We are Vergil’s busy bees

We are Vergil's busy bees

Venus Appearing to Aeneas as a Huntress, Pietro Da Cortona, 1631, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

We are Vergil’s busy bees.

In my county I’m on the grand jury this year. Today I sit in deliberations. We are a group of 18 random citizens fulfilling a function of our society’s compact. We are all doing the best job we can within the allowances of our personal power. Even, I suppose, the alleged criminals for whose adjudication we are met.

The details we hear are seedy, but lofty our purpose. In the middle of it all, reaching back to the days I studied to be a Latin teacher, I recall a bird’s-eye view of society in which we are Vergil’s busy bees.

The moment when, for the first time, Aeneas spies Carthage.

It is a Death’s-eye view, a lofty perspective from which there is neither good nor bad, but only awe-filled. Not awful or awesome, but full of awe. As an endeavor, we humans are an awe-fully busy bundle of energy. We are bees. If you read carefully, you’ll see Vergil also notes the violence of the bees.

In the first book of the Aeneid at line 418, Aeneas has crash-landed at Carthage. His mother Venus appears to him in disguise to show him the path forward — the path to his destiny — which leads him to pain and sorrow and Queen Dido at Carthage. Venus covers Aeneas with a cloud of mist, and he crests a tall hill to look down upon the city:

Meanwhile the wanderers swiftly journey on
along the clear-marked road, and soon they climb
the brow of a high hill, which close in view
o’er-towers the city’s crown. The vast exploit,
where lately rose but Afric cabins rude,
Aeneas wondered at: the smooth, wide ways;
the bastioned gates; the uproar of the throng.
The Tyrians toil unwearied; some up-raise
a wall or citadel, from far below
lifting the ponderous stone; or with due care
choose where to build, and close the space around
with sacred furrow; in their gathering-place
the people for just governors, just laws,
and for their reverend senate shout acclaim.
Some clear the harbor mouth; some deeply lay
the base of a great theatre, and carve out
proud columns from the mountain, to adorn
their rising stage with lofty ornament.
So busy bees above a field of flowers
in early summer amid sunbeams toil,
leading abroad their nation’s youthful brood;
or with the flowing honey storing close
the pliant cells, until they quite run o’er
with nectared sweet; while from the entering swarm
they take their little loads; or lined for war,
rout the dull drones, and chase them from the hive;
brisk is the task, and all the honeyed air
breathes odors of wild thyme. “How blest of Heaven.
These men that see their promised ramparts rise!”
Aeneas sighed; and swift his glances moved
from tower to tower; then on his way he fared,
veiled in the wonder-cloud, whence all unseen
of human eyes,—O strange the tale and true!—
he threaded the thronged streets, unmarked, unknown.

— translated by Theodore C. Williams. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1910.

We are Vergil’s busy bees. From the crest of a tall hill, Death smiles at us in wonderment, then walks among us in the thronged streets, unmarked and unknown.