Sing, Muse, of Dutiful Elizabeth

John Kuhner |

Want To Understand the Aeneid? Consider The Late Queen.

The coronation portrait of Elizabeth II, by Sir Herbert James Gunn.
The coronation portrait of Elizabeth II, by Sir Herbert James Gunn.

It is generally acknowledged that the outpouring of respect and admiration for Elizabeth II we have seen in the past days is the result of what we may call her dutifulness. Her personal feelings, caprices, or desires played a relatively minor role in her public life. She did her duty. Even at the very end, she met with and did the work of installing the new prime minister in person — not, say, by Zoom — and did it with a smile on her face, even though she was ninety-six and literally two days away from death. Her ill health was no excuse for her not to serve her country as her role expected.

Many are saying that Elizabeth was the last holdover from an era where people understood their lives in terms of their responsibilities, and that after her all we will have from our leaders will be a contest of egotistical wants and desires. Whether Elizabeth turns out to be the last of her kind we will have to see. But there is no doubt that she was a highly traditional figure, and operating from a very very old playbook.

In fact, the great Roman epic, the Aeneid, might almost have been written as a meditation on the Elizabethan regnal style. In the Greco-Roman tradition, epic heroes get their own specific epithet, a verbal descriptor that captures their essence. There is “godlike Achilles” and “wily Odysseus.” Aeneas, the Roman hero, gets the hashtag pius. It can mean “pious,” but it’s less specifically religious than the English word. It’s more like “dutiful” or “responsible.” In other words, it’s exactly the quality Elizabeth has proven so enduringly relevant to our age.

There is some irony in this relevance. Latin teachers have long labored to make Aeneas seem appealing to teens, who often are forced to read the Aeneid as the crowning effort of their Latin studies. The easiest way, in 2022, would probably be to read it with a biography of Queen Elizabeth in parallel.

After being blown off course, Aeneas lands in Carthage, where he falls in love with the beautiful queen Dido. There is a problem, however: she’s not leaving, and he’s supposed to go to Italy. He can sail off to found his kingdom, or stay and enjoy her love. Elizabeth experienced this same drama in her own family. Her uncle, King Edward VIII, found himself in love with a woman — a then-married woman who had already been divorced once — who could not be compatible with his role as king. Edward abdicated, choosing love.

Aeneas at Parliament.
Aeneas at Parliament.

Elizabeth and her father, King George VI, were to live with the consequences of Edward’s abdication. The throne of England was in some sense divided; Edward scandalously toured Nazi Germany with his wife, and then spoke on behalf of appeasement from various foreign countries. There was talk that in the event of a German conquest, Edward would be installed as king by Hitler, whom Edward said was “not such a bad chap.” It is almost certain that Elizabeth formed her ideas of how royalty should behave by watching Edward VIII — and doing the opposite. While Edward pursued love and appeasement, she gave herself to duty and country. There was little room for the merely personal. Aeneas had done the same, not only leaving Dido but disavowing any personal volition in the matter. Italiam non sponte sequor, he said. “I’m not chasing after Italy because I want to.” I’m going because it’s my duty.

In the first book of the Aeneid, the fleet Aeneas is leading sails into a storm. Most of the ships are lost or destroyed; a small remnant pulls into a harbor. Aeneas makes a brief speech: this suffering will end, with God’s help (dabit deus his quoque finem); do not be afraid (maestum timorem mittite); we have a job to do; toughen up, and hold on for better days (durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis). It’s the template for all such speeches. Short and forceful, almost every sentence in it became a motto used by some British house at some point or other.

The real kicker, though, is what comes next. “This is what he says aloud,” Vergil says; “sick with worry, he feigns a look of hope, and keeps his grief hidden in his heart” (talia voce refert; curisque ingentibus aeger spem voltu simulat, premit altum corde dolorem). It was all a show, a facade of optimism such as leadership requires, whether the leader feels it or not. This was an entire public relations policy for Elizabeth. She spoke little — as Aeneas — never tried to explain anything away or make light of a situation — as Aeneas — and kept her tone hopeful. The propaganda posters her father had put up during the war (“courage, cheerfulness, resolution”) used this formula. Her speech during the COVID lockdowns just a few years ago was virtually the same speech, with phrases altered to suit the occasion: “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.”

Even the questions concerning Elizabeth’s career closely parallel the questions modern readers have about the Aeneid. Let us take it for granted that Elizabeth was a gifted leader; was not her position as leader merely the result of colonialism and privilege, and were not her all her efforts undertaken for the maintenance of empire? Aeneas, similarly, was the founding father and tutelary spirit of Roman imperialism, and the second half of the Aeneid is taken up with a brutal war of conquest, placing the suffering exile into another role entirely, that of conqueror. Elizabeth’s career and the Aeneid both lead to larger questions about the ultimate judgements of history.

Reading the Aeneid is not going to create in you the kind of self-restraint and dutifulness that Elizabeth exemplified, any more than reading a book about George Washington will make you president. The forge of Elizabeth’s character was the Blitz, when she and her parents remained in southeast England, well within range of German bombers, with the ultimate outcome of the conflict in grave doubt. Aeneas himself probably learned the same way: he learned to value his own tradition because war brought it so near to annihilation. Yet reading the Aeneid was the culmination of traditional British schooling because educators believed it fostered a love of precisely the kind of duty and service the late queen exemplified. The outpouring of love and admiration we have seen the past few days — and we will see more of it — show that the world still values women and men formed according to this ideal.

Achilles rages against mortality, fighting even a god in his wrath. Odysseus is brilliant and curious, outwitting one-eyed giants and having himself tied to a mast to learn what song the sirens sang. Aeneas grits his teeth, represses his emotions, says no to any romance that leads him away from his main task, and does his duty, day after day. The Roman epic hero doesn’t have the brilliance and the volcanic passion of the Greek heroes. But Vergil found Aeneas worthy of his greatest poetry. He felt that the people who did their duty every day turned out to be the most epic of all. We have found Vergil’s truth again with Queen Elizabeth. People who are showier or more talented or more self-destructive make headlines. People who learn self-discipline, and who do their duty, who give themselves to a cause greater than themselves, make history.


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John Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is Editor of In Medias Res. Formerly president of SALVI, he is currently writing a biography of Fr. Reginald Foster, O.C.D. He lives in Steubenville, Ohio.


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