Critical Evaluation

When Marguerite Yourcenar in 1948 began to think of Hadrian, she had already developed her literary gifts in her previous works of fiction. She understood well the first-person narrative form; she had previously evolved themes both human and universal; she was interested in historical research as an aid to conveying eternal ideas; and she had developed an acute understanding of human frailty. In Memoirs of Hadrian, her first recognized masterpiece, Yourcenar makes full use of her talents, skills, and knowledge.

The work is divided into six parts, each having a Latin title taken from Hadrian’s poetry, philosophical ideas, or coins minted during his reign. Each title describes, and each part is devoted to, different phases of the emperor’s life. Each section’s title and subject correspond to the development of aspects of Hadrian’s power and personality. The first part gives an account of the progress of his illness and his renunciation of many activities as his soul prepares to leave his body. The second describes the variety and complexity of his character, followed by a section dealing with “the stabilized earth.” Part 4 equates the golden age with Hadrian, since that age represents the period when his life reached its apogee, a moment when nothing seemed impossible and when all was easy. There follows a section entitled “the August but humane discipline,” which is Hadrian’s contemplation of life from a different point of view, and the book concludes with a meditation on death.

Yourcenar intends to portray a great historical personage who, thanks to his broad humanist culture and inquiring intelligence, was able, without illusions and with remarkable objectivity and lucidity, to analyze his life and times. Hadrian is at once an aesthete, art lover, poet, tireless traveler, general, economist, master builder, and political scientist: In other words, he is deeply interested in everything.

Yourcenar’s book is, however, far more than the autobiography of...

(The entire section is 823 words.)