The Lamentations of Dido: Genre, Gender, and Character in Two Medieval Poems
Among the many texts and images that testify to the enduring importance of the story of Dido and Aeneas, two lyric poems from the twelfth century deserve greater critical attention than they have received. The poems (O decus, o Libie and Anna soror ut quid mori respectively) are these days treated almost as a diptych since they are paired in Raby 1959, presented side by side in Putnam and Ziolkowski 2008, and discussed together in Raby 1934 and Desmond 1994. The effect is accidental; the first of the two is transmitted as one of the Carmina Burana and the other in a lone English manuscript. Moreover, there is evidence that O decus, o Libie is some three quarters of a century earlier (Dronke 1992). It is the similarities of form that lead modern editors and scholars to pair these poems. Nevertheless, the pairing is, I will argue, a productive way to talk about the relationship between form, genre, and literary tradition.
Little interpretive work has been done except to show that they bear witness to the importance of Vergil and Ovid in the Dido tradition (Raby 1934, Dronke 1992, Desmond 1994) or to identify the Dido of these poems as a typical example of the lamenting woman in Medieval literature (Baswell 1995, Schotter 1981). In this paper, I will argue that the lyric form of these laments—post-classical in both cases—has an important effect on how we understand both the narrative elements and the character of Dido herself. The brevity of the poems also forms a bond between reader and speaker. The story of Aeneas, as it appears to Dido, is recounted at a brisk pace that assumes the reader knows the events and major characters. Thus the reader understands from the beginning of each text what versions of Dido’s story are being encountered. This will be the Vergilian-Ovidian Dido, not the exemplar of chastity that some Medieval authors turned her into (or back into—Hexter 1992). This Dido, however, is acutely aware of literary tradition. She knows, for example, the specific details of Aeneas’ life after he leaves her, even though she has not yet passed into the Underworld. At the same time, this lyric Dido is less vengeful than Vergil’s.
Yet the Dido of these poems is not simply a lyric version of Vergil and Ovid’s queen with a greater sense of literary tradition. Her emotions are in some ways more raw and less implicated in webs of social consideration. Moreover, the physical landscape of these poems echoes Dido’s emotional state, for it is especially characterized by its dryness. Aeneas’ flight to the arms of another woman, however, takes him to and through the water. Her decision to die, also, is not hidden from her sister or couched in ritual terms; it is instead explicitly born from her pain, as she acknowledges in the final lines of the second of our poems: ne semper moriar / me semel perime, “so that I am not in perpetual death / kill me once.”
The role of gender also deserves further exploration. This Dido is not merely another lamenting woman in Medieval song; her plight is explicitly gendered. Her enemies are her brother, her political and military rival Yarbas, and her erstwhile lover Aeneas. The loyal husband Sychaeus is not much of a presence here, and the reunion with him that Aeneid 6 so memorably stages is nowhere mentioned. Moreover, O decus, o Libie does not merely emphasize that Aeneas will brave the dangers of the sea in preference to remaining with Dido, it consistently figures that danger as the female monster Scylla, a creature who, in Ovid’s version is produced by erotic rivalry and jealousy.
Dido in and after Vergil