Four Lines to Immortality: Dido's Renaissance Through Josquin des Prez

By Dana M. Plank
2009, Vol. 5 No. 2 | pg. 1/6 |

Dulces exuuiae, dum fata deusque sinebat,
accipite hanc animam meque his exsoluite curis.
uixi et quem dederat cursum Fortuna peregi,
et nunc magna mei sub terras ibit imago.


Dear pledges of my love, while Heav'n so pleas'd,
Receive a soul, of mortal anguish eas'd:
My fatal course is finish'd; and I go,
A glorious name, among the ghosts below.
(Virgil, Aeneid, 4:651-654, trans. John Dryden.)1

With these haunting final words, the young queen of Virgil's Aeneid, Dido, takes her life on a flaming pyre of her lover's belongings. The death of Dido is one of the most poignant moments in classical literature. Dido begins as an independent queen who rules Carthage without the aid of a male monarch, a model of chastity devoted to her late king. When the hero of The Aeneid, Aeneas, arrives in Carthage, Dido is forced by the gods to fall passionately in love with him. In the course of one book, the great queen becomes a suicidal woman broken by love , and a plaything of bickering gods. After proudly resigning herself to this grisly fate, the queen goes on to curse the day Aeneas' ships touched her shores: "From yonder sea may his cold Trojan eyes discern the flames that make me ashes! Be this cruel death his omen as he sails!" (Virgil, Aeneid, 4:661-662, trans. Theodore C. Williams). Yet, despite Dido's arresting invective towards Aeneas, the most powerful moment of her speech is not her attack, but her submission to fate.

Many musical works recount Dido's last words; "Dido's Lament" by Purcell comes immediately to mind, as well as motet2 settings by Alexander Agricola, Jean Mouton, Mabriano de Orto, and Orlando de Lassus, among others.3 Josquin des Prez's setting of the queen's final speech became the model for a century of imitators. Instead of traversing into the territory of the weeping, livid woman later in the passage, the composer chose to immortalize her quiet acquiescence, setting only the four lines given above. A depiction of the Dido from a few lines later in the text shows her cursing Aeneas' arrival in Carthage and wishing for her death to become a bad omen for his ships. These cruel words are rife with dramatic tension and musical potential. Josquin's selection of the text, which begins with Dulces Exuviae is a powerful indication that he interpreted the maligned queen as a symbol of strength in the face of death. Josquin's interpretation of the text became a powerful model for later composers, and his choice of text allowed Dido to go "to the ghosts below" not as a madwoman queen, but as a glorious name amidst the timeless characters of classical literature (Dryden).

Despite the fact that Dido was best known in the Renaissance as a character, she was not an entirely fictional creation. There are many sources elaborating on the true queen. The real Dido was a Tyrian princess at the end of the 8th century B.C., known for her chastity and unwavering devotion to her slain king. When her husband was killed, Dido threw herself into service of her people, vowing never to remarry. However, she was soon pressured into a second marriage, and committed suicide so as not to betray the memory of her first husband (Schmalfeldt, 584).

Virgil altered the story for the sake of art. The poetic Dido is placed more than three hundred years before the real queen lived. Virgil changed the dates to make Dido's rule coincide with the end of the Trojan War in the 12th century B.C. (Ibid, 585). In Virgil, Aeneas is driven to the shores of Carthage by the Fates' meddling. Aeneas is the son of the goddess Venus, who is intent on destroying all obstacles to her son's realization of his destiny. As Venus is obviously wellacquainted with the consequences of unrequited love, she orders Amor (Cupid) to "enflame [Dido's] heart with a passion for Aeneas that is uncontrollable and ruinous." (Ibid, 585). This divine intervention turns the chaste queen into a lustful temptress who offers Aeneas rule of her kingdom in exchange for his love.

The apex of the fourth book is an episode in which Dido's misunderstanding begins the downward spiral that will eventually result in her death. The gods cause a horrible storm during a hunting party, forcing Aeneas and Dido to seek shelter in a cave for the night. That night, Dido breaks her vow of chastity. The love-struck queen believes that this union is a consummation of marriage, but Aeneas is bound by Fate to reject this contract and departs with his men. The queen is inconsolable at the realization that she has ruined herself, broken her vows to her dead husband, and abandoned her city for a shameful tryst. Her only solution is to cover her indignity with a swift and dramatic suicide atop a fire of Aeneas' belongings. She throws herself on the sword of her former lover, surrounded by flames.

The real Dido did kill herself, but the addition of a fire was a new one in literary tradition. Women in mythology often took their own lives by hanging, poison, and the sword (Edgeworth, 129). The fire was a dramatic and unusual addition to the story. Ancient historians Polybius and Appian both wrote accounts of the fall of Carthage, and it is in their writings that one finds the basis for Virgil's Dido (Edgeworth, 131). Virgil did his research on Carthage; Polybius tells of the death of the anonymous final queen of Carthage in 146 B.C. The unnamed woman was married to the Carthaginian commander Hasdrubel, and when the city was seized, he willingly surrendered to Africanus. Reportedly, Hasdrubel's wife walked out of the temple of Eshmoun with her young children in tow. She set fire to the building and reproached her husband for his shameful capitulation (Edgeworth, 131). Appian attributes a rather dramatic final speech to the historical queen:

'Wretch,' she exclaimed, 'traitor, most effeminate of men, this fire will entomb me and my children. But as for you, what Roman triumph will you, the leader of great Carthage, decorate? Ah, what punishment will you not receive from him at whose feet you are now sitting?'4

After scolding her own husband for his submission to the enemy, the anonymous queen submits herself and her children to the flaming temple.

The death of Dido is heavily symbolic in the scope of Virgil's epic; Dido's love has caused not only her undoing but the fall of her beloved city as well. The flames of Dido's funeral pyre represent her inner turmoil caused by her doomed relationship with Aeneas. The queen had a powerful will that first attracted Aeneas and a sense of duty to her people that is meant to mirror Aeneas' end goal of founding the great Roman race. Dido is a puppet of the gods, enflamed with love in order to derail the young hero from his destiny. From there Dido descends into rage, reproach for Aeneas, and her eventual death aboard the funeral pyre.5

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

In the Aeneid, Virgil depicts the struggle of the newly displaced Trojans to find a new home, under the leadership of Aeneas. The Trojans, having only recently lost the Trojan War to the Greeks, travel in search of a new home, eventually settling in Italy−to the dismay of some of the Italians. The motif of Troy... MORE»
Contrary to the scintillating promise of its title, Spenser’s Faerie Queene is a far cry from the insubstantial delights of light fantasy fiction. A narrative poem in six books, this hefty labyrinthine work chronicles the quests of the patron knights of six virtues through their perpetual stumblings... MORE»
The defining characteristics of Odysseus in classical literature are interpreted in wildly different ways by different authors: he is portrayed as a hero in Homer’s The Odyssey, a villain in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, a self-serving opportunist in Sophocles’ Ajax, a deceitful... MORE»
Born in 1830 to Calvinist parents in Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson is renowned as one of America’s greatest poets. Though her poems often focused on death, she in fact wrote on many subjects. Life, nature, love, science... MORE»
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