This is one in a series of posts on the common readings in Stanford’s 1980s “Western Culture” course. You can see all posts in the series here: Readings in Western Culture.
I loved Latin, not the elementary lessons but those which I studied later under teachers of literature….I was obliged to memorize the wanderings of a hero named Aeneas, while in the meantime I failed to remember my own erratic ways. I learned to lament the death of Dido, who killed herself for love, while all the time, in the midst of these things, I was dying, separated from you, my God and my Life, and I shed no tears for my own plight.
–Augustine, Confessions, I.xiii
We sat in the large lecture hall, hundreds of us, to listen to a Classics professor talk about Dante. We had already heard her lecture once before, in the fall, about the Aeneid, but here she was, once again, this passionate woman. She was old – or at least she seemed so to our cohort of callow freshmen. Her hair was long and wavy, but there were one or two streaks of gray in it. She might have been all of 35, if that. She was a little bit plump and matronly, and she lectured with an intensity that made her rich alto voice seem almost melodic. She seemed just shy of breaking into song.
Instead, she broke into tears.
She was, I believe, a Latinist and a scholar of Virgil (or Vergil, if you must). She had lectured in the fall quarter about Dido and Aeneas, about Dido’s dramatic self-immolation for want of Aeneas’s love. I don’t recall if she connected the portrayal of the half-wild Dido to Roman notions of the cultic savagery of the Carthaginians, who sacrificed their children to Ba’al Hammon by burning them alive.* In fact, I don’t recall much about that first lecture at all, beyond the fact that it sounded vaguely feminist, and therefore suspect, to me.
And here she was now, spending an entire lecture on the role of Virgil in the Commedia Divina as the guide of Dante the character in his own poem, and on the significance of Virgil as antecedent, model, and literary “mentor” to Dante the poet. As scary as hell was, Dante was deeply content with Virgil’s company. If the only way through hell is to sink to the lowest possible point and then crawl straight past the devil’s ass until the world turns upside down and you are climbing once again, it helps to have the companionship of someone you trust and admire.
So the two poets, the Roman and the Italian, made it past Beelzebub’s butt and scaled the mountain of Purgatory together, with Virgil the pagan explaining to Dante the Christian the significance of each plateau on that terraced mountain rising toward Paradise. But paganism could only guide the poet so far. When at last they reached the gates of Paradise, Dante saw a face he recognized, the love of his life, the treasure of his heart: Beatrice.
A lady came in view: an olive crown
wreathed her immaculate veil, her cloak was green,
the colors of live flame played on her gown.
My soul – such years had passed since last it saw
that lady and stood trembling in her presence,
stupefied by the power of holy awe—
now, by some power that shone from her above
the reach and witness of my mortal eyes,
felt the full mastery of enduring love.
Here she is, he thought, his teenage crush, the answer to what he believed to be his heart’s desire – here she is, fully alive.
The instant I was smitten by the force,
which had already once transfixed my soul
before my boyhood years had run their course,
I turned left with the same assured belief
that makes a child run to its mother’s arms
when it is frightened or has come to grief,
to say to Virgil: “There is not within me
one drop of blood unstirred. I recognize
the tokens of the ancient flame.” But he,
he had taken his light from us. He had gone.
Virgil had gone. Virgil the gentle Father
to whom I gave my soul for its salvation!
In these antepenultimate and penultimate stanzas of quoted above (from Canto XXX), Dante says Virgil’s name three times.
No, he doesn’t say it; he cries it. That’s what our lecturer made of the emphatic repetition, as she described Dante’s anguish at the disappearance of his guide. ‘He cried out, ‘Virgil!…Virgil!…VIRGIL!'”
And we all heard the catch and tremble in her voice, and saw the tears running down her cheeks. And we tittered nervously and shifted in our seats. Here is this old lady (maybe 35) so geeked out over Virgil that her voice breaks and she begins to weep when he bows out of Dante’s poem, even as Dante wept:
Not all that sight of Eden lost to view
by our First Mother could hold back the tears
that stained my cheeks so lately washed with dew.
And there she stood, teaching this moment to us, and crying despite her best efforts not to.
As a scholar and a teacher, I understand her better now. I’m guessing she was mortified to have broken that way in front of a full lecture hall. But I also know how hard it is to not break, to not falter, to read aloud the moving words, the stirring words, to tell the stories of brave people and humble people, to trace the winding paths of faiths and doubts through texts we spend our professional lives seeking to understand fully and explain well – how hard it is to take what is so real and so important to us, so vital and precious, and try to convey that fully to our students, with the serene detachment of the pagan Virgil.
We teachers are true believers in what we do and why it is important. And while historians of thought are less interested professionally in the truth or falsehood of an idea than we are in its significance to the people who espoused it (look at that metaphor, would you), it is probably the case that some of the things we teach are truths to us, vital truths, sacred truths almost. And how hard it is to come into the presence of the sacred, bringing others with you, without tears.
But I manage it, every time – not in spite of the professor who wept over Virgil, but in her honor. Her scholarship was her passion, and I admire that so unreservedly. Virgil was her guide too, and a symbol of the guidance we require to go from students to teachers, from learners to scholars – the guidance we require, and the guidance we must require no longer.
So when I recite “The New Colossus,” my voice doesn’t crack. When I read aloud Garrison’s message “To the Reader” from the first number of The Liberator, I do it with unperturbed assurance. That comes from practice. I have to practice teaching the passages I find so deeply moving without myself being deeply moved in that moment. My heart is in my voice, no doubt, and all the passion and love and awe and gratitude and wonder and humane care that such passages call forth must show in my face. But I shed no tears – not because I am afraid of being laughed at by a room full of people so blissfully unaware of how very young they are, but because I am afraid that if I were to cry, that’s all they would remember.
I am not a professor who cries. But I have had two professors in my entire academic career cry freely in my presence – the classicist, just once, so many years ago in a lecture hall at Stanford, and another professor more recently (and repeatedly). That’s not all that I remember about either of them – but I do remember it. The memory stays with me for its sheer rarity among the mentors who have guided my intellectual development over the long and winding road that is my formal education. I have learned much from those memories, and I am learning still. And if you are a professor who has cried in front of students, even though you tried hard not to, it’s all right. It will be all right.
For just a moment, despite her best efforts not to, that professor in Western Culture lost herself in the text and became Dante. Perhaps that was the only way that some of us could later understand what it can mean to fill Virgil’s evanescent shoes.
Thirty years later, I am still grateful for her tears.