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Throughout Book 2 of The Aeneid, Virgil uses a number of images to illustrate scenes of violence, drama, horror and emotion. Vivid similes are used to make scenes clearer in the mind of the audience; comparisons to which contemporary audiences could easily relate. Hence, his story-telling skills are brought out through his effective way of dealing with imagery.
Virgil’s vivid language and description is most effective when describing scenes of death and horror. The best example of this is the death of Laocoon, ‘punished for his crime [of] violating the sacred timbers [of the horse] with his sinful spear’.
The two serpents that rise out of the sea to kill him are described as horrific fiends. Virgil’s vivid language conjures up the speed and terror of these monsters as they part the water. We can clearly imagine their immensity as the serpents approach – ‘They held high their blood-stained crests…plough[ing] the waves behind them, their backs winding, coil upon measureless coil’.
Their horrifying appearance is enhanced by the reaction of Aeneas and others present – ‘I shudder at the memory of it…we grew pale at the sight and ran in all directions’.
The scene closes with an effective simile comparing Laocoon’s ‘horrible cries’ moments before his death to a wounded sacrifice – ‘[It was] like the bellowing of a wounded bull shaking the ineffectual axe out of its neck as it flees from the altar’. The irony of this comparison is that Laocoon is a priest who would have conducted many sacrifices to the gods.
He is being compared to a sacrifice, giving the sense that the gods have lost their affection for him in an instant despite his loyalty to them in the past. The comparison itself is extremely lucid, and gives the impression of helplessness and pain. I feel that the scene of Laocoon’s death stands alone as one of the best examples in Book Two of Virgil creating horror through imagery. This is because the language used is simple yet forceful. At the same time, the reader experiences a great sense of sorrow for Laocoon and his sons at their suffering such a harsh and undeserved death at the hands of the gods. This scene also marks the beginning of destruction for Troy as Aeneas points out – ‘This was the last day of a doomed people and we spent it adorning the shrines of the gods’.
Another image that effectively portrays a sense of horror is Virgil’s description of the ghost of Hektor. Much like the previous scene, the poet makes use of vile and vivid language to create a graphic image of the ghost’s appearance – ‘Black with dust and caked with blood; his feet swollen where they had been pierced for the leather thongs…his beard was filthy, his hair matted with blood’. As well as being extremely graphic and gory, this description implies the ghost’s suffering even after death, therefore the audience can take pity on Hektor for his treatment at the hands of Achilles. This could also be a forewarning of what may happen to the rest of the Trojans.
Much like Homer in The Iliad, Virgil uses animal similes in scenes of combat. This allows him to bring out their hunting instincts and behaviour when under threat. Animal comparisons also allow the poet to highlight the different qualities between characters. This allows the audience to see how one has a greater advantage over the other. One of the best examples of an animal simile is Virgil’s comparison of Aeneas and his men to a pack of wolves ‘foraging blindly on a misty night, driven out of their lairs by a ravening hunger…leaving their young behind to wait for them’.
This is an effective comparison for a number of reasons. Firstly, the comparison of warriors to wolves brings out their qualities of brutality and courage. The scenario of hunting is compared to war as the soldiers leave their innocent families behind. Death for many is inevitable yet still they hunger for the chase. The reference to the ‘ravaging hunger’ of the wolves is a comparison to the fury that drives the soldiers into the fighting. The wolves are driven by their hunger to protect their young in the same way that the Trojan warriors are motivated by their anger towards the Greeks to go out and fight. But in both cases, they are aware that they may face death, as Aeneas points out – ‘We ran the gauntlet of the enemy to certain death’. The scene also brings out Aeneas’ animalistic quality as the leading member of a pack of wolves. When speaking to his men, Aeneas shows his excellent leadership qualities – ‘If your desire is fixed to follow a man who fights to the end, you see how things stand with us’.
Virgil’s imagery uses the snake theme again when he describes Androgeos’ reaction to discovering that his allies are really his enemy. Androgeos reacts like ‘a man…who steps on a snake with all his weight without seeing it, and starts back in sudden panic as it raises its wrath’ We clearly see the fear of Androgeos as he realises he is about to die. The surprise and terror of finding a poisonous killer so close is cleverly portrayed. I think that Virgil is also comparing the Trojans to a deadly snake, enhancing their fearsome nature and ability to strike without warning. Androgeos experiences the ‘sudden panic’ of a man who realises that he is in danger. ‘He was stupefied and started backwards without another word’.
Much like the simile which compared Aeneas’ men to wolves, and brought out his leadership qualities, a third simile helps us to understand his emotions. Because the events of the book are being told from Aeneas’ perspective, we are given a detailed account of his feelings. Aeneas compares himself to a shepherd as he stands on the roof of his house listening as the Greeks begin their attack on Troy – ‘When a furious south wind is carrying fire into a field…or a mountain river whirls along in spate, flattening all the fields…carrying great trees headlong down in its floods whilst the shepherd stands stupefied…listening to the sound without knowing what it is’. By comparing himself a shepherd, Aeneas continues to show his leadership qualities. It is a shepherd that controls the herd much like Aeneas controls his men. The various disasters (the fire and flood) represent the attack of the Greeks upon the city, which in turn represents the shepherd’s field. This simile implies that Aeneas is looking out over his own city on the verge of destruction, which hints towards his destiny of re-establishing the Trojan race. By portraying himself as a leader, his anxiety shows the extent of his courage but also his fear that is rarely brought out in the qualities of a leading figure.
Another way in which Virgil effectively creates imagery is through his use of natural similes. One example of this is the clashing of the Greek and Trojan armies, compared to the clashing of the winds – ‘It was as though a whirlwind had burst and opposing winds were clashing…glorying in the horses of the morning, with woods wailing and wild Nereus churning up the sea’. Virgil’s choice of words such as ‘burst’, ‘clashing’ and ‘wailing’ suggest disarray and chaos as the two sides meet. We clearly see the manner in which the attack took place; suddenly, violently, noisily. The ‘opposing winds’ represents the two sides and their ‘clashing’ conjures up a dramatic image of impact as they meet.Wind also being a strong force of nature enforces the strength and brutality of both sides. It is possible that this simile is used to express Virgil’s mythological knowledge, by giving a human-like quality to the wind, as if granting it will. The brute force of the Greeks is enforced by a second natural simile which compares their storming of Priam’s palace to a river bursting its banks – ‘No river foamed in spate was ever like this, bursting its banks and leaving its channel to overwhelm everything in its path’. The image is one of the Greeks bursting through the doors of the palace and ‘butchering the guards who stood in their way’, in the same way that a flooding river destroys everything in its path. Such natural disasters are tumultuous images that bring fear into the minds of audiences watching them today. One can only imagine the fear of such forces in the minds of Virgil’s audience.
One final natural simile that I feel expresses Virgil’s talent in creating effective imagery is his comparison of the fall of Troy to an aging ash tree – ‘Troy toppled over from its foundations like an ancient ash tree …which farmers have hacked with blow upon blow of their double axes…its foliage shudders and its head trembles and nods until as last it succumbs to its wounds and breaks with a dying groan’. This is an extremely sorrowful comparison, which creates a great deal of sympathy for the Trojans. Virgil gives the tree living qualities by suggesting that it is wounded and dying due to the actions of the farmers, who represent the Greeks. The act of ‘hacking’ also suggests the slaughtering of the Trojan people, and implies that the Greeks outnumbered them. However, the simile also sheds a light of strength upon the Trojans. By comparing it to an ‘ancient’ ash tree, it is suggested that the city has stood for many years and remained strong after many enemy attacks. The fact that it falls having survived many wars previously suggests its strength. Therefore, the comparison can be viewed as one of both sorrow and respect.
In conclusion, I feel that throughout Book 2 of The Aeneid, Virgil effectively makes use of a number of techniques, which allow him to express his ability to conjure lucid and efficient imagery. This is achieved through the use of similes, comparing humans to animals in order to bring out their animalistic qualities and emotions, and also similes comparing scenes of war to acts of natural disaster. As well as similes, Virgil’s basic and simple choice of language allows him to conjure vivid images of horror, as well as to create a sense of sorrow and emotion.
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