Please enjoy this guest post by Michael Boal, teacher of Latin at John Adams Academy, Roseville.
About the author: Michael Boal is a current teacher of High School Latin and a student of the Master of Arts in Humanities at the University of Dallas. He obtained his B.A. at the University of California Davis in 2010 in Classical Languages and Civilizations. He is interested in the question of how music and poetry serve the rational mind in shaping and conserving humanity.
When beautiful Queen Dido makes her grand entrance on the stage of Vergil’s Aeneid, the poet delights our imagination with a series of images and attending moods that surround her majesty as if the words were visible music and our eyes just better ears. What is most remarkable about the passage is not the flight of dizzying and arresting images—the greathearted Aeneas crying, the warlike Amazons, the simile of Dido to the hunting goddess Diana with her chorus of dancers gliding over the mountain summits—rather it is how the stately visual crescendo resolves in intimate joy. The last, and most beautiful picture within the pictures is of Diana’s mother Latona rejoicing in her daughter.
Latonae tacitum pertemptant gaudia pectus Joys rifle through the quiet heart of Latona — Vergil, Aeneid Book I, Line 502 —
Remarkable too is how it all spills over—how the joy of Latona, and the whole beautiful simile, prefigure the hero Aeneas’ coming joy. And how all of this treasure, of course, is really ours, the readers’. The imaginative and musical aspects of joy that we see in Vergil resonate with our own experience: joy is our love returning to us, arms outstretched and sorry to have kept us waiting. Such it is at its pinnacle, though joy also visits in humbler clothes, in quieter, more ordinary hours. There are in fact, as dictionaries tell, a wide and colorful palette of joys, from the mild-mannered “great delight” to the unspeakable joys of ecstatic happiness. In this last regard particularly, joy, being ecstatic, can be nearly indefinable, extending in felt intensity beyond the ken of words. Like the lovely word mom, the word joy often freights more feeling and memory than any definition, or any heart really, could hope to hold.
Literature, fortunately, and indeed art in general, has allowed humans to overcome their hearts’ shortcomings to first articulate and then preserve what would otherwise lay mute as stone, or, at most, take brief if adorable forms such as those of excited labradors, for example, whose joys turn to dancing in happy circles and to much wagging of the tail. What is more, with great literature our choice of joys is not this one or another: we enter with our own joys and leave with many more. Just as the telescope extends the eye and the arrow the hand, literature expands the reach of the heart beyond its dot in time. Here from Tolstoy, there from Dante, now in the The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ and in the Gospels, I hope that over the next few paragraphs we might find and share a few of those distant joys and even joys eternal.
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, joy returns to the forlorn Prince Andrei through his encounter with a miraculous oak. A tree thought dead, now rioting with life, wrests his heart from despair:
The old oak, quite transformed, spreading out a canopy of juicy, dark greenery, basked, barely swaying, in the rays of the evening sun. Of the gnarled fingers, the scars, the old grief and mistrust–nothing could be seen. Juicy green leaves without branches broke through the stiff, hundred-year-old bark, and it was impossible to believe that this old fellow had produced them. “Yes, it’s the same oak,” thought Prince Andrei, and suddenly a causeless springtime feeling of joy and renewal came over him. All the best moments of his life suddenly recalled themselves to him at the same time. Austerlitz with the lofty sky, and the dead, reproachful face of his wife, and Pierre on the ferry, and a girl excited by the beauty of the night, and that night itself, and the moon—all of it suddenly recalled itself to him.Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (Part III, Chapter 3)
Though the renewal of the old oak tree advances no external action, it musters a total internal renewal for the prince, in the space of a moment from “old grief and mistrust” to “joy and renewal.” What startling beauty! What generous hope! The leafy symbol of the oak refracts as in a pool all of joy’s colors: its ecstatic nature, its ability to transport through memory and time, its restorative powers, and finally, for this reader at least, what shines through most splendidly of all— the promise of hope and resurrection. Surely it is not only for Prince Andrei that the tree is reborn. We would be insensate and incurious readers indeed if we dismissed the passage as lovely fiction. Nay, rather, Tolstoy’s beautiful prose and Andrei’s intense joy are lamps of man’s participation in the supernatural; they shine with a love much greater than our own. We may wish not to be bothered, but an aura of eternity pervades great art: Latona’s heart is rifled through with joy; in a flood Andrei discovers all that matters. And this is but a sample. If we continue our journey as readers we will observe many more miracles, such as in the Paradisio where the pilgrim Dante, met with the promising words of Cacciaguida, is unable to contain his joy and cries:
My mind is by so many brooklets filled with joy, that it congratulates itself that, without breaking, it can stand the strain. — Dante, Paradiso XVI, 18-21 —
Or, later, overcome with a divine vision,
O joy! O gladness inexpressible! — Dante, Paradiso XXVII,7-9 —
It is difficult in reading such passages not to feel the temporary crumbling before the eternal. In the first instance, the pilgrim is thankful that joy has not been the ruin of his mind, while by the second he has abandoned that care and sings out, like a child, straight from his heart. Though his joy is exceptional it is not unusual: scriptures abound with joys that weaken bonds with the mortal and material. In Tolstoy, Dante and Vergil, joy is a mighty power, but in scriptures it glows much brighter. In holy writing, joy is so exuberant that it either overwhelms the ones experiencing it or else obliges the writer to express the surfeit with metaphors, or both of these marvels happen at once. In the The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, for example, the Nephite prophet Ammon’s joy at reuniting with his brethren is so overwhelming that the man seems in danger of vanishing:
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that yourNow the joy of Ammon was so great even that he was full; yea, he was swallowed up in the joy of his God, even to the exhausting of his strength; and he fell again to the earth. — The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ Book of Alma, Chapter 27:17 —
In the Hebrew Old Testament, to take another example, joy attends a sower as his cries turn to shouts of joy and his arms, once empty, burst with harvest.
He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. — The Book of Psalms, Chapter 126:6 —
And finally, in Isaiah, even the stony mountains rejoice: its hills and forests sing and celebrate the joy of returning to the Lord.
For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. — The Book of Isaiah, Chapter 55:12 —
Perhaps now, in pinhole view, we’ve found a few more joys. I hope that you’ll continue to peer in closer, reading this excellent blog, reading classics, writing and discussing and teaching and being taught. If the concerns of our lives continue, as they have in recent years, to wear us down with duty and to isolate us from those we love and from those who love us too, or even if we return, in a hurry, to the lives we’ve lived before, I hope, dear reader, that your love is returning to you as joy and that it increases steadily along your human journey, and that, if it has kept you waiting too long, it runs back to you soon and lingers awhile, finding welcome in your heart. As the Lord told his disciples, encouraging them to remain in Him and to love one another,
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. — The Book of John, Chapter 15:1 —