Aeneid Book 6, Lines 124 to 141

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Briefly annotated by Tom Jenkins.

Read by Professor Wendell Clausen,

Pope Professor of the Latin Language and Literature
Professor of Comparative Literature, Emeritus

Dryden read by Professor Kathleen Coleman

Aeneid Book 6, Lines 124 to 141
Talibus orabat dictis, arasque tenebat,
cum sic orsa loqui vates: `Sate sanguine divom,
Tros Anchisiade, facilis descensus Averno;
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est. Pauci, quos aequus amavit
Iuppiter, aut ardens evexit ad aethera virtus,
dis geniti potuere. Tenent media omnia silvae,
Cocytusque sinu labens circumvenit atro.
Quod si tantus amor menti, si tanta cupido est,
bis Stygios innare lacus, bis nigra videre
Tartara, et insano iuvat indulgere labori,
accipe, quae peragenda prius. Latet arbore opaca
aureus et foliis et lento vimine ramus,
Iunoni infernae dictus sacer; hunc tegit omnis
lucus, et obscuris claudunt convallibus umbrae.
Sed non ante datur telluris operta subire,
auricomos quam quis decerpserit arbore fetus.

Dryden's translation
Then thus replied the prophetess divine:
"O goddess-born of great Anchises' line,
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.
To few great Jupiter imparts this grace,
And those of shining worth and heav'nly race.
Betwixt those regions and our upper light,
Deep forests and impenetrable night
Possess the middle space: th' infernal bounds
Cocytus, with his sable waves, surrounds.
But if so dire a love your soul invades,
As twice below to view the trembling shades;
If you so hard a toil will undertake,
As twice to pass th' innavigable lake;
Receive my counsel. In the neighb'ring grove
There stands a tree; the queen of Stygian Jove
Claims it her own; thick woods and gloomy night
Conceal the happy plant from human sight.
One bough it bears; but (wondrous to behold!)
The ductile rind and leaves of radiant gold:
This from the vulgar branches must be torn,

As part of his travails to land in Italy, Aeneas must enter the underworld, a task undertaken by only a few heroes in mythology [including Odysseus, Heracles, and Orpheus, though the last fails to recover the object of his quest, his beloved Eurydice]. But Aeneas is not allowed to enter the underworld without the fabled "golden bough", and only men specially sanctioned by the gods may fetch it at all. Again, we see trappings of a divine machinery underneath the human drama of the Aeneid; mortal and immortal spheres constantly mingle and morph-- particularly in book VI, which quite literally spans the distance between life and death.

The passage includes one of Vergil's most famous short passages: "Easy is the descent to Avernus, for the door to the underworld lies open both day and night. But to retrace your steps and return to the breezes above-- that's the task, that's the toil."

[Perhaps this is an allusion to Vergil's own tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. The musician Orpheus, having lost his girlfriend Eurydice, descends to the underworld to retrieve her; the one stipulation for her return is that, on the ascent back to the breezes above, Orpheus is not allowed to glance at Eurydice. Unhappily, he does, and loses her forever.... The gorgeous telling of this tale can be found at the end of Vergil's Georgics, book IV. ]