Public & Private in Vergil’s Aeneid (1989)

Susan Ford Wiltshire, Public & Private in Vergil’s Aeneid (Amherst, 1989), p.143
Rating: + (worth reading if you have a special interest in topic)

Wiltshire’s ‘Public & Private’ deals with a topic central to Western literature, the Aeneid by Vergil. Though pivotal in literary history, with a myriad of studies available dealing with the times and subject of Vergil’s writing, Wiltshire’s study is mainly characterized by disorganization. It is not until the conclusion that she strongly puts forward her hypothesis and even there her argument remains unconvincing, even if it contains a certain truth.

The core argument of her study is the separation between the private and public domain in the Augustan age and how Vergil’s Aeneid bridges the fundamental gap between the two spheres by pietas and labor. The private sphere of the individual is committed to the public sphere by the translation of the private intentions into actions in the public domain, while a process of self-distantiation enables the individuals to work together for a common objective.

But the chapters in the book are divided among topics for which Wiltshire fails to show the persuading relationship to the hypothesis. She muzzles in the problem of time in the Aeneid, she digresses broadly on the love between Dido and Aeneis without pinpointing the essence but rather dragging into the argumentation several reflections on it, even if not completely irrelevant.
Likewise, Wiltshire elaborates on not uninteresting topics like kingship in the Aeneid and again it is not completely proven what the essential reason for the discussion is.

But all above weaknesses can be forgiven, since relevance is not solely dependant on the direct or close nearness to the essence, and the number of reasons can add to the combined weight of the persuasive reasoning as much, even though the coherence might be weakened by the anomaly of the complexity, but no one can pretend that reality is not complex. There is only one major mistake I cannot oversee in ‘Public & Private’ and that is Wiltshire’s repetitious and continuous quotation of later poets as a proof of her hypothesis.

In this style, she backs up her argument by quoting for example Allen Tate’s ‘Aeneas at New York’ on page 36, Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ on page 65, Thomas Hardy on page 65, Wendell Berry on page 122, Ignazio Silone on page 125, and C. Day Lewis on page 129. There’s is simply no place in any historic analysis for fiction written outside of the context of the era discussed within the argument of the book, yet Wiltshire is tempted routinuously. This temptation which she did not resist devaluates her study most severely, however it is appreciated by me in a person’s character.

Would I recommend reading her study ‘Public & Private’? My answer is simple but disssatisfying, I realize. Yes, for the simple reason that few studies on Vergil’s Aeneid are not worth while reading, but more specialized and in depth studies will be easily found.

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