(Poetry Criticism)

Vergil 70 B.C.–19 B.C.

(Full name Publius Vergilius Maro; also Virgil) Roman poet.

Considered the greatest poet of ancient Rome, Vergil is acclaimed for brilliantly transforming the Greek literary traditions that provided Roman writers with material, themes, and styles. His three major works—the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid—have influenced virtually all subsequent Western literature, and Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Matthew Arnold are numbered among his prominent literary heirs.

Biographical Information

Vergil was born on October 15, 70 B.C., at Andes, near Mantua, in Cisalpine Gaul, thereafter a province in the expanding Roman empire. His mother was the daughter of the small landlord who employed Vergil's father, Maro, a day laborer. The couple's marriage elevated Maro's social status, possibly enhancing the quality of his son's education. The boy received elementary schooling in Mantua, then studied rhetoric in Rome and philosophy in Naples. Vergil planned to practice law but proved too shy to speak comfortably in public. Returning to the small family farm his mother and father operated, he studied and wrote poetry until, in 41 B.C., the land was confiscated to compensate retiring soldiers. Friends urged Vergil to appeal to Octavian (known as Augustus after he became emperor in 27 B.C.), Julius Caesar's adopted son and eventual successor. Octavian restored the farm—perhaps, scholars speculate, because he was impressed by Vergil's writings—but the poet soon moved to Naples. There, between 42 and 37 B.C., he composed the Eclogues. These ten poems, also referred to as the Bucolics, depict shepherds singing of unhappy loves in an idealized landscape; their publication attracted widespread praise and the sponsorship of Octavian's friend, the art patron Maecenas. Maecenas allegedly prevailed upon Vergil to compose his next work, the Georgics, as an agricultural paean to persuade Romans, then deserting the countryside in large numbers, to return to farming. Written in Naples between 37 and 30 B.C., the Georgics, or "Points of Farming," consists of four books that offer instruction in grain production, the cultivation of trees and vineyards, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. The work further enhanced Vergil's reputation upon its appearance in 29 B.C. Octavian, to whom Vergil read the completed poem, honored him with two villas and a generous stipend, and Octavian's friends asked Vergil to compose an epic honoring the emperor. This project, which became the Aeneid, occupied the last ten years of Vergil's life. According to several of his friends, he first drafted the epic in prose, then laboriously reworked it in verse. Composition was slow and revision constant;

Vergil responded to one of Augustus's many inquiries about the poem's progress by asserting that he "must have been just about mad to attempt the task." When he left Naples in 19 B.C. to gather new material in Greece and Asia Minor, he planned to devote another three years to revisions, but caught fever at Megara and died soon after returning to Italy.

Major Works

The ten Eclogues vary in length from 63 to 111 lines. All depict shepherds of poetic temperament whose songs (in six of the pieces) end with the coming of night. Vergil's adherence to his prototype, the Idylls of Theocritus, is eclectic. His stated purpose in the Eclogues was to introduce to Rome the Theocritan pastoral form, which was first composed around 270 B.C. in the Hellenistic North African city of Alexandria, and much of the work (particularly Eclogues 2, 3, 7, and 8) derives directly from the Idylls: shepherd-poets, singing contests, the disruptions of love and death, a rural setting, and mythological digressions. However, Vergil substantially modified the Theocritan features he borrowed and introduced much new material. Vergil's shepherds are depicted much less realistically and ironically than their precursors, and the latter poet dissociates Arcadia from any particular time or place to further idealize it. Yet, by means of numerous allusions, the figures, events, and concerns of Augustan Rome intrude, generating a pervasive tension between the dreamy peace of rural vales and bowers, and the political realities of the Roman civil wars that threaten it. Vergil's innovations are evident in the structure and style of the Eclogues as well. While Theocritus appeared to have arranged his ten Idylls randomly, Vergil ordered the ten Eclogues very deliberately, creating an effect of balanced variety. Similarly, though Vergil adapted Theocritus's hexameter, characters, and dramatic form, the style of the Eclogues differs substantially from that of the Idylls. Vergil's sentences are simply connected and slowly paced, evoking a limpid, lyrical atmosphere. Furthermore, unlike their Theocritan peers, Vergil's characters develop, becoming more sensitive and serious over the course of the poem. Vergil also relies more on narrative as the poem progresses, a trend critics attribute to his gradual realization that he worked better in narrative than in dramatic form.

The Georgics is widely considered the most polished of Vergil's works; John Dryden, who translated all of Vergil's works, called it "the best poem of the best poet." Like the Eclogues, it is structured carefully to offer variety, con trast, and balance. Each of the four books is between 500 and 600 lines long, and each opens with a preface and closes with a long poetic set piece, as does the work as a whole. Books one and three are somber, depicting gruelling labor and emphasizing catastrophe; books two and four are livelier in tone, describing easier labor and offering some alternatives to despair. Vergil interweaves myriad mythical and literary allusions seamlessly, enriching his poem without encumbering it. The poem is also lyrical and evocative in its detailed observations of the Italian countryside. In the view of L. P. Wilkinson, "The Georgics, is, in fact, the first poem in all literature in which description may be said to be the chief raison d'etre and source of pleasure."

The Aeneid, commonly considered the masterpiece not only of Vergil but of Roman culture, consists of twelve books, each between 700 and 1,000 lines long. Critics have praised Vergil's ability to adapt a variety of traditions, motifs, ideas, and literary techniques to suit his poetic intentions. As scholars have maintained, he forged a characteristically Roman epic from such disparate sources as archiac myths and mysteries, Homeric epic poetry, ancient beliefs such as reincarnation, and Stoic precepts. What makes the Aeneid so eminently Roman is its pervasive spirit of Augustan patriotism and imperialism, expressed through the idea of pietas, which, though formally denoting religious respect, in practice describes Octavian's strategy of using religion, history, and morality to secure his grip on Rome. Indeed, as Vergil figuratively suggests in the epic, all Roman history contains the seeds of the city's destiny to preside in judicious peace over a far-flung empire. In this reading, the poem is specifically the Augustan tribute that Maecenas asked Vergil to produce, and Aeneas is a venerable ancestor of the leader who restored peace in Rome after decades of carnage. However, other readers contend that Vergil's epic focuses not on the triumphs but on the human cost of Roman power, as countless individuals were sacrificed for the greatness of Rome. According to this point of view, Vergil did not consider man capable of enacting imperial ideals without yielding to violent impulses. The poem reflects, then, Vergil's pervasive sympathy for human suffering, as seen in the final book's compassionate depiction of characters sacrificed to the entwined destinies of Aeneas and Rome.

Scholars have also carefully studied the formal structures of the Aeneid. Some divide the poem into symmetrical halves, each corresponding to one of Homer's epics, the Odyssey and the Iliad. Thus, in the Odyssean first six books, Aeneas's journey to what will eventually be Rome parallels Odysseus's homeward journey, while the Iliadic last six books recount a Latin inversion of the Trojan War: the Greeks fought to destroy a city, the Trojans fight to found one. This structural reading also supports the perception of some critics for whom the first six books constitute a spiritual journey that matures Aeneas so that he can lead the battles of Books VII–XII. Another popular approach to the epic's structure proposes that the books of the poem are alternately lighter and darker in tone. In this view, the poem is divided into three segments of four books each. The first four books are seen as dark; the middle four, light; and the last four, dark again. Such an interpretation of the poem's structure reinforces the view that Vergil's attitude toward Augustan Rome stresses its human costs and moral ambiguity. One point on which virtually all critics, regardless of theoretical orientation, insist is that the Aeneid must be read as a whole if readers are to appreciate Vergil's masterfully constructed and richly evocative narrative.

Critical Reception

Immensely popular in Augustan Rome, Vergil's works became part of the standard curriculum in Roman schools within fifty years of his death, ensuring the production of numerous copies and thus continuous availability to readers throughout the centuries. Critics in that time have closely analyzed the narrative and stylistic aspects of Vergil's great poems and have scrutinized the works' handling of their sources and models—the Eclogues' adaptations of the Theocritan patterns, for example, or the Georgics' pervasive allusions to the works of Homer, Lucretius, and others. A consummate master of form, Vergil has been credited with significantly refining narrative technique and with contributing to psychologically credible characterization in the Aeneid. He has also been praised for developing the typically Greek meter, the dactylic hexameter (a line consisting of six feet, with a predominance of dactyls—a long syllable and two short syllables—over spondees—two long syllables), into an outstanding instrument of Latin poetry. As time has widened the gulf between the present and the pre-Christian world, scholars have increasingly appreciated the encyclopedic description of Greco-Roman culture Vergil's poetry provides. In particular, his work affords us our most insightful perspective on the anxieties of empire during the Augustan Age: Does progress necessarily entail—and justify—human suffering? Can art minister to that suffering? The questions pervading Vergil's poetry have remained relevant. As literary exemplars, revealing artifacts, and continuously pertinent, provocative portrayals of the human condition, Vergil's works endure among the great creations of world literature.

Principal English Translations

(Poetry Criticism)

Eneydos (translated by William Caxton) 1490

Eneados (translated by Gawin Douglas) 1553

The Aeneid, Books II and IV (partial translation by Henry Howard) 1557

Aeneidos (translated by Thomas Phaer and Thomas Twyne) 1573

The Aeneis of P. Virgilius Maro, Books I–IV (partial translation by Richard Stanyhurst) 1582

The Bucoliks of Publius Virgilius Maro, Prince of all Latine poets, otherwise called his Pastoralls, or shepeherds meetings. Together with his Georgiks or Ruralls, otherwise called his husbandrie, conteyning foure books (translated by Abraham Fleming) 1589


(The entire section is 331 words.)

Joseph Addison (essay date 1697)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Essay on Virgil's Georgics," in Eighteenth-Century Critical Essays, Vol. 1, edited by Scott Elledge, Cornell, 1961, pp. 1–8.

[A prominent English statesman and man of letters, Addison, along with Richard Steele, is considered one of the most important essayists of the early eighteenth century. With Steele, he founded the influential daily the Spectator, which was launched with the avowed purpose of improving the morals and manners of the day. Addison's best essays, those in which he adopted the persona of the fictional country squire Sir Roger de Coverley, are tren-chant, pointed observations of life, literature, and society. Didactic and moralizing, yet witty...

(The entire section is 3320 words.)

J. C. Shairp (essay date 1879)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Virgil as a Precursor of Christianity," in The Princeton Review, Vol. 4, July-December, 1879, pp. 401–20.

[In the following essay, Shairp examines changing religious practices during the reign of Augustus, how these changes are embodied in the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, and how Virgil's theological views impacted western literature.]

Scripture and reason alike combine to show that before the world could possibly have received Christianity it needed to pass through many centuries of preparatory discipline. It was only when this had been undergone that what St. Paul speaks of as "the fulness of the time" was come. All historians of the...

(The entire section is 7788 words.)

J. W. Mackail (essay date 1895)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Augustan Age: Virgil," in Latin Literature, 1895. Reprint by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1900, pp. 91–105.

[Mackail was an English critic, biographer, and educator whose books include The Springs of Helicon (1909) and Studies in Humanism (1938). Primarily devoted to the study of Greek and English poetry, his work displays the a scholarly approach to literature, as well as a belief that the development of poetry is an organic process. In the excerpt below, Mackail traces the development of Vergil's skill from the Eclogues through the Georgics, culminating in the mature style displayed in the Aeneid.]

Publius Vergilius Maro was...

(The entire section is 4419 words.)

Edward Townsend Booth (essay date 1946)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Virgil: The Georgics," in God Made the Country, Alfred A. Knopf, 1946, pp. 29–36.

[In the following essay, Booth views Virgil as an authority on husbandry and details the picture of agricultural life presented in the Georgics.]

The greatest Roman poet—the greatest poet of antiquity, some call him—was a rustic; his most finished poem, a portrait of the Roman peasant, full-length, against a background of Italian landscape and the eternal round of farm labor. His life long Virgil could not conceal beneath his ill-fitting toga the awkwardness of the countryman; the diffidence, the candor, the sincerity of the frontiersman, the borderer. He was a tall,...

(The entire section is 2351 words.)

Mark Van Doren (essay date 1946)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Aeneid," in The Noble Voice: A Study of Ten Great Poems, Henry Holt and Company, 1946, pp. 86–121.

[Van Doren was one of the most prolific men of letters in twentieth-century American writing. His work includes poetry (his Collected Poems 1922–1938 won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940), novels, short stories, drama, criticism, social commentary, and the editing of a number of popular anthologies. He wrote accomplished studies of Shakespeare, John Dryden, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, and served as literary editor and film critic for the Nation during the 1920s and 1930s. Van Doren's criticism is aimed at the general reader, rather than the scholar or...

(The entire section is 8580 words.)

T. S. Eliot (essay date 1951)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Virgil and the Christian World," in On Poetry and Poets, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1957, pp. 135–48.

[Perhaps the most influential poet and critic to write in the English language during the first half of the twentieth century, Eliot is closely identified with many of the qualities denoted by the term Modernism: experimentation, formal complexity, artistic and intellectual eclecticism, and a classicist's view of the artist working at an emotional distance from his or her creation. He introduced a number of terms and concepts that strongly affected critical thought in his lifetime, among them the idea that poets must be conscious of the living tradition of literature in order for...

(The entire section is 4965 words.)

Viktor Pöschl (essay date 1962)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Basic Themes," in The Art of Vergil: Image and Symbol in the Aeneid, translated by Gerda Seligson, The University of Michigan Press, 1962, pp. 13–33.

[In the following excerpt, Pöschl analyzes the early scenes of the Aeneid, in which the "symbolic relation between nature and politics, myth and history" establishes the themes of the epic as a whole.]

The first climactic point in the Aeneid—the event that sets the tone, arousing and preparing the reader's mind for the extraordinary actions about to take place—is the storm which drives Aeneas to the shores of Carthage. Its introductory position in the poem indicates that it is more than just...

(The entire section is 3904 words.)

George E. Duckworth (essay date 1965–66)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The 'Old' and the 'New' in Vergil's Aeneid," in The Poetic Tradition: Essays on Greek, Latin and English Poetry, edited by Don Cameron Allen and Henry T. Rowell, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968, pp. 63–80.

[Duckworth was a classical scholar and educator. The following essay was originally delivered as a lecture at The Johns Hopkins University during the academic year 1965–66. Below, he analyzes the versification, structure, and themes of the Aeneid, especially as they are displayed in the "corresponding" Books II and VIII.]

Vergil ranks with Homer, Dante, and Milton as one of the supreme epic poets of Western literature, and, just as Vergil was...

(The entire section is 5075 words.)

Douglas J. Stewart (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Morality, Mortality, and the Public Life: Aeneas the Politician," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 32, No. 4, Fall/Winter, 1973, pp. 649–64.

[In the following essay, Stewart emphasizes the political didacticism of the Aeneid, claiming the "essential subject" of the poem "is the 'education ' of a political leader."]

In his 1961 lectures from the Oxford Chair of Poetry Robert Graves labeled Virgil the "anti-poet"—in Graves-peak, roughly, the Anti-Christ—and denounced him for "pliability … subservience … narrowness; his denial of the stubborn imaginative freedom that the true poets who preceded him had valued; his lack of originality, courage,...

(The entire section is 7078 words.)

Sarah Spence (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Juno's Desire" in Rhetorics of Reason and Desire: Vergil, Augustine, and the Troubadours, Cornell, 1988, pp. 22–54.

[In the following excerpt, Spence notes that Virgil's delineation of such defeated characters as Juno, Dido, and Turnus suggests a sympathy for the very human traits that the "male" rhetorical model represses—impulsiveness, rebellion, bellion, and passionand attests to the need for a more tolerant and less hierarchical view of humankind.]

In the last twenty years, scholarship of the Aeneid has shifted from viewing the text as a paean to Aeneas, Italy, and Augustus to showing increasingly the darker side of the text,...

(The entire section is 2888 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Duckworth, George E. "Recent Work on Vergil (1940–1956)." The Classical World 51, No. 4 (January 1958): 89–92, 116–17.

Extensive bibliography. Includes foreign language studies.

——. "Recent Work on Virgil (1957–1963)." The Classical World 57, No. 5 (February 1964): 193–228.

Updates Duckworth's earlier bibliography.

Vergilian Society. Vergilius. 1954–.

Comprehensive bibliography published annually.



(The entire section is 1662 words.)