The Tears of Things

A phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid provides a guide for how we might relate to tragedy.

In the Aeneid, the hero contemplates the tragedy of war. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt: “There are tears for things and mortal thoughts touch the mind.” In the centuries that followed, lacrimae rerum escaped the pages of Virgil’s poem and took on a life of its own. It appears in sermons, symphonies, and epitaphs, and it has been carved into the faces of countless memorials and tombstones. The exact meaning of lacrimae rerum continues to inspire debate among linguists and classicists, for sometimes it is translated as “tears for things,” other times as “tears of things.” Although it’s only a matter of a single letter, the distinction between for and of is crucial—and instructive.

Weeping for something implies that each of us privately mourns the loss of the things we cherish—a person or a relationship, a promise or a dream—and that we grieve alone. The tears of things, however, suggests the world weeps with us. Are we strangers in a strange land, alone in our heads with our personal sorrows, or is melancholia as pervasive as the sunlight or air?

The tears of things. If I squint at this phrase the right way, I can catch a glimpse of a better way that I might relate to death. Maybe the universe is sympathetic, after all. Perhaps the cosmos is aware of the absurdity of our flickering lives. Seen in this light, the devastation I felt after losing my parents is no longer special or an aberration, but an intrinsic element of the world, as necessary as gravity or air. There is powerful alchemy in this simple thought, even if it is fleeting. Lacrimae rerum can become an organizing principle, reminding us that we are surrounded by compassion while we mourn. This might be a sentimental way of thinking that relies on the romantic notion that the wind, rain, and clouds can somehow mirror our states of mind, but it is an idea that makes me feel less alone—and sometimes this can be enough to carry someone through the dark forest of grief.

Photograph

A marble woman weeps over the tombs of an assassinated king and prince in the Pantheon of the House of Braganza. Photo by Candy Chang.

Filed Under

Loss

Further Reading

The Aeneid; lacrimae rerum; the pathetic fallacy;

January 2018

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