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Speaking to Oneself

On a Christmas prophecy.

In the middle of the Bay of Naples, a very long time ago, the Roman poet and magician Virgil put an egg at the bottom of the sea. On this unlikely anchor, he tethered a massive stone pile. Archeologists and historians will try to tell you that it is actually a Norman-era construction, but the people know better; it is still known as Castel dell’Ovo, the Castle of the Egg.

Similarly, modern philological scholars insist on the “correct” form, Vergil with an E, in these times of the “reconstructed” or “classical” pronunciation of Latin; they say he was born at Mantua around 70 B.C. and died at Brindisi around 19 B.C. Those with better sense and longer memories know that it’s Virgil with an I, as in virga, a wand, as in virgo, a virgin. Reports of his death are conflicting, controversial, and possibly wholly inaccurate; but more about this anon.

How P. Virgilius Maro came to be a prophet and a magician is lost to the mists of biographic time, but the proof is in the pudding. Eclogue 4:

Ultima Cumaei uenit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo.
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna,
iam noua progenies caelo demittitur alto.
tu modo nascenti puero, quo ferrea primum
desinet ac toto surget gens aurea mundo,
casta faue Lucina: tuus iam regnat Apollo.

As Dryden would have it,

The last great Age, foretold by sacred Rhymes,⁠
Renews its finish’d Course, Saturnian times
Rowl round again, and mighty years, begun
From their first Orb, in radiant Circles run.
The base degenerate Iron-off-spring ends;
A golden Progeny from Heav’n descends;⁠
O chast Lucina speed the Mother's pains,
And haste the glorious Birth; thy own Apollo reigns!

The moderns will try to tame these lines; they’ll try to hem them in with Julio-Claudian biographica and source studies, insisting that Virgil—pardon, Vergil—must have been speaking about the sordid, mundane business of dynastic economy, the begetting and breeding of monsters and tyrants. They are wrong; they misunderstand the essence of prophecy. A prophet is not without honor but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house—and especially in his own time. The prophet speaks only to himself.

Naples is a place in need of prophets and strong magic. When the Devil was cast down from Heaven and struck the earth, Christ wept over the great crater, and it was filled with Our Lord’s tears. This became the Bay. In memory of this, the wine of the grapes that grow on the slopes of Vesuvius, which sits right upon the Devil’s head, is called Lacryma Christi. It is natural that, in this ragged zone where curse and blessing broil together, Virgil established his castle on an egg.

The authorities do not report whether it is a chicken’s egg or some other fowl’s. I like to think it was a dove’s egg—small, with a paper-thin shell. What makes the trick of the castle delightful is to have something massy sitting on something fragile; our magician would have been hard pressed to find something frailer, for there are no hummingbirds in Europe.

Virgil was familiar with doves—every schoolboy knows that a pair of Venus’ birds lead Aeneas to the golden bough, the hall-pass for the underworld. In Eclogue I, Meliboeus, the herdsman expelled from his ancestral lands to make way for Augustus’ revolutionary veterans, laments the scenes he must leave behind:

hinc alta sub rupe canet frondator ad auras,
nec tamen interea raucae, tua cura, palumbes
nec gemere aëria cessabit turtur ab ulmo.

Dryden again:

While from the Neighb’ring Rock, with rural Songs,⁠
The Pruner’s Voice the pleasing Dream prolongs;
Stock-Doves and Turtles tell their Am’rous pain,
And from the lofty Elms of Love complain.

Turtur, the European wood dove, is a word of low register—it appears only once in the works of our genteel poet-magician, here in the voice of a hapless rustic evictee. After many slipping years of use, worn out and patched up again with a diminutive, it became the French tourterelle, to be invoked in the sentimental chanson Nabokov—another exile from another revolution—reports his bachelor uncle singing:

Un vol de tourterelles strie le ciel tendre,
Les chrysanthemes se parent pour la Toussaint

reached me and my green butterfly net on the shady, tremulous trail, at the end of which was a vista of reddish sand and the corner of our freshly repainted house, the color of young fir cones, with the open drawing-room window whence the wounded music came.

Tourterelles become, through more wear and a touch of pleonasm, the turtle-doves of the familiar English carol; and we are back to Christmas, and the business of prophecy, and speaking to ourselves.

Local Neapolitan tradition claims that a Roman-era tomb in the city proper held Virgil’s ashes until some mishap in later centuries. The historical, quasi-historical, and legendary materials of the Middle Ages argue otherwise. Some claim that his incorrupt body still sits in the Castle of the Egg, protected by automatons; others add a claim that St. Paul blessed his body, at which point it dissolved into dust. Dante meets him in the Limbo of the Damned.

We suggest another, no less preternaturally impressive option. In a crumbling Roman port city in the south of what became France was a bishop and a scholar, the sole writer of that place in the seventh century after the Christ predicted in the Eclogues. His works, which survive in fragmentary form, are a mix of sober analysis and bizarre flights of speculative fancy. Nothing is known of his origins or his biography save his name: Virgilius Maro “Grammaticus,” colloquially Virgil the Grammarian or Virgil of Toulouse. This Virgil, whom Syme dubs “a solitary lunatic,” is best remembered for his discourse on what must be the vocative of ego—the form of address one should use when speaking to oneself.