Misquoting Virgil

Why context matters

The result is that readers today can have a very strange relationship to this classic: it’s a work we feel we should embrace but often keep at arm’s length. Take that quote in the 9/11 Museum: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Whoever came up with the idea of using it was clearly ignorant of the context: these high-minded words are addressed to a pair of nighttime marauders whose bloody ambush of a group of unsuspecting targets suggests that they have far more in common with the 9/11 terrorists than with their victims. A century ago, many a college undergrad could have caught the gaffe; today, it was enough to have an impressive-sounding quote from an acknowledged classic.

—Daniel Mendelsohn, “Is the Aeneid a Celebration of Empire—or a Critique?”, The New Yorker

This line—“No day shall erase you from the memory of time”1—stirs something deep inside when you read it in the context of the 9/11 Museum, or here in Ottawa, where it adorns a wall in the Valiants Memorial. In either of those places, this beautiful line offers a powerful call to action.

But as Mendelsohn demonstrates, this meaning is not so much a result of the words themselves as it is the context within which they’re read. Though it’s odd that we use this quotation in places that commemorate great loss and tragedy, given its original opposite context, I don’t think it’s so terrible.

Whereas Mendelsohn bemoans this apparent gaffe, I think it reveals something of the importance of context to language. On their own, words only mean so much. It’s from their broader context that they gain their emotional and motivational depth. Whether for language or life, context provides a depth of meaning.

  1. I think this phrase is especially beautiful in its French form: « Rien ne vous effacera jamais de la mémoire du temps »