. Alas, not me: June 2021

05 June 2021

Stephen Maturin recites The Aeneid

In Patrick O'Brian's H. M. S. Surprise Stephen Maturin recites the entirety of The Aeneid in Latin while delirious with a fever. I remember laughing out loud as I read it because the narrator never points out that he has recited the whole poem. He merely quotes the first and last lines and leaves the reader to make the connection. 

'Arma virumque cano,' began the harsh voice in the darkness, as some recollection of Diana's mad cousin set Stephen's memory in motion.

'Well, thank God we are in Latin again,' said Jack. 'Long may it last.'

Long indeed; it lasted until the Equatorial Channel itself, when the morning watch heard the ominous words. 

'...ast illi solvuntur frigore membra

vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras'

followed by an indignant cry for tea -- 'for green tea, there. Is there no one in this vile ship that knows how to look after a calenture? I have been calling and calling.'


There's more here, however, than a private joke for those who know Latin. Stephen, a physician and intelligence agent, is fiercely secretive both professionally and personally, and his fever (calenture) has loosed his tongue as surely as the chill of death has loosed Turnus' limbs. As Turnus' life departs indignantly into shadow, Stephen emerges from the darkness into the light, equally indignant. More than that, Aeneas and Turnus have been fighting a war over which of them is to marry Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, just as Stephen and his friend, Jack Aubrey, have competed for the favors of, and nearly crossed swords over, Diana Villiers. Aeneas, like Jack, is a great warrior and has spent years at sea. Both of them are also dedicated to their duty, and yet have neglected that duty for love, or something resembling it. Indeed Stephen in his fever rebukes Jack for his romantic adventures, the most painful of which to Stephen of course involved his beloved Diana:

'Jack Aubrey, you, too, will pierce yourself with your own weapon, I fear.... You do not know chastity.' (359)

It's interesting that Stephen's metaphor here recreates for Jack the fate of Dido, who will commit suicide with a sword, and who is compared to the goddess, Diana, when she first appears in The Aeneid. When Diana Villiers first appears in Post Captain, the novel directly before H. M. S. Surprise, she is seen hunting. She will prove true to her name.