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The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch

The Death of Virgil (1945)

by Hermann Broch

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (8)  Dutch (1)  German (1)  All languages (10)
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Hermann Broch was fifty-one years old in 1937 when he began to write The Death of Virgil. In doing this he was adhering to certain principles that he had outlined in an essay, "Joyce and the Present Age", written in the previous year. In this essay he argued that "the work of art, the "universal work of art" becomes the mirror of the Zeitgeist"; that being the totality of the historic reality of the present age. This totality is reflected in great works of art like Faust and the late works of Beethoven. Reaching his fiftieth year was significant for Broch as a time that would allow him to achieve this sort of significance in his own writing. The work known as The Death of Virgil would be his "great work of art".

With the use of third person narrative that often seems like a "stream of consciousness" Hermann Broch is able to put the reader inside the head of Virgil for much of the book. From the opening pages we meet a poet/artist Virgil who is on the edge of life in several different respects. The edge between water and land is explored as Virgil's ship, one among the parade of ships escorting Augustus back to the port of Brundisium in Roman Italy, sails toward land on the first page of the novel.

"as the sunny yet deathly loneliness of the sea changed with the peaceful stir of friendly human activity where the channel, softly enhanced by the proximity of human life and human living, was populated by all sorts of craft". (p 11)

The sunny sea is seen as also deathly in its loneliness. This signals another edge that will be important throughout the novel as Virgil in his illness hovers between life and death. Further there is the personal and historical background with the tension between Virgil and Augustus mirroring that of Athens and Rome. Even though Virgil dearly loved the life of study and thought in Athens he was torn by his memories of home as he arrived in Brundisium:

"lifted up in the breath of the immutable coolness, borne forward to seas so enigmatic and unknown that it was like a homecoming, for wave upon wave of the great planes through which his keel had already furrowed, wave-planes of memory, wave-planes of seas, they had not become transparent, nothing in them had divulged itself to him, only the enigma remained, and filled with the enigma of the past overflowed its shores and reached into the present, so that in the midst of the resinous torch-smoke, in the midst of the brooding city fumes, , , how they all lay behind him, about him, within him, how entirely they were his own," (p 31)

Throughout the beginning of the novel, a section titled "Water--The Arrival", Virgil is filled with doubts. He is nearing the end of his life with a feeling that "it was time itself that called down scorn upon him, the unalterable flood of time with its manifold voices," and he may not be able to escape his fate. But what was that fate and why was it important to him as creator? This is something that he is unsure of even to the point of asking himself why he was writing this book (The Aeneid which is always by his side).

"Nothing availed the poet, he could right no wrongs; he is heeded only if he extols the world, never if he portrays it as it is. Only falsehood wins renown, not understanding! And could one assume that the Aeneid would be vouchsafed another or better influence?" (p 15)

His own Aeneid as quoted epigraphically by Broch suggests that Virgil is "exiled by fate" just as his creation, Aeneas, was. Is that the fate of all poets? Must they be exiled by their fate to become an artist of this world? Perhaps the final three sections of The Death of Virgil will suggest answers to these and other questions. ( )
  jwhenderson | Aug 13, 2016 |
The Roman poet, frustrated from abstruseness and corruption of political and social life, decides in the last hours before his death to burn his masterpiece “Aneid”. Broch wrote this novel, undoubtedly being frustrated from personal situation and political circumstances and tired to death like his protagonist.
  hbergander | Feb 18, 2014 |
So why is Virgil upset with his art?

...and this was the very reason why he had never succeeded in depicting real human beings, people who ate and drank, who loved and could be loved, and this was why he was so little able to depict those who went limping and cursing through the streets, unable to picture them in their bestiality and their great need of help, least able to show forth the miracle of humanity with which such bestiality is graced; people meant nothing to him, he considered them as fabulous beings, mimes of beauty in the garments of beauty, and as such he had depicted them, as kings and heroes of fables, as fable-shepherds...
from pp.152-3

Close to the bone and not hard to understand. Among other people, I recommend this book for writers with angst. His work has been insincere, his eye for beauty has led him astray, he has been no help to the real human world. He wants to start again but it's too late for that...

I've learnt that the German and this English translation were published simultaneously, and Broch worked closely with Untermeyer. I found the English words amazingly chosen for sound and sense. Or where sense escapes us, yet for sound: there is great artistry in the translation.

For the rest, see my updates. They were spontaneous (that’s the use of these status updates).

Believe me or not, although I’ve read this book in bits and pieces over a year, I can’t wait to start on the second read. Maybe I got about a half of it the first time.

Note to self: I don’t expect I’ll have the brains to peruse this book in the week of my death. But read the last part. It’s only forty pages, it’s less difficult than part two can be; and it talks of death in a way an atheist like me who yet is an optimist by temperament, finds meaningful. It’s Virgil’s inside experience – of a voyage, that cannot help but remind me of the Grey Havens and Frodo’s departure by ship. In mood, moreover – except that we’re not the ones left on the shore (because of course I cry at the Grey Havens. But not here). The farewell voyage goes on into an experience of the animism of the cosmos. Schooled by this I think I can face the extinguishment of self, which I’ve never been known to say before, self-centred as I am. He understands: Where, however, was his own face in this universe?

Is there a Christian presence? Yes, because such is a part of Virgil’s legend. As a non-Christian, I can read those allusions as historical, and ‘the word’ as an answer to, or last thoughts on, his poet’s obsessions and dissatisfactions. Virgil felt on the verge of – what? A new artistic expression, or a salvation through human service? The medievals took him for a herald of Christianity, I believe on the strength of a prophecy of Augustus. There’s enough irony there for this politically-aware novel to use: the writing was begun in a concentration camp and the Nazis were a shadowy presence in part one. Still in this novel, perhaps, if you’re Christian you can see Christianity and if you don’t want to you don’t have to.

Negatives: the conversations on aesthetics, though to be fair Virgil, at his last gasp, finds these fatuous too; and the philosophical poems, which I skimmed or skipped since I cannot do poetry about abstractions.

If you’re curious about this book but daunted, I think you can try out the fourth part on its own, or ahead. It’s of great beauty (look, that’s an understatement, and the translation must be a miracle) and there are no spoilers. You know he’s dead at the end, right? ( )
2 vote Jakujin | Sep 13, 2013 |
Gorgeous prose -- I could see everything before me, both real and surreal. I didn't understnd the stream of consciousness, but the narrative concerned Virgil's wanting to burn his ms. of Aeneid and Augustus arguing against it. The last part was Virgil crossing the Styx. ( )
1 vote janerawoof | Aug 27, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (43 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Broch, Hermannprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Arendt, HannahIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brassinga, AnnekeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fontcuberta i Gel, JoanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Izquierdo, LluísIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Preisner, RioTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Simon, DietrichAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Untermeyer, Jean StarrTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Information from the German Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
... fato profugus ...
Vergil: Aeneis 1,2

Deutschsprachige Nachdichtung von Wilhelm Hertzberg:
... durch das Geschick landflüchtig ...
... Da iungere dextram,
da, genitor, teque amplexu ne subtrahe nostro.
Sic memorans, largo fletu simul ora rigabat.
Ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum,
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.
Vergil: Aeneis VI, 697-702

Deutschsprachige Nachdichtung von Wilhelm Hertzberg:
... "Oh, reiche die Rechte,
Reiche sie, Vater, mir dar und entzieh dich nicht der Umarmung!"
Sprach's und ein Strom von Tränen benetzt bei den Worten sein Antlitz.
Dreimal versucht' er ihm drauf mit den Armen den Hals zu umschlingen
Dreimal griff er umsonst nach dem Bild, das den Händen entschlüpfte
Ähnlich dem Hauche der Luft, dem geflügelten Traum vergleichbar.
Lo duca ed io per quel cammino ascoso
Etrammo a ritornar nel chiaro mondo;
E, senza cura aver d'alcun riposo,
Salimmo su, ei primo ed io secondo,
Tanto ch'io vidi delle cose belle
Che porta il ciel, per un pertugio tondo;
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
Dante: Divina Commedia, Inferno XXXIV, 133-139

Deutschsprachige Nachdichtung von Karl Witte:
Auf so verborgenem Pfad begann mein Führer
Mit mir zur lichten Welt zurückzukehren.
So stiegen, er zuerst und ich ihm folgend,
Wir, ohn' uns Ruh zu gönnen, immer aufwärts,
Bis durch ein rundes Loch ich wieder etwas
Von dem gewahr ward, was den Himmel schmückt;
Dann traten wir hinaus und sahn die Sterne.
Information from the German Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
In memoriam Stephen Hudson
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Information from the German Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Stahlblau und leicht, bewegt von einem leisen, kaum merklichen Gegenwind, waren die Wellen des Adriatischen Meeres dem kaiserlichen Geschwader entgegengeströmt, als dieses, die mählich anrückenden Flachhügel der kalabrischen Küste zur Linken, dem Hafen Brundisium zusteuerte, und jetzt, da die sonnige, dennoch so todesahnende Einsamkeit der See sich ins friedvoll Freudige menschlicher Tätigkeit wandelte, da die Fluten, sanft überglänzt von der Nähe menschlichen Seins und Hausens, sich mit vielerlei Schiffen bevölkerten, mit solchen, die gleicherweise dem Hafen zustrebten, mit solchen, die aus ihm ausgelaufen waren, jetzt, da die braunsegeligen Fischerboote bereits überall die kleinen Schutzmolen all der vielen Dörfer und Ansiedlungen längs der weißbespülten Ufer verließen, um zum abendlichen Fang auszuziehen, da war das Wasser beinahe spiegelglatt geworden; perlmuttern war darüber die Muschel des Himmels geöffnet, es wurde Abend, und man roch das Holzfeuer der Herdstätten, sooft die Töne des Lebens, ein Hämmern oder ein Ruf von dort hergeweht und herangetragen wurden.
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Book description
Haiku summary
On the verge of death,
Virgil’s lyric deliria
Make for a tough read.

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679755489, Paperback)

It is the reign of the Emperor Augustus, and Publius Vergilius Maro, the poet of the Aeneid and Caesar's enchanter, has been summoned to the palace, where he will shortly die. Out of the last hours of Virgil's life and the final stirrings of his consciousness, the Austrian writer Hermann Broch fashioned one of the great works of twentieth-century modernism, a book that embraces an entire world and renders it with an immediacy that is at once sensual and profound. Begun while Broch was imprisoned in a German concentration camp, The Death of Virgil is part historical novel and part prose poem -- and always an intensely musical and immensely evocative meditation on the relation between life and death, the ancient and the modern.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:44 -0400)

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