This passage shows so well the senseless violence of war and its brutal destruction of life’s fragile beauty. But it also portrays the immortality of self-sacrifice, heroism and above all, love.
The poppy simile recalls the battlefields of the First World War where so many young men, were cut down in the flower of youth. A hundred years later in 2014 the National September 11 Memorial Museum opened in New York and the words chosen to commemorate those who died have been taken from the same story:
‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time’
Some have argued that the original context of the words makes them inappropriate for this memorial. However, any quotation from Virgil will have layers of meaning and makes the reader think deeply about the nature of human actions and emotions. 9/11 is certainly a world event that requires much reflection of this kind.
Here are the thoughts of students who had just finished studying the whole story in Latin:
There is a power and poignancy in ancient quotations as they are less political and they express that those same human emotions are a constant, as the same feelings were felt millennia ago, and thus better emphasises that the 9/11 victims will not be forgotten.
This is good because it focuses on people, not events.
Out of context, and there’s no need for them to be in context, the words are undoubtedly beautiful. By using Virgil’s words, it shows that Virgil has been remembered for thousands of years and this echoes the meaning of the phrase.
The quotation in context is referring to two soldiers, who risk their lives for their people but then, after getting carried away and killing too many people got killed. The irony is that this much better fits the terrorists than the victims. Thus this quotation can imply that we remember the terrorists also and think more upon why they committed such an atrocity rather than seeing ourselves (Western society) as wholly innocent victims, when in actuality we have provoked them. Perhaps in time the quotation will be more meaningful.
Nisus and Euryalus’ strong urge for battle and killing is quite striking, as they are so blood-thirsty, yet their friendship and love for each other is so strong and they were very brave. Those are great qualities which should be admired.
Could this quote possibly be a memorial for both the terrorists and the victims, as a sign of forgiveness? Nisus and Euryalus were slaughtering for what they believed in, and their patriotism is what urged them on. Or should we think about all the people who died trying to save others that day, who tried to save the victims, just as Nisus was willing to die for Euryalus?
The controversy reminds us that we are all victims of the harsh world around us and will make people question why so many are driven to commit atrocities.
I think Virgil also had this aim because he manages to persuade us to feel great sympathy for all of the victims, but also horror at what they do, especially the very young Euryalus.
What should resonate with everyone who views the memorial is the reference to a single day not being able to erase the memory of those we love. Rather than save himself, Nisus returned to the scene of violence and mortal peril in the hope of saving another man’s life. However both men died as a result; this sounds like a 9/11 story.
Camille, Lucy, Alexandra, Sundaraamma, Jessica, Alex, Amy, Millie, Anoop, Lily, Imogen, Mimi and Rose (aged 15)
Saevit atrox Volcens nec teli conspicit usquam 420
auctorem nec quo se ardens inmittere possit.
“Tu tamen interea calido mihi sanguine poenas
persolves amborum,” inquit; simul ense recluso
ibat in Euryalum. Tum vero exterritus, amens
conclamat Nisus, nec se celare tenebris 425
amplius aut tantum potuit perferre dolorem.
“Me me, adsum qui feci, in me convertite ferrum,
O Rutuli, mea fraus omnis; nihil iste nec ausus
nec potuit, caelum hoc et conscia sidera testor,
tantum infelicem nimium dilexit amicum.” 430
Talia dicta dabat; sed viribus ensis adactus
transabiit costas et candida pectora rumpit.
Volvitur Euryalus leto, pulchrosque per artus
it cruor, inque umeros cervix conlapsa recumbit:
purpureus veluti cum flos succisus aratro 435
languescit moriens lassove papavera collo
demisere caput, pluvia cum forte gravantur.
At Nisus ruit in medios solumque per omnis
Volcentem petit in solo Volcente moratur.
Quem circum glomerati hostes hinc comminus atque hinc 440
proturbant. Instat non setius ac rotat ensem
fulmineum, donec Rutuli clamantis in ore
condidit adverso et moriens animam abstulit hosti.
Tum super exanimum sese proiecit amicum
confossus placidaque ibi demum morte quievit. 445
Fortunati ambo! Siquid mea carmina possunt,
nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo,
dum domus Aeneae Capitoli immobile saxum
accolet imperiumque pater Romanus habebit.
source nor where he could hurl himself, although he burned to do so.
“You however, meanwhile, will pay me the price for both these deaths
with your hot blood.” he said; immediately, with sword drawn,
he went for Euryalus. Then, terrified indeed, out of his mind,
Nisus shouts out, and no longer could he hide
in the darkness or bear to continue such deception.
“Me! Me! I’m here, I did it, turn your steel on me,
O Rutulians, It’s all my trick, that boy there did not try anything
nor could he – I call this sky and the stars as my witnesses –
all he did was to cherish his unlucky friend too much.”
Such words he began to speak; but driven with great force
the sword passed through the ribs and tears open the white breast.
Euryalus rolls over in death, and across his fair limbs
blood spreads, and his neck collapses and lies on his shoulder.
Just as when a crimson flower, severed by a plough,
droops and dies, or when poppies with weary neck
lower their heads when they are weighed down by a chance shower.
Then Nisus rushes into their midst and among them all seeks
Volcens alone and for Volcens alone he delays.
Massed around him the enemy drive him back on this side and on that.
He presses on nonetheless and swings his lightning sword,
until in the Rutulian’s shrieking face he buries it deep,
and as he dies he takes away his enemy’s life.
Then upon his lifeless friend he threw himself down,
stabbed through, and in tranquil death at last lay still.
Fortunate pair! if my poems have any power,
no day shall erase you from the memory of time,
so long as on the Capitol’s unmoving rock, Aeneas’ line
Translation by Jane Mason.
Link to the New York Times article 2nd April 2014 on the 9-11 Memorial Wall:
For another extract from this story, provided by Caroline Lawrence, with Dryden’s beautiful verse translation go to:
The GCSE verse set text for 2015 tells the whole story of Nisus and Euryalus, but ends at line 445.Students could join in the scholarly debate on the appropriateness of the quotation for the 9-11 memorial. For more on this debate go to :http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/02/scholarly-perspectives-on-inscription-at-the-911-memorial-museum/
For more on the poppy simile go to: