Rite of Spring

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Christopher Benfey in the NYRB's blog:

Spring should be a time of portents and premonitions, winged harbingers (“I dreaded that first Robin, so,” as Emily Dickinson put it with characteristic ambivalence) and new beginnings.

This thought struck me as I read Megan Marshall’s sympathetic new biography of Margaret Fuller, which opens with a familiar phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid, one that inspired an essay Fuller wrote during her precocious childhood. Possunt, quia posse videntur means, roughly, “They can because they think they can,” and describes a team of rowers who, according to Marshall, “will themselves to win a race.” The phrase, which Fuller thought demonstrated “confidence in the future,” gives Marshall an overarching theme for Fuller’s fiercely driven life.

But Fuller also made use of the Aeneid when she was less confident of the future. She was known to perform the ancient form of divination in which a passage of Virgil selected at random is assumed to reveal what lies ahead. Sir Philip Sidney described the practice, with a dash of skepticism, in his Defence of Poesy:

And so far were they carried into the admiration thereof, that they thought in the chanceable hitting upon any such verses great fore-tokens of their following fortunes were placed; whereupon grew the word of Sortes Virgilianae, when by sudden opening Virgil’s book they lighted upon some verse of his making.

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