Read an Excerpt
From Mark Vessey’s Introduction to the Confessions
The Confessions stands in a unique relationship to the Western idea of the literary classic. Augustine’s most famous work challenges one of the supreme classics of ancient Latin literature, Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic of Rome’s imperial destiny. It contends against that sacred Roman model in an idiom derived from the Jewish and Christian scriptures, texts with their own strong claim to normative status in cultures of the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds. In the Confessions we witness the collision of two mighty traditions of storytelling, alike devoted to the long-term dealing of god(s) with human beings and societies. This alone would guarantee the work’s historic interest. What makes it startling, even now, is Augustine’s attempt to tell a story of the entire human race throughout all time, in the first person singular. The example of Roman epic encouraged narrative ambition. The Hebrew psalms provided an alternative dramatic voice. To say much more than that is to say more than we can know for certain about the genesis of this strange and utterly original creation. For a long while after Augustine’s death, no one knew what to make of the Confessions. By the time we find readers responding to it with real excitement, between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries of the Christian era, they already resemble the modern selves we call our own.
“To Carthage then I came / Burning burning burning burning.” The mood and movement are Augustine’s, at the beginning of book 3 of the Confessions. As a Roman citizen of the late Empire, Augustine spoke and wrote in Latin. The English lines occur in a modern classic, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), arguably the most influential English-language literary work of the twentieth century. (Its nearest competitor would be James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in the same year, another composition that plays on a long tradition of poetry and myth from Homer forward.) In the explanatory notes that he added to his poem, Eliot acknowledged Augustine as a source, quoting the Confessions in the first translation ever made of it in English, by Tobie Matthew (1620). “To Carthage then I came” was Matthew’s rendering of Augustine’s “Veni Carthaginem.”
The Latin phrase had a special resonance for Augustine’s readers in the early fifth century. In the far-off days of the Roman Republic, Carthage had been Rome’s great enemy. A Carthaginian army under Hannibal once encamped beneath the walls of the city itself. “Carthage must be destroyed!” That was the famous refrain of the Roman statesman Cato in his speeches to the Senate. Ancient Punic Carthage was destroyed, politically and physically. The city razed, its territories became Roman possessions. But the rivalry lingered in historical and mythological accounts of the rise of Roman power.
In the time of Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor, the poet Virgil devised a prophetic storyline in which the Trojan refugee Aeneas, making his way to Italy under the gods’ direction to found the future nation of Rome, was hospitably received at Carthage by Queen Dido. Aeneas’ tale of the fall of Troy, told to Dido and her entourage in books 2 and 3 of the Aeneid, is the leading first-person narrative in Roman literature. Augustine, who composed mock speeches based on episodes in the Aeneid as a schoolboy and taught the poem to his own students for years afterward, would have known it by heart. After relating the wearisome journey of himself and his fellows down to the moment of his father’s death in Sicily, before the storm at sea that cast them on the shore of Dido’s kingdom, Aeneas comes to a stop. Having come to Carthage, he has no more to tell in his own person, and reverts to being the third-person subject of a poet’s tale. In the inner time of the poem, meanwhile, Dido has fallen fatally in love with her storytelling guest. Fatally, because the fate or destiny of Rome and Aeneas is against her. The hero will go on his god-driven way, leaving Carthage and its queen behind without so much as a word of parting. Abandoned and betrayed, Dido takes her own life. As the Trojans sail over the horizon, they look back and see the city lit up by her funeral pyre. It is also the reader’s last sight of Carthage in the poem, burning.
When T. S. Eliot was asked to give a lecture on Virgil in wartime London—another city lit by fire—he made his subject the question “What Is a Classic?” (1944). He answered it by claiming Virgil as the universal classic of European literature, and the Aeneid as the poem par excellence of European civilization. For Eliot, the Roman destiny of Aeneas already prefigured the Christian destiny of the Western nations after Rome. The idea was not altogether original; like others who appealed to Virgil as guardian spirit of “the West” during the dark years of the mid-twentieth century, Eliot was deeply indebted to Dante, the Christian poet who, in the Commedia (Divine Comedy) had taken the pagan Virgil as guide for part of his journey. Central to Eliot’s vision of the literary classic is a scene of poignant separation that is also a promise for the future. There are only two moments in “What Is a Classic?” when he refers to a specific place in a literary text. The first is when he remembers how the shade of Dido refused to speak to Aeneas on his visit to the nether world. That passage in book 6 of the Aeneid Eliot calls “one of the most civilized . . . in poetry,” because of the assurance that he found in it—in his own intuition of what Aeneas must have felt—that Virgil’s hero possessed a “consciousness and conscience” suitable to the forerunner of European civilization. The second moment occurs at the very end of the lecture when Eliot quotes the lines spoken by the figure of Virgil as he takes his leave of Dante in the Commedia, having, says Eliot, “led Europe towards the Christian culture which he [Virgil] could never know.” These twin scenes of Virgilian wayfaring provided Eliot in 1944 with the emotional grounds for a joint definition of the literary classic and of the Christian destiny of the West, one that appealed at the time to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and whose echo has not yet died away. Neither scene, however, could have appeared in such a light without the intervention, between the pagan Virgil and the Christian Dante, of the wayfarer of Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine, not Virgil, created the plot of the “divine comedy” onto which Eliot and other post-Romantic readers of Dante would one day graft their personal histories of the West. And that is perhaps the best reason for rating this work a classic in the twenty-first century. To read the Confessions is to go back to a place in memory from which the most expansive projections of Western civilization have been made—the place that Augustine, like Virgil before and Eliot after him, calls “Carthage.”