Listen, Hear Me Out, Taylor Swift Wrote ‘The Archer’ About Aeneas and Dido

I want to preface this by saying that my Bachelor’s degree is in Classical Studies and Ancient History, and I’ve dedicated months of my life to the Aeneid at this point. I’ve loved Dido, hated Aeneas, studied the epic again, still loved Dido, felt bad for Aeneas, and spent the rest of my time also majoring in English — which, as we all know, means that if there are straws, you can bet your bottom dollar I’m clutching at them.

In essence: Taylor Swift dropped “The Archer” and this was inevitable from the word combat.

(Note: I’ve got David West’s translation at hand, so that’s what I’m using.)

  1. Combat, I’m ready for combat

Here we are. The spiral point for my fixation. The opening combat, sparse and breathy and with Swift’s on-brand enunciation, directly corresponds to the first word of the Aeneid: “arma.” Arma virumque cano, begins Virgil; “I sing of arms and of the man”, “arms and the man I sing”, etc. — the specifics depend on the translation. In the original Latin, however, opening with “arma” specifically categorises the epic (“cano,” the poet “sings” as Swift does) as a militaristic tale; one of conflict, struggle, and war. Swift says she’s ready for combat, and, with Virgil’s diction, so are readers of the Aeneid.

Aeneas and Dido could both be narrating at this point in Swift’s song. Aeneas is essentially the leader of a refugee population who continue to suffer after ten years of war on their now-razed home, thus informing the lens with which he and his men (who fought on the plains of Troy)—and the women of the city, too, lest we forget them—look at the world around them. Dido has come to power in Carthage after fleeing Tyre when her husband, Sychaeus, was murdered by “the vilest of criminals,” Dido’s brother, Pygmalion. Pygmalion is a lingering threat, and Iarbas later becomes one; this violent history, and, in a way, Dido’s initial likening to Diana (the goddess of the hunt) mean the Carthaginian queen is ready for combat.

  1. I say I don’t want that, but what if I do?

This encompasses one of the major thematic elements of the epic: pietas vs. furor. It’s the conflict within all people between duty, rationality, and doing well by the gods, and “mad [often violent] passion” which works to the detriment of all those concerned. It’s also a fitting internal monologue for a man who’s just come out of a ten-year war, which, as aforementioned, would’ve undoubtedly put even sad boi Aeneas into a rather conflicted state of mind.

  1. ’Cause cruelty wins in the movies

This lyric may evoke the ending of the poem, at which point Aeneas, “burning with mad passion and terrible in his wrath,” “blazing with rage” kills the suppliant Turnus. Given the way “mad passion” and associations with fire (“burning”, “blazing”) are treated in the epic, readers are inclined to see this as pius Aeneas surrendering at the last hurdle to furor. It’s up for debate as to whether this was the intended ending, and our old mate Virgil was on his deathbed insisting the manuscript be burned, but, y’know, we’ve still got it, and this is the ending as we know it, so maybe cruelty does [win] in the epic. Aeneas is only driven to this final violent act by the sight of Turnus wearing poor wee Pallas’ “fatal baldric,” though. Bit contentious.

On Dido’s end, cursing someone’s descendants from your funeral pyre and providing Virgilian cause for the Punic Wars probably cuts it for cruelty.

(Also, while we’re talkin’ movies, I’ve always felt there was something cinematic about the Aeneid as an epic. I’d say get on that, Hollywood, but, like, I don’t trust anyone.)

  1. I’ve got a hundred thrown-out speeches I almost said to you

“Where can I begin when there is so much to say?”

“Much could be said. I shall say only a little.”

  1. Easy they come, easy they go

I don’t know about easy so much as by divine orchestration, but, like, sure.

  1. I jump from the train, I ride off alone 

This one’s all Aeneas.

  1. I never grew up, it’s getting so old / Help me hold on to you

[puts academic analysis on pause to sob at the inevitability of a love’s demise]

  1. I’ve been the archer, I’ve been the prey

Aeneas uses a bow and arrow in Book I to hunt a herd of deer; Dido is likened both to Diana, famous wielder of a bow, and to a “wounded doe” upon the divinely-sanctioned dissolution of her relationship with Aeneas. Both, when agents unmarred by divine intervention, have the propensity to fill the archer role in the lyric, whereas their inability to counteract the will of the gods—either through pietas or through being “doomed” by said deities—makes them the prey.

Fun/devastating fact: Cupid, traditionally an archer, takes the form of Aeneas’s son Ascanius to “inflame the heart of the queen” and “[mark] her out to suffer.” This is under the instruction of Venus, who has previously appeared to Aeneas as a young huntress with a bow to give him Dido’s tragic backstory. Meanwhile, the real Ascanius also uses a bow and arrow in the later books of the epic. Not to mention the god of prophecy, of forward propulsion, the Archer himself, Apollo. Essentially, the wider Aeneas/Dido narrative has archers for days. Thank you, Taylor Alison Publius Vergilius Maro Swift.

  1. Who could ever leave me, darling / But who could stay?

This is Dido-centric, for obvious reasons. All I’m gonna say is, babe, I know your first husband was murdered and this new hotshot demigod is on the way out, too, but I’d’ve Fleabagged the hell outta your Kristin Scott Thomaslike, would that I could.

(Okay, I say it’s Dido-centric, but we could also think about Creusa, and about Dido, and Pallas, and Anchises, and, really, all of the heroes and colleagues and friends Aeneas loses over the course of the epic cycle. This very much could match him, too. So many loved ones are torn from him against his will, and theirs—none choose to leave; none are able to stay.)

  1. Dark side, I search for your dark side / But what if I’m alright, right, right, right here?

Logic says, ya probably shouldn’t immediately trust this guy who’s just washed up with his people on your shores, but the gods say, we’re “trying to turn towards a living love a heart that [has] long been at peace and long unused to passion.” (And your sister says, Get it, girl!)

Logic also says, you’re dealing with a tremendous amount of trauma and pressure and also regardless of any kind of prophecy you should probably mourn your wife properly at some point, buddy (y’know, the one you’re telling this Carthaginian queen all about in your recount of the Sack of Troy?), and the gods say, “Have you entirely forgotten your own kingdom and your own destiny? […] You owe [your son] the land of Rome and the kingdom of Italy.” And you’re like, well, shoot, you’re rightI’d better goI “[long] to be away and leave behind [me] this land [I have] found so sweet”but Dido’s gonna be madbut, I mean, we were never technically marriedI’ll just sneak offI’m sure it’ll be fine

(But also, to give the man some credit: “It is not by own will that I search for Italy.”)

  1. And I cut off my nose just to spite my face / Then I hate my reflection for years and years

Look, uh. See [10]. See any part of Aeneas in Book IV.

  1. I wake in the night, I pace like a ghost

“Her heart was broken and she felt no relief in sleep. Her eyes and mind would not accept the night, but her torment redoubled and her raging love came again and again in great surging tides of anger.” Not one hundred lines later, Aeneas is also “immediately awake” following marching orders from the gods, who rush him but also have time to be a bit misogynistic about the whole thing.

This lyric also preempts Aeneas’ later sighting of Dido in the Underworld, though by that time she’s back with the late, great Sychaeus and wants nothing to do with Aeneas. (Fair enough, babes.)

  1. The room is on fire, invisible smoke

The fire—the “passion”—with which Cupid infects Dido goes unseen by the queen herself and those around her, thus it is invisible. Of course, the room, Carthage itself, does essentially end up on fire when Dido builds her own funeral pyre (okay, well, no, this is Anna erasure), curses the “race of Dardanus,” stabs herself with Aeneas’ sword, and Carthage is described with all the frantic, panicked energy of a city in flames. Any smoke that may result—the clarity of translations vary—is unseen by Aeneas (hence invisible), who by this time has departed. Invisible smoke also works with the image of burning that a pyre evokes, regardless of whether or not it’s set alight.

And another possibility: this lyric as a description of a flashback to the Sack of Troy, the kind that Aeneas could experience if suffering with the kind of PTSD he and his fellows would be bound to have after ten years of war.

  1. And all of my heroes die all alone / Help me hold onto you

Gods (literally) forbid Aeneas finds some kind of stability and happiness before he carries out the plan they’ve got in mind, huh. Sorry Gus was so thirsty for his foundation myth!

See also Dido’s dreams just prior to her death, in which “she was always alone and desolate, always going on a long road without companions, looking for her Tyrians in an empty land.” She sends Anna off, and the Trojans are hurried on their way, and, thus, all of my heroes die all alone, surrounded by the belongings of the man who just ruined their lives!

  1. I’ve been the archer, I’ve been the prey

See [8].

  1. Screaming, who could ever leave me, darling / But who could stay?

This one’s Dido in all her rage. (It’s a righteous rage; she’s essentially been treated like Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—but that’s a tangent I’ll save for another day.)

  1. (I see right through me, I see right through me) & Bridge

Virgil’s descriptions of Dido and Aeneas, as well as their contextualisation to each other within the epic, make them mirrors of each other. This bridge—intense, unrelenting, disorientating, gorgeous; at once a head-rush and a tailspin—speaks to the inner conflict on both sides; the struggle of having to lead a group of people despite one’s own personal trauma. It’s the act of the brave face; the facade that falls down when their relationship with each other—engineered by divinities or not—becomes more established. The walls of Carthage cease to rise. The gods fear Aeneas’ destiny will be forsaken.

They see right through me addresses the knowledge of both leaders’ negligence, caused in varying degrees by their feelings for each other; can you see right through me? poses the same desperate question of Aeneas by Dido, and Dido by Aeneas. (Also, “But the queen—who can deceive a lover?—knew in advance some scheme was afoot.”) This bridge shows the sown seeds of doubt—of themselves and of each other—within both leaders: ebbing and escalating.

  1. All the king’s horses, all the king’s men / Couldn’t put me together again

“So then, what am I to do? Shall I go back to those who once wooed me and see if they will have me? I would be a laughing stock. Shall I beg a husband from the Numidians after I have so often scorned their offers of marriage? Shall I then go with the Trojan fleet and do whatever the Trojans ask? […] There is nothing left for you, Dido. […] No, you must die. That is what you have deserved. […] I was not allowed to live my life without marriage, in innocence, like a wild creature, and be untouched by such anguish as this—I have not kept faith with the ashes of Sychaeus.”

  1. ’Cause all of my enemies started out friends / Help me hold on to you

This line overtly evokes the Aeneas/Dido narrative. It also speaks to the bloodshed to follow between the Trojans and Latians, despite their initial civility. The jury’s out as to whether Pygmalion was ever Dido’s friend, but he was her brother, and Iarbas gave her the land to found her city before their enmity began, so this friends-to-enemies thread is abundant. It’s actually smattered all over the epic cycle, a prime example of the “mutability” my Tragedy professor would so emphatically intone. Gotta love Anne.

  1. Help me hold on to you

“[…] Is it me you are running away from? I beg you, by these tears, by the pledge you gave me with your own right hand—I have nothing else left me now in my misery—I beg you by our union, by the marriage we have begun—if I have deserved any kindness from you, if you have ever loved anything about me, pity my house that is falling around me, and I implore you, if it is not too late for prayers, give up this plan of yours.”

  1. I’ve been the archer, I’ve been the prey

See [8].

  1. Who could ever leave me, darling / But who could stay? 

See [9].

  1. (I see right through me, I see right through me)

See [17], but pause for a moment here anyway—just for Aeneas “[struggling] to fight down the anguish in his heart” as he tells Dido he has to leave.

  1. Who could stay? (x3) / You could stay (x2)

“[…] What I am asking for is some time, nothing more, an interval, a respite for my anguish, so that Fortune can teach me to grieve and to endure defeat.”

But also, with greater malice:

“But my hope is that if the just gods have any power, you will drain a bitter cup among the ocean rocks, calling the name of Dido again and again, and I shall follow you not in the flesh but in the black fires of death and when its cold hand takes the breath from my body, my shade shall be with you wherever you may be.”

  1. Combat / I’m ready for combat

This full-circle journey back to combat leads smoothly into the second half of the epic—the Iliadic half—which not only tells the story of Aeneas’ battle with the Latians, but also, from line 40, features another invocation of the Muse, giving what is essentially an In this essay, I will about the impending conflict (or, y’know, combat).

And, in addition to that, of course, we have Dido:

“[…] With these last words I pour out my life’s blood. […] Let there be no love between our peoples and no treaties. Arise from my dead bones, O my unknown avenger, and harry the race of Dardanus with fire and sword wherever they may settle, now and in the future, whenever our strength allows it. I pray that we stand opposed, shore against shore, sea against sea and sword against sword. Let there be war between the nations and between their sons for ever.”

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