In Book 6 of the Aeneid, Aeneas travels down to the Underworld with the mythical prophetess called the Sibyl. In the Underworld he sees dead souls trapped on the wrong side of the river Styx, desperately reaching out and trying to make the crossing into the land of the dead. It is one of the poet’s most moving moments. He compares the dead to the leaves that fall in autumn and migratory birds fleeing the cold. The imagery is beautiful and haunting.
Here all the crowd streams, hurrying to the shores,
women and men, the lifeless bodies of noble heroes,
boys and unmarried girls, sons laid on the pyre
in front of their father’s eyes: as many as the leaves that fall
in the woods at the first frost of autumn, as many as the birds
that flock to land from ocean deeps, when the cold of the year
drives them abroad and despatches them to sunnier countries.
They stood there, pleading to be first to make the crossing,
stretching out their hands in longing for the far shore.
He starts with a description of the many different ages, classes and types of people who have died. Death is indiscriminate, it comes to everyone. The last group of dead is the sons buried before their parents’ eyes. This image comes up a few times in the Aeneid. Virgil fought in the Roman Civil War and would have seen many young men killed, this is an example of the images of war that haunt the poet and his poetry.
The similes of the leaves and the birds both emphasise the great number of the dead, all crowded together. It also stresses their anonymity. Like the leaves and birds, the dead lose their individual identity and simply become one of the crowd. Once they are dead it no longer matters who they were in life. The imagery of dead leaves in autumn reminds us of the frailty and brevity of human life. The birds emphasis the length of the journey the human soul must take to travel to the underworld. Both foreshadow the coming of winter and through this imply the terrible chill of the Underworld.
However there is perhaps a slight note of optimism at the end of this passage. The imagery of the migration of the birds suggests sunny shores ahead of them. When Aeneas continues his journey into the Underworld much of the scenery is very bleak. However, eventually he reaches the blessed groves where the good enjoy harmony and peace. For now they are trapped in the dark and the cold, however, there is the everlasting hope that eventually they will reach the shores of the light.