The 9/11 Memorial Museum is about to open to the public and a free audio guide app is now available to the public.
As a Classicist who has just adapted an incident from the epic poem The Aeneid for teen readers, what particularly interests me is the quote by Virgil seven levels below ground in the Memorial Hall. This quote sums up the passage I have been working on for the past half year. I was surprised to discover that this exact quote is prominently displayed in Memorial Hall.
And yet, I was not surprised. Poetry, even when written two millennia ago, has the power to give a kind of immortality to those whom the poet commemorates.
Here is a transcription of the part of the audio guide that describes the inscription:
Stop 10 – Memorial Hall. In the vast space known as Memorial Hall, first glimpsed from the overlook, you will again encounter the quote from the poet Virgil, presented in letters about fifteen inches tall, forged by blacksmith Tom Joyce in steel recovered from the World Trade Centre Site. Virgil’s words read “No day shall erase you from the memory of time. ” A sea of blue surrounds the quote: 2983 individual paper watercolours in different shades of blue pay tribute to the people killed on 9/11 and in the 1993 bombing. Artist Spencer Finch created this exhibition titled “Trying to remember the color of the sky on that September morning” especially for this space in the museum. [More about Memorial Hall is available on the Witnessing History Tour.]
Witnessing History – Memorial Hall – Here, dominating the space of this Memorial Hall is a quote from the Roman poet Virgil that captures the commemorative context for the entire museum. Suggesting the transformative potential of remembrance, each letter was forged from remnant World Trade Center steel by blacksmith Tom Joyce. Here’s Tom: “As a sculptor and blacksmith I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the properties of iron. There’s iron in every red blood cell and it’s the iron in our blood that brings oxygen to the cells in our bodies. In a sense, iron makes life possible. Whenever it is touched by fire, iron goes through a transformative process, and that is what you can see in the letters of the Virgil quote. I was invited to use material salvaged from the ruins of the World Trade Center. I knew that fire could forge this wounded, remnant steel into letters of hope and beauty, reminding us that Virgil’s words not just a statement; they are a promise.”
There has been some controversy about the use of this quote based on its original context, the story of two teenage boys. Nisus and Euryalus are refugees from the sacked city of Troy, famous for Achilles, Paris, Hector and the Trojan Horse. The two youths have just landed in Italy under the leadership of the hero Aeneas, who hopes to found a new Troy on the banks of the river Tiber. There have been several prophecies that his band of Trojans will settle there and he believes he has a divine mandate. Aeneas has just gone upstream to make some allies when local warriors besiege the wooden fortress the Trojans have built. The Rutulians threaten to burn the fortress in the morning. That night, Nisus and Euryalus decide to risk their lives by sneaking through the sleeping, besieging troops to warn Aeneas and get help. However, their brave mission goes disastrously wrong when they give in to the temptation to slaughter and rob their slumbering enemies. A flashing helmet, taken as booty, gives away the younger boy, Euryalus. When he is surrounded by enemy troops, his friend Nisus runs out of the woods crying “Me, me! Kill me instead!” Both boys die, but because of the sacrificial gesture of the elder boy, Nisus, Virgil promises that they will never be forgotten.
Fortunati ambo, writes Virgil. “Blessed pair! If my poem has any power, no day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
You can read the original Latin HERE. It starts at line 175 and our quote is at line 447. You can read the English poet Dryden’s magnificent translation HERE. You can read what various scholars have said about the controversy HERE. And you can read my version of the story in The Night Raid.