Pone Subit Coniunx: Robert Hass and Vergil’s Aeneid

Robert Hass has been another American poet that I’ve discovered from literary Twitter.  My favorite poem in his collection Time and Materials is entitled “The World as Will and Representation.” In this longer poem, which is typical of the longer ones in the book,  Hass tells a very personal story.  He is thinking back to when he was a ten-year-old boy and his family’s morning routine during which time his father would give his mother a drug called antabuse which was supposed to prevent her from drinking.  “It was the late nineteen-forties, a time,/A Social world, in which the men got up/And went to work, leaving the women with the children.”  The boy’s father would ground the medication very fine into a powder and put it in his mother’s glass of water was so that she couldn’t spit the pills out.   The poet lingers on the vivid details of crushing the pills, handing her the glass and watching her drink.

The ending is incredibly powerful. The boy’s father leaves for work and the child is left alone with his mother:

“Keep and eye on Mama, pardner.”
You know the passage in the Aeneid? The man
Who leaves the burning city with his father
On his shoulders, holding his young son’s hand,
Means to do well among the flaming arras
And the falling columns while the blind prophet,
Arms upraised, howls from the inner chamber,
Great Troy is fallen. Great Troy is no more.
Slumped in a bathrobe, penitent and biddable,
My mother at the kitchen table gagged and drank,
Drank and gagged. We get our first moral idea
About the world—about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things—from somewhere.

The passage to which Robert Hass is referring occurs in Vergil’s Aeneid Book II when Aeneas is telling the story of how he escaped Troy with his father and son.  Aeneas’s father, Anchises, is paralyzed so he must carry him on his shoulders and hold his young son, Iulus, by the hand.  But, but, Aeneas also has a wife, Creusa (2.705-710 translation is my own):

I will carry you on my shoulders, your weight will not burden me.
As things happend around us, we will either be in danger together
or we will both reach safety. And let little Iulus walk beside me
and my wife follow behind.

After Aeneas successfully convinces his father to escape Troy, he tells the rest of the family servants to meet him outside the city at a Temple to Ceres. Aeneas also hands his household gods to his father for safekeeping. Aeneas then sums up their escape (II.721-725, translation is my own):

Having spoken these things, I covered my broad shoulders
with the pelt of a golden lion and lowered my neck
for the impending burden. Little Iulus took hold of my
right hand and followed his father by taking large steps;
my wife walks behind.

That last line in the Latin is striking: pone subit coniunx (the wife walks behind). Aeneas, busy with his father and son, loses Creusa as Troy is burning and he never sees her again. She is one of the characters in the Aeneid that is sacrificed because of Aeneas’s future in Italy where he is destined to marry another woman in a political alliance. Creusa, I think, also foreshadows Dido’s tragic fate.

In his poem, Ross describes the details of Aeneas, the Father, taking care of his father and young son, but he doesn’t specifically mention the detail of the hero’s wife. Creusa does linger in the background of Hass’s poem in the figure of the boy’s mother, “penitent and biddable.” Creusa, like the poet’s mother, is also a victim of “justice and power” and “the order of things.” Hass’s poem brings up so many questions: why was the boy’s mother drinking in the first place? What were the other circumstances of the family? And, most importantly, did this woman also, pone subit, walk behind?



Filed under American Literature, Classics, Poetry, Vergil

6 responses to “Pone Subit Coniunx: Robert Hass and Vergil’s Aeneid

  1. Unanswered questions 🙂 keep us wondering & rapt with wanderlust. Δῑδώ: We live, we learn.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that whole book of poems, and, as you say, the poem you comment on here is especially powerful. I’ve wondered about the Schopenhauer reference in the title, but never thought it through. And the Aeneid reference simply slipped past me. But, as you write, there she is, left to walk or drink behind. The poem has a new dimension for me, for which I thank you. My favorite in the book is Time and Materials, Gerhard Richter: Abstrakt Bilden. Hass abstracts his thoughts — a kind of theft — leaving the material words and their disposition on the page. And then he thinks about rendering time, standing outside / The horizontal rush of it . . . Some vertical gesture then. . . .
    I’ve been writing about the standing metaphor, which is partly why I like this poem. Richter’s abstract painting like the nunc stans of Catholic theologians. Richter’s abstract stained glass window in the Cologne Cathedral.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I noticed the Schopenhauer title too but couldn’t think of a thread or connection with the poem. There is that kind of theft you mention in this poem as well with Vergil too, isn’t there. And with Creusa lingering in the background. I read your blog post with the Richter and it was terrific! It really helped me understand the poem on a deeper level. Thanks so much, Scott. I’m looking forward to exploring more of Hass. I’ve ordered two more of his books.


  3. Vishy

    Beautiful post, Melissa! Loved the parallels between the poem and the Aeneid! Thanks for sharing! I remember reading that in some cultures there is a tradition that a wife has to walk ten feet behind her husband. I am wondering whether this was the case in Ancient Greece and is that why Creusa was walking behind Aeneas.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The custom of the wife walking behind the husband was still in place in Romania in the countryside when I was a child. Not everybody respected it, but my, the village gossip was fierce if they didn’t! When I went to see the Troy exhibition they had that story/statue and it really made me think… And of course in the Robert Hass context it is particularly poignant.

    Liked by 1 person

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