stores where they thought they were growing / old and cried… who subsequently presented themselves on the / granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads / and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding in- / stantaneous lobotomy… and were given instead the concrete void of insulin”. What draws one into Ginsberg’s tale of the deserted individuals is the raw and gritty nature of their sufferings. While Vergil’s Dido died at the whims of love, she still chose to end her fate. It’s important to also note that Vergil was writing an epic tale of heroes, a tale that can make use of a dramatized, yet unfortunate, love affair. In Ginsberg’s case, the reality of those who were prone to inflicting self-harm was very much possible (even in context to today’s world). Many throughout Ginsberg’s time felt the disillusioned life that these individuals led. Howl was, in its most basic comprehension, a cry of lamentation towards the failure of being accepted into a constructed society. And those who couldn’t fit in suffered tremendously under the weight of unrealized hopes and dreams, a sentiment that is striking in all of us.
Both Vergil’s Aeneid and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl have distinct approaches to the themes divine intervention, fate, and human suffering. Yet, in some ways, both Vergil and Ginsberg are able to take us on a journey in self-understanding in light of these themes. For Vergil’s Aeneid, we are provided a stark contrast to the images of ancient piety and godly interactions by Ginsberg’s grime look into the lives of those not destined for glorious futures. As for Ginsberg’s Howl, we are provided a glimmer of hope by Vergil’s emphasis on Aeneas’ journey to lead his people to what will be the founding of a great future in Rome. Despite the differences in these works, at its core, they are both about a group of wandering people searching for something better. Although Ginsberg’s people have a more difficult experience with their search to not only belong, but to also live their intended lives, and Vergil’s people have a glorified mythological aspect to them, they both find common ground in the unified company of human perseverance.
Works Cited: Allen Mandelbaum The Aeneid of Vergil; Allen Ginsberg Howl