Background & Questions for Scott Cairns' "Three Descents"

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In the great Roman epic, The Aeneid, by Virgil, Aeneas is presented as the founder of Rome.  The son of a mortal and a goddess, Aeneas survives the sack of Troy to lead a large group of his countrymen to Italy.  Along the way, they have numerous adventures, including a stop in Carthage, where Aeneas falls in love with Dido the queen.  The gods command Aeneas to leave Dido and continue on his way to fulfill his destiny.  As a result, she commits suicide.  Later in Aeneas' travels, he is instructed by the prophetess of Apollo, the Sibyl, to descend into Hades.   Before Aeneas enters the underworld, one of his shipmates, Palinurus is washed overboard and drowned by the god Neptune. Once in Hades, Aeneas encounters the ghost of Dido, as well as a great fortress where the most evil are punished.  The Trojan leader also meets his father, Ascanius, in the Blessed Groves, where the good live in a lush environment.  Ascanius tells Aeneas of the future glory of the Roman Empire.   Aeneas returns with resolved purpose.


Orpheus is a noted musician in Greek and Roman mythology, so beautiful is his playing that the very rocks and trees respond with song.  Shortly after his marriage, Eurydice, his wife, is accosted by a shepherd.  In her flight from him, she steps on a snake and dies from the poisonous bite.  Orpheus descends into the underworld to ask for Eurydice's soul.  He plays his music before the court of Hell who agree to release Eurydice on the condition that Orpheus does not look back the couple's entire ascent out.   Limping on her lame foot, Eurydice follows Orpheus.  He almost keeps his promise, but moments before they reach the upper world, he looks back in concern to see if she is still there, and as soon as he looks, she is borne back to the dark world below.  After Orpheus leaves the underworld, he continues to sing of his pain.  He is at such a loss that he ignores the advances of the Thracian maidens, who eventually turn on him in anger and tear him limb from limb.


The harrowing of hell is the doctrine (based loosely on biblical and extrabiblical sources) that Christ triumphantly descended into hell between his crucifixion and resurrection to bring deliverance to the righteous souls held there since Adam and Eve's original fall.  This belief was a very popular theme among medieval English writers such as Bede, Caedmon, Cynewulf, and the authors of the medieval mystery plays.


  1. How does Cairns' treatment of Aeneas differ from that of Virgil?
  2. What are some of the images that the poem associates with Aeneas' descent?
  3. What elements of the Orpheus myth does Cairns stress?
  4. What kinds of emotional motives does Cairns assign to Aeneas and Orpheus?  How do these differ from those he assigns to Jesus?
  5. What makes Jesus' descent the same or different from Aeneas and Orpheus'?
  6. What is the overall message or theme of "Three Descents"?
  7. Is the harrowing of hell a biblical doctrine?  Does your answer to this question influence your enjoyment of the poem in any way?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding