Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1680
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 ...
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- Critical Essays
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 331
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
Virgil's Georgicks (translated by Thomas May) 1628
The Works of P. Vergilius Maro (translated by John Ogilby) 1649
The Works of Virgil: containing his Pastorals, Georgics, and Aeneis (translated by John Dryden) 1697
The Georgicks of Virgil (translated by John Martyn) 1741
The Bucolicks of Virgil (translated by John Martyn) 1749
The Works of Virgil (translated by Christopher Pitt and Joseph Warton) 1753
The Aeneid (verse translation by John Conington) 1866
The Aeneid (prose translation by John Conington) 1872
The Aeneid (translated by William Morris) 1876
The Aeneid (translated by John William Mackail) 1908
The Georgicks of Virgil in English Verse (translated by Arthur S. Way) 1912
The Aeneid of Virgil in English Verse (translated by Arthur S. Way) 1916
The Poems of Virgil (translated by James Rhoads) 1921
The Aeneid (translated by Henry Rushton Fairclough) 1932
The Eclogues of Virgil in English Verse (translated by Arthur S. Way) 1932
Virgil's Works: The Aeneid, Eclogues, Georgics (translated by John William Mackail) 1934
The Eclogues and the Georgics (translated by R. C. Trevelyan) 1944
The Pastoral Poems (translated by E. V. Rieu) 1949
The Aeneid of Virgil (translated by Rolphe Humphries) 1951
The Aeneid of Virgil (translated by C. Day Lewis) 1952
The Aeneid by Virgil (translated by W. F. Jackson Knight) 1958
The Aeneid: An Epic Poem of Rome (translated by L. R. Lind) 1962
The Aeneid (translated by Frank O. Copley) 1965
The Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid of Virgil (translated by C. Day Lewis) 1966
The Aeneid of Vergil (translated by Kevin Guinagh) 1970
The Aeneid of Virgil (translated by Allen Mandelbaum) 1971
The Aeneid of Virgil (translated by R. D. Williams) 1972–73
The Aeneid (translated by Robert Fitzgerald) 1981
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3320
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 and ironic, Addison's style epitomizes the ideals of neoclassical lucidity and moderation; Samuel Johnson remarked that Addison's work is characterized by "an English style familiar but not coarse, elegant but not ostentatious. " In the following essay, originally published in 1697, Addison discusses how the Georgics exemplify the georgic form.]
Virgil may be reckoned the first who introduced three new kinds of poetry among the Romans, which he copied after three the greatest masters of Greece. Theocritus and Homer have still disputed for the advantage over him in pastoral and heroics, but I think all are unanimous in giving him the precedence to Hesiod in his Georgics. The truth of it is, the sweetness and rusticity of a pastoral cannot be so well expressed in any other tongue as in the Greek, when rightly mixed and qualified with the Doric dialect; nor can the majesty of a heroic poem anywhere appear so well as in this language, which has a natural greatness in it, and can be often rendered more deep and sonorous by the pronunciation of the Ionians. But in the middle style, where the writers in both tongues are on a level, we see how far Virgil has excelled all who have written in the same way with him.
There has been abundance of criticism spent on Virgil's Pastorals and Aeneid, but the Georgics are a subject which none of the critics have sufficiently taken into their consideration, most of them passing it over in silence, or casting it under the same head with pastoral—a division by no means proper, unless we suppose the style of a husbandman ought to be imitated in a georgic, as that of a shepherd is in pastoral. But though the scene of both these poems lies in the same place, the speakers in them are of a quite different character, since the precepts of husbandry are not to be delivered with the simplicity of a plowman, but with the address of a poet. No rules, therefore, that relate to pastoral can any way affect the Georgics, since they fall under that class of poetry which consists in giving plain and direct instructions to the reader—whether they be moral duties, as those of Theognis and Pythagoras; or philosophical speculations, as those of Aratus and Lucretius; or rules of practice, as those of Hesiod and Virgil. Among these different kinds of subjects, that which the Georgics go upon is, I think, the meanest and least improving, but the most pleasing and delightful. Precepts of morality, besides the natural corruption of our tempers, which makes us averse to them, are so abstracted from ideas of sense that they seldom give an opportunity for those beautiful descriptions and images which are the spirit and life of poetry. Natural philosophy has, indeed, sensible objects to work upon, but then it often puzzles the reader with the intricacy of its notions and perplexes him with the multitude of its disputes. But this kind of poetry I am now speaking of addresses itself wholly to the imagination: it is altogether conversant among the fields and woods and has the most delightful part of nature for its province. It raises in our minds a pleasing variety of scenes and landscapes whilst it teaches us, and makes the driest of its precepts look like a description. A georgic, therefore, is some part of the science of husbandry put into a pleasing dress, and set off with all the beauties and embellishments of poetry. Now since this science of husbandry is of a very large extent, the poet shows his skill in singling out such precepts to proceed on as are useful and at the same time most capable of ornament. Virgil was so well acquainted with this secret that to set off his First Georgic he has run into a set of precepts which are almost foreign to his subject, in that beautiful account he gives us of the signs in nature which precede the changes of the weather.
And if there be so much art in the choice of fit precepts, there is much more required in the treating of them, that they may fall in after each other by a natural, unforced method, and show themselves in the best and most advantageous light. They should all be so finely wrought together in the same piece that no coarse seam may discover where they join, as in a curious brede of needlework one color falls away by such just degrees and another rises so insensibly that we see the variety without being able to distinguish the total vanishing of the one from the first appearance of the other. Nor is it sufficient to range and dispose this body of precepts into a clear and easy method unless they are delivered to us in the most pleasing and agreeable manner, for there are several ways of conveying the same truth to the mind of man, and to choose the pleasantest of these ways is that which chiefly distinguishes poetry from prose and makes Virgil's rules of husbandry pleasanter to read than Varro's. Where the prose writer tells us plainly what ought to be done, the poet often conceals the precept in a description and represents his countryman performing the action in which he would instruct his reader. Where the one sets out as fully and distinctly as he can all the parts of the truth which he would communicate to us, the other singles out the most pleasing circumstance of this truth, and so conveys the whole in a more diverting manner to the understanding. I shall give one instance out of a multitude of this nature that might be found in the Georgics where the reader may see the different ways Virgil has taken to express the same thing, and how much pleasanter every manner of expression is than the plain and direct mention of it would have been. It is in the "Second Georgic," where he tells us what trees will bear grafting on each other:
Here we see the poet considered all the effects of this union between trees of different kinds and took notice of that effect which had the most surprise and, by consequence, the most delight in it, to express the capacity that was in them of being thus united. This way of writing is everywhere much in use among the poets and is particularly practiced by Virgil, who loves to suggest a truth indirectly, and without giving us a full and open view of it, to let us see just so much as will naturally lead the imagination into all the parts that lie concealed. This is wonderfully diverting to the understanding, thus to receive a precept that enters, as it were, through a byway and to apprehend an idea that draws a whole train after it. For here the mind, which is always delighted with its own discoveries, only takes the hint from the poet, and seems to work out the rest by the strength of her own faculties.
But since the inculcating precept upon precept will at length prove tiresome to the reader if he meets with no entertainment, the poet must take care not to encumber his poem with too much business, but sometimes to relieve the subject with a moral reflection or let it rest a while for the sake of a pleasant and pertinent digression. Nor is it sufficient to run out into beautiful and diverting digressions (as it is generally thought) unless they are brought in aptly, and are something of a piece with the main design of the georgic; for they ought to have a remote alliance, at least, to the subject, that so the whole poem may be more uniform and agreeable in all its parts. We should never quite lose sight of the country though we are sometimes entertained with a distant prospect of it. Of this nature are Virgil's descriptions of the original of agriculture, of the fruitfulness of Italy, of a country life, and the like, which are not brought in by force, but naturally rise out of the principal argument and design of the poem. I know no one digression in the Georgics that may seem to contradict this observation besides that in the latter end of the First Book, where the poet launches out into a discourse of the battle of Pharsalia and the actions of Augustus; but it is worth while to consider how admirably he has turned the course of his narration into its proper channel and made his husbandman concerned even in what relates to the battle, in those inimitable lines:
Scilicet et tempus veniet, cum finibus illis
agricola incurvo terrain molitus aratro
exesa inveniet scabra robigine pila,
aut gravibus rastris galeas pulsabit inanis,
grandiaque effossis mirabitur ossa sepulcris.
And afterwards, speaking of Augustus' actions, he still remembers that agriculture ought to be some way hinted at throughout the whole poem:
We now come to the style which is proper to a georgic, and indeed this is the part on which the poet must lay out all his strength, that his words may be warm and glowing, and that everything he describes may immediately present itself and rise up to the reader's view. He ought in particular to be careful of not letting his subject debase his style and betray him into a meanness of expression, but every-where to keep up his verse in all the pomp of numbers and dignity of words.
I think nothing which is a phrase or saying in common talk should be admitted into a serious poem, because it takes off from the solemnity of the expression and gives it too great a turn of familiarity; much less ought the low phrases and terms of art that are adapted to husbandry have any place in such a work as the georgic, which is not to appear in the natural simplicity and nakedness of its subject, but in the pleasantest dress that poetry can bestow on it. Thus Virgil, to deviate from the common form of words, would not make use of tempore, but sydere, in his first verse, and everywhere else abounds with metaphors, Grecisms, and circumlocutions, to give his verse the greater pomp and preserve it from sinking into a plebian style. And herein consists Virgil's masterpiece, who has not only excelled all other poets but even himself in the language of his georgics, where we receive more strong and lively ideas of things from his words than we could have done from the objects themselves, and find our imaginations more affected by his descriptions than they would have been by the very sight of what he describes.
I shall now, after this short scheme of rules, consider the different success that Hesiod and Virgil have met with in this kind of poetry, which may give us some further notion of the excellence of the Georgics. To begin with Hesiod, if we may guess at his character from his writings, he had much more of the husbandman than the poet in his temper; he was wonderfully grave, discreet, and frugal; he lived altogether in the country, and was probably for his great prudence the oracle of the whole neighborhood. These principles of good husbandry ran through his works and directed him to the choice of tillage and merchandise for the subject of that which is the most celebrated of them. He is everywhere bent on instruction, avoids all manner of digressions, and does not stir out of the field once in the whole Georgic. His method in describing month after month, with its proper seasons and employments, is too grave and simple; it takes off from the surprise and variety of the poem and makes the whole look but like a modern almanac in verse. The reader is carried through a course of weather, and may beforehand guess whether he is to meet with snow or rain, clouds or sunshine, in the next description. His descriptions, indeed, have abundance of nature in them, but then it is nature in her simplicity and undress. Thus when he speaks of January: "The wild beasts," says he, "run shivering through the woods with their heads stooping to the ground, and their tails clapped between their legs; the goats and oxen are almost flayed with cold; but it is not so bad with the sheep, because they have a thick coat of wool about them. The old men too are bitterly pinched with the weather, but the young girls feel nothing of it, who sit at home with their mothers by a warm fireside." Thus does the old gentleman give himself up to a loose kind of tattle, rather than endeavor after a just poetical description. Nor has he shown more of art or judgment in the precepts he has given us, which are sown so very thick that they clog the poem too much, and are often so minute and full of circumstances that they weaken and unnerve his verse. But after all, we are beholden to him for the first rough sketch of a georgic, where we may still discover something venerable in the antiqueness of the work; but if we would see the design enlarged, the figures reformed, the coloring laid on, and the whole piece finished, we must expect it from a greater master's hand.
Virgil has drawn out the rules of tillage and planting into two books which Hesiod has dispatched in half a one, but has so raised the natural rudeness and simplicity of his subject with such a significancy of expression, such a pomp of verse, such variety of transitions, and such a solemn air in his reflections that if we look on both poets together, we see in one the plainness of a downright countryman, and in the other something of a rustic majesty like that of a Roman dictator at the plowtail. He delivers the meanest of his precepts with a kind of grandeur; he breaks the clods and tosses the dung about with an air of gracefulness. His prognostications of the weather are taken out of Aratus, where we may see how judiciously he has picked out those that are the most proper for his husbandman's observation, how he has enforced the expression and heightened the images which he found in the original.
The Second Book has more wit in it and a greater boldness in its metaphors than any of the rest. The poet, with a great beauty, applies oblivion, ignorance, wonder, desire, and the like, to his trees. The last Georgic has, in-deed, as many metaphors, but not so daring as this; for human thoughts and passions may be more naturally ascribed to a bee than to an inanimate plant. He who reads over the pleasures of a country life as they are described by Virgil in the latter end of this book can scarce be of Virgil's mind in preferring even the life of a philosopher to it. We may, I think, read the poet's clime in his description, for he seems to have been in a sweat at the writing of it:
and is everywhere mentioning among his chief pleasures the coolness of his shades and rivers, vales and grottoes, which a more northern poet would have omitted for the description of a sunny hill and fireside.
The "Third Georgic" seems to be the most labored of them all; there is a wonderful vigor and spirit in the description of the horse and chariot race. The force of love is represented in noble instances and very sublime expressions. The Scythian winter piece appears so very cold and bleak to the eye that a man can scarce look on it without shivering. The murrain at the end has all the expressiveness that words can give. It was here that the poet strained hard to outdo Lucretius in the description of his plague, and if the reader would see what success he had, he may find it at large in Scaliger [Poetics, V].
But Virgil seems nowhere so well pleased as when he is got among his bees in the Fourth Georgic, and ennobles the actions of so trivial a creature with metaphors drawn from the most important concerns of mankind. His verses are not in a greater noise and hurry in the battles of Aeneas and Turnus than in the engagement of two swarms. And as in his Aeneid he compares the labors of his Trojans to those of bees and pismires, here he compares the labors of the bees to those of the Cyclops. In short, the last Georgic was a good prelude to the Aeneid, and very well showed what the poet could do in the description of what was really great, by his describing the mock grandeur of an insect with so good a grace. There is more pleasantness in the little platform of a garden which he gives us about the middle of this book than in all the spacious walks and waterworks of Rapin [in his Hotorum]. The speech of Proteus at the end can never be enough admired, and was indeed very fit to conclude so divine a work.
After this particular account of the beauties in the Georgics, I should in the next place endeavor to point out its imperfections, if it has any. But though I think there are some few parts in it that are not so beautiful as the rest, I shall not presume to name them, as rather suspecting my own judgment than I can believe a fault to be in that poem which lay so long under Virgil's correction and had his last hand put to it. The First Georgic was probably burlesqued in the author's lifetime, for we still find in the scholiasts a verse that ridicules part of a line translated from Hesiod—nudus ara, sere nudus—and we may easily guess at the judgment of this extraordinary critic, whoever he was, from his censuring this particular precept. We may be sure Virgil would not have translated it from Hesiod had he not discovered some beauty in it; and indeed the beauty of it is what I have before observed to be frequently met with in Virgil, the delivering the precept so indirectly, and singling out the particular circumstance of sowing and plowing naked to suggest to us that these employments are proper only in the hot season of the year.
I shall not here compare the style of the Georgics with that of Lucretius, which the reader may see already done in the Preface to the second volume of [Dryden's Sylvae: Or the Second Part of Poetical Miscellanies, 1685–], but shall conclude this poem to be the most complete, elaborate, and finished piece of all antiquity. The Aeneid, indeed, is of a nobler kind, but the Georgics is more perfect in its kind. The Aeneid has a greater variety of beauties in it, but those of the Georgics are more exquisite. In short, the Georgics has all the perfection that can be expected in a poem written by the greatest poet in the flower of his age, when his invention was ready, his imagination warm, his judgment settled, and all his faculties in their full vigor and maturity.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7788
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 Christian Church have dwelt on this—none with more power than Neander in the opening of his great work [Allgemeine Geschichte der christliche Religion und Kirche, 1825–52]. If this preparation is an intrinsic part of the providential purpose that runs through history, we would naturally expect that while it embraced all nations it would be seen most eminently in those two nations which led the van of the ancient world's civilization. This has been generally recognized, and writers have agreed to look to the Hellenic race as the intellectual and in some measure the moral teachers of mankind; to the Romans they have assigned pre-eminently the political and practical education of the world. But to confine the function of the Romans to this would not be to give them all their due. If they contributed little or nothing by speculation to the grand result, the Romans did as much as, probably more than, the degenerate Greeks of the Christian era, by their standard of character, as the best of them conceived it. In the ideal Humanitas of Cicero and of Virgil, though each of these would conceive it with a characteristic difference, there lies the best seedground which the ancient world supplied for the sowing of the heavenly grain. In spite of all his vanity and vacillation, in spite of the "many grave infirmities and defects of temper with which he stands justly charged," it has been
truly said of Cicero that "he lived and died in faith. He has made converts to the belief in virtue, and had disciples in the wisdom of love." Such is the verdict of the historian of the "Romans under the Empire"—a verdict which we willingly accept. And as to Virgil, though he too has been much reviled for his acceptance of the Imperial régime and his friendship with Mecaenas and Augustus, yet there breathed no spirit of purer aspiration in the day in which he lived; and falling on a time of decadence in faith and morals he did the best he could, and kept himself unspotted from the world. And for openness of heart and quick susceptibility to whatever highest religious influence he knew, there are few even among Christian poets who can be compared to him. It is on this side of Virgil's character and work, his openness to religious impressions, on which I propose to dwell for a little. This is one aspect of him which has of late years been almost entirely put out of sight, while critics have been content to regard him only as the consummate artist. It was not always so. It was not in this way that the early Christian centuries and the middle age regarded him, but as the devoutest, most religious, among the ancient poets. And this view of him, which has in recent times been disregarded, it may be worth while for a little to consider.
It is well known in what special honor the early Christian Fathers held Virgil. St. Augustine styled him the finest and noblest of poets. St. Jerome, who looked severely on all heathen writers, allows that to read Virgil was a necessity for boys, but complains that even priests in his day turned to him for pleasure.
In the middle age he was regarded by some as a magician; by others as a prophet or a saint. His form was found sculptured in the stalls of a cathedral among the Old Testament worthies; in a picture of the Nativity where David and the prophets were singing round The Child, Virgil is seen leading the concert. His verses are found in the burial-places of the catacombs, associated with the cross and the monogram of our Lord. The power with which he has laid hold of the Christian imagination is proved by nothing more than by the place Dante assigns him in his Divina Commedia as his teacher and his guide to the nether world. You remember the words with which Dante addresses him on his first appearance:
Art thou, then, that Virgil—that fountain
Which pours forth abroad so rich a stream of speech?
O glory and light of other poets!
May the long zeal avail me, and the great love
That made me search thy volume.
Thou art my master and my author:
Thou alone art he from whom I took
The good style that hath done me honor.
This general consent of the primitive and middle ages to adopt Virgil among the possible if not actual saints of Christendom arose, no doubt, from the belief that in his ["Eclogue 4"] he had prophesied the advent of Christ. Constantine in his discourse "Ad sanctos" quoted it as a prophecy. Lactantius agreed that it had a Christian meaning. St. Augustine accepted it as a genuine prophecy, and read in the thirteenth and fourteenth verses of that eclogue a distinct prediction of the remission of sins.
This interpretation of ["Eclogue 4"], which would seem to have lingered on till Pope's time, when he imitated it in his Messiah, has for long been discredited. The Child that was to be born of which the eclogue speaks, whether the son of Pollio or the daughter of Augustus, was far enough from being a regenerator of the world. While, however, we reject the grounds which the early Fathers and the men of the middle age would have given for their belief in Virgil's religious, even Christian, spirit, we need not reject the belief itself. Though the reason they gave for it was false, the belief may have been true. There is in Virgil a vein of thought and sentiment more devout, more humane, more akin to the Christian, than is to be found in any other ancient poet, whether Greek or Roman. The religious feeling which Virgil preserved in his own heart is made the more conspicuous when we remember amidst what almost overpowering difficulties it was that he preserved it. It was not only that, in the words of Dante, "he lived at Rome under the good Augustus in the time of the false and lying gods," but he lived at a time when the traditional faith in these gods was dead among almost all educated men. As has been lately said, "The old religions were dead from the Pillars of Hercules to the Euphrates and the Nile, and the principles on which human society had been constructed were dead also. There remained of spiritual conviction only the common and human sense of justice and morality; and out of this sense some ordered system of government had to be constructed under which men could live and labor and eat the fruit of their industry. Under a rule of this material kind there can be no enthusiasm, no chivalry, no saintly aspirations, no patriotism of the heroic type." But such was the rule of the Caesars—"a kingdom where men could work, think, and speak as they pleased, and travel freely among provinces for the most part ruled by Gallios, who protected life and property," and cared for nothing else. This was the world into which Virgil was born, and it is his unique merit that he in some way maintained within himself a sense of poetry and faith and devoutness in a time when, if these things "were slumbering in the heart of humanity," they were nowhere else apparent.
A man of his spirit must have felt himself lonely enough among the literary men and statesmen whom he met at Rome. There must have been secret longings of heart within him for which among them he could find no sympathy. They had ceased to believe in any thing divine, probably mocked and ridiculed it. But, whatever else he might have done, a devout soul like Virgil could never do this. A severe and peculiar kind of trial it is for such a spirit as his to be born into an age when the old forms of religion which have sustained former generations are waxing old and ready to perish. We can imagine that Virgil himself must have felt that those old beliefs had no longer the strength they once had; but his innate modesty and reverence, his love for antiquity and for the scenes of his childhood, his imaginative sympathy, would not suffer him to treat them rudely, but would make him cling to them and make the best of them. In fact, at such a time there are always a few select spirits in whom the inner religious life lives on by its own strength, or, if fed at all from without, it is from sources of which it is unconscious. Instead of deriving nutriment from the old beliefs, it imparts to them from within whatever vitality they still retain. Such we can imagine Virgil to have been. Men of his kind, who still believe that, whatever scoffers may say, there is "a higher life than this daily one, and a brighter world than that we see," if they fall among a set of acute dialecticians, are often sore bestead to give a reason for the faith that is still in them. If Virgil had been an interlocutor in Cicero's dialogue, "De Natura Deorum," he would probably have cut but a sorry figure against the arguments of Cotta and the sneers of Velleius, and certainly could not have produced any so clear-cut theory as Stoic Balbus did. But it is just the very beauty of such spirits that all the irrefragable arguments and demonstrations of the acutest logicians cannot drive them out of their essential faith in the supernatural and the divine.
My friend Mr. Sellar, in his admirable work on Virgil, has truly said that Virgil has failed to produce a consistent picture of the spiritual life out of the various elements, the popular mystical and philosophical modes of thought, which he strove to combine into a single representation [William Young Sellar, Roman Poets of the Augustan Age—Vergil, 1879]. This may be at once conceded. How could he or any one produce harmony out of elements so discordant as his age supplied? But, nevertheless, inconsistent, irreconcilable, as these elements are, when they have passed through Virgil's mind one spirit pervades them all. Everywhere we see that the touch of his fine and reverent spirit tends to extract from them a moral, if it cannot reduce them into an intellectual harmony.
What were the elements out of which the very composite Virgilian theology was formed? First, there was his native love for the old rustic gods whom in his boyhood he had seen worshipped by the Mantuan husbandmen—Faunus and Picus, Janus and Pilumnus, and the like;
Ye gods and goddesses all! whose care is to protect the fields.
His first impressions were of the country and of country people, and Virgil was not a man of the world to forget these among the life of the city and the society of the great. His imagination ever reverted to Mincio's side, and his heart clung to all the recollections of that early time with peculiar tenacity. And therefore we find that both in the Georgics and in the Æneid he dwells on the old rustic worships and the local divinities with something more than a mere antiquary's or poet's attachment, To those primeval traditions, those old beliefs and practices, he adhered as to his earliest and surest ground of trust. He felt that to eradicate these would be to tear up some of the deepest roots of his spiritual life. Therefore he retained them fondly, and did his best to reconcile them with the beliefs which his later culture had superinduced.
The second element was the Olympian dynasty of gods, with which the influx of Greek literature had saturated the whole educated thought and imagination of Rome. Indeed, the literature of his day would not have allowed him to reject this poetic theology. At first sight it would seem that the Olympian gods had come to Virgil pure and unalloyed from Homer. But when we look more closely there is a deep change. Outwardly they may appear the same, but inwardly the modern spirit had reached and modified them. Virgil introduces his gods far more sparingly than Homer; they interfere far less with the affairs of men. When they do interfere, it is in a gentler and humaner spirit. It is with pity that they look upon men slaughtering each other. When Trojans and Rutulians are hewing each other down,
The gods in Jove's palace look pityingly on the idle rage of the warring hosts—
Alas that death-doomed men should suffer so terribly!
Again, Virgil's Jove is more just and impartial than Homer's. When Turnus and Æneas contend he holds the balance with perfect evenness:
Jove himself holds aloft his scales, poised and level, and lays therein
the destinies of the two, to see whom the struggle dooms, and whose the
weight that death bears down.
When the gods meet in council their deliberations are more dignified; there is less of the democratic agora in their proceedings. Jove addresses them with a quite Roman dignity—indeed, approaches more nearly to a real king of the gods. Monotheism has evidently colored the conception of him. Venus appears no longer as the voluptuous beguiler, but rather is the mother trembling for her son.
If Virgil cannot altogether hide the follies and vices of the gods which mythology had given to his hands, he does his best to throw a veil over them. If Juno's wrath must still burn implacably, Virgil has for it the well-known cry of surprise—
Can heavenly natures hate so fiercely?
Thus we see that if the Homeric forms and even some of the strange doings of the old gods are still retained, the best ideas and scruples of Virgil's own age enter in to inform, to modify and to moralize them.
But beside the primeval Italian traditions and the Olympian gods, there were probably other extraneous elements which entered into Virgil's very composite theology. Something, perhaps, he may have gathered from the teaching of the Eleusinian or other mysteries, but of this we know too little to speak with any certainty. Some tincture of Oriental worships, too, there is, as is indicated by his mention of the Phrygian goddess Cybele.
Perhaps nowhere in Virgil is the strange medley of faiths forced more upon us than in the invocation to the "First Georgic." When we read that opening passage, in which Liber and Ceres, Fauni and Dryades, Neptune, producer of the Horse; Aristaeus, feeder of kine; Pan, keeper of sheep; Minerva, discoverer of the olive; Triptolemus, the Attic inventor of the plough, Silvanus, planter of trees—are all jumbled together, we scarce know what to think of it. When finally Cæsar is invoked as a deity—Virgil doubts whether of earth, sky, or sea, surely not of Tartarus, for he would not wish to reign there—we are utterly at a loss whether we are to regard the whole passage fictitious and unreal, or as representing a state of belief not impossible to an imaginative mind in Virgil's day, though by us wholly unconceivable. As Professor Sellar has well said, "it is impossible to find any principle of reconcilement" for such multifarious elements. "Probably not even the poets themselves, least of all Virgil, could have given an explanation of their real state of mind" in composing such a passage. "So far as we can attach any truthful meaning to this invocation, we must look upon it as a symbolical expression of divine agency and superintendence in all the various fields of natural production." Just so. To a reverent mind like Virgil's, unwilling to break with the past, yet accessible to all best influences of the present, it may well have been that these multifarious relics of a fading polytheism expressed only the various functions, attributes, or agencies through which worked that Supreme Will, that one Pronoia in which his deeper mind really believed. Something of the same kind is seen in mediaeval belief when the practical faith in elaborate and active angelic hierarchies may have interfered with, though it did not supersede, the true faith in the divine unity.
If in the time of Augustus the majority of educated men believed nothing, those religious minds to whom as to Virgil belief was a necessity were more and more driven towards a monotheistic faith, towards the belief that the essential Being underlying the many forms of religion was one. The whole progress of the world, practical and social as well as speculative, tended this way. Of intellectual influences making in this direction, the most powerful was Greek philosophy, whether in the shape of Stoicism or of Platonism. Every great poet takes in deeply the philosophy of his time, and certainly Virgil was no exception. Of the three forms of philosophy then current at Rome, the Stoic, the Platonic, and the Epicurean, Virgil began with the last. At Rome he studied under Siron, the Epicurean, and had been profoundly impressed by the great poem of his predecessor, Lucretius, which had expounded so powerfully to the Roman world the Epicurean tenets. For a time he was held charmed by this philosophy, but there were in Virgil's devout and affectionate nature longings which it could never satisfy. When he wrote his Eclogues he may have been a disciple of Epicurus, but in the Georgics we see that if he still retained the physical views of that sect he had bid good-by to their moral and religious teaching. Every one remembers the passage in the "Second Georgic" in which Virgil contrasts the path he had chosen for himself with the grand aim which Lucretius had in view. While according no stinted admiration to the great attempt of Lucretius to lay bare Nature's inner mysteries, he says that he has chosen a humbler path. The import of this passage may be, as the French critic interprets it, to acquaint us that, after having sounded his own nature, Virgil had found that he was not fitted to persevere in those violent speculations which had at first seduced his imagination, and that he had decided to abide by the majority, and to share their beliefs, yet not without casting a look of envy and regret at those daring spirits who were able to dwell without fear in the calm, cold heights of science. Perhaps another interpretation may be given to this famous passage, which evidently describes a crisis in Virgil's mental life, as well as in the direction of his poetry. After having been fascinated for a time by the seeming grandeur of the Lucretian view of things, he came to a crucial question which meets all thoughtful men in modern as well as in ancient times. He had to ask himself, In what way am I to think of this world; how am I to interpret it? From which side shall I approach it? Shall I think of its central force, its ruling power, under the medium of nature or under that of man? We cannot conceive it barely, absolutely, colorlessly: we must think it under some medium, and there are the only two media possible to us. Between one or other we must make our choice. If we take nature for our medium, we see through it vastness, machinery, motion, order, growth, decay. And the contemplation of these things may lead us to think of some great central power whence all these proceed. Centrality, organization, power, these are the results which mere nature yields. And if we cannot rest in mere abstractions, we may pass from these to the thought of a Being who is the spring of all this machinery, the central power of these vast movements, the arranger of these harmonies. Beyond this, by the aid of mere nature, we cannot get. The central power we thus arrive at is characterless, unmoral. Out of nature we can get no morality. "Nature is an unmoral medium." And this is very much all that Lucretius got to, and all that any ever will get to who start from his point of view and adopt his method.
But take the other medium: start from man—from what is highest and best in him, his moral nature, his moral affections; make man with these moral affections, which are his proper humanity, our medium, and we are led to a very different result. Interpreting the world and its central power through this medium, we are led not to a mere abstraction, but to think of that ruling Power as a personal and moral Being, which is God. That which is chief, highest, central in the universe, cannot possibly be lower than that which is best in man. Using whatever is deepest and best in ourselves as the window though which we look out to what is highest in the universe, in this way alone can we see somewhat into the character divine. This, it may be said, is anthropomorphism; and that is a big word which scares many. But there is an anthropomorphism which is true, the only true theology—when we refer to God all those moral qualities, righteous love, righteous hatred, mercy, truth, of which there are some faint traces in ourselves—refer them to God as their true centre and source, not in a mere matter-of-fact way with our human adjuncts and weaknesses attached to them, but in a "high, transcendental, incomprehensible way." High humanity, then, is our guide to God. There is no other medium through which we can see Him as a moral being. Of the two methods, the "physical view," as has been said, "reduces God to a mechanical principle, the human and moral view raises him into a person and a character." The day may come when these two may coalesce and be seen in perfect harmony. But that day is not yet. Till it comes we shall cling to that which is deepest, most essential, and must always be paramount, and regard man's moral nature as the truest key to the interpretation of the universe—as our access to the divine nature.
All this, of course, is putting the matter in modern language, answering to the thought of our own day. But we may well conceive it was some such process of thought, though he would have expressed it very differently, which led Virgil to renounce the Lucretian philosophy and to attach himself to that humbler, more human mode of thought, which breathes through all his poetry. Not but that he once and again reverts in his poems to philosophic speculations. In the song of Silenus in ["Eclogue 6"], he gives us a piece of the Lucretian cosmogony. In the "Fourth Georgic" when speaking of the wisdom of the bees, he alludes with evident sympathy to the theory, whether learnt from Pythagoras, or Plato, or the Stoics, that all creation, animate and inanimate, is inspired by the breath of one universal soul. To this theory he again returns in the sixth book of the Æneid, where Anchises in Elysium expounds it still more earnestly. Yet it is characteristic of Virgil's happy inconsistency that his Pantheism, if he really did in some sense hold it, had not any of the results it usually has in more consecutive thinkers. It did not in the least obliterate for him moral distinctions, or make him at all less sensitive to the everlasting difference between right and wrong. This is at once apparent in the whole sentiment of the Georgics. That greatest of didactic poems is Virgil's tribute to his love of Italian scenery and to his interest in Italian rustics, in converse with whom he had spent his childhood and youth. I cannot now even glance at the many and great beauties of the poem, and at the wonderful way in which, as all travellers testify, it conveys the feeling of the Italian landscape. A young poet, fresh from visiting the neighborhood of Mantua, has lately well expressed this:
O sweetest singer! stateliest head,
And gentlest, ever crowned with bay,
It seemed that from the holy dead
Thy soul came near to mine to-day;
And all fair places to my view
Seemed fairer;—such delight I had
To deem that these thy presence knew,
And at thy coming oft were glad.
But it is not of this, but of the religious sentiment which pervades the Georgics, of which I have now to speak. It is seen not only in that Virgil exhorts the husbandmen to piety—
First of all worship the gods—
and throws himself as far as he can into the rustic's reverence for Ceres and other rural deities. This he does. But his religious feeling shows itself in a more genuine and unconventional way.
Virgil's whole view of the relation of man to nature is in marked contrast to that of Lucretius. He felt as strongly as Lucretius that the country is no mere Arcadian paradise; that nature, if a nurse at all, is a rough and intractable one—often seems to fight against man—is traversed by what seems to us inherent defects and imperfections. Looking on these, Lucretius had maintained that the work which was so defective could not be divine:
This universe has by no means been fashioned for us by divine wisdom—with so deep a flaw it stands endowed.
And among the defects he enumerates many features—mountains, seas, the arctic and the torrid zones, and other things which we now know to be essential blessings. Virgil saw and felt the seeming defects, acknowledges them not less feelingly, but interprets them differently. He saw that one end of their existence was to discipline man, to draw out in him the hardy and self-denying virtues, and that if man so accepted them they turned to his good.
The great sire himself would not have the path of tillage to be a smooth one, and first disturbed the fields by the husbandman's art, and whetted human wit by many a care, nor suffered heavy sloth to waste his realm.
He regards the husbandman's lot as one full of toil, often thankless, of suffering and disappointment. The first days of life are the best:
Poor mortals that we are, all the best days of life are the first to fly—come on apace diseases and the gloom of age, and suffering sweeps us off, and the unrelenting cruelty of death.
And again in such words as—
all things are destined to hurry towards decay,
here is a tone of deep sadness, almost of pessimism, but yet this does not engender in Virgil unbelief or despair, much less anger or revolt. Rather, in view of these acknowledged hardships and evils, he counsels perseverance, patience, watchfulness, self-restraint, reverence. In Virgil's sadness there is no bitterness, but rather a sweet pensiveness, which looks to be comforted. His advice to the husbandman sums itself up into the mediaeval motto, "Ora et labora." For nature is not, any more than man, independent. Both are under the control of a spiritual power, a supreme will, and this will ordains that man should by patient toil subdue reluctant nature, and in doing so should find not his sustenance only, but his happiness and peace.
In fine, with regard to the religious sentiment of the Georgics, Mr. Sellar thinks that Virgil's faith is purer and happier than that of Hesiod, because it is "trust in a just and beneficent Father, rather than fear of a jealous taskmaster." But he thinks it less noble than the faith of Æschylus and Sophocles, because it is "a passive yielding to the longing of the human heart and to aesthetic emotion, rather than that union of natural piety with insight into the mystery of life" which characterize the religion of the two great dramatists. Without attempting now to pass judgment on this contrast which Mr. Sellar has drawn, I leave it to the reflections of my readers.
As the Georgics are the poem of Italy, so the Æneid is the poem of Rome—the epic of the empire. Patriotism is its keynote, its inspiring motive: pride in the past history of Rome, her present prosperity, her future destiny—all these strangely interwoven with the fortunes of the Julian House. Yet along with this motive, behind it, in harmony with it, there moves a great background of religious sentiment, so powerful and omnipresent that the Æneid may be called a great religious epic.
In Virgil, however it may have been with other Romans, the sense of universal empire, the belief in the eternal existence of Rome, were founded not on presumption. They were guaranteed to her by her divine origin, and by the continual presence of an overruling destiny—a Fortuna urbis, Fatum, or Fata, whose behests it was Rome's mission to fulfil. This Fatum was something different from Jove. But "Jupiter Capitolinus in ancient, the living emperor in later times, were its visible vicegerents." This mysterious power which ruled the destiny of Rome was neither a quite personal nor moral power. But in Virgil's view it assumed a beneficent aspect, just as with him the mission of Rome was not merely to conquer the world and rule it, but to bring in law and peace, and to put an end to war—"pacisque imponere morem."
Another religious aspect of the Æneid is well seen, as the French critic has remarked, in the view taken of the mission intrusted to Æneas. It was not to conquer Italy, but to find there a home and refuge for the exiled deities and penates of Troy. This runs through the poem from end to end. It is seen in the opening lines of the poem. It is seen in the words which Hector's ghost addresses to Æneas:
Troy entrusts to thee now her worship and her gods. Take them to share your destiny—seek for them a mighty city.
It is seen at the close, in Æneas's own words:
I will ordain sacred rites and divinities; let my father-in-law Latinus hold to the rule of war.
The Romans would never have tolerated to hear that their ancestors, Latin and Sabine, of whom they were so proud, were conquered by Phrygians, whom they despised. But the East they looked on as the land of mystery, the birthplace of religion, and they were not unwilling to receive thence their first lessons in things divine. It is as the bearer of the Trojan gods to Italy that Æneas appears, from first to last. This is his main function, and this achieved, his mission is ended, his work done. At the close of the poem, when all difficulties are to be smoothed away, the last of these, Juno's vindictiveness, is appeased when she is told by Jupiter that her favorite Italians were to be unremoved, their place and name preserved, the Trojans were only to hand on to them their worship and their name, and then to disappear. "The Ausonians shall keep their native tongue, their native customs: the name shall remain as it is. The Teucrians shall merge in the nation they join—that and no more; their rites and worship shall be my gift; all shall be Latins and speak the Latin tongue" (Æneid xii., 834).
This view of the mission of Æneas as essentially a religious one throws, I think, some light on his character as Virgil portrays it. That character, as we all know, has generally been voted uninteresting, not to say insipid. Every one has felt the contrast between him and the hero of the Iliad, or even such subordinate characters as Ulysses, Hector, Ajax, even Nestor. These are living men, full of like passions with ourselves, only of more heroic mould. The glow of health is in their cheek, the strong throb in their pulses. Beside them, how pale, washed-out is the countenance of Æneas! No doubt he is in some sort a composite conception—an attempt to embody somewhat diverse attributes, rather than a man moved by one strong human impulse. On one side he represents that latest product of civilization, the humane man, in whom "humanitas," as Cicero and Virgil conceived it, is embodied. On another side, some of his traits are taken from Augustus and meant to recall him. These two elements are both present in him. But far more potent than either is the conception of him as the man of destiny, whom the fates had called to go forth he knows not whither, and to seek in some strange land which the fates would show him a home for his country's gods and for himself; a sad, contemplative man, to whom the present is nothing, who ever feels that he has a mournful past behind him, and a great future decreed by fate before him. He has no strong impulses of his own; natural interests have ceased to move him.
In him the savage virtues of the race—
Revenge and all ferocious thoughts, are dead.
As the French critic [Sellar] has well expressed it: "He has secured from heaven a mission which lies heavy on him; and he accepts it pensively. He toils and endures hardness to find a resting-place for his Penates, a kingdom for his son, a glorious future for his race. Before these great interests his own personality has effaced itself. He obeys the behest of fate in spite of natural reluctance, and sacrifices himself to the commands of heaven." Herein lies the "pietas" which Virgil has made his fixed characteristic. The chief motive-power within him is "pietas," in its widest sense, including all human affections—love to family, love to country, fidelity to the dead, above all, dependence on a higher power, and obedience to it, controlling, sanctifying all his actions. To meet these duties, to fulfil the destiny he is called to, is his one absorbing thought. He has no other.
Even that part of his conduct which to moderns seems most unforgivable, his heartless desertion of Dido, is explained by this principle, if it is not justified. He leaves her not from heartlessness, but in obedience to an overmastering call from heaven. Whatever his attachment may have been, one word brought by Mercury from Jove suffices to startle him from his dream. At the god's approach—
he at once awakes and longs to be gone.
He is on fire to fly, and leave the too-well-loved city, astounded
at so unlooked-for a warning and at the command of the gods.
Hence we see why the character of Æneas as portrayed in the first six books of the Æneid is so much more consistent than it appears to be in the last six. In the former he is entirely the absorbed, devoted man, obeying the behests of heaven. In the latter he has to do the fighting business, to play the part of Achilles or Ajax. When we see him lopping off the heads of the Rutulians, we feel that this is not in keeping with the original conception of him. His bearing becomes unnatural, his words truculent, altogether unlike the humane, pensive, contemplative man of the earlier books. But it could not be avoided: the plan of the poem required that he should be the warrior as well as the religious exile, and, as the warrior, bloody work had to be done, and in describing this Virgil could not be original, but must needs fall back on imitation of the Iliad and of the Homeric heroes.
If we cannot get over an impression of baseness in his conduct to the Carthagenian Queen, we should remember that in Virgil's intention this but proves the greatness of his self-sacrifice, the depth of his conviction that Heaven had called him to another destiny. Had his abandonment of Dido been his own deed it would have been the basest treachery. If it does not become interesting, it is changed in character when we see it as done at the behest of Heaven, as an act of religious obedience.
Cease to kindle by your complaints both yourself and me; it is not by my choice I follow Italy.
It makes him, no doubt, less interesting as a man, but it proves more entirely that he is a religious hero, that his inspiration comes from the sense of a divine mission. This was the poet's fundamental conception of him, so he wished to represent him. Unless we continually remember this, we shall misinterpret Æneas not only in his conduct to Dido, but we shall miss the key to his whole character and to the main purpose of the poem.
It has often been remarked how much more attractive is the character of Turnus than that of Æneas. Turnus and his companions represent the natural passions, the spontaneous impulses, in a much freer, more human way than Æneas and his Trojans. The individuality of these last is, as it were, obliterated by the weight of destiny which they feel themselves under. What is this but to say that in poetry or romance it is much easier to invest with interest an ordinary man, with all the human feelings and infirmities about him, than to portray a religious hero in such verse that he shall at once command our reverence and win our affection. If Virgil has failed to do so, and I grant he has, who is there of poets or novelists that in this kind of portraiture has succeeded better?
But more than in any other portion of his work, the strength of Virgil's moral and religious feeling comes out in the sixth book of the Æneid. His whole conception of the condition of the departed souls is a thoroughly moral one—a projection into the unseen future of the everlasting difference between good and evil. That which lies at the bottom of all the elaborate imagery of the book is the belief that judgment awaits men there for what they have been and what they have done here; that their works follow them into the unseen state; that the pollution which men have contracted here must be purged away before they can attain to peace. To show in detail how these conceptions pervade that sixth book would require a whole essay devoted to itself, and space forbids me to do more than allude to it now.
It is not, however, the definite teaching either of the sixth or of any other book of the Æneid that most clearly reveals the essential piety of Virgil's soul. It is the incidental expressions, the half-uttered thoughts, the sighs which escape him unawares, that show what his habitual feeling about man's life and destiny was—how solemn! how tender! how religious!
Consider the great purity of his mind as seen in his poems. One or two passages only occur in all his works from which the most perfect modesty would shrink. And this in an age when the great men of the day, with few exceptions, were steeped in all impurity. When we first become acquainted with Virgil in boyhood we are not, of course, aware of this characteristic. It requires larger acquaintance with literature and with the world to make us feel how great is the contrast in this respect between Virgil and most of the ancient, and indeed many of the modern, poets. Horace, who lived much in society, was conscious of the rare beauty of Virgil's character, and speaks of him as one of the whitest souls among the sons of men. Indeed, Horace never alludes to Virgil but his voice hushes itself into a tone of tender reverence unusual with him.
Again, observe how though he is compelled to speak of war and bloodshed, his soul evidently abhors it. We see this in such lines as—
The fever of the steel, the guilty madness of bloodshed rage within him.—
By degrees crept in an age degenerate and of duller hue,
and the frenzy for war and the greed of gain.
This sounds strange language from the lips of the great poet of the conquerors of the world, but it was the true language of Virgil's own heart, though not of his people's. [Poet and clergyman John] Keble has remarked how from the thick of battle and slaughter he turns away to soothe himself with rustic images, as in the description of the conflicts of Æneas in the tenth book of the Æneid. Every death is described, not with stern delight, but with a sigh, as of one who felt for the miseries of men. As each warrior falls Virgil turns aside to recall his home, his family, his peaceful pursuits, as in the well-known—
and dreams in death of his darling Argos.
Note, again, Virgil's unworldliness of spirit. He had evidently no relish for the material splendors that fascinate lower natures. It would seem as if unworldliness were the very condition of all high poetry, and as if a great poet's heart could not be given to those things which the worldling admires. Yet no one of ancient and few of modern poets have shown so decidedly that riches, rank, splendor, have no charm for them. Homer in his simplicity, and being probably poor himself, looks with evident satisfaction on the riches of the great. Andromache is "rich in gifts;" Æneas boasts that his ancestor was "the wealthiest of mortal men." For Virgil
has no attraction. From the palace of Augustus and from the home of Maecenas on the Esquiline he turns away instinctively to the woods and the fields and the men who lived among them. The country housewife going about her work more pleases him than the grandest of patrician matrons. You remember his picture in the eighth book of the Æneid of the thrifty dame at the middle of the night, "just when a woman compelled to support life by spinning wakes to light the fire that slumbered in the embers, adding night to her day's work, and keeps her handmaids laboring long by the blaze, all that she may be able to preserve her wedded life in purity, and bring up her infant sons." Evidently this was more to his mind than all the Tyrian purple and fretted ceilings of Roman mansions.
Connected with this unworldliness is Virgil's continual remembrance of the poor, and his feeling for the miserable. This he has expressed in one immortal line.
is the spirit of all his poetry. If men forget or despise the unfortunate, he is sure that Heaven does not:
If you defy the race of men, and the weapons that mortals wield,
yet look to have to do with the gods, who forget not right and wrong.
No poet ever admired less mere outward success, and felt more sure that there is a tribunal somewhere which will test men and things by another standard, according to which
You remember his
Learn, O boy! from me what virtue means and genuine toil.
Let others teach you the meaning of success.
While gentleness and natural piety, in the wide sense which I have already explained, are Virgil's characteristic virtues, not less inculcated by him is another virtue which might seem opposed to these; I mean patience, fortitude, manly endurance.
Whatever may befall, every misfortune must be overcome
by enduring it.
This is the undertone of all his morality.
Again, another side of his unworldliness appears in that his heart refuses to find full satisfaction in any thing here. Not wealth, not honor, nor future fame, not the loveliness of nature, not the voice of friend, are enough for him. For even if for a time they pleased, does he not keenly feel that—
Poor mortals that we are, our brightest days of life are ever the first to fly.
This has been called pressimism in Virgil. It is, however, only his keen feeling of the fleetingness and unsufficingness of this earthly life. He does not rail at it, as some poets have done—upbraids neither the world nor the power that made it, but accepts it and learns from it reverent patience. And this experience would seem to have wakened within him a longing and aspiration after something purer, higher, lovelier, than eye or ear here discover. His poetry has the tone as of one of whom it may be said in his own words:
He was stretching forth his hands with longing desire for the farther shore.
Therefore, while we may not, as former ages did, accept the fourth Eclogue as in any sense a prophecy of the Messiah, we need not be blind to that which it does contain—the hope of better things, the expectation that some relief was at hand for the miseries of an outworn and distracted world. This expectation was, we know, widely spread in Virgil's day, and probably none felt it more than he. Likely enough he expected that the relief would come through the establishment and universal sway of the Roman Empire; but the ideal empire, as he conceived it, was something more humane and beneficent than any thing the earth had yet seen—something such as Trajan may perhaps have dreamed of, but which none ever saw realized. His conception of the future work which he imagined the Empire had to do contained elements which belonged to a kingdom not of this world. In his enthusiastic predictions regarding it we may say, in Keble's words.
Thoughts beyond their thought to those high bards were given.
Taking, then, all these qualities of Virgil together, his purity, his unworldliness, his tenderness towards the weak and down-trodden, his weariness of the state of things he saw around him, his lofty ideal, his longing for "a higher life than this daily one," I think we may say that in him the ancient civilization reached its moral culmination. When that civilization could produce such a spirit as his, which it could so little satisfy, does it not appear that "the fulness of the time was come"? He was a spirit prepared and waiting, though he knew it not, for some better thing to be revealed.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4419
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 born at the village of Andes, near Mantua, on the 15th of October, 70 B.C. The province of Cisalpine Gaul, though not formally incorporated with Italy till twenty years later, had before this become thoroughly Romanised, and was one of the principal recruiting grounds for the legions. But the population was still, by blood and sympathy, very largely Celtic; and modern theorists are fond of tracing the new element of romance, which Virgil introduced with such momentous results into Latin poetry, to the same Celtic spirit which in later ages flowered out in the Arthurian legend, and inspired the whole creative literature of mediaeval Europe. To the countrymen of Shakespeare and Keats it will not seem necessary to assume a Celtic origin, on abstract grounds, for any new birth of this romantic element. The name Maro may or may not be Celtic; any argument founded on it is of little more relevance than the fancy which once interpreted the name of Virgil's mother, Magia Polla, into a supernatural significance, and, connecting the name Virgilius itself with the word Virgo, metamorphosed the poet into an enchanter born of a maiden mother, the Merlin of the Roman Empire.
Virgil's father was a small freeholder in Andes, who farmed his own land, practised forestry and bee-keeping, and gradually accumulated a sufficient competence to enable him to give his son—an only child, so far as can be ascertained—the best education that the times could provide. He was sent to school at the neighbouring town of Cremona, and afterwards to Milan, the capital city of the province. At the age of seventeen he proceeded to Rome, where he studied oratory and philosophy under the best masters of the time. A tradition, which the dates make improbable, was that Gaius Octavius, afterwards the Emperor Augustus, was for a time his fellow-scholar under the rhetorician Epidius. In the classroom of the Epicurean Siro he may have made his first acquaintance with the poetry of Lucretius.
For the next ten years we know nothing of Virgil's life, which no doubt was that of a profound student. His father had died, and his mother married again, and his patrimony was sufficient to support him until a turn of the wheel of public affairs for a moment lost, and then permanently secured his fortune. After the battle of Philippi, the first task of the victorious triumvirs was to provide for the disbanding and settlement of the immense armies which had been raised for the Civil war. The lands of cities which had taken the Republican side were confiscated right and left for this purpose; among the rest, Virgil's farm, which was included in the territory of Cremona. But Virgil found in the administrator of the district, Gaius Asinius Pollio, himself a distinguished critic and man of letters, a powerful and active patron. By his influence and that of his friends, Cornelius Gallus and Alfenus Varus—the former a soldier and poet, the latter an eminent jurist, who both had been fellow-students of Virgil at Rome—Virgil was compensated by an estate in Campania, and introduced to the intimate circle of Octavianus, who, under the terms of the triumvirate, was already absolute ruler of Italy.
It was about this time that the Eclogues were published, whether separately or collectively is uncertain, though the final collection and arrangement, which is Virgil's own, can hardly be later than 38 B.C. The impression they made on the world of letters was immediate and universal. To some degree no doubt a reception was secured to them by the influence of Maecenas, the Home Minister of Octavianus, who had already taken up the line which he so largely developed in later years, of a public patron of art and letters in the interest of the new government. But had Virgil made his first public appearance merely as a Court poet, it is probable that the Eclogues would have roused little enthusiasm and little serious criticism. Their true significance seems to have been at once realised as marking the beginning of a new era; and amid the storm of criticism, laudatory and adverse, which has raged round them for so many ages since, this cardinal fact has always remained prominent. Alike to the humanists or the earlier Renaissance, who found in them the sunrise of a golden age of poetry and the achievement of the Latin conquest over Greece, and to the more recent critics of this century, for whom they represented the echo of an already exhausted convention and the beginning of the decadence of Roman poetry, the Eclogues have been the real turning-point, not only between two periods of Latin literature, but between two worlds.
The poems destined to so remarkable a significance are, in their external form, close and careful imitations of Theocritus, and have all the vices and weaknesses of imitative poetry to a degree that could not well be exceeded. Nor are these failings redeemed (as is to a certain extent true of the purely imitative work of Catullus and other poets) by any brilliant jewel-finish of workmanship. The execution is uncertain, hesitating, sometimes extraordinarily feeble. One well-known line it is impossible to explain otherwise than as a mistranslation of a phrase in Theocritus such as one would hardly expect from an average schoolboy. When Virgil follows the convention of the Greek pastoral his copy is doubly removed from nature; where he ventures on fresh impersonation or allegory of his own, it is generally weak in itself and always hopelessly out of tone with the rest. Even the versification is curiously unequal and imperfect. There are lines in more than one Eclogue which remind one in everything but their languor of the flattest parts of Lucretius. Contemporary critics even went so far as to say that the language here and there was simply not Latin.
Yet granted that all this and more than all this is true, it does not touch that specific Virgilian charm of which these poems first disclosed the secret. Already through their immature and tremulous cadences there pierces, from time to time, that note of brooding pity which is unique in the poetry of the world. ["Eclogues 4 and 10"] may be singled out especially as showing the new method, which almost amounted to a new human language, as they are also those where Virgil breaks away most decidedly from imitation of the Greek idyllists. ["Eclogue 4"] unfortunately has been so long and so deeply associated with purely adventitious ideas that it requires a considerable effort to read it as it ought to be read. The curious misconception which turned it into a prophecy of the birth of Christ outlasted in its effects any serious belief in its historical truth: even modern critics cite Isaiah for parallels, and are apt to decry it as a childish attempt to draw a picture of some actual golden age. But the Sibylline verses which suggested its contents and imagery were really but the accidental grain of dust round which the crystallisation of the poem began; and the enchanted light which lingers over it is hardly distinguishable from that which saturates the Georgics. Cedet et ipse marivector, nec nautica pinus mutabit merces—the feeling here is the same as in his mere descriptions of daily weather, like the Omniaplenis rura natant fossis atque omnis navita ponte umida vela legit; not so much a vision of a golden age as Nature herself seen through a medium of strange gold. Or again, in ["Eclogue 10"], where the masque of shepherds and gods passes before the sick lover, it is through the same strange and golden air that they seem to move, and the heavy lilies of Silvanus droop in the stillness of the same unearthly day.
Seven years following on the publication of the Eclogues were spent by Virgil on the composition of the Georgics. They were published two years after the battle of Actium, being thus the first, as they are the most splendid, literary production of the Empire. They represent the art of Virgil in its matured perfection. The subject was one in which he was thoroughly at home and completely happy. His own early years had been spent in the pastures of the Mincio, among his father's cornfields and coppices and hives; and his newer residence, by the seashore near Naples in winter, and in summer at his villa in the lovely hill-country of Campania, surrounded him with all that was most beautiful in the most beautiful of lands. His delicate health made it easier for him to give his work the slow and arduous elaboration that makes the Georgics in mere technical finish the most perfect work of Latin, or perhaps of any literature. There is no trace of impatience in the work. It was in some sense a commission; but Augustus and Maecenas, if it be true that they suggested the subject, had, at all events, the sense not to hurry it. The result more than fulfilled the brilliant promise of the Eclogues. Virgil was now, without doubt or dispute, the first of contemporary poets.
But his responsibilities grew with his greatness. The scheme of a great Roman epic, which had always floated before his own mind, was now definitely and indeed urgently pressed upon him by authority which it was difficult to resist. And many elements in his own mind drew him in the same direction. Too much stress need not be laid on the passage in ["Eclogue 6"]—one of the rare autobiographic touches is his work—in which he alludes to his early experiments in "singing of kings and battles." Such early exercises are the common field of young poets. But the maturing of his mind, which can be traced in the Georgics, was urging him towards certain methods of art for which the epic was the only literary form that gave sufficient scope. More and more he was turning from nature to man and human life, and to the contemplation of human destiny. The growth of the psychological instinct in the Georgics is curiously visible in the episode of Aristaeus, with which the poem now ends. According to a well-authenticated tradition, the last two hundred and fifty lines of the "Fourth Georgic" were written several years after the rest of the poem, to replace the original conclusion, which had contained the praises of his early friend, Cornelius Gallus, now dead in disgrace and proscribed from court poetry. In the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in the later version, Virgil shows a new method and a new power. It stands between the idyl and the epic, but it is the epic method towards which it tends. No return upon the earlier manner was thenceforth possible; with many searchings of heart, with much occasional despondency and dissatisfaction, he addressed himself to the composition of the Aeneid.
The earlier national epics of Naevius and Ennius had framed certain lines for Roman epic poetry, which it was almost bound to follow. They had established the mythical connection of Rome with Troy and with the great cycle of Greek legend, and had originated the idea of making Rome itself—that Fortuna Urbis which later stood in the form of a golden statue in the imperial bedchamber—the central interest, one might almost say the central figure, of the story. To adapt the Homeric methods to this new purpose, and at the same time to make his epic the vehicle for all his own inward broodings over life and fate, for his subtle and delicate psychology, and for that philosophic passion in which all the other motives and springs of life were becoming included, was a task incapable of perfect solution. On his death-bed Virgil made it his last desire that the Aeneid should be destroyed, nominally on the ground that it still wanted three years' work to bring it to perfection, but one can hardly doubt from a deeper and less articulate feeling. The command of the Emperor alone prevented his wish from taking effect. With the unfinished Aeneid, as with the unfinished poem of Lucretius, it is easy to see within what limits any changes or improvements would have been made in it had the author lived longer: the work is, in both cases, substantially done.
The Aeneid was begun the year after the publication of the Georgics, when Virgil was forty years of age. During its progress he continued to live for the most part in his Campanian retirement. He had a house at Rome in the fashionable quarter of the Esquiline, but used it little. He was also much in Sicily, and the later books of the Aeneid seem to show personal observation of many parts of Central Italy. It is a debated question whether he visited Greece more than once. His last visit there was in 19 B.C. He had resolved to spend three years more on the completion of his poem, and then give himself up to philosophy for what might remain of his life. But the three years were not given him. A fever, caught while visiting Megara on a day of excessive heat, induced him to return hastily to Italy. He died a few days after landing at Brundusium, on the 26th of September. His ashes were, by his own request, buried near Naples, where his tomb was a century afterwards worshipped as a holy place.
The Aeneid, carefully edited from the poet's manuscript by two of his friends, was forthwith published, and had such a reception as perhaps no poem before or since has ever found. Already, while it was in progress, it had been rumoured as "something greater than the Iliad," and now that it appeared, it at once became the canon of Roman poetry, and immediately began to exercise an unparalleled influence over Latin literature, prose as well as verse. Critics were not indeed wanting to point out its defects, and there was still a school (which attained greater importance a century later) that went back to Lucretius and the older poets, and refused to allow Virgil's preeminence. But for the Roman world at large, as since for the world of the Latin races, Virgil became what Homer had been to Greece, "the poet." The decay of art and letters in the third century only added a mystical and hieratic element to his fame. Even to the Christian Church he remained a poet sacred and apart: in his profound tenderness and his mystical "yearning after the further shore" as much as in the supposed prophecy of ["Eclogue 4"], they found and reverenced what seemed to them like an unconscious inspiration. The famous passage of St. Augustine, where he speaks of his own early love for Virgil, shows in its halfhysterical renunciation how great the charm of the Virgilian art had been, and still was, to him:
Quid miserius misero, he cries, non miserante se ipsum, et flente Didonis mortem quae fiebat amando Aeneam, non flente autem mortem meam quae fiebat non amando tel Deus lumen cordis mei, non te amabam, et haec non flebam, sed flebam Didonem exstinctam, ferroque extrema secutam, sequens ipse extrema condita tua relicto te!
To the graver and more matured mind of Dante, Virgil was the lord and master who, even though shut out from Paradise, was the chosen and honoured minister of God. Up to the beginning of the present century the supremacy of Virgil was hardly doubted. Since then the development of scientific criticism has passed him through all its searching processes, and in a fair judgment his greatness has rather gained than lost. The doubtful honour of indiscriminate praise was for a brief period succeeded by the attacks of an almost equally undiscriminating censure. An ill-judged partiality had once spoken of the Aeneid as something greater than a Roman Iliad: it was easy to show that in the most remarkable Homeric qualities the Aeneid fell far short, and that, so far as it was an imitation of Homer, it could no more stand beside Homer than the imitations of Theocritus in the Eclogues could stand beside Theocritus. The romantic movement, with its impatience of established fames, damned the Aeneid in one word as artificial; forgetting, or not seeing, that the Aeneid was itself the fountain-head of romanticism. Long after the theory of the noble savage had passed out of political and social philosophy it lingered in literary criticism; and the distinction between "natural" and "artificial" poetry was held to be like that between light and darkness. It was not till a comparatively recent time that the leisurely progress of criticism stumbled on the fact that all poetry is artificial, and that the Iliad itself is artificial in a very eminent and unusual degree.
No great work of art can be usefully judged by comparison with any other great work of art. It may, indeed, be interesting and fertile to compare one with another, in order to seize more sharply and appreciate more vividly the special beauty of each. But to press comparison further, and to depreciate one because it has not what is the special quality of the other, is to lose sight of the function of criticism. We shall not find in Virgil the bright speed, the unexhausted joyfulness, which, in spite of a view of life as grave as Virgil's own, make the Iliad and Odyssey unique in poetry; nor, which is more to the point as regards the Aeneid, the narrative power, the genius for story-telling, which is one of the rarest of literary gifts, and which Ovid alone among the Latin poets possessed in any high perfection. We shall not find in him that high and concentrated passion which in Pindar (as afterwards in Dante) fuses the elements of thought and language into a single white heat. We shall not find in him the luminous and untroubled calm, as of a spirit in which all passion has been fused away, which makes the poetry of Sophocles so crystalline and irreproachable. Nor shall we find in him the great qualities of his own Latin predecessors, Lucretius or Catullus. All this is merely saying in amplified words that Virgil was not Lucretius or Catullus, and that still less was he Homer, or Pindar, or Sophocles; and to this may be added, that he lived in the world which the great Greek and Latin poets had created, though he looked forward out of it into another.
Yet the positive excellences of the Aeneid are so numerous and so splendid that the claim of its author to be the Roman Homer is not unreasonable, if it be made clear that the two poems are fundamentally disparate, and that no more is meant than that the one poet is as eminent in his own form and method as the other in his. In our haste to rest Virgil's claim to supremacy as a poet on the single quality in which he is unique and unapproachable we may seem tacitly to assent to the judgment of his detractors on other points. Yet the more one studies the Aeneid, the more profoundly is one impressed by its quality as a masterpiece of construction. The most adverse critic would not deny that portions of the poem are, both in dramatic and narrative quality, all but unsurpassed, and in a certain union of imaginative sympathy with their fine dramatic power and their stateliness of narration perhaps unequalled. The story of the last agony of Troy could not be told with more breadth, more richness, more brilliance than it is told in the second book: here, at least, the story neither flags nor hurries; from the moment when the Greek squadron sets sail from Tenedos and the signal flame flashes from their flagship, the scenes of the fatal night pass before us in a smooth swift stream that gathers weight and volume as it goes, till it culminates in the vision of awful faces which rises before Aeneas when Venus lifts the cloud of mortality from his startled eyes. The episode of Nisus and Euryalus in the ninth book, and that of Camilla in the eleventh, are in their degree as admirably vivid and stately. The portraiture of Dido, again, in the fourth book, is in combined breadth and subtlety one of the dramatic masterpieces of human literature. It is idle to urge that this touch is borrowed from Euripides or that suggested by Sophocles, or to quote the Medea of Apollonius as the original of which Dido is an elaborate imitation. What Virgil borrowed he knew how to make his own; and the world which, while not denying the tenderness, the grace, the charm of the heroine of the Argonautica, leaves the Argonautica unread, has thrilled and grown pale from generation to generation over the passionate tragedy of the Carthaginian queen.
But before a deeper and more appreciative study of the Aeneid these great episodes cease to present themselves as detached eminences. That the Aeneid is unequal is true; that passages in it here and there are mannered, and even flat, is true also; but to one who has had the patience to know it thoroughly, it is in its total effect, and not in the great passages, or even the great books, that it seems the most consummate achievement. Virgil may seem to us to miss some of his opportunities, to labour others beyond their due proportion, to force himself (especially in the later books) into material not well adapted to the distinctive Virgilian treatment. The slight and vague portrait of the maiden princess of Latium, in which the one vivid touch of her "flower-like hair" is the only clear memory we carry away with us, might, in different hands—in those of Apollonius, for instance,—have given a new grace and charm to the scenes where she appears. The funeral games at the tomb of Anchises, no longer described, as they had been in early Greek poetry, from the mere pleasure in dwelling upon their details, begin to become tedious before they are over. In the battle-pieces of the last three books we sometimes cannot help being reminded that Virgil is rather wearily following an obsolescent literary tradition. But when we have set such passages against others which, without being as widely celebrated as the episode of the sack of Troy or the death of Dido, are equally miraculous in their workmanship—the end of the fifth book, for instance, or the muster-roll of the armies of Italy in the seventh, or, above all, the last hundred and fifty lines of the twelfth, where Virgil rises perhaps to his very greatest manner—we shall not find that the splendour of the poem depends on detached passages, but far more on the great manner and movement which, interfused with the unique Virgilian tenderness, sustains the whole structure through and through.
The merely technical quality of Virgil's art has never been disputed. The Latin hexameter, "the stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man," was brought by him to a perfection which made any further development impossible. Up to the last it kept taking in his hands new refinements of rhythm and movement which make the later books of the Aeneid (the least successful part of the poem in general estimation) an even more fascinating study to the lovers of language than the more formally perfect work of the Georgics, or the earlier books of the Aeneid itself. A brilliant modern critic has noted this in words which deserve careful study. "The innovations are individually hardly preceptible, but taken together they alter the character of the hexameter line in a way more easily felt than described. Among the more definite changes we may note that there are more full stops in the middle of lines, there are more elisions, there is a larger proportion of short words, there are more words repeated, more assonances, and a freer use of the emphasis gained by the recurrence of verbs in the same or cognate tenses. Where passages thus characterised have come down to us still in the making, the effect is forced and fragmentary; where they succeed, they combine in a novel manner the rushing freedom of the old trochaics with the majesty which is the distinguishing feature of Virgil's style. Art has concealed its art, and the poet's last words suggest to us possibilities in the Latin tongue which no successor has been able to realise." Again, the psychological interest and insight which keep perpetually growing throughout Virgil's work result in an almost unequalled power of expressing in exquisite language the half-tones and delicate shades of mental processes. The famous simile in the twelfth Aeneid—
Ac velut in somnis oculos ubi languida pressit
Nocte quies, nequiquam avidos extendere cursus
Velle videmur, et in mediis conatibus aegri
Succidimus, nec lingua valet, nec corpore notae
Sufficient vires aut vox et verba sequuntur—
is an instance of the amazing mastery with which he makes language have the effect of music, in expressing the subtlest processes of feeling.
But the specific and central charm of Virgil lies deeper than in any merely technical quality. The word which expresses it most nearly is that of pity. In the most famous of his single lines he speaks of the "tears of things"; just this sense of tears, this voice that always, in its most sustained splendour and in its most ordinary cadences, vibrates with a strange pathos, is what finally places him among artists. This thrill in the voice, come colui che piange e dice, is never absent from his poetry. In the "lonely words," in the "pathetic half-lines" spoken of by the two great modern masters of English prose and verse, he perpetually touches the deepest springs of feeling; in these it is that he sounds, as no other poet has done, the depths of beauty and sorrow, of patience and magnanimity, of honour in life and hope beyond death.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2351
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, loose-jointed man with the weathered complexion of a farmer. Out of all the innumerable myths about him and a few surviving portraits appear features, figure, and bearing that suggest Abraham Lincoln; something of Lincoln's kindness and melancholy, if none of his humor. These traits were honestly come by, for Virgil, like Lincoln, was born on a frontier farm, near Mantua, in Cis-Alpine Gaul, then newly settled by Romans. Like Hesiod he helped his father with farm chores, observing at first hand the typical activities of a small Roman freehold, where much more met his eye than a typical Roman farm boy might have seen. He is reputed to have been of Celtic blood and it is disputed that he was. In any case, he was more imaginative, emotional, susceptible to poetic aspects of Roman husbandry than some young Cato or Varro or Columella might have been.
Virgil was born in the flattish, fertile, well-watered valley of the Po, in a new settlement of Romans moving northward from exhausted soils; his father, probably a small peasant proprietor; his mother, daughter of a country judge; an alliance that would have been out of the ordinary between a small farmer and the daughter of a magistrate in long-settled regions of Italy then. It was this marriage upward of Virgil's father, it may be, that accounts for the poet's having had an excellent education. The sacrifices of his parents to give him a sound education are understandable to Americans. His great attainments in spite of humble origin are part of a familiar American story. Even the land he came from has familiar lineaments: a broad fat land of deep alluvial soil between the Apennines and the Alps, swarming in the first century B.C. with pioneer farmers, soldiers, adventurers, renegades; restless hordes pushing back a frontier with aboriginal toughness and character and initiative as did Americans in the land between the Appalachians and the Rockies on a much larger scale in the nineteenth century of our era.
From this pioneering society Virgil took to Rome (where his education was completed) lasting impressions of primitive virtue; of solid people who lived a simple and vigorous life on the land. His youthful associations with the decadent and precious literary society of Rome; his later intimacies with the inmost circle of the imperial ruling classes diminished not at all his early affection for the fundamental honesty and decency of farm folk. The Georgics is a presentation with consummate art of their daily life; composed—at a time when a fast-ripening Rome had begun to live almost altogether for pleasure, intrigue, and worldly advancement—with the deliberate intention of restoring the dignity and prestige the old farm family and its mores had enjoyed in earlier days. Paradoxically, it was a small group of these Romans whose power was supreme, whose opportunities for self-indulgence were unlimited, that gave official sanction and endowment, even, to Virgil's attempt in the Georgics to popularize the old Roman virtues.
For a generation or more art had been merely a salon diversion; a fashionable amusement of the worldly. With Virgil and Horace it undertook to function morally, socially; to rejuvenate a whole people. The triviality, the showy erudition, the posturing, the sterile æstheticism of the Alexandrian dilettanti, playing with enervated forms of vanishing Greek culture somewhat as in our time Americans have toyed with the æsthetic monstrosities of the silver age of Western Europe—these were swiftly outmoded by Virgil's larger themes, by his renewal in song of the grandeur of old Roman character; of the rustic life it had arisen from.
The beauty and fertility of Italy, the dignity of farm labor, the manliness and stability and practicality of the peasant are hymned throughout the Georgics; chanted in hexameters with an almost religious tone. In composing it Virgil, reacting from Alexandrian snobbery, disavowed all literary intentions; boasted even that it was merely a treatise on agriculture he was writing. But his care for form and surfaces is serious and intense; and imagination suffuses the least and most commonplace detail of the Roman farming described. Consequently the Georgics is unrivaled in Latin literature and has been called for ages "the perfect poem." At the same time it was an authority on husbandry, which was consulted for centuries by farmers, and a great moral tract; sober, restrained, consistently didactic.
The sluggish tread of the plowman and his yoke, turning the fat earth with a will; the heavy straining and sweating of the farm laborer; the creaking and grinding ox-carts, sledges, drags, and ground rakes; the assault of the mattock and spade on hard ground; such things run in frieze across the background of the Georgics, as in Hesiod's Works and Days. The weeds and the pests and the blights of farming, its plagues and frustrations, are not forgotten. But all this obstinate combat with nature goes on in the bright Italian landscape—a landscape jeweled with clear springs and rivulets, with living water pouring into runnels of the young wheat. Here are cool green lakes; gardens green with endive; brook banks emerald with parsley. Melons swell to a paunch in the lush grass. Acanthus and ivy and myrtle flourish by the farm cottage; embower it. Here are the springy osiers in low ground that will be woven into strong, pliant baskets. The ash flourishes on bouldery hilltops; blooming alders in the swampland. On open slopes are the yew and the grape. Olive and winepresses yield abundantly, and the jovial swine come in from the oak woods crammed with acorns; the cows and the ewes graze in rich pasture, their udders teeming. Fat kids clamber on hillside outcroppings of rock. Farm hands on a holiday drink too much wine; shout and scuffle; strip to the waist and wrestle; shoot at a target for prizes. Among the spectators a plowman sits in the shade, his children clambering on his knees. One kisses his weather beaten cheek.
Elsewhere in the poem is a picture of an old veteran tending bees on his small Calabrian freehold. His few sorry acres cannot support even one yoke of oxen, or a small flock of sheep, or vines enough to supply him with wine. Yet here and there among the thickets is a patch of potherbs, mingled with lilies and vervain; and he has a kingly abundance in his small sufficiency; a calm mind that Epicurus would envy. His rough table is hospitable, with plain fare of his own growing: roast kid, vegetables, fruit, honey. He has roses in early spring; apples in early autumn; even in winter a few hyacinths. He has pears and plums of his own grafting. There is a plane tree by his hut large enough to shade it and him and his friends when they drink wine beneath it on a hot summer day by the Calabrian shore; white sails drifting by in a light breeze.
In this brilliant Italian landscape there are also abundantly producing farms, fat with crops and cattle, blooming with almond. The farmer leaning on his shovel, as the cool water gushes from the irrigation ditch on to the dusty land, looks up to white, unreal peaks in the north. He is indifferent to the turmoil of the city rabble; to the ambition of princes and the rise and fall of kingdoms. Enough is enough. He has no envy for the unstable fortunes and wealth of the cities. The spellbinders of the Forum do not take him in; do not muster him with high-flown oratory into their intrigues, their foreign and civil wars. The farmer struggles on indefatigably with the land; continues his slow conquest of it; knows the satisfaction of seeing black earth crumbling under his plowshare, growing mellower and mellower with good tilth each year.
As in Hesiod's iron age eight centuries before, the great princes are still waging war. Let them fight. It behooves the farmer to keep his clenched fists on the plow handles. It is still a world, where, as the Georgics, direct heir of the Works and Days, laments: "So many wars are, so many embodiments of crime; wars that leave the furrows choked with weeds, the men gone. And the sickle is straightened into a sword. Euphrates is alive again with soldiers and Germany musters in; nearmost states, breaking covenant and treaty, dash to the fray; all over the world war's blasphemy rages." But the farmer of the Georgics plods along amid its furies, bent to his heavy, indispensable labor. How happy the countryman, if only he knew his good fortune!
Blest, aye blest to excess, knew they how goodly the portion
Earth giveth her farmers! who afield where war's din is heard not,
Find ready there the living that she most justly awards them!
Though no stately palace through portals proudly set open
Pours from throng'd chambers a torrent of morning arrivals;
Though no lofty pillars, tortoise-shell's sumptuous inlay,
Nor gold-freakt tap'stries, nor Grecian bronzes amaze them;
Though Tyrean dyevats taint not their silvery fleeces,
And the olive's prest juice unfumed runs clearly to serve them—
Theirs is a peace unassail'd: 'tis a life that knavery knows not,
Stored with sundry riches: the repose of roomy demesne lands,
Caves and quick rippling waters; nor wanteth a cool air
In the valleys, nor lowing of herds, nor sleep that allureth
Neath the covert; the warrens are theirs and haunts of a wild life;
Sturdy peasants, the fellows of toil and thrifty allotment;
God worshipt, old age reverenc't: 'twas lastly among these
While yet on earth she abode that Justice planted a footstep.
[Virgil, the Georgics, in English Hexameters, translated by C. W. Brodribb (1929)]
The Georgics contains many choric idealizations of the farmer's lot like this most familiar one. But the farmer's plight, his unending toil, his sacrifice of cattle and crops not to the gods but to the city market; his coming home empty-handed from the fair, his loss of dignity in a time of swift urbanization, the pillage of his farm in civil war and through exploitation by the parasitic life of the town, these sorrows of the Roman farmer run in melancholy undertone through the poem.
But there is nothing left in the Georgics of the pastel mood of the Eclogues, whose shepherds are so pretty, so soft, so corrupt. Even their names are of the Greek decadence, and their landscapes Sicilian for the most part. Under the dominant influence of Alexandrian conventions Virgil, a young man of twenty-seven, domiciled on his father's farm near Mantua in the midst of violent civil war, nevertheless composed his first successful poems in the manner and spirit of Theocritus; facilely abstracting from the stern life of the peasant those pastoral graces and unrealities that would appeal for ages to the orchidaceous existence of courts and idle affluence; a valid literary form that would reappear again and again, after the wholly agricultural Middle Ages, in Petrarch, Boccaccio, Tasso, Spenser, Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare; but bearing no more blood relationship to the eternal farmer and herdsman than did the eternal courtier who applauded such idylls.
In the Georgics, as in its inspiration, the Works and Days of Hesiod, creative imagination of the highest order presented with consummate art—and from direct boyhood experience—the life of that "tribe of stone" which bears the ultimate and the heaviest burden of human society in an endless war against short rations, hunger, famine; the tribe that remains forever on the frontier where wild nature is engaged, held at bay or driven back with axe and plow; conquered by sweat, muscle, foresight, skill, and primeval moral courage.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8580
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 specialist, and is noted for its lively perception and wide interest. In the following essay, Van Doren discusses the historical and political perspective presented in the Aeneid. He also comments on Virgil's poetic style, finding its beauty a limitation as well as a source of the poem's power..]
Virgil's melancholy epic of one Trojan's escape from the burning city, of his long wanderings westward, and of his building Rome, might seem to be the purest poetry if purity in that art means a close view of things. It does, but Virgil may not see as much as he appears to see. He appears to see every ivory ornament, every clasp and buckle, and to hear every sigh, every modulation in each sad voice that speaks. He appears, even, to enter the hero's mind—concerning which he has a great deal to say—and thus to disappear out of position altogether.
But his poem is not visible, not tangible, as Homer's poems are, and it is not Aeneas' mind we are in. We are in Virgil's. We are among his ideas of how a man doomed to procreate an empire would think, feel, and move if he could move at all under so staggering a burden. In his hero we discover not so much a man as a kind of man: a nation, rather, inching up to its place in history. We discover history. Aeneas, ever aware as he is of his doom, though he calls it his destiny, is unable to exist in any present moment. His image dissipates into perspective, the perspective of Roman and human history. We have all of that in view all of the time. The closer we get to the hero's thought the clearer becomes our view of this other thing. The poem is increasingly conscious of being prophecy, the hero of being a symbol, and the poet of being physician to mankind. Homer's secret, whereby he kept a right relation between near and far, between the part and the whole, between free will and fore-knowledge, is utterly lost. It has not been found again. Virgil is the more modern poet, for history in him—history as emotion—is pure and perfect.
The Aeneid is lacking in the sort of life that inspires higher criticism. We do not pay it the compliment of refusing to believe that one man wrote it. It exists in literary time. Its people are not created as Achilles and Odysseus are, or as Falstaff and Hamlet are, in the first word they speak. Homer and Shakespeare seem to find their men already made, but not so Virgil, who must move slowly because he has all time to cope with as he writes. The act of creation is out of time. The date of Homer is irrelevant to our feeling that he is somehow first, that he was there before history began. Virgil produces no such illusion, nor does he wish to produce it.
He is not chosen by his subject as Homer convinces us he was. It is impossible to imagine Homer deciding to write the Iliad. Virgil is literary, and so is free as we know Milton and Wordsworth were—we know because they told us—to pick one subject out of many. But he is not free to be chosen. Choice of the sort he has implies an eclecticism which we do not associate with the first in any art. It implies also the absence of some whole energy which only waits to release itself until the one possible subject has appeared.
But Virgil was bound to choose a master whom he could imitate, and since his taste was right he chose Homer. For Homer then as now was greatest. With his help, and in his name, Virgil could reënforce his purpose: thread his theme with strength and wash it over with importance. If Homer's presence in the shadows only brings out Virgil's difference, throwing him and his subject into pathetic relief, it is fair to say that Virgil knows the difference too, and even seeks to accentuate it. Nobody could be more aware than he that the essence of the master is unavailable. Only the accidents can be borrowed, and transformed as best may be. Virgil already understands how to do this. In the fourth book of the Georgics he grandly converted Achilles and Thetis into Aristaeus and Cyrene; nor did he cease till he had given Aristaeus an adventure with Proteus like that of Menelaus in the Odyssey. Now Homer has his hero waiting for him, a very special Trojan who Poseidon had insisted should be saved at Troy. "For it is ordained," said the Shaker of Earth, "unto him to escape, that the race of Dardanus perish not without seed and be seen no more—of Dardanus whom the son of Cronos loved above all the children born to him from mortal women. For at length hath the son of Cronos come to hate the race of Priam; and now verily shall the mighty Aeneas be king among the amount the Trojans, and his sons' sons that shall be born in days to come"—but not in Troy itself, whose memory the Aeneid will show dissolving in the eternal reality of Rome.
The opening lines of the poem suggest an order of events to come different from the order Homer followed, and it is a difference that will seem still more significant as the work grows older and wearier. In Homer war came first, and then the wanderings. But we shall hear first of Aeneas' wanderings; after which he will have to wage an exhausting war, though he is already exhausted, in order that he may found a city and become the author of the Latin race. Peace is not to be cessation from struggle, a serene decline into old age, a homecoming, and—for reward—a winnowing-fan. It will be only then that the struggle begins: the struggle to change the world into something more lawful than it has been, and to keep it changed.
In the light of this major transformation the other differences, as well as the resemblances, are minor indeed. A list of them could be as long as this book. Aeneas at Dido's court, reciting his shipwrecks between Troy and Carthage, is Odysseus at the court of Alcinous. His adventures are too few and too briefly told, and the rhetoric of their terrors is scarcely real, but the parallel will escape no one. The funeral games for Anchises are like those for Patroclus, though they are run off with less relish. The descent to Avernus in the sixth book is more elaborate than the two scenes of the Odyssey in Hades, and of a richer interest, for Virgil finds the whole of his meaning underground. When war approaches there is a gathering of the clans on both sides—the side of the native kings, Mezentius, Lausus, Turnus, and the rest, with swift Camilla for support, and the side of Aeneas whose allies are less resplendent—which of course recalls the Greek and Trojan catalogues of the Iliad. As war is joined a host of parallels appears. Pallas is Patroclus even to the point of requiring the sacrifice of twelve enemy youths at his bier. There are campfires by night; there are individual combats by day, some grotesque and some terrible, with frequent accent on the pathos of slain warriors; the gods interfere, and Jupiter is quite as indecisive as Zeus was; then, finally, there is the duel between Aeneas and Turnus, suggesting if by no means matching the one between Achilles and Hector. There is even a cypress-tree to remind us of Homer's fig-tree; and there is the night expedition of Nisus and Euryalus, set in another key than that out of which the tenth book of the Iliad extracts such bloody, exciting music.
There is nothing after the duel to go with Priam's wonderful night in Achilles' hut. Nothing here is wonderful at all. That is not the word for Virgil, who must make up for his lack of power with softer things. And sometimes he cannot make it up. The speeches of his warriors, as of all his people, are finished rhetoric of the Roman sort, but there is not one note in them of the incisive, practical force with which Homer's men deliver themselves; unless such a note is heard in Turnus, shortly before he dies. The dooms that overhang the heroes, for such things too are borrowed from Homer, hang there with little weight; the threatened men are in truth not very interesting while they live. Lausus, Pallas, Turnus, Mezentius, Arruns, Ufens—the fame of the list is feeble if we remember Agamemnon, Achilles, Odysseus, Nestor, Diomedes, Aias, Hector, and Sarpedon. So are the ironies of Virgil feeble. They are contrived, like his rhetoric, and have to be pointed out. By the same token the poem derives no such advantage as the Iliad does, or the Odyssey either, from the fact that its end is foretold. When Homer tells us how things will turn out our interest neither dies nor becomes academic, for men and things in him are individual and real, and where there is reality there is hazard. Homer has not cut off more history than poetry can handle. Virgil has done just that, and sometimes he seems to know it. Or he may know it all of the time, accepting it as the handicap which the predicament of his era has settled upon him. He may be as aware as we are that the whole second half of his epic is hyperbole—a form of evidence, attesting strain, which in no art ever lies.
Virgil's subject is political, as Homer's was not and doubtless could not have been. The ethical emphasis is public, the slogans are institutional, the manners of the life are colored by a sort of state decorum, and the perspective through time is mainly into the future. Homer could conceive sentiment in an army, and in his clans there is the closest brotherhood; but the matter of his songs remained, though it did so in a large sense, personal. Virgil, in deciding to set the political above the personal, was right from every point of view save that of poetry. Rome was more important to him than any man, just as peace was more precious than all men put together. We may applaud either preference at the same time that we miss power in the poet who states it. Virgil could have had no other preferences than these, considering who he was and in what terrible times he lived; or so at any rate one is tempted to think. If criticism is to be merciless, however, it must note that the necessity was something to which Virgil sacrificed the last reach of the art he practiced.
The first ambitious simile in the Aeneid takes off from a term of public morality:
And as oft in some great concourse, when Sedition lifts her head and the nameless vulgar kindles to rage—when brands and stones are already flying, and fury ministers arms—if they chance to behold a man of reverend goodness and worth, on the instant all are mute; and about him they stand with listening ear, while he sways their spirit by his word and allays their passion: even so sank all that tumult of ocean, when Father Neptune looked forth on the waves, and, floating under a cloudless heaven, guided his steeds and flew onward, giving rein to his speeding car.
So the catchwords of the poem are covenant, truce, law, federation, league, order, piety, right, precedent, and justice; and the epithets of the heroes are similarly flavored—Aeneas, at all times "good," is in addition "source of the Roman line," and Ascanius is "second hope of Queenly Rome." The bees of the Georgics had their polity; so now have these men, and it is all they have. Decorum is their daily condition. Aeneas, wrecked with certain members of his retinue on the Libyan coast, ascends a cliff and sights three stags, followed at a suitable distance by the herd of which they are the leaders. He shoots the chieftains first, and only then the commoners. He violates no propriety even in the hunt. Virgil is careful furthermore to remark that Aeneas does not carry his own weapons; Achates hands him his bow and arrows so that with dignity he may save them all from starvation. The moment recalls its equivalent in the Odyssey—its equivalent, but with how much less accent on the rules of court. Odysseus, setting out for the shore near Circe's house with the intention of feeding his men, happens upon a stag.
He was coming down to the river from his pasture in the wood to drink, for the might of the sun oppressed him; and as he came out I struck him on the spine in the middle of the back, and the bronze spear passed right through him, and down he fell in the dust with a moan, and his spirit flew from him. Then I planted my foot upon him, and drew the bronze spear forth from the wound, and left it to lie there on the ground. But for myself, I plucked twigs and osiers, and weaving a rope as it were a fathom in length, well twisted from end to end, I bound together the feet of the monstrous beast, and went my way to the black ship, bearing him across my back and leaning on my spear, since in no wise could I hold him on my shoulder with one hand, for he was a very mighty beast. Down I flung him before the ship, and heartened my comrades.
There is the act itself, simple and direct in its every circumstance; and Odysseus does not have the venison conveyed away, as Aeneas presumably did, by appropriate persons. He does it himself.
The direction in which the poem points is always the future. Some Roman antiquities are touched upon, but the past is of pale importance to Virgil compared either with his own time, which to Aeneas was the future, or with some newer time not yet arrived. The fabric of the vision is prophetic. When Aeneas' departed father speaks to him from Elysium, counseling the journey which in the sixth book he will take through the deeps of Avernus, the promise is that he will thereby learn the names of his posterity and the character of the city prepared even now for his founding hand. Once he is in the underworld he is treated, at the climax of his stay, to a view of Romans not then born: to future statesmen, saviors of their city and the world. The shield which Venus has Vulcan make for Aeneas shows the future of the Empire even to the battle of Actium.
The future is as a vise in which the head of Aeneas is fixed so that he cannot look elsewhere, and least of all backward. He is reminded every minute of his destiny, nor is any effort made by god or man to recommend the prospect as agreeable. On the contrary, it is urged in terms of its supreme difficulty. The struggle to found Rome will be vast and dire. Happier days will come, but they cannot be now. And even the days to come will have their sorrow. When Aeneas spies among the unborn a shining youth with downcast eyes "and little joy in his visage," he asks of Anchises: "Who is he, my father?" And he is answered:
O my son, seek not to know the great agony of thy people! Him the fates shall but show to earth, nor suffer longer to be…. What moaning of men shall echo from that famed Field to Mavors' queenly city! What obsequies, O Tiber, shalt thou see when thou flowest by his new-raised grave! … Ay me, thou child of tears, if haply thou mayest burst the cruel barriers of fate, thou shalt be Marcellus!
Marcellus the nephew and adopted son of Augustus—Augustus, into whom all this future pours, and for whom, and to flatter whom, the poem is composed—had recently died; and there is a legend that Virgil read the foregoing lines aloud to the Emperor, melting him with further grief. However that may be, this is an instance of foretold sorrow; and of a tendency which grows in Virgil to anticipate current customs, current institutions, and current men as he details the ancient days of his good hero.
The world has grown irrevocably political, and the Aeneid is the poem which shows this happening, just as the poem that comes down from Lucretius shows the world becoming irrevocably scientific. There is no appeal from such facts, and there should be no decrying of Virgil or Lucretius for their clairvoyance. But whereas Lucretius, as will be seen, rejoices in the change, Virgil does not seem to do so. Lucretius looked for a style that would state the revolution he foresaw, and he more or less found it. Virgil, as if heartbroken by the realization that politics, however inevitable its advent, might prove an enemy to poetry, as indeed it has largely continued to. be, and as Plato for one desired that it should be, relapses into a style that is less rather than more real. He is sincere, and he foresees everything; but he is soft and sad.
A political subject—in this case the great role of Rome as consolidator and pacifier of world society, and more particularly the great place of Augustus at the goal of so much progress—might seem to have demanded a forthright, confident, and masculine narrative, clearly ordered and precisely phrased. Instead of that we get in the Aeneid indirect lighting and misty effects. Its author's favorite adjectives are "tenuis" and "inanis." There is continual resort to the undefined—to the unspeakable, and even to the unimaginable. The scenes are invariably "tangled" or "shadowy." The prevailing hue is grey, and the time when the poet is most at home is twilight or nightfall, when things have become difficult to see in their hard, natural outlines. The result, given Virgil's genius, is a number of passages washed over with the loveliest tones the minor lyre has ever commanded.
Dim under the lone night they journeyed through the shadows, through the vacant halls of Dis and his unsubstantial kingdom—even as one who journeys in a forest under the niggard light of the faltering moon, when Jove has curtained the sky in shade, and the blackness of night bereaves Nature of her hue.
Thus, and they are justly famous, go the lines which take Aeneas and his guide underground in the sixth book; where Dido will be seen as a "dim form through the shadows," and where even among the Happy Groves the visitors will wander at large over "wide plains of mist."
Thence she seemed to hear the voice of her husband speaking and calling when night hung grey over earth; and oft on the roof the owl wailed forlorn with his sepulchral dirge and long-drawn note of melancholy.
Thus the dream of Dido on the eve of her resolution to die.
It was night, and through all the earth weary creatures, bird and beast alike, lay wrapped in deep slumber; when father Aeneas, with heart wrung by that lamentable strife, flung him down by the river's brim, under the chill cope of heaven, and allowed sleep to steal, belated, over his frame. Before him the deity of the place, Tiber of the pleasant stream, seemed, in very presence, to uplift his white head through the poplar leaves. Thin lawn draped him in mantle of grey, and shady reeds crowned his hair.
Thus—and what passage in the entire poem is more saturated with Virgil's magic?—the hero in a harsh moment near the beginning of the eighth book.
No reader of the poem forgets Palinurus the helmsman; he is the arch-inhabitant of Virgil's night, created for no other purpose, it would seem, than to be the occasion of noble nocturnes. He is the watcher of the stars as they float in the silent firmament: of Arcturus and the rainy Hyades, and the twin Bears; "and he gazed on Orion in his panoply of gold." He it is whom Sleep beguiles as he sits with his faithful hand on the rudder:
And now dewy Night had almost reached her goal in the central heavens, and, stretched by the oars along the hard benches, the seamen had surrendered their limbs to slumber's quiet influence; when Sleep, lightly gliding from the ethereal stars, parted the dusk air and clove the shades, in quest, Palinurus, of thee, and laden with fatal dreams for thy guiltless eyes! … And hardly had the sudden sleep touched his nerveless limbs, ere bending above he flung him sheer into the flowing waves.
Palinurus and his leader both are dwellers in a completely pretty world, one that Virgil builds not only with shadows and dim leaves of form but sometimes with the subtlest similes reachable by such art. That his similes are superfluous does not for the moment matter. They are superfluous because the style is already high and general, and does not need them. Nothing is gained by this recourse, then, to powers and forces without. Homer, in whose stories everything was particular, gained by gathering images from abroad; he amplified the spread of his vision, returning us to a great world he knew but could not otherwise use. Here, on the contrary, is all the world Virgil knows, and it is not a real world. It is made of effects and figures—even at times of Roman rhetorical figures such as Tacitus in a later day will masterfully perfect. "Deep-fixed in her breast clung his lineaments and words." "How stout of spirit and arms!" "In one self-same moment, let the youth desire, demand, and seize the sword!" That might almost be Gibbon talking—Gibbon, who heard barefooted friars singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter as Aeneas saw scattered herds lowing in the Roman forum: one irony was perceived after the Fall, and one before the Rise, but the rhetoric is the same. The similes of Virgil are merely further figures in an artificial series already long. Yet they are everything that this circumstance can let them be; and they are finer, it should be added, when they decorate tableaux than when they endeavor to invigorate action. Virgil is not a poet of action. His style is the one contribution he could make to European poetry.
It is most itself when it is vague in the beautiful way that Virgil can be vague. The description in the first book of a harbor into which the weary comrades of Aeneas drive their ships is highly accomplished:
There, in a deep bay, is a roadstead, which an island forms by its jutting sides. On those sides every wave from the deep breaks, then parts into the winding hollows: on this hand and that are vast rocks, and twin cliffs frowning to heaven; and beneath their peaks, far and wide, the peaceful seas are silent. From the height hangs a background of waving forests, and a grove of dim and tangled shadows. Under the fronting crags is a rock-hung cave—haunted by the Nymphs—and, within it, sweet water and seats from the living rock. Here no chains fetter the wearied ships, and no anchor with crooked fang restrains them. … Yearning for their mother-earth, the Trojans landed: the long-hoped beach was theirs at last, and they laid their brinedrenched limbs on the sand.
It is quite as accomplished as the harbor in the Odyssey from which it is copied, the harbor where the Phaeacian sailors deposit Odysseus:
There is in the land of Ithaca a certain harbor of Phorcys, the old man of the sea, and at its mouth two projecting headlands sheer to seaward, but sloping down on the side toward the harbor. These keep back the great waves raised by heavy winds without, but within the benched ships lie unmoored when they have reached the point of anchorage. At the head of the harbor is a long-leafed olive-tree, and near it a pleasant, shadowy cave sacred to the nymphs that are called Naiads. Therein are mixing bowls and jars of stone, and there too the honey bees store honey. And in the cave are long looms of stone, at which the nymphs weave webs of purple dye, a wonder to behold; and therein are also ever-flowing springs. … Here they rowed in, knowing the place of old; and the ship ran full half her length on the shore in her swift course, at such a pace was she driven by the arms of the rowers. Then they stepped forth from the benched ship upon the land.
It is even more accomplished if accomplishment in poetry is measured by the skill with which everything is suppressed that would be interesting in prose. Homer is of the greatest because he is even more interesting than prose would be; and that is very interesting, as any reader knows. Virgil is not of the greatest because he is just a little under prose in the power he wields. He avoids prose as something that would hurt his poetry if it came too close; and it would, because his poetry could not stand the comparison. In the description of the harbor he leaves everything out that would be clear, useful, or convincing, because he has a sure sense of what for him is poetical. It is poetical for us, too; and for some it is preferable to the greatest poetry. But in none of the greatest poetry will it be found.
The style of the Aeneid is the most palpable thing in it. It is everywhere; or if there are stretches where it is absent, then there is nothing that takes its place. Virgil is not of that high company, the small high company of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, in whom there is no style. Each of the three has styles—he says the things he says in the way those things should be said in order to have their utmost force—but none of them is the victim of a limitation in language which means that certain things cannot be said at all. Those poets can and do say everything, and they are never imitated because there is nothing in the way they speak for things and men that can be imitated, unless the things and men themselves are imitated—a nonsensical condition. The words Homeric, Dantesque, Shakespearean refer to created worlds, and to the life of every sort that is lived there. The word Virgilian, like the word Miltonic, refers to a gift of language: a high gift, but not the highest, since it does not get far enough from the ground to permit a just view of the lowest things. We are always conscious of Virgil's and Milton's words, which are what their admirers must use to prove their greatness. In Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare the word tends to disappear before the thing.
The greatest poems eat their own words, they devour the shells they come in. This can be true because of the strong, even the crude, grip which their authors have on reality. The grip is too crude for prettiness, and the reality is more mysterious than dreams. Such poets are sure of their worlds, as perhaps the stylists are not. It was one stylist, Tennyson, who said of another stylist, Virgil, the best thing that has been said of him: "All the charm of all the Muses often flowering in a lonely word."
The poetry of Virgil is an applied poetry, a veneer whose business is to make things beautiful. Virgil must be beautiful or his subject dies—a sure sign of weakness. He cannot afford to be plain, ugly, and direct. Furthermore, beauty with him, as always with such poets, has to be construed as plastic or tonal beauty. The greatest poetry suggests no other art. Virgil's suggests painting and music. Homer had said this of Gorgythion, whom Teucer slew with one of his terrible arrows: "And he bowed his head to one side like a poppy that in a garden is laden with its fruit and the rains of spring; so bowed he to one side his head, laden with his helmet." It is the helmet, and the surrender of muscles in the neck, that gives point to the comparison, which is made and left to move us as it will. See how Virgil forces it in his description of Euryalus as he dies; forces it, and writes into it a pathetic music which leaves us with the flower, not the man: "And his drooping neck sank on his shoulder—as a purple flower, that the plough has severed, languishes and dies, or as poppies, weighted by random showers, bow laden heads on weary necks."
Or take the hero at Dido's hunt. It is a decorative occasion, but Aeneas himself should be less the maypole than he is:
Such as Apollo is when he deserts his wintry Lycian and the streams of Xanthus to visit his mother's Delos, and there renews the dance, while Cretan and Dryop and painted Agathyrsian revel banded about his altars; but himself he walks the peaks of Cynthus, confining with plastic hand his streaming locks in delicate leaves and entwining gold, and the quiver rattles upon his shoulder—so, with tread light as his, moved Aeneas, and beauty as glorious shone on his peerless countenance.
For the second time now Venus has beautified her son so that Dido may love him. The first time was when she materialized him from a cloud and amazed the Carthaginian queen. The spectacle Athene once had made of Odysseus so that Nausicaa and her maidens might not fear him had been splendid with grace, as we have seen. But see again how Virgil has prettified the father of Rome:
Suddenly the investing cloud disparted and was purged into the open sky, and in its place stood Aeneas, glittering in the lucent day, godlike in aspect and frame: for the mother had breathed on her son, and his locks were beautiful; he was clad in the rosy light of youth, and his eyes were lustrous and glad—as when the artist hand lends loveliness to the ivory, or when silver or Parian stone, is enchased in the yellow gold.
Homer had let Athene adorn his man with silver and gold, but he had reserved ivory for Penelope. Virgil, like most poets bent on beauty, does not know when he has all of it his subject can stand.
Aeneas does not move under his own power any more than the poem does. A reader of the Odyssey smiles at its hero's cosmetic ordeal as at something that does not fit his nature though it may be useful to his career. Virgil's hero, having no nature, cannot be outraged. He stands there, a patient lay figure, while Virgil puts on all the paint he pleases. Aeneas without loss, for there is nothing to lose, participates in the passive mood which makes the style of his poem the most mournful and musical of known styles.
Aeneas is regularly represented as weary, sick at heart, sluggish in spirit, and divided of mind. Homer's men were thus divided, but soon enough they told their thoughts to be still and arrived at a decision. Virgil's hero does to be sure act, but hesitation even then hangs over him; he is never without the air of one beset with the misery of a mixed imagination. Indecision is so chronic with him as to be almost beloved; it is an habitual state, it is his very own. Virgil indulges it in him by elaborating and varying its expression. "Vainly he tossed on inconstant tide, and discordant cares racked his breast with call and counter-call." "Now hither, now thither, swiftly he transferred his divided mind, and swept it over all the range of thought: as when a gleam of water, tremulous in the brimming bronze, is flung back from the sun or the luster of the mirrored moon; then glances abroad over all, till mounting skyward it strikes the fretted roof high above." There, in fact, is a simile for the condition, and one so intricate, not to say so unlikely, that the condition itself takes on a sickly cast. It is not for nothing that Virgil so often represents
the heart and soul of Aeneas as sick, and his entire being unnerved. Once he is spellbound, and another time he is tongue-tied. Towards the end he boasts as Hector had boasted, but there is a hollow sound to it; he has the words of the horse-tamer but not the tune. His doom is as clear as that of Achilles, though it is different; yet he never moves like a free agent as Achilles does. He recognizes that he is not "the captain of his own life"; he feels unfree, without evident relish in the things he knows he must do, even when they will issue in glory. When Penthesilea the Amazon came to the support of the Trojans, a Greek poem tells us that Achilles battled with her as if she were a man, and killed her. But she was beautiful as she lay dead, and he was filled with sudden remorse; which Thersites mocked, and at once Achilles slew Thersites. It is not suggested that Aeneas should have done anything like that, but one does miss in him a talent for unpremeditation.
His enemies in the poem call him effeminate. King Iarbas speaks with contempt of his "eunuch retinue," of his "essenced love-locks bound with turban of Lydia." Turnus addresses the Trojans as maids, not men, and his challenge to Aeneas is to a "woman-man." This is doubtless one of Virgil's ironies, suggesting either that Iarbas and Turnus are wrong or that they do not know how to estimate refinement as Rome will some day exhibit refinement in its imperial dandies. Should Virgil, however, have commended the beauty of Ascanius for any reason at all in the following style? "And lo! in their midst … was the Dardan boy, shining as a solitary gem shines amid the yellow gold bedecking some fair throat or brow; or as ivory gleams, set by the artist hand in boxwood or Orician terebinth—while his loose locks, gathered in a circlet of ductile gold, streamed down his neck of snow." To do so was to write beautifully but as a poet to blunder; great poetry is not preposterous in this fashion.
Virgil is more successful with his women, including his goddesses, than he ever is with men. This could be a sign of his civilization if the men came anywhere near being equal to the fatal females whom they so seldom can withstand. Such power as the poem has is in Juno, Venus, Juturna, Allecto, and Camilla, and in the three mortal women with whom the fortunes of Aeneas are linked: Dido, Lavinia, and Amata. Their power, indeed, is so disproportionate that equality disappears and civilization suffers. The only clear recollection we carry away of humanity in motion is the recollection of Camilla, who "might have flown over the topmost blades of the untouched corn, nor, flying, have scathed the tender ears; she might have sped over the mid seas, poised above the swelling wave, nor dipped her glancing feet in the flood," or of Juturna, sister to Turnus and mistress of lakes and rivers, who is honored with the finest simile in the Aeneid:
As a black swallow flits through the ample halls of some wealthy lord and wings her way round his stately courts, gathering her tiny crumbs of food to regale the twitterers in her nest; and now her pinions sound in the vacant colonnades, now round the water-ponds: such was Juturna, as she whirled behind her steeds through the enemy's midst, and flew over all with racing chariot, and now here, now there, displayed her brother in triumph—yet suffered him not to close in battle, but shot far away!
Alongside either of these semidivine ladies the males of the Aeneid are pale, sad specimens of their sex, participating as their leader does in the mood that poses so perplexing a problem.
For how, finally, is it to be explained that an epic that sets out to glorify the Capitol and crown all human life with lawful peace turns into the saddest of recorded poems? Shall Virgil be put down as a minor genius failing at a major task? Or if such an answer seems too simple, and if the genius of Virgil is something that cannot be graded off, are we to say that in the Aeneid a poet of unlimited powers reveals, consciously or unconsciously, the inward limits of his theme—exposes the insufficiency of Augustus, the shoddiness of Rome, the immaturity of a culture that only thinks itself the product of all history? Or the revelation might be that sophisticated epics are impossible. It might be, indeed, a disclosure of the doubt which lurks for so many civilized men at the heart of enterprise, the doubt which paralyzes effort and sours success just when it should seem sweetest. If any of these things is revealed, and revealed unconsciously, against the grain of Virgil's will, then he is indeed the sorcerer the Middle Ages said he was. He is a poet through whom the truth speaks. It is not he that utters irony; irony utters him. The author of ["Eclogue 4"], prophesying a Messiah, would by such an account be no more than a study for the author of the Aeneid, prophesying universal failure, a failure that expresses itself before it knows itself, using the language of his nightingale's tongue.
He is the poet of nocturnal tears, at home with weariness and most true when most troubled. Nor are his tears the "round" ones, the "big" ones, which Homer found on the faces of his men and women. Those were distinct and visible, and they had a cause. These are hidden in the fiber of things, buried there like secret germs of misery, spreading their influence as a potion does through all of being's tissues. They are internal, ineffable; too deep for words of diagnosis or cure. They are the reference in Virgil's most famous and least translatable phrase: Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt. No two versions of the phrase agree, and so it had better be left alone, with its two words, lacrimae rerum, weeping in their place. It is by no means strange that most of the great lines in the Aeneid are elegiac as this one is. When Virgil rises, he rises into lyric, while the story stops. The stories of Homer never stop to state themselves, to soar away on notes of lyric generality. They simply move on and cover the earth. Virgil is no such master of the epic art.
That may be why Virgil cannot free his hero, who walks too heavily, under too great a weight of destiny, ever to enjoy his role. He is a sleepwalker, a hypnotic subject, locked into the events that will make his life for him—a life that will mean most after he is dead. He takes no pleasure in his invasion of Italy and his slaughter of its ancient inhabitants. They live in peace, under laws which Aeneas can but disturb; he brings them present misery with their future glory. Nor do they enjoy their doom in the grim way in which tragedy can dignify and exalt its victims. The war of the second six books is a ghastly affair, unreal because unrelished. Its combatants are to the last man and woman committed to a decreed end, necessary but in its horror unrelieved. A conflict that nobody desires must somehow be got through with so that Rome may some day be—what Rome in the time of Augustus has become. Blood must be waded so that war may cease. The Nisus-Euryalus episode is copied from the tenth book of the Iliad, but changed into a futile, heartbreaking business; the counterparts of Odysseus and Diomedes are a man and a boy, both of whom are killed as the mission fails; and the mother of the boy cries on the battlements when the outcome is known. It is of such events that Aeneas is captain. He wins, but he is one whose duties shrivel him somewhat as Shakespeare's Brutus is shriveled by the crisis for which he is armed only with stoicism. All is duty, all is danger, all is consciousness of uncharacteristic actions waiting to be done. The speech of such a man is bound to be as impersonal as that of Aeneas is. And he is bound to cast a shadow forward over the empire his legend is intended to glorify.
The absence of epic genius in the author of the Aeneid may explain all this. But so may other things. So, for instance, may some special view he took of the world. And more particularly, so may some special feeling he had about the political state he most often mentions, the state of peace.
Peace is Virgil's deepest theme, but he means by it more than his art can manage. The peace he dreams of is not an improvement to be made in the world that is, but the condition of a new world to be born. Virgil, like Lucretius, has given up the world that is. He has lost confidence in its power to survive tragedy. The recent civil wars, together with the long imperial war from which they stemmed, have destroyed his nerve. The only vision of salvation possible to Virgil is the vision of a change so radical that the better world to follow will of necessity and in essence be utterly unlike this one. It will be so different that as yet it is unrecognizable; it cannot be seen ahead save vaguely. That, then, may be the reason for the lifelessness of Aeneas as he gropes his way into the future. The world for him, as for his poet, is not its own place, and indestructible. It can survive nothing more of the sort that hitherto has happened to men. It is a limp world, sapped of wrath and wit, of savagery and joy. No further chances can be taken, no further tragedy may be endured. Salvation depends henceforth upon the transformation of men into other creatures than poetry has known. History cannot afford another Achilles, or even another Odysseus. Their brawls, their wiles would shake the structure down. The tragedy of Virgil may be the history he had had to see. There was too much of it. It had left him incapable of tragedy.
It had left him capable at best of searching literature for a myth to match the quality and direction of his feeling. For it is a feeling he has about peace, an absolute feeling, and it must find an echo in some tale of absolute change, some myth of metamorphosis, which will be adequate to his desperation. The whole of his work—the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid, especially the sixth book of the Aeneid, the book of the other life—suggests that he found what he needed in Plato's dialogue The Statesman. In that dialogue the Stranger tells the Younger Socrates an important tale—important, certainly, for the Roman poet three centuries later. For it haunts his memory and informs his every thought about the world. It is Plato's rationalization of two legends: the legend of the reign of Cronos, and the legend of the earth-born folk….
The tale illuminates Anchises as he stands in a green valley among the realms of joy, surveying the prisoned spirits to whom Fate owes a second body: spirits who must wait where they are in the blissful fields "till at length the hoary ages, when time's cycle is run, purge the incarnate stain…. All these that thou seest," says Anchises to his son, "when they have turned the wheel through a thousand years, God summons in their legions to the river of Lethe, that, with memory disenthroned, they may review the vaulted heavens and conceive desire once more to tenant the flesh." It is not the only source of light upon the sixth book of Virgil's poem, for the doctrine of transmigration throws beams in this direction, and so do other doctrines to which the poet was sensitive. But the cycle and the return—there is the form for Virgil's feeling about history, and specifically for his feeling about peace.
History for Virgil, and nothing could be more understandable than this, was the history of war and peace. His own time was a time of war; whence his imagination escaped both backward into a golden age which had known nothing but peace and forward into another such age if God and Augustus would permit it to be. He conceived of a great weight that swung, bringing now blood, now bliss; and he ached to believe that the next turn of time would bring in, and perhaps bring in forever, the cycle having then finished its function, the unspeakable bliss of peace. "The last age is come," runs the famous ["Eclogue 4"], "and the great march of the centuries begins anew. Now Saturn is king again, and a new and better race descends from on high. Our iron breed shall at last cease, and the age of gold dawn on all the world."
"There is war in all the world," cries the poet of the Georgics. It was otherwise when the globe lived in perpetual spring, "and the earth-born brood of men reared its head from the stony plains." Then peace and justice reigned, and golden Saturn lived. So the Aeneid sets peace and law as the goal of its events. Jove comforts Venus, fearful for her son, with the prophecy that Aeneas will succeed in creating the race of Romans. "For them," he adds, "I set no bounds to their fortunes, nor any term of years: I have given them empire without ending…. Then war shall be laid aside, and the harsh world soften to peace." This last will be when Augustus, himself born of the gods, "shall establish again the age of gold in Latium, through the fields where Saturn erewhile was king." Anchises is speaking now, and saying: "Roman, be this thy care, these thine arts, to bear dominion over the nations and to impose the law of peace." But it is from Evander, father of Pallas and king of the land where some day the citadel of Rome will be, that Aeneas learns most about the age his efforts are destined to restore:
Once these woods were tenanted by Fauns and Nymphs, native born, and by a generation of men sprung from boles of trees and the obdurate oak. They had neither rule of life nor culture, nor knowledge to yoke the ox, nor to lay up stores, nor to husband their grains; but forest boughs and the huntsman's rude trade yielded their sustenance. And no help came till Saturn descended from skiey Olympus…. He it was gathered into a state that ungentle race, and gave them laws. Under his sway passed those ages that men style golden: in such serenity he ruled the nations; till with stealthy step there succeeded a degenerate time of a baser hue, and, in its train, the frenzy of war and the lust of possession.
There the great weight swings again, and the cycle declares its course.
But it is clear that Virgil identifies the age of Saturn, which for Plato was the age of Cronos, with the reign of peace by law and government; whereas tradition had it, and the Stranger's tale very distinctly has it, that the children of Cronos or Saturn lived in peace not under their own authority, nor by arts that they had learned, but with the help of the gods, who were present among them and considered them their children. The Cyclopes of Homer, and even his Phaeacians with their superior grace, were fostered by deity; and the Cyclopes were dismissed with contempt by Odysseus because they were savages with no conception of justice. Nor did Plato leave any doubt that in those ages when the world turns backward, taking care of itself, the laws under which men live must be of their own making; the age of gold is not the age of civilization. Civilization is arduous, requiring study in those who would have it, and it does not come about by miracle. Virgil leaps at once into a near future where law is by magic, and peace by legerdemain. The Saturn who will come again is none other than Augustus. Peace in the whole world will be a Roman peace, perpetuating itself by means into which Virgil does not inquire.
The identification of Saturn and Augustus will not do; and even then it would not have done, as Virgil's doubt and sadness suggest that he knew better than anybody. It is indeed government that makes peace in a world which has been left by the gods for men to manage. But both government and peace are difficult, and reality must be their base. Homer knew the difficulty; his tragedy was real. Virgil, haunted by the difficulty, but only haunted, escapes here as elsewhere into the prettiness which for him is poetry. He sets the golden age ahead, and asks it to do what it was never intended by any myth to do. He asks it to do the work that men must do by themselves, without benefit of deity. The temptation was great, but a still greater poet would have resisted it. Virgil, giving in, may have known that he was evading the sterner way of truth by tragedy: known it, but known also that he was incapable of the harder thing. Thence, it may be, flowed his loneliness.
But his poem works its own necromancy, minor though it be, and no reader is proof against it all. The effect of the Aeneid has been peculiar and pervasive, as if a mysterious music issued from its sweetness, as indeed it does. The Virgil we shall meet again in Dante may not be the original Virgil, and he will exert a power over the Italian poet which he may not have dreamed would ever be his. But it will be genuine power: a touching testimony to his uniqueness.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4965
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 their work to have artistic and spiritual validity. The following essay was originally broadcast on the B.B.C. and published in The Listener in 1951. Here, Eliot identifies prominent themes characteristic of Virgil's poetry—labor, piety, and destiny—which have rendered him sympathetic to the Christian mind.]
The esteem in which Virgil has been held throughout Christian history may easily be made to appear, in a historical account of it, largely due to accidents, irrelevances, misunderstandings and superstitions. Such an account can tell you why Virgil's poems were prized so highly; but it may not give you any reason to infer that he deserved so high a place; still less might it persuade you that his work has any value for the world to-day or to-morrow or forever. What interests me here are those characteristics of Virgil which render him peculiarly sympathetic to the Christian mind. To assert this is not to accord him any exaggerated value as a poet, or even as a moralist, above that of all other poets Greek or Roman.
There is however one 'accident', or 'misunderstanding', which has played such a part in history that to ignore it would appear an evasion. This is of course ["Eclogue 4"], in which Virgil, on the occasion of the birth or the expectation of a son to his friend Pollio, recently named consul, speaks in highflown language in what purports to be a mere letter of congratulation to the happy father.
Now is come the last age of the song of Cumae; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns….
He shall have the gift of divine life, shall see heroes mingled with gods, and shall himself be seen of them, and shall sway a world to which his father's virtues shall have brought peace….
The serpent shall perish, and the false poison plant shall perish; Assyrian spice shall spring up on every soil….
Such phrases have always seemed excessive, and the child who was the subject of them never cut any great figure in the world. It has even been suggested that Virgil was pulling his friend's leg by this oriental hyperbole. Some scholars have thought that he was imitating, or taking off, the style of the Sibylline oracles. Some have conjectured that the poem is covertly addressed to Octavius, or even that it concerns the offspring of Antony and Cleopatra. A French scholar, Carcopino, gives good reason to believe that the poem contains allusions to Pythagorean doctrine. The mystery of the poem does not seem to have attracted any particular attention until the Christian Fathers got hold of it. The Virgin, the Golden Age, the Great Year, the parallel with the prophecies of Isaiah; the child cara deum suboles—'dear offspring of the gods, great scion of Jupiter'—could only be the Christ himself, whose coming was foreseen by Virgil in the year 40 B.C. Lactantius and St. Augustine believed this; so did the entire mediaeval Church and Dante; and even perhaps, in his own fashion, Victor Hugo.
It is possible that still other explanations may be found, and we already know more about the probabilities than the Christian Fathers did. We also know that Virgil, who was a man of great learning in his time, and, as Mr. Jackson Knight has shown us, well informed in matters of folklore and antiquities, had at least indirect acquaintance with the religions and with the figurative language of the East. That would be sufficient in itself to account for any suggestion of Hebrew prophecy. Whether we consider the prediction of the Incarnation merely a coincidence will depend on what we mean by coincidence; whether we consider Virgil a Christian prophet will depend upon our interpretation of the word 'prophecy'. That Virgil himself was consciously concerned only with domestic affairs or with Roman politics I feel sure: I think that he would have been very much astonished by the career which his ["Eclogue 4"] was to have. If a prophet were by definition a man who understood the full meaning of what he was saying, this would be for me the end of the matter. But if the word 'inspiration' is to have any meaning, it must mean just this, that the speaker or writer is uttering something which he does not wholly understand—or which he may even misinterpret when the inspiration has departed from him. This is certainly true of poetic inspiration: and there is more obvious reason for admiring Isaiah as a poet than for claiming Virgil as a prophet. A poet may believe that he is expressing only his private experience; his lines may be for him only a means of talking about himself without giving himself away; yet for his readers what he has written may come to be the expression both of thier own secret feelings and of the exultation or despair of a generation. He need not know what his poetry will come to mean to others; and a prophet need not understand the meaning of his prophetic utterance.
We have a mental habit which makes it much easier for us to explain the miraculous in natural terms than to explain the natural in miraculous terms: yet the latter is as necessary as the former. A miracle which everybody accepted and believed in with no difficulty would be a strange miracle indeed; because what was miraculous for everybody would also seem natural to everybody. It seems to me that one can accept whatever explanation of ["Eclogue 4"], by a scholar and historian, is the most plausible; because the scholars and historians can only be concerned with what Virgil thought he was doing. But, at the same time, if there is such a thing as inspiration—and we do go on using the word—then it is something which escapes historical research.
I have had to consider ["Eclogue 4"], because it is so important in speaking of the history of Virgil's place in the Christian tradition that to avoid mention of it might lead to misunderstanding. And it is hardly possible to speak of it without indicating in what way one accepts, or rejects, the view that it prophesies the coming of Christ. I wanted only to make clear that the literal acceptance of this Eclogue as prophecy had much to do with the early admission of Virgil as suitable reading for Christians, and therefore opened the way for his influence in the Christian world. I do not regard this as simply an accident, or a mere curiosity of literature. But what really concerns me is the element in Virgil which gives him a significant, a unique place, at the end of the pre-Christian and at the beginning of the Christian world. He looks both ways; he makes a liaison between the old world and the new, and of his peculiar position we may take ["Eclogue 4"] as a symbol. In what respects, therefore, does the greatest of Roman poets anticipate the Christian world in a way in which the Greek poets do not? This question has been best answered by the late Theodor Haecker, in a book, published some years ago in an English translation under the title Virgil the Father of the West. I shall make use of Haecker's method.
Here I shall make a slight and perhaps trivial diversion. When I was a schoolboy, it was my lot to be introduced to the Iliad and to the Aeneid in the same year. I had, up to that point, found the Greek language a much more exciting study than Latin. I still think it a much greater language: a language which has never been surpassed as a vehicle for the fullest range and the finest shades of thought and feeling. Yet I found myself at ease with Virgil as I was not at ease with Homer. It might have been rather different if we had started with the Odyssey instead of the Iliad; for when we came to read certain selected books of the Odyssey—and I have never read more of the in Greek than those selected books—I was much happier. My preference certainly did not, I am glad to say, mean that I thought Virgil the greater poet. That is the kind of error from which we are preserved in youth, simply because we are too natural to ask such an artificial question—artificial because, in whatever ways Virgil followed the procedure of Homer, he was not trying to do the same thing. One might just as reasonably try to rate the comparative 'greatness' of the Odyssey and James Joyce's Ulysses, simply because Joyce for quite different purposes used the framework of the Odyssey. The obstacle to my enjoyment of the Iliad, at that age, was the behaviour of the people Homer wrote about. The gods were as irresponsible, as much a prey to their passions, as devoid of public spirit and the sense of fair play, as the heroes. This was shocking. Furthermore, their sense of humour extended only to the crudest form of horseplay. Achilles was a ruffian; the only hero who could be commended for either conduct or judgment was Hector; and it seemed to me that this was Shakespeare's view also:
If Helen then be wife to Sparta's king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back returned …
All this may seem to have been simply the caprice of a priggish little boy. I have modified my early opinions—the explanation I should now give is simply that I instinctively preferred the world of Virgil to the Homer—because it was a more civilized world of dignity, reason and order. When I say 'the world of Virgil', I mean what Virgil himself made of the world in which he lived. The Rome of the imperial era was coarse and beastly enough; in important respects far less civilized than Athens at its greatest. The Romans were less gifted than the Athenians for the arts, philosophy and pure science; and their language was more obdurate to the expression of either poetry or abstract thought. Virgil made of Roman civilization in his poetry something better than it really was. His sensibility is more nearly Christian than that of any other Roman or Greek poet: not like that of an early Christian perhaps, but like that of Christianity from the time at which we can say that a Christian civilization had come into being. We cannot compare Homer and Virgil; but we can compare the civilization which Homer accepted with the civilization of Rome as refined by the sensibility of Virgil.
What, then, are the chief characteristics of Virgil which make him sympathetic to the Christian mind? I think that the most promising way of giving some indication briefly, is to follow the procedure of Haecker and try to develop the significance of certain key words. Such words are labor, pietas, and fatum. The Georgics are, I think, essential to an understanding of Virgil's philosophy—using the word with the distinction that we do not mean quite the same thing when we speak of the philosophy of a poet, as when we speak of the philosophy of an abstract thinker. The Georgics, as a technical treatise on farming, are both difficult and dull. Most of us have neither the command of Latin necessary to read them with pleasure, nor any desire to remind ourselves of schooltime agonies. I shall only recommend them in the translation of Mr. Day Lewis who has put them into modern verse. But they are a work to which their author devoted time, toil and genius. Why did he write them? It is not to be supposed that he was endeavouring to teach their business to the farmers of his native soil; or that he aimed simply to provide a useful handbook for townsmen eager to buy land and launch out as farmers. Nor is it likely that he was merely anxious to compile records, for the curiosity of later generations, of the methods of agriculture in his time. It is more likely that he hoped to remind absentee landowners, careless of their responsibilities and drawn by love of pleasure or love of politics to the metropolis, of the fundamental duty to cherish the land. Whatever his conscious motive, it seems clear to me that Virgil desired to affirm the dignity of agricultural labour, and the importance of good cultivation of the soil for the well-being of the state both materially and spiritually.
The fact that every major poetic form employed by Virgil has some precedent in Greek verse, must not be allowed to obscure the originality with which he recreated every form he used. There is I think no precedent for the spirit of the Georgics; and the attitude towards the soil, and the labour of the soil, which is there expressed, is something that we ought to find particularly intelligible now, when urban agglomeration, the flight from the land, the pillage of the earth and the squandering of natural resources are beginning to attract attention. It was the Greeks who taught us the dignity of leisure; it is from them that we inherit the perception that the highest life is the life of contemplation. But this respect for leisure, with the Greeks, was accompanied by a contempt for the banausic occupations. Virgil perceived that agriculture is fundamental to civilization, and he affirmed the dignity of manual labour. When the Christian monastic orders came into being, the contemplative life and the life of manual labour were first conjoined. These were no longer occupations for different classes of people, the one noble, the other inferior and suitable only for slaves or almost slaves. There was a great deal in the mediaeval world which was not Christian; and practice in the lay world was very different from that of the religious orders at their best: but at least Christianity did establish the principle that action and contemplation, labour and prayer, are both essential to the life of the complete man. It is possible that the insight of Virgil was recognized by monks who read his works in their religious houses.
Furthermore, we need to keep this affirmation of the Georgics in mind when we read the Aeneid. There, Virgil is concerned with the imperium romanum, with the extension and justification of imperial rule. He set an ideal for Rome, and for empire in general, which was never realized in history; but the ideal of empire as Virgil sees it is a noble one. His devotion to Rome was founded on devotion to the land; to the particular region, to the particular village, and to the family in the village. To the reader of history this foundation of the general on the particular may seem chimerical; just as the union of the contemplative and the active life may seem to most people chimerical. For mostly these aims are envisaged as alternatives: we exalt the contemplative life, and disparage the active, or we exalt the active, and regard the contemplative with amused contempt if not with moral disapproval. And yet it may be the man who affirms the apparently incompatible who is right.
We come to the second word. It is a commonplace that the word piety is only a reduced, altered and specialized translation of pietas. We use it in two senses: in general, it suggests devout church-going, or at least church-going with the appearance of devoutness. In another sense, it is always preceded by the adjective 'filial', meaning correct behaviour toward a parent. When Virgil speaks, as he does, of pius Aeneas, we are apt to think of his care of his father, of his devotion to his father's memory, and of his touching encounter with his father on his descent into the nether regions. But the word pietas with Virgil has much wider associations of meaning: it implies an attitude towards the individual, towards the family, towards the region, and towards the imperial destiny of Rome. And finally Aeneas is 'pious' also in his respect towards the gods, and in his punctilious observance of rites and offerings. It is an attitude towards all these things, and therefore implies a unity and an order among them: it is in fact an attitude towards life.
Aeneas is therefore not simply a man endowed with a number of virtues, each of which is a kind of piety—so that to call him pius in general is merely to use a convenient collective term. Piety is one. These are aspects of piety in different contexts, and they all imply each other. In his devotion to his father he is not being just an admirable son. There is personal affection, without which filial piety would be imperfect; but personal affection is not piety. There is also devotion to his father as his father, as his progenitor: this is piety as the acceptance of a bond which one has not chosen. The quality of affection is altered, and its importance deepened, when it becomes love due to the object. But this filial piety is also the recognition of a further bond, that with the gods, to whom such an attitude is pleasing: to fail in it would be to be guilty of impiety also towards the gods. The gods must therefore be gods worthy of this respect; and without gods, or a god, regarded in this way, filial piety must perish. For then it becomes no longer a duty: your feeling towards your father will be due merely to the fortunate accident of congeniality, or will be reduced to a sentiment of gratitude for care and consideration. Aeneas is pious towards the gods, and in no way does his piety appear more clearly than when the gods afflict him. He had a good deal to put up with from Juno; and even his mother Venus, as the benevolent instrument of his destiny, put him into one very awkward position. There is in Aeneas a virtue—an essential ingredient in his piety—which is an analogue and foreshadow of Christian humility. Aeneas is the antithesis, in important respects, of either Achilles or Odysseus. In so far as he is heroic, he is heroic as the original Displaced Person, the fugitive from a ruined city and an obliterated society, of which the few other survivors except his own band languish as slaves of the Greeks. He was not to have, like Ulysses, marvellous and exciting adventures with such occasional erotic episodes as left no canker on the conscience of that wayfarer. He was not to return at last to the remembered hearth-fire, to find an exemplary wife awaiting him, to be reunited to his son, his dog and his servants. Aeneas' end is only a new beginning; and the whole point of the pilgrimage is something which will come to pass for future generations. His nearest likeness is Job, but his reward is not what Job's was, but is only in the accomplishment of his destiny. He suffers for himself, he acts only in obedience. He is, in fact, the prototype of a Christian hero. For he is, humbly, a man with a mission; and the mission is everything.
The pietas is in this way explicable only in terms of fatum. This is a word which constantly recurs in the Aeneid; a word charged with meaning, and perhaps with more meaning than Virgil himself knew. Our nearest word is 'destiny', and that is a word which means more than we can find any definitions for. It is a word which can have no meaning in a mechanical universe: if that which is wound up must run down, what destiny is there in that? Destiny is not necessitarianism, and it is not caprice: it is something essentially meaningful. Each man has his destiny, though some men are undoubtedly 'men of destiny' in a sense in which most men are not; and Aeneas is egregiously a man of destiny, since upon him the future of the Western World depends. But this is an election which cannot be explained, a burden and responsibility rather than a reason for self-glorification. It merely happens to one man and not to others, to have the gifts necessary in some profound crisis, but he can take no credit to himself for the gifts and the responsibility assigned to him. Some men have had a deep conviction of their destiny, and in that conviction have prospered; but when they cease to act as an instrument, and think of themselves as the active source of what they do, their pride is punished by disaster. Aeneas is a man guided by the deepest conviction of destiny, but he is a humble man who knows that this destiny is something not to be desired and not to be avoided. Of what power is he the servant? Not of the gods, who are themselves merely instruments, and sometimes rebellious ones. The concept of destiny leaves us with a mystery, but it is a mystery not contrary to reason, for it implies that the world, and the course of human history, have meaning.
Nor does destiny relieve mankind of moral responsibility. Such, at least, is my reading of the episode of Dido. The love affiar of Aeneas and Dido is arranged by Venus: neither of the lovers was free to abstain. Now Venus herself is not acting on a whim, or out of mischief. She is certainly pround of the destiny of her son, but her behaviour is not that of a doting mother: she is herself an instrument for the realization of her son's destiny. Aeneas and Dido had to be united, and had to be separated. Aeneas did not demur; he was obedient to his fate. But he was certainly very unhappy about it, and I think that he felt that he was behaving shamefully. For why else should Virgil have contrived his meeting with the Shade of Dido in Hades, and the snub that he receives? When he sees Dido he tries to excuse himself for his betrayal. Sed me iussa deum—but I was under orders from the gods; it was a very unpleasant decision to have imposed upon me, and I am sorry that you took it so hard. She avoids his gaze and turns away, with a face as immobile as if it had been carved from flint or Marpesian rock. I have no doubt that Virgil, when he wrote these lines, was assuming the role of Aeneas and feeling very decidedly a worm. No, destiny like that of Aeneas does not make the man's life any easier: it is a very heavy cross to bear. And I do not think of any hero of antiquity who found himself in quite this inevitable and deplorable position. I think that the poet who could best have emulated Virgil's treatment of this situation was Racine: certainly the Christian poet who gave the furious Roxane the blasting line 'Rentre dans le Néant d'où je t'ai fait sortir' could, if anyone, have found words for Dido on this occasion.
What then does this destiny, which no Homeric hero shares with Aneas, mean? For Virgil's conscious mind, and for his contemporary readers, it means the imperium romanum. This in itself, as Virgil saw it, was a worthy justification of history. I think that he had few illusions and that he saw clearly both sides of every question—the case for the loser as well as the case for the winner. Nevertheless even those who have as little Latin as I must remember and thrill at the lines:
His ego nec metas rerum, nec tempora pono:
Imperium sine fine dedi …
Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
[hae tibi erunt artes] pacique imponere morem,
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos …
I say that it was all the end of history that Virgil could be asked to find, and that it was a worthy end. And do you really think that Virgil was mistaken? You must remember that the Roman Empire was transformed into the Holy Roman Empire. What Virgil proposed to his contemporaries was the highest ideal even for an unholy Roman Empire, for any merely temporal empire. We are all, so far as we inherit the civilization of Europe, still citizens of the Roman Empire, and time has not yet proved Virgil wrong when he wrote nec tempora pono: imperium sine fine dedi. But, of course, the Roman Empire which Virgil imagined and for which Aeneas worked out his destiny was not exactly the same as the Roman Empire of the legionaries, the pro-consuls and governors, the business men and speculators, the demagogues and generals. It was something greater, but something which exists because Virgil imagined it. It remains an ideal, but one which Virgil passed on to Christianity to develop and to cherish.
In the end, it seems to me that the place which Dante assigned to Virgil in the future life, and the role of guide and teacher as far as the barrier which Virgil was not allowed to pass, was not capable of passing, is an exact statement of Virgil's relation to the Christian world. We find the world of Virgil, compared to the world of Homer, to approximate to a Christian world, in the choice, order and relationship of its values. I have said that this implies no comparison between Homer the poet and Virgil the poet. Neither do I think that it is exactly a comparison between the worlds in which they lived, considered apart from the interpretation of these worlds which the poets have given us. It may be merely that we know more about the world of Virgil, and understand it better; and therefore see more clearly how much, in the Roman ideal according to Virgil, is due to the shaping hand and the philosophical mind of Virgil himself. For, in the sense in which a poet is a philosopher (as distinct from the sense in which a great poet may embody a great philosophy in great poetry) Virgil is the greatest philosopher of ancient Rome. It is not, therefore, simply that the civilization in which Virgil lived is nearer to the civilization of Christianity than is that of Homer; we can say that Virgil, among classical Latin poets or prose writers, is uniquely near to Christianity. There is a phrase which I have been trying to avoid, but which I now find myself obliged to use: anima naturaliter Christiana. Whether we apply it to Virgil is a matter of personal choice; but I am inclined to think that he just falls short: and that is why I said just now that I think Dante has put Virgil in the right place. I will try to give the reason.
I think of another key word, besides labor, pietas and fatum, which I wish that I could illustrate from Virgil in the same way. What key word can one find in the Divine Comedy which is absent from the Aeneid? One word of course is lume, and all the words expressive of the spiritual significance of light. But this, I think, as used by Dante, has a meaning which belongs only to explicit Christianity, fused with a meaning which belongs to mystical experience. And Virgil is no mystic. The term which one can justifiably regret the lack of in Virgil is amor. It is, above all others, the key word for Dante. I do not mean that Virgil never uses it. Amor recurs in the Eclogues (amor vincit omnia). But the loves of the shepherds represent hardly more than a poetic convention. The use of the word amor in the Eclogues is not illuminated by meanings of the word in the Aeneid in the way in which, for example, we return to Paolo and Francesca with greater understanding of their passion after we have been taken through the circles of love in the Paradise. Certainly, the love of Aeneas and Dido has great tragic force. There is tenderness and pathos enough in the Aeneid. But Love is never given, to my mind, the same significance as a principle of order in the human soul, in society and in the universe that pietas is given; and it is not Love that causes fatum, or moves the sun and the stars. Even for intensity of physical passion, Virgil is more tepid than some other Latin poets, and far below the rank of Catullus. If we are not chilled we at least feel ourselves, with Virgil, to be moving in a kind of emotional twilight. Virgil was, among all authors of classical antiquity, one for whom the world made sense, for whom it had order and dignity, and for whom, as for no one before his time except the Hebrew prophets, history had meaning. But he was denied the vision of the man who could say:
'Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe.'
Legato con amor in un volume.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3904
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 another episode in the destiny of the homeless Trojans. The pulsating breath of tragedy and the atmosphere of wild pathos embody with the greatest compression the nature of the emotion which permeates the whole poem. It is, as it were, the "musical" motif that from the start marks the events with passionate grandeur and the demonic power of fate. Only the image of the strongest, wildest movement in Nature—which had, of course, been transmitted through Homer, where it was first raised to the level of art—seemed to Vergil sufficiently grave and imposing for the opening of his Roman epic.
This kind of beginning was not borrowed from the Odyssey, certainly, for that epic opens much more peacefully. If there is any parallel in Homer, it is in the plague which opens the Iliad. Indeed, the entire Aeneid in its dramatic impetus is more to be compared with the Iliad than with the Odyssey. But even in the Iliad Homer swiftly progresses to the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon as the starting point of the real action, without utilizing the mood established by the plague motif. As for Apollonius Rhodius of Hellenistic times, who in the casual manner of a storyteller began his epic with an almost comical anecdote—the oracle of the man with one shoe—he achieves nothing of the Aeneid's symbolic power. Contrary to common assumption, he is much farther from Vergil's artistic conception than is Homer.
The scene sequence dominated by the storm at sea (I.8–296) anticipates the whole poem in thought as well as mood. It is the prelude of the work, announcing the basic motifs after the manner of an overture. Let us examine it.
As for the motif of Juno's hatred, the poet, after the proem, expounds upon her counterplan for Carthage's control of the world. The opposition of the two world powers is announced immediately upon the introduction of Rome's historic rival: Carthago Italiam contra (I.23), in which "contra " is meant much more symbolically than geographically. With a slight change it returns in Dido's curse:
Let your shores oppose their shores, your waves their waves,
your arms their arms. That is my imprecation.
Litora litoribus contraria, fluctibus undas
Imprecor, arma armis, pugnent ipsique nepotesque …
Thus, the contest between Rome and Carthage for world dominion appears as a main theme from the very beginning, and Juno's stubborn fight against the hero's fata symbolically anticipates it, as do the battles in the last half of the poem—as stated in Jupiter's speech (X.11).
This historically decisive contest is itself only a representative symbol of all the hard wars in Roman history. The last half of the poem is symbolic also of the Italo-Roman struggle and the civil wars. Moreover, it contains a searching examination of the nature and uncanny duality of politics; the image of the dark demon of passion in Turnus confronts the shining spiritual and moral power in Aeneas. Roman history is presented as a struggle between two principles, and Rome's victory is seen as the victory of the higher one. Thus, the first and the last halves of the Aeneid are symbolic in different ways. (Here I remind the reader how important to our subject it is to realize that a symbol by its very nature admits of—and demands—more than one interpretation. The essence of a symbolic relation is that the correspondence between the symbol and the thing symbolized is not precise, but flexible, opening up an infinite perspective.)
In a letter to Schiller (August 17, 1797) Goethe wrote: "Symbolic objects are outstanding cases representing in their variety many others. They are characterized by a certain inclusiveness; they demand a certain sequence. They evoke in my mind pertinent and similar as well as foreign ideas. Consequently, from within as well as from without, they claim a certain oneness and universality." And in Maximen und Reflexionen: "The symbol transforms the visible into an idea and the idea into an image in such manner that the idea in the image stays infinitely potent and unattainable, remaining unutterable even if spoken of in all languages." Similarly, in his Tagebücher, Hebbel says: "Every genuine work of art is a mysterious symbol with many meanings, to a certain degree incomprehensible." Juno, then, is first the mythical personification of the historical power of Carthage, and in this role she causes the storm at sea and the shipwrecked landing on Carthaginian soil. It is most significant that her passionate hatred really stems from love. The Aeneid has been called the "epic of grief." It could as well be called the "epic of love," for its deepest tragedy is that its people "loved too much." This is true of Euryalus, of whom the poet says (IX.430): "Infelicem nimium dilexit amicum"; it is just as true of Juno, Venus, Turnus, Dido, and Latinus (XII.29: Victus amore tui … vincla omnia rupi), and of Amata, Laocoön, and Evander. Love is the motivating force in all that Aeneas does. Even the fall of the monster Mezentius is transfigured by grief over the death of his son Lausus in what is basically a suicide for love.
On the human level Aeneas, as the personification of things Roman, meets this very real blow of fate with the firm resolve to strive on through all dangers (I. 204 ff.), while on the divine level Jupiter reveals the solution of the conflict to Venus:
She (Juno) will change her plans for the better and together with me she will protect the Romans, the masters of the world, the people in the toga …
Consilia in melius referet mecumque fovebit
Romanos rerum dominos gentemque togatam.
As the action is in the highest sense carried out between Jupiter and Juno, the first unit of the Aeneid is framed by the appearances of the two major divinities. The composition is expression of a fact, the balance of scenes is image and symbol of an equivalence of forces. Human action is embedded in divine action, not only as an artistic means but also as a statement of fact. To understand this is to hold one of the keys to the secret of classical composition. Besides being subject to the autonomous law of beauty, the form is founded on the subject itself, which through its organization in clear antitheses appears in its very essence. "Formal perfection is just another aspect of mental penetration" (Ernst Robert Curtius).
The contrast between Jupiter's quiet serenity (I.255) and Juno's angry passion underscores the inner tension of the poem. The passion-consumed goddess is confronted by Vergil's sublime Jupiter, the majestic master of the world, enthroned above suffering and passion. This aspect of highest divinity becomes even more evident in the verses preceding Jupiter's decision in the quarrel between the two goddesses:
But then the Father Almighty, who holds first authority over the world, began to speak; and as he spoke, the gods' high hall fell silent, the earth deep down was set trembling, the steep sky was soundless, and then too the west winds sank and the ocean hushed its surface.
Tum pater omnipotens, rerum cui prima potestas,
Infit, eo dicente deum domus alta silescit
Et tremefacta solo tellus, silet arduus aether,
Tum Zephyri posuere, premit placida aequora pontus.
Heaven and earth, the winds, and the sea are silent; the wild forces of nature, all elements bow to him. Compared to the other gods he represents not only a higher power but a higher level of existence. And in this he differs from the Homeric Zeus. Zeus is stronger than the other gods, Jupiter more sublime. We do not see Jupiter shaking the universe with his scowl as Zeus does, but as imposing reverence on it. (Only at the close of the scene is the famous verse from the Iliad imitated: X.115; also IX. 106.)
In Jupiter is most clearly manifest the divine power that binds the demonic forces and the basic strength of Latinity, serenitas—which includes in one untranslatable word, mental clarity, cheerfulness of soul, and the light of the southern sky. From the image of the Vergilian Jupiter the concept of serenitas has remained alive in the intellectual history of the successor states of the Roman Empire into our own time; for example, in the words with which Romain Rolland late in life described the human task: "la liberté de l'esprit qui sereine l'anarchie chaotique du coeur. "
Vergil's Jupiter is the symbol of what Rome as an idea embodied. While Juno as the divine symbol of the demonic forces of violence and destruction does not hesitate to call up the spirits of the nether world: " 'Fleetere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo, " Jupiter is the organizing power that restrains those forces. Thus, on a deeper level, the contrast between the two highest divinities is symbolic of the ambivalence in history and human nature. It is a symbol, too, of the struggle between light and darkness, mind and emotion, order and chaos, which incessantly pervades the cosmos, the soul, and politics. A spiritual path leads from this level of contrast directly to the historical concepts of the Christian Middle Ages as stated by St. Augustine.
The struggle and final victory of order—this subduing of the demonic which is the basic theme of the poem, appears and reappears in many variations. The demonic appears in history as civil or foreign war, in the soul as passion, and in nature as death and destruction. Jupiter, Aeneas, and Augustus are its conquerors, while Juno, Dido, Turnus, and Antony are its conquered representatives. The contrast between Jupiter's powerful composure and Juno's confused passion reappears in the contrast between Aeneas and Dido and between Aeneas and Turnus. The Roman god, the Roman hero, and the Roman emperor are incarnations of the same idea.
Therefore, as the result of inner necessity, Jupiter, in the concluding speech of the initial sequence of scenes, announces that the idea of Augustus' pax Romana rests upon the conquest of furor impius. At this strongly emphatic place the basic idea of the whole poem becomes visible in a symbolic picture:
And the terrible iron-constricted Gates of War shall shut; and safe within them shall stay the godless and ghastly Lust of Blood, propped on his pitiless piled armoury, and still roaring from gory mouth, but held fast by a hundred chains of bronze knotted behind his back.
Claudentur Belli portae. Furor impius intus,
Saeva sedens super arma et centum vinctus aenis
Post tergum nodis frémit horridus ore cruento.
This is the best example in the Aeneid of a symbol which condenses a historic event into a single image. This image, still trembling with the bloody events of the civil wars, climaxes and ends the speech of the god, thus channeling the wild motions of human life into the quiet order of the divine fata. After the "altae moenia Romae" which significantly concludes the proem and the "tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem" which ends the section beginning with "musa mihi causas memora, " a view opens for the third time on the real object of the poem—the destiny of Rome. Moreover, the symbolic meaning of Roman history reveals itself here as a divinely inspired order—the result of hard fighting and bitter suffering.
Jupiter and Juno surround the storm at sea and into this larger frame is fitted the smaller one of Aeolus and Neptune. The contrast between Aeolus' ominous calm and Neptune's buoyant ocean voyage corresponds to that of Juno's uncontrolled temper and Jupiter's serenity. The wind-king reins his wild forces with the hand of a Roman master—a gesture without parallel in Homer:
But Aeolus, the king who rules them, confines them in their prison, disciplined and curbed. They race from door to bolted door, and all the mountain reverberates with the noise of their resentment. But Aeolus, throned securely above them, sceptre in hand tempers their arrogance and controls their fury.
Hic vasto res Aeolus antro
Luctantis ventos tempestatesque sonoras
Imperio premit ac vinclis et carcere frenat.
Illi indignantes magno cum murmure montis
Circum claustra fremunt, celsa sedet Aeolus arce
Sceptra tenens mollitque animos et tempérât iras.
Here, political history may be sensed in the nature myth. The relation of Aeolus' mastery of the winds to Augustus' conquest of furor impius is easily seen. And it becomes even clearer in the Neptune scene.
The sea god, great Neptune, both in his actions and appearance of contained power, in allaying the raging storm is like Jupiter, a contradiction of brute force. Moreover, the taming itself, in a simile emphasized by being the first in the poem and not taken from Homer, is compared to a political act:
It had been like a sudden riot in some great assembly, when, as they will, the meaner folk forget themselves and grow violent, so that firebrands and stones are soon flying, for savage passion quickly finds weapons. But then they may chance to see some man whose character and record command their respect. If so, they will wait in silence, listening keenly. He will speak to them, calming their passions and guiding their energies. So, now, all the uproar of the ocean subsided.
Ac veluti magno in populo cum saepe coorta est
Seditio saevitque animis ignobile volgus
Iamque faces et saxa volant, furor arma ministrat,
Tum pietate gravem ac mentis si forte virum quem
Conspexere, silent arrectisque auribus adstant,
Ille regit dictis animos et pectora mulcet:
Sic cunctus pelagi cecidit fragor.
The above has been interpreted as alluding to a political event of the year 54 B.C., when in a similar manner Cato calmed the raging populace (Plutarch, Cato Minor) [R. S. Conway, "Poesia ed impero," Conference Virgiliane, 1931]. Such an allusion is not impossible. The republican Cato was the ideal Roman in Vergil's eyes and appears as such on Aeneas' shield in contrast to Catiline, who is shown doing penance for his crime (VIII.760).
Sallust had already idealized Cato by introducing him in his Coniuratio Catilinae as the incarnation of the principles of Roman grandeur and probably had conceived of the Cato-Catiline contrast as a simile of the conflict (seen in the Aeneid between Octavian and Antony. There is also an ideal image of Cato in Horace's Roman ode, Iustum et tenacem propositi virum. The heralds of the Augustan renaissance, Sallust and Cicero (especially in his lost Cato), and the poets of the renaissance, Vergil and Horace, each in his own way pays homage to the most uncompromising representative of the Roman mind and attitude. For the Augustan Age, too, Cato embodied the ideal of a true Roman—which is indicative of the spirit of reconciliation toward Caesar's opponents and of the seriousness of the intent to restore the Republic.
However, for the very reason that I am willing to accept the possibility of a connection between an event in the political career of Cato Uticensis and the first simile of the Aeneid, I must emphatically declare that it means very little. Even to Sallust, disciple of Thucydides, Cato was no more than an ideal type of Roman statesman, just as the conspiracy of Catiline was no more than a symptom of Rome's decay. The poet's mind, then, is not intent upon Cato nor on any historical individual, but definitely on the idea that the individual personifies—in this case, the idea of the statesman whose authority dominates the crowd. He gives to the idea the form of a poetic symbol—of transfigured reality.
The champions of the allegorical interpretation of the Aeneid obscure the fact that equations purporting to bal ance historic and poetic personalities are not only unverifiable but are a priori false—at least as postulated. The mistake is in confusing symbol and Allegorie: a symbol may exist even without reference to what takes shape within it, while the Allegorie exists only through that reference. [Translator's note: There is no English counterpart for the German Allegorie, which by definition admits of only one meaning, something in the nature of a large parable.] The symbol permits, even demands, more than one interpretation, the Allegorie allows only one. The nobility and style of the Aeneid exclude the Allegorie that can be completely unlocked with a political or historical key. To resolve the heroic epic into Allegorie, then, is to misunderstand both its validity as an ideal and its artistic character. Its scenes may from time to time recall or point symbolically to real events and persons, as with Cato or the monster Cacus (VIII. 185 ff.), whose actions, as Conway believes, perhaps unveil the atrocities of Antony's proscriptions.
The true relation between these scenes and historic fact is more mysterious and less simple. The metamorphosis takes place on a higher plane. Historic events and the poet's inner experience are stripped of everything accidental and actual. They are removed from time and transported into the large and distant land of Myth. There, on a higher plane of life, they are developed in symbolic and poetic shapes having a right to an existence of their own. The fact, therefore, that the subjection of the storm is described in a simile for a moment highlighting a very important sphere of the poem (namely that of the historical world) is more decisive than a possible allusion to the younger Cato. In the princeps rei publicae, where Cato calms the riotous populace, we meet political reality in a situation representing the defeated antithesis of Augustan order. Then, the historical background of the mythical events becomes momentarily visible.
The idea of regulation is expressed five times in the first sequences of scenes in the Aeneid: where Aeolus holds the winds in subjection, where Neptune calms them, in Aeneas' reaction to fortune's blow, where Augustus chains Furor impius in Jupiter's prophecy, and finally in the power of the god himself, who firmly controls the fata. To find no more than commonplace Roman metaphors in the Roman gesture of Aeolus and in the simile of Neptune and the princeps rei publicae is to destroy the poem's unity of form and content as well as to fail to understand that it has a deeper unity than is commonly assumed. In the Neptune episode, for example, a natural event explained by means of a political event serves to show that nature is a symbol of political organization. The connecting simile becomes an expression of the symbolic relation between nature and politics, myth and history, which is at the heart of the Aeneid. As in the Georgics the relation between the two orders is not only a matter of poetical metaphors but of ontological realities. Jupiter, the master of the world, controls them both. Their unity finds its most sublime expression in the religious and philosophic revelation in the sixth book.
It is more, then, than hyperbolic expression that Augustus sets the limits of empire with the ocean and those of his glory with the stars. Cosmic infinity is united with the majesty of imperium Romanum. The conviction that Roman order is founded in the same divine whole from which it derives its grandeur is important to the Augustan view of the world. It is also basic to the interpretation of the Roman res publica in Cicero's de Republica. Vergil adheres to Cicero's philosophical views. He accepts the Platonic idea of the unity of Cosmos and Politeia from which came the Ciceronian idea of the unity of world order and true res Romana. He combined this with the Homeric belief that the unity of nature is incorporated in the human world. He thus created a new synthesis—the Augustan idea of Rome.
Even where it involves natural phenomena, the myth of Aeneas is a metaphor of Roman history and its Augustan fulfillment. But it does not stop there. The Aeneid is a poem of humanity, not a political manifesto. In it, myth and history acquire meaning and grandeur as expression of a higher level, the realization of a divine order, the symbol of the cosmic law of destiny revealed in the existence of the world of man. There are three levels of reality: (1) Cosmos, the sphere of divine order, the world of ideas and law; (2) Myth, the heroic world of poetic persons and destiny; (3) History, the world of historical and political phenomena. These are inlaid, one with another, and at the same time they are stratified. Myth, as the poetic intersymbol, partakes of both the upper and lower strata. In one direction it incorporates Roman history, and in the other, the eternally valid laws of the universe. Likewise, the tragedy in the Aeneid is a symbol not only of the tragedy in Roman history, but in human life as well. Indeed, it is a symbol of the tragedy in all nature and is found in its most sublime expression in the Georgics. Alone, neither of these interpretations would do justice to the poetic depth of the Aeneid. Vergil's epic must always be approached with both references, cosmic and Roman, human and historical, in mind. Each is justified and necessary, but only together do they make possible an understanding of the whole.
Here, then, is our result: the initial sequences of scenes in the Aeneid contain in essence all forces which constitute the whole. The opening storm is a wave breaking against Roman destiny. Many waves will follow and Augustus will subdue them all, thus limiting the Imperium with the ocean and its glory with the stars. The demand made by Goethe upon the drama, that each scene must symbolically represent the whole, is fulfilled in the exposition of the Vergilian epic in an ideal manner.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5075
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 indebted to Homer, so the achievements of the two later poets would have been impossible without the influence of the Roman poet. Vergil's pre-eminence was realized almost as soon as he began work on the Aeneid; the poet Propertius wrote: "Something greater than the Iliad is being born." A century after his death, as we learn from Martial, expensive parchment editions of the epic were being produced as Saturnalia presents in late December; this was long before the Romans adopted Christianity, but it was a season of good will and a time for exchanging gifts.
Throughout the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, Vergil was viewed as a source of all knowledge, as a teacher, a prophet, and even a magician. Many of the medieval stories about his magical powers are fascinating and fantastic but, of course, they bear no relation to the true facts of his life. The real Vergil and his work emerge again with Dante, who loved him not only as a poet but as the one who had, in his "Messianic Eclogue" ["Eclogue 4"], bridged the gap between paganism and Christianity; hence it was Vergil whom Dante chose as his guide through Hell and Purgatory. To Tennyson, Vergil was the "wielder of the stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man" [quoted by G. Highet in The Classical Tradition, 1949], and T. S. Eliot [in his What Is a Classic?, 1945], calls him "the classic of all Europe." We should, I think, include the Americas and say that he is "the classic of the western world."
The number of editions, books, and articles published each year on Vergil's poetry is amazingly large. In recent years I have had the pleasant, if somewhat laborious, task of preparing for the Classical World two rather lengthy surveys of Vergilian bibliography ["Recent Work on Virgil (1940–1956)," C. W. 51, 1957–58, "Recent Work on Virgil (1957–1963)," C. W. 57, 1963–64]. I chose 1940 as my starting point because in that year an Italian scholar named Mambelli published a two-volume bibliography of Vergil from 1900 on, and he listed almost 4,000 items—an average of 100 a year [G. Mambelli, Gli studi virgiliani nel secolo XX: Contributo ad una bibliografia generale, 1940]. This average has continued from 1940 to the present, as I discovered, somewhat unhappily, when I compiled my two bibliographical surveys.
How can we account for this tremendous output of new studies on the poetry of Vergil? One reason, I believe, is that he differed so strikingly from all previous poets and in every aspect of his work created something new. The extent to which this statement is true has been revealed only in recent decades. Earlier scholars were inclined to stress his borrowings from his predecessors, especially Homer, and we cannot deny that he made use of all earlier poetry, both Greek and Roman. We find many deliberate echoes of Ennius, Lucretius, and Catullus. Another great source of the Aeneid is Greek tragedy, Euripides in particular, and there seems a strong probability that the range of his source material extended even to India, to the famous Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata.
Today, however, thanks to the efforts of many twentieth-century scholars, we have a much clearer conception of Vergil's originality and the magnitude of his poetic achievement; in spite of his use of older material, the Aeneid is thoroughly Roman and thoroughly Vergilian, and it is new—new in content, in style, in poetic imagery, in use of language and meter, in its over-all structure. I shall examine briefly these various aspects of the poem.
Vergil is unlike any earlier poet, for he has produced a new kind of epic, with "a new vision of human nature and of heroic virtue" [C. M. Bowra, From Virgil to Milton, 1948]; it is a truly national epic, but it includes not only history (past, present, and future) but philosophy and religion as well. The characters are portrayed as individuals but they are also symbols and represent something outside of themselves and larger than themselves. As Pöschl says [The Art of Vergil: Image and Symbol in the Aeneid, translated by G. Seligson, 1962], "in Vergil the symbolic character of poetry is revealed with a clarity previously unknown in the history of Western poetic art." In his recent and valuable book on Vergil, [Brooks] Otis attempts to explain how it was possible that "Virgil did what no one else had done before him and no one was able to do after him"; he was "the first and only poet truly to recreate the heroic-age epic in an urban civilization"; of all epic poetry "only the Aeneid aspired to be both heroic and civilized, both remote and contemporary, both Homeric and Augustan" [Virgil. A Study in Civilized Poetry, 1963].
Vergil's style is new; Otis calls it "subjective" as opposed to the more narrative, objective style of Homer and Apollonius; by "subjective" he means both the manner in which Vergil shares the emotions of his characters (empathy) and presents his own personal reaction to their emotions (sympathy). Otis writes: "Virgil not only reads the minds of his characters; he constantly communicates to us his own reactions to them and to their behaviour." This "empathetic-sympathetic style" makes possible both a continuous psychological narrative and the symbolic structure of the poem.
Vergil's poetic imagery differs from that of his predecessors; he takes over numerous similes from Homer and Apollonius, but he gives them another meaning and a new beauty. The similes are closely related to the inner struggles of the characters and often serve to forecast the fate in store for each. In IV, 441–46, we have the simile of the oak tree shakened by the northern winds; its leaves fall but it remains firm, its roots fast in the rocks; likewise Aeneas is buffeted by the entreaties of Anna, but (449):
mens immota manet, lacrimae volvuntur inanes.
His resolve remains fixed, tears fall in vain.
Contrary to the statements in most commentaries on this passage, the tears here are those of Aeneas, for the simile expresses the inner conflict between his determination to depart and his love for Dido. The comparison of Dido to a deer wounded by a shepherd (IV, 68–73) and that of Turnus to a wounded lion (XII, 4–9) not only reveal the state of mind of the two characters but provide a symbolic announcement of their later deaths.
Vergil is painstaking in his use of language; each verse, each phrase, each word is significant, and the full meaning may come only with the second or third reading, and often there may be more than one meaning. The repetitions and echoes of words and phrases from earlier contexts serve to evoke symbolic associations. Alliteration had been a characteristic of Roman poetry from its very beginning, but Vergil is "the great master" of alliteration and expressiveness [L. P. Wilkinson, Golden Latin Artistry, 1963]; cf. I, 55 f. and 124:
illi indignantes mango cum murmure montis
circum claustra fremunt;
interea magno misceri murmure pontum
Angry, they loudly protest against their confinement,
The hill that lies over them.
The sea roaring loudly in wild confusion.
In translation most of the original beauty is lost, and especially the effectiveness of the m-sounds. When the two serpents are described as coming from Tenedos to destroy Laocoon and his sons, the words hiss with sibilants, both initial and medial; cf. II, 207 ff.: sanguineae superant undas, sinuatque immensa, sonitus spumante salo, ardentisque oculos suffecti sanguine.
Vergil's meter often expresses the meaning of the sentence; the two most famous examples are undoubtedly VIII, 596, in which the horses gallop across the plain:
and VIII, 452, where the many spondees reproduce the sound of the Cyclopes working at their anvils:
The meter varies also in groups of lines and in episodes and speeches of considerable length. Vergil's most frequent combination of dactyls and spondees in the first four feet is dsss; this comprises about fourteen per cent of the Aeneid as a whole. The pattern occurs much more frequently, twenty to thirty per cent, in narrative episodes, such as battle descriptions, and especially in scenes of the gods and in passages dealing with Roman history and Augustus. In all such scenes a solemn and majestic rhythm is most appropriate. On the other hand, in the more dramatic and emotional episodes, those which best illustrate the new subjective style, the frequency of dsss varies usually from three to eight per cent, far below the normal occurrence of this pattern. Meter, style, and subject matter thus go hand in hand. Another metrical innovation which we find in Vergil is a definite striving for variety. The eight most frequent patterns, out of a possible sixteen, had appeared in Lucretius 79.81 per cent of the total verses, and in Catullus LXIV, the Peleus and Thetis poem, the frequency was even higher, 90.98 per cent. Vergil reduced the frequency of his first eight patterns in the Aeneid to 72.78 per cent.
The Aeneid is one of the most consciously planned and carefully constructed poems of world literature. Its architecture is most unusual; we find not merely one structural pattern but at least three.
First, there is an alternation of the books, those with even numbers being of a more serious and tragic nature than those with odd numbers, which are lighter and serve to relieve tension. The famous books which stand out in the reader's memory are even-numbered: II, the fall of Troy; IV, the tragedy of Dido; VI, the trip to the underworld; VIII, Aeneas' visit to Evander and the site of Rome; X, the great battle, with the deaths of Pallas, Lausus, and Mezentius; and XII, the final conflict and the death of Turnus. Vergil has stressed the significance of these books by means of the alternating rhythm.
The Aeneid is divided into two halves, I–VI, often called the "Odyssean" half of wanderings, and VII–XII, the "Iliadic" half of battles after Aeneas and the Trojans arrive in Italy. Vergil himself looks upon the second half as a maior rerum ordo, a maius opus. (VII, 44 f.). The second architectural pattern is the parallelism, by similarity and contrast, between the books in each half, I and VII, II and VIII, III and IX, etc. For instance, in both I and VII the Trojans arrive in a strange land and are welcomed after a speech by the Trojan Ilioneus; in each the goddess Juno laments her lack of power and stirs up trouble for the Trojans with divine or infernal assistance—in I, the storm at sea, and in VII, the war in Latium.
Vergil combines with the alternation of the books and their division into two corresponding halves a third and most important architectonic device—a tripartite division of the epic into three groups of four books each. The Aeneid gives not only the story of Trojan Aeneas but also the history of Rome and its destiny under Augustus. This latter provides much of the central core of the poem (V–VIII) and concludes with the victory of Augustus at Actium and his triumphs, described on the shield at the end of VIII. The Aeneid is thus a trilogy with the first four books, the trag edy of Dido, and the last four books, the tragedy of Turnus, enclosing and emphasizing the story of Rome and Augustus in the very center of the epic. This division of the poem into three parts is undoubtedly a deliberate attempt on Vergil's part to avoid too sharp a break into an "Odyssey" of wanderings and an "Iliad" of battles.
I have discussed the structure of the Aeneid in some details as it leads directly to my main theme—the "old" and the "new" in the Aeneid itself.
Of the even-numbered books the best known and best beloved is undoubtedly IV, which portrays the tragic love and suicide of Queen Dido of Carthage. Book VI is considered "the keystone of the whole poem," the "crowning Book, which Vergil has placed in the centre, to unite all that stand before it and all that stand after" [R. S. Conway, Harvard Lectures on the Vergilian Age, 1928]; it tells how Aeneas, accompanied by the Sibyl and with the aid of the Golden Bough, traverses both a "mythological" and a "philosophical" underworld, gains from his father Anchises an understanding of life and death, and learns of the future destiny of Rome; this book has recently been called [by C. P. Segal, Arion, 5 (1966)] "perhaps the most complex and poet ically rich book of the poem." On the other hand, Mackail says that Book XII, the final conflict of Aeneas and Turnus, "reaches an even higher point of artistic achievement and marks the utmost of what poetry can do, in its dramatic value, its masterly construction, and its faultless diction and rhythm" [J. W. Mackail, "The Aeneid as a Work of Art," Classical Journal 26 (1930–31)].
Two other books, likewise even-numbered and therefore of major significance, perhaps best present the basic theme of the Aeneid; these are II, the destruction of Troy, the end of the "old" city, and VIII, the rise of the "new" city, containing the description of early Rome and the scenes of Roman history on the shield. Vergil himself summarizes the two halves of the poem and its purpose in the opening verses (I, 1–7):
arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam fato profugus Lavinaque venit
litora—multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum, saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram,
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem
inferretque deos Latio—genus unde Latinum
Albanique patres atque altae moenia Romae.
I sing of arms and the man who first from Troy's shores,
Fate's fugitive, came to Italy and Lavinium's
Coast, a man much tossed on land and sea
By the gods' force, through Juno's mindful fury;
He suffered greatly in war until he could found
A city and bring his gods to Latium, whence
The Latins would spring, the Alban fathers, and Rome
With its lofty walls.
The phrase, "to found a city and bring his gods to Latium," stresses both the political and the religious nature of the poem; Vergil adds in line 33:
Thus it is that Bowra considers the fundamental theme of the epic to be "the destiny of Rome" as "presented in the person of Aeneas who not only struggles and suffers for the Rome that is to be but is already a typical Roman." The miracle of the Aeneid is said to be Vergil's ability to treat three different topics simultaneously—the legendary narrative of Aeneas, themes and personages of Roman history, and the praise of Augustus. But, as I wrote some years ago ["Mathematical Symmetry in Vergil's Aeneid," T.A.P.A., 91 (1960)]:
The epic rises far above the patriotic and historical level in the poet's dramatic treatment of character and event and in his introduction of loftier themes of philosophy and religion; it is an epic not only of Rome but of human life as well.
Perhaps nowhere in the Aeneid are the basic themes of the poem displayed more clearly than in the two corresponding books, II and VIII. Each, like the other books of the epic, is divided into three main sections. In II we have (1) the stories of Sinon, Laocoon, and the wooden horse; (2) the return of the Greeks, the capture of Troy, and the death of Priam; and (3) the Aeneas-Venus episode, his return to his home, and the departure from Troy, with the loss of Creusa. In VIII (1) Aeneas leaves the camp of the Trojans and goes up the Tiber to Pallanteum, the site of later Rome, where he is welcomed by King Evander and his son Pallas; since a festival to Hercules is being celebrated, Evander describes the victory of Hercules over the monster Cacus; he then leads Aeneas through the town, pointing out spots destined to be famous later in the Roman city, and receives him in his humble abode; (2) that night Venus persuades Vulcan to provide Aeneas with armor, and early in the morning the god goes to his workshop where the Cyclopes make the armor as instructed; (3) after Evander's farewell to Pallas, the Trojans and their Arcadian allies set out for the Etruscan city of Caere and on the way Aeneas receives the armor from Venus; the book concludes with an account of the historical scenes on the shield. Such a brief summary, of course, fails to give an adequate conception of the power and richness of these two books or of Vergil's effective dramatic portrayal of Aeneas and the other characters.
In Books II and VIII, in addition to the fundamental contrast between the fall of the old city, characterized by darkness, despair, and death, and the rise of the new, accompanied by brightness, encouragement, and hope, other contrasts and similarities appear in abundance, as in the other pairs of corresponding books. For example, in II the Greeks destroy Troy and the Trojans suffer at their hands, but in VIII the Greeks help to found Rome and the Trojans benefit from their assistance; the helplessness of the aged Priam in II is contrasted with the helpfulness of the aged Evander in VIII, as is the splendor of Priam's palace with the simplicity of Evander's home on the Palatine. Venus as a goddess appears to Aeneas in each book, in II to convince him that the gods favor the destruction of Troy, in VIII to present to him the armor, and on the shield the gods fight for Augustus and Rome at Actium against the barbarian deities of Antony and Cleopatra. In II Anchises is persuaded to leave Troy by a double prodigy—fire around the head of Ascanius and a comet in the sky; likewise, on the shield in VIII, fire appears around the temples of Augustus and over his head is his father's star, the comet of Julius Caesar. At the end of II Aeneas carries on his shoulders his father—a symbol of the past, and at the end of VIII he raises to his shoulder the shield portraying important scenes of Roman history—symbolic of the future. Aeneas marvels at the beauty of the shield but he is rerum ignarus (730); he does not realize the meaning of the scenes, unlike Vergil's contemporaries.
I should like to add two more pairs of passages to the similarities and contrasts already listed; both seem valid and significant.
1. In II the coming of the two serpents from Tenedos and the death of Laocoon and his sons are symbolic announcements of the return of the Greeks and the destruction of Troy, and Hercules' victory over Cacus in VIII, wrongly considered by some an episode contributing little to the action of the poem, foreshadows the final victory of Aeneas over Turnus, a necessary step to the birth of Rome, and it also symbolizes the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra by Augustus and the advent of peace in Vergil's own day. Otis looks upon the Hercules-Cacus story as "an example of the conduct by which man can become divine and by which Hercules himself became the true predecessor of Aeneas, Romulus and Augustus."
2. In II Aeneas first receives his commission; Hector appears to him in a dream and urges him to flee with the Penates to a new home across the seas; cf. 289–90, 293–95:
Aeneas ignores his duty; overcome by furor and ira, he rushes into battle in a vain attempt to save the doomed city from the Greeks; cf. 316–17:
Aeneas receives instructions and information concerning the future on many other occasions, from both gods and mortals: from Venus and Creusa in II; from Apollo, the Penates, Celaeno, and Helenus in III; from Mercury in IV; from Nautes and Anchises in V; and from the Sibyl in VI. Anchises, meeting Aeneas in the underworld, points out the souls to be reborn as Roman kings and heroes, including Augustus who is destined to bring to Rome a new Golden Age, and also describes the war to be waged by Aeneas in Latium and the toils to be undergone; cf. VI, 890–92:
It is not until VIII 524–29, however, when Aeneas sees and hears the prodigy in the heavens—lightning, thunder, trumpet blasts, gleaming armor—that he realizes most fully that he is the divine man of Roman destiny. "I am summoned by Olympus" (ego poscor Olympo, 533), he cries, and he foresees with sorrow the deaths and sufferings in store for the Latins and for Turnus. The prodigium, signifying that he will receive divine armor and engage in war, brings to a close the long series of warnings and instructions which began with the words of Hector in II. This time Aeneas shows no hesitation and accepts willingly the difficult duties which lie ahead. It is thus in VIII that Aeneas becomes a truly religious hero, endowed with the spiritual energy necessary for his destined task.
One important feature of Book II is Vergil's emphasis on the bravery of the Trojans and Aeneas. They were the equal of the Greeks in battle, and it was only by trickery and the will of the gods that they were defeated; cf. 195—98:
and the words of Venus in 601–3:
non tibi Tyndaridis facies invisa Lacaenae
culpatusve Paris, divum inclementia, divum,
has evertit opes sternitque a culmine Troiam.
Do not blame the hated beauty of Helen, nor Paris:
The merciless gods, the gods, are the ones who have toppled
The power of Troy and levelled it with the earth.
The Trojans and Aeneas must appear as worthy ancestors of the Romans. Aeneas therefore ignores the instructions of Hector and rushes blindly with his companions to the defense of the city. Father Sullivan says [in "The Spiritual Itinerary of Virgil's Aeneas," A.J.P., 80 (1959)]:
His pietas towards the gods seems eclipsed by furor, his pietas towards his family is forgotten, and only for his patria, now doomed and in flames, does he show any thought…. Blind furor must give way to a new faith, despair to a new hope before he can become a vessel of election for the great task ahead.
It is in VI and finally in VIII that Aeneas gains the faith and hope which carry him through the difficult days of the fighting in the latter portion of the epic.
I return now to Book VIII, which is perhaps less familiar than II to many lovers of Vergil. After the cruel death of Priam and the destruction of Troy, it comes somewhat as a surprise to find Greeks and Trojans joining in a treaty of friendship. The Sibyl, however, in her pessimistic and enigmatic prophecy, had said (VI, 96–97):
There are several reasons for the union of the Arcadian Greeks of Pallanteum and the Trojans, as we learn from the speeches of Aeneas (127–51) and Evander (154–74): the two peoples have a common ancestry from Atlas and they have a common enemy, the Rutulians; they are bound by guest friendship, for Priam and Anchises had once visited Arcadia and Anchises had presented gifts to Evander, then a mere youth. Furthermore, Evander and the Arcadians, like Aeneas and the Trojans, were exiles from their home and had been led to Italy by Fate and Apollo (cf. 333–36).
It was a stroke of genius on the part of Vergil to have Aeneas leave the Trojan camp and visit Evander at the site of Rome. The values of the Evander episode and its effects on the latter part of the Aeneid are numerous and far-reaching, and may be enumerated briefly as follows:
1. Structurally, Aeneas' absence from the Trojan camp, like Achilles' refusal to fight in the Iliad, gives the enemy an opportunity to play a leading role; this results in the activity of Turnus in Book IX and the fight within the Trojan camp. Aeneas' absence likewise gives Ascanius a chance to display qualities of leadership and provides motivation for the ill-fated night expedition of Nisus and Euryalus.
2. The numerous leaders and warriors catalogued in VII, 641–817, join the Latins and Rutulians; the Trojans, unless they are to be hopelessly outnumbered, are in desperate need of allies, and Evander not only provides Greek warriors but sends him to the leaderless Etruscans who will add thousands of fighters to the Trojan side. The war now ceases to be a local skirmish and becomes a major conflict involving all of central and northern Italy, even beyond the river Po, as far north as Mantua, Vergil's birthplace (cf. X, 198–206). The fact that Vergil has given Greek ancestry and Greek connections to so many warriors in the catalogue in VII tends to make the ensuing conflict almost a continuation on Italian soil of the Greco-Trojan War.
3. Pallas, Evander's youthful son, who accompanies Aeneas into battle, is a key figure in the later action; Turnus' insolent words and actions when he slays Pallas in X (cf. iussa superba, 445; superbum caede nova, 514 f.) are directly responsible for his own death at the end of XII; Aeneas was about to spare Turnus when he saw the sword-belt of Pallas and cried out (947–49):
4. Aeneas' visit to Evander explains the presence of a Greek cult in Roman religion—the cult of Hercules at the ara maxima in the Forum Boarium; this religious rite goes back to early times, before the foundation of Rome. Evander explains the cult as the result of their gratitude to Hercules for destroying Cacus.
5. The union of Greek and Trojan forces in VIII symbolizes the later incorporation of Greek influences in the Roman State. The culture of Vergil's day was as much Greek as Roman. Likewise, the influence of the Etruscans on Roman architecture, government, and religion had been far from inconsiderable, and this too is symbolized by the union of Trojan and Etruscan forces in the Aeneid.
6. Aeneas' visit to the site of Rome provides a strong patriotic and antiquarian interest. One always wishes to know about the early days of one's home town or home city. Less than a hundred years ago the present Lincoln Center in New York City was farmland, from which people moved into the city, as it was too far away for commuting; the Public Library at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street was a goat pasture. Romans of Vergil's day likewise would be fascinated by the description of the Forum as a cow pasture, and of the Capitoline as merely a grove where the presence of a god, perhaps Jupiter, was felt. The contrast between this early period and the splendor of the city in the time of Augustus would make a strong appeal to the pride of Vergil's readers.
Aeneas visits the very heart of Rome, the Capitoline, Forum, and Palatine—the religious, political, business, and residential centers of the later city. But Vergil not only describes an imaginary primitive settlement of the past; at the same time he recalls the topographical present, certain monuments erected in his own day: porta Carmentalis (338) was adjacent to the later temple of Apollo, and both the temple and the Lupercal (343) had been restored by Augustus; the grove of Argiletum (345) suggests the Basilica Aemilia and the Curia, both completed by Augustus, and perhaps also the Gates of Janus nearby, which the princeps had closed after so long a period of civil conflict (cf. I, 293–96); the description of the Capitoline and the presence of Jupiter is probably a reference, not to the great temple of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, but to a smaller temple on the Capitoline to Jupiter Tonans, dedicated by Augustus in 22 B.C.
However, in spite of these possible allusions to his own day, Vergil actually presents the setting, the "empty stage," for the later history of the city. For the events to take place on this historic site, we turn to the scenes on the shield of Aeneas at the end of the book, beginning with Romulus and Remus and ending with Augustus. The scenes include the rape of the Sabine women and the later union of Sabines and Latins; the punishment of Mettus for his treachery; the fight with the Etruscans and Horatius at the bridge; Manlius defending the Capitoline against the Gauls; Catiline and Cato; and in the center of the shield (in media, 675), Augustus' victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium and his triple triumph.
Many have asked why Vergil chose these particular scenes. What is their underlying unity, if any? The poet himself describes the shield in 626, 628–29 as containing:
[In his Aeneas at the Site of Rome (1918), W. W. Fowler] suggests that the scenes are all "escapes from terrible perils," and Otis considers the main theme of the shield to be "the constant opposition of virtus, consilium and pietas to the forces of violence in all Roman history." I prefer to find the unity of the shield elsewhere. The events described from early Roman history all took place in or near Rome itself, and, after the battle of Actium (675–713), we return to Rome for the triumphs of Augustus and the survey of the conquered nations (714–28). We thus have in VIII a dramatic progression from Evander's primitive settlement, the empty stage, to the shield on which the events to take place at Rome are described, those both of its early history and of Vergil's own day. This completes the rise of the new city in VIII and balances the fall of the old in II. Aeneas lifts to his shoulder a picture of Rome's history and Rome's destiny.
Book II, the destruction of Troy, is one of the great books of the Aeneid, but structurally it does not have the significance of VIII, the final book of the central third of the poem. In this respect, VIII is to be compared with IV, the Dido book, and XII, the Turnus book. Each is the conclusion of one section of the trilogy, and the central, more Roman and Augustan portion, reaches a fitting climax in the picture of Rome, its early history, and the battle of Actium which makes possible the Augustan Age—the return of the aurea saecula.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7078
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, humour, or even animal spirits…. " Graves' performance, long awaited as the most spectacular clash of humors in a generation, was really rather tame, if not conventional. Most students of Virgil had heard that litany before, based as it is on the almost cliché image of the poet in the modern era, a shaggy rebel touchy to the point of oaths or tears at society's supposed attempts either to curb or ignore his personal feelings. How very different Virgil's role as a court poet, living on state funds and writing, on commission from Caesar Augustus, an epic poem that was not about the feelings of anybody in particular, but the destiny of a supra-national empire. The case against Virgil is just too simple: a toady, a propagandist, a man afraid of conflict and direct statement. That of course is the trouble: the case is too easy, simply because a 15-year-old could make it. After reading Graves once, I found myself wondering what Virgil might have to say, if he were elected Oxford Professor of Poetry, about our modern poets (and critics). One thing I am sure he would stress is the deplorable political naivete of poets who seldom seem to know the first thing about politics, and rarely have exercised their "stubborn imaginative freedom" to explore the inner nature of institutions and the complex fate of men who are called upon to manage them.
There is nothing wrong with the literature of personal experience and the feelings; that indeed is what most literature has always concerned itself with. And it is difficult for a writer to come to grips imaginatively with the political element in life. Finally, institutions may well be both corrupt and corrupting. But none of these considerations proves a priori that literature cannot tackle a political subject, or that it cannot be successful, which is to say convincing to the reader, in doing so. And the task Virgil set for himself in the Aeneid was to write literature about institutions and the political vocation. He did not try to write imitation Homeric epic, or second-rate Apollonian romance, or philosophical cryptograms based on Stoic matter in Lucretian forms. Whatever Augustus was expecting from Virgil, one thing he certainly did not get was a patriotic hymn of praise for Rome, nor indeed is Rome the specific subject of the poem. Much less did he get simple propaganda favoring his own regime. The essential subject of the Aeneid is the "education" of a political leader.
As we shall see presently in greater detail, the most persuasive boast Roman culture could make was that it had objectified and codified the conditions of creating political leadership, which gave it title to rule the world. That being the claim, Virgil determined to produce in full detail a dry-eyed study of how that process occurs, using the persona of Rome's legendary founder, the Trojan hero Aeneas. Virgil's first insight was relatively simple, if hard for emotional people to absorb: that a politician, normally, is neither a gangster nor a hero, but a frequently puzzled player of a fiendishly complicated game most of the rules of which change by the hour. A typical politician may find this fascinating or heartening, but to others a politician at work must seem a dull fellow, because most of his "adventures" are infinitesimal mental acts of deduction, appraisal and equivocation, seldom even verbalized, or not candidly so. The knowing or threatening look, the muffled conversation, the equivocal speech are perhaps the politician's most typical outward expressions of his feelings and functions, hardly comparable to the sweeping gestures or lofty oratory of an epic hero. In Homer, especially in the Iliad, heroism is for the human characters; politics is for the gods. Though the heroes have technical political roles as chiefs and kings, they seldom remember to fulfill them—except perhaps Agamemnon, who fills his incompetently, as Thersites reminds everyone. Making a politician out of Aeneas, who began his "career" as a Homeric hero, required the displacement, if not the disappearance, of Aeneas' epic personality, because a politician has very little time for a private set of feelings. To state this perspective would not of course make Robert Graves any happier with Virgil, because Graves like so many others limits the focus of real poetry ("true poets") to the personal realm; but all one can say in reply is that Virgil understood much better than his detractors what kind of poetry he had chosen not to write and how and where the Aeneid had to differ from the poetry of personal life.
The Aeneid is a study of the preternatural strains and anxieties a political vocation brings to mere natural man, and the ultimate surd presented to us when we consider the problem of political leadership: is such a thing possible at all; can one be both a human being and a leader; and will it not turn out that the claims of nature and politics will be mutually contradictory? Poetry of the more usual pattern, with its involvement in the fate and aspirations of the individual, stands at a great distance from politics, whose concern is the fate of groups—and indirectly the fate of individuals who act as their agents—and Virgil understood this better than anyone else. Eventually, it may be, poetry with its "higher" morality must come to judge even politics. But the right word is eventually. Not too quickly or too rashly, as is usually the case. And Virgil understood this too.
One source of the impatience even subtle readers experience with Virgil and all Latin literature is a curious system of retreat and apology that threads its way through the works of most Roman writers. They all seem so terribly conscious of having come, collectively, upon Greek literary themes and forms late in the day, arrivistes blundering in upon a cultural dialogue that had been going on a long time without them, as though the subjects of discussion, though old in fact, are new to them. They also seem embarrassed and distinctly modest about any contribution they could possibly make to the discussion already well under way. The poet Horace in one poem stakes his claim to immortality on his ability to make the rude Latin language dance in Greek meters, a very modest claim indeed, and probably not even an honest one, but that is all he dares to say, because no one would believe anything more. Lucretius grumbles about the egestas, the poverty of Latin for discussions of philosophy, and claims to be doing no more than versifying the ideas of Epicurus (though that too is probably false). Sallust apologizes for the absence of respectable Roman historiography by arguing that in Rome men competent in public affairs took part in them rather than wrote about them, unlike Greece where, if anything, the political genius of a writer like Thucydides exceeded the magnitude of the events he had to write about. Even Ovid, though evidently troubled and annoyed by the cautious, imitative tone of his fellow writers, found no better means of asserting his own originality than by farcical imitation of the imitators. The most famous of these apologetic texts—or so it is usually interpreted—is the great prophecy of Anchises in Aeneid VI. In lines 847–853 Anchises (actually his ghost) foretells to Aeneas just which of the civilized arts it will be granted to Rome itself to practice, once Rome takes its ordained place on the world stage, and which must be conceded to subject peoples like the Greeks. The lines appear to acquiesce in a straight trade-off between Greek and Roman skills: let the Greeks (called simply, "the others") seek fame and excellence in the fine arts and the like, provided only that the Romans understand that their own fame will be secured through the exercise of the arts of legislation, politics and at least a modified form of imperial warfare:
excudent alii spirantia mollius aera
(credo equidem), vivos ducent de marmore vultus
orabunt causas melius, caelique meatus
describent radio et surgentia sidera dicent:
tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.
(Others, I dare say, will hammer out breathing bronzes more subtly, and draw living faces out of the marble; they will speak more eloquently, map the course of the heavens with instruments and predict the comings and goings of the stars. But you, a Roman, remember how to rule nations. These will be your arts: to enforce the habit of peace, to spare the conquered, but war down the proud.)
It is remarkable how much Virgil gives away here. I call attention to the phrases "breathing bronzes" (spirantia aera) and "living faces out of marble" (vivos … de marmore vultus). With more than a touch of the true artist's sadness he is admitting that by the turn of the fates the Greeks have been selectively and abundantly blessed with the ability to create an approximation of life from that which is naturally non-living (spirantia and vivos are key words here and much stronger than Virgil's usual metaphors), and that is the program and aspiration of all art, one may say.
This passage, as noted, is part of a pattern that frequently earns all of Latin literature the scorn of critics and scholars as a second-rate and "derivative" historical phenomenon. But this passage in particular has had a more specific, unbalancing effect on Virgil's individual reputation, because it has been used to call into question his respect for his own art, or even his attentiveness to what he was doing. Supposing it agreed that a Horace or a Sallust were but second-raters—at least they worked earnestly and believingly to the best of their ability. These lines have sometimes been taken to mean that Virgil had no stomach for his project, and it has even been thought that they amount to a moody, half-conscious resignation of the spirit from the whole enterprise. This interpretation is especially tempting to over-eager critics who read more than is there into the first half of the "bargain" conceding preeminence in the arts to the Greeks, and have seen much less than is there in the second half claiming political preeminence for the Romans. This in turn is intimately linked with the essential issue of what kind of poetry Virgil thought he was trying to write.
First of all, one may note that in the catalogue of Greek superiorities Virgil omits mention of poetry, his own medium. Yet poetry was obviously the supreme accomplishment of the Greeks. This omission can be given several explanations, all of them correct in their way. First, Virgil did not need to praise Greek poetry, since he was in the very act of imitating it, the highest form of praise. Second, and more important, no matter how humble one may feel, it would not do in the middle of a Latin poem to say too explicitly that the Greeks win all the prizes for poetry, too. It would simply jar the poetic frame too crudely, and the poem one was writing would perish in the saying of it. And third, though Virgil was in some ways a shy and self-critical man, I doubt he really failed to understand his own gifts. And surely he hoped by means of his own poem to render the case between Greek and Latin poetry not so entirely one-sided as it was before his coming.
But there is yet another way to explain this omission, and it brings us back to the opening question: what sort of poetry can one write about material that is, in the judgment of most people, so unpoetic so as to seem positively anti-poetic? And how is it to be made credible, given this very suspicion? Virgil's complex answer to this puzzle grows out of this passage. The first step is to admit that by and large, poetry and politics are antithetical and then to write poetry that portrays just why this is generally true.
Virgil says in the prophecy of Anchises that the Roman genius best expresses itself in the arts of politics. He also states, in effect, that politics is essentially alien to the whole realm of the arts. He omits any mention of poetry here because he realizes that he has undertaken an almost impossible task in the Aeneid, to celebrate and justify a political quest and a political event, and to do it within the rules of art itself, not those of politics. Having accepted responsibility for this hybrid enterprise, Virgil—if not the world's greatest poet then surely its most tactful poet—immediately understood that to intrude the quarrel between poetry and politics just here would be to spoil the effect and reduce the results to a conundrum about his own personal position on politics and the Augustan settlement. As we have seen, Virgil did not escape posterity's inquisition on this subject, though the questions have normally been posed with un-Virgilian crudity: Was Virgil sincere? Was he hostile to his political assignment? And so on. So put, they are simply beneath intellectual consideration because Virgil himself obviously understood them, found the means to escape the false dilemma they posed, and passed on to his real work. The real question for us is: How did Virgil so manage his efforts that he could speak truth about his theme, politics, without foisting on it the often irrelevant petulancies of the artist, and without at the same time letting the expediencies of the politician (Augustus, or the whole herd collectively) make him descend indecently to propaganda. It was at once a terrifying exercise in restraint and an extravagantly ambitious program.
In practical terms this program meant that Aeneas, who begins as just one more epic "hero," must be conducted by the poet through a series of brain washings until he has developed into something totally different, a political leader, who is no hero at all. This, however, will entail a progressive estrangement of the poet from the hero, a loss of contact between the increasingly political figure of Aeneas and the mechanisms easily available to a poet for assessing character and penetrating the psyche.
Politics is very difficult for literature to portray, for except at extreme moments of either heroism or tyranny it displays very little of the sharp features of individual personality, which are what literature wants to find in life. Politics usually takes a little from the personalities of many people, and not much from the personality of any one man. On the other hand, it gives very little scope to the personality of any one man, or offers little room for the development of the individual personality. I think Virgil grasped this frustating state of affairs very early on, yet determined grimly to follow its implications to the end. The Aeneid, as a result, is perhaps the one really success ful, though unappreciated, literary portrait of a politician's life and education.
Politics, sadly, is quite mute at its real center, the heart of the politician, the structure of his loves and cares. Literature, the carrier of fame and thus of historical approbation—at least as all poets believe—has rarely if ever solved the problem of handling quotidian politics with insight and conviction. If we look to Shakespeare we find that to make politics artistically tolerable he was forced to reduce it to mere crime (Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Richard III) or to gross quarrels over succession (Richard II, Hamlet, Lear)—the coup d'état in its various manifestations. These models are negative and suggest that politics can provide literature only with pathological material … which is largely true. Literature normally can only deal effectively with the boundary moments between regimes, the assassination, the coup—or with certain types of tyranny, because tyranny, as Tacitus made clear, treats all events as real or potential boundary moments. It is only when politics disguises itself as the individual concern of life-or-death that literature can normally get it in clear focus. Yet Virgil is probably the one clear exception to this rule: he really taught himself to understand politics in its standard operations, and created the epic of a political man—an agent, not a hero.
The typical politician does not spend his time thinking about assassination, coup d'état or tyranny. He enjoys most what we call "administration," i.e., the marshalling of usually reluctant forces and factors—men, materials and money—into concerted action to produce a permanent and visible result, a "fixture" of some sort, that will survive on the landscape, both as a permanent addition to society's collection of amenities (or vanities) and as a witness to the fact that the politician responsible did not live entirely in vain. (Power comes in as a means to this end.) In other words, most politicians do not consciously think of power per se but of serviceable memorials to their skill at creation. Here is where the politician gains his immortality. Any Roman reading the prophecy of Anchises would instantly have understood that the background assumption of the passage was one of vicarious immortality gained through political achievement.
But fame requires a repository, a reliquary, an object in which it resides. Works of art are their own reliquaries and works of thought repose in written documents, books and treatises, verbal continuities speaking for themselves. The most obvious object a politician leaves behind him is the public building, the great monument in stone and steel. This is why politicians have engaged in an ages-long love affair with the construction industry. True, some politicians have believed that constitutional reform in the broad sense, a re-integration of a people's needs with their public law, is as good as, or better than, a building program. But they have not been in the majority, and even they have never entirely scorned the importance of buildings. For example, in the year 1800 one would have to say that the two shrewdest politicians living were Jefferson and Napoleon. Both effected massive changes in the political thought and basic law of their nations—both were thought of as law-givers—yet both men also with their left hands, as it were, were avid builders and possessed an almost professional eye for architectural style and proportion. It is probably only with Bentham that the idea began to grow that institutional re-design is more important than buildings, both pro bono publico and for trie political leader's reputation. (Although, as I shall note shortly, even here Virgil may have anticipated history.)
Virgil, I suggest, having agreed to write an "epic" about a political leader, did the responsible thing: he studied political leaders to see how they really operated. He learned, if he had not known before, much of what I have been discussing: the typical politician is not really on easy terms with the poet; his ideals and aims are elsewhere. Despite the claims of ancient poets that politicians desire their attention because poetry alone confers immortality, in their actions politicians prove that they think otherwise. Politicians may be happy to hire the services of poets—in modern terms, journalists—to celebrate the regime for short-term public-relations purposes, but when the question is true immortality, politicians instinctively vote with the other side: a building or a program beats the poet's faint praise (or the historian's awe) every time. Thus Virgil set himself the chore of writing about a "hero" who would himself have very little use for, or interest in, the services of a poet like Virgil. The Aeneid then begins to sound very much like a series of long-distance telephone calls between a distracted central character and an intelligent poet whose fidelity to truth makes him understand why it is increasingly difficult to keep Aeneas on the line.
At the 31st line of the first book of the Aeneid Virgil, in his own voice, utters a remarkably quotable and intuitive line, Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem. "Such struggle would be needed to found the Roman nation." Tantae molis, to be sure, does mean "such struggle," and the line is a Stoicized expression of the extreme demands that duty will impose upon Aeneas as, like Hercules, he goes about his largely unpleasant labors. But molis, before it acquired the ethical sense of "struggle" had the primary physical meaning of "building stone" or another very large and heavy object solid and immovable enough to serve as the foundation of an enduring public building. And, appearing with the verb condere, "to lay down" or "fix" (in the ground), it makes a pretty clear case that the dominant image in Virgil's mind was that of building on a monumental scale.
I dwelt above on the fact that Roman culture contained a large admixture of defensive maneuvers whereby the supremacy of Greek culture was admitted, while spokesmen for Roman culture agree to compete only for secondary honors, those of re-doing Greek achievement in Latin phrases. Virgil, obviously, subscribed to this view, but only to a degree. Quite apart from his own self-respect, he realized that he had a different problem here—in fact one diametrically opposed to that accepted by most Roman writers: he was not trying to domesticate Greek ideas in Roman terms, but to discover the essence of Roman ideas and feelings and naturalize them in the Greek style, i.e., in a verse form, the epic, that was foreign to Roman culture. (The older Roman "epics" of Naevius and Ennius were fabulized "annals" or history, not especially mythic.) I think he understood his own capacity to do just this, while also realizing, perhaps, just what the cost would be in critical incomprehension. Virgil, in contrast to other poets who never seemed to question the fact that they were educated in Greek terms to think like Greeks, deliberately reversed the pattern and successfully internalized true-to-character Roman enthusiasms and then sought to create freely with them in a Greek medium. This he largely succeeded in doing. The dominant ideal in the minds of upper-class Romans was the desire to appear in history as important and creative politically, and the surest token of political creativity is long-lasting public construction, as the careers of the great Roman magnates, from Appius Claudius Pulcher to Augustus himself make clear. As recorded in Suetonius (Vita Divi Augusti, 28) Augustus boasted that he found Rome brick and left it marble, and in his own record of his reign (Res Gestae, 19–21) Augustus gloats over the long list of buildings begun, finished and repaired in his reign, though he makes no mention of having sponsored the greatest of all Latin poems—as I have noted, when it comes down to cases politicians vote with the contractor and the architect, not with the poet. It just happened that this particular poet, Virgil, shrewdly noted this very fact and proceeded to elaborate his epic upon this basic understanding of the ways of politics.
The poem opens and wastes no time in lodging in the reader's mind the dominant image of construction, the heavier the better, the romance of public buildings, the most essential Roman image that could be set forth. The point is obviously to suggest to the perceptive reader that nearly all of the epic, and hence Greek-style, "adventures" of the story are a throwaway: they are never crucial. And in fact the most important passages in the Aeneid are those times when the poem reneges on pursuing an "epic" story to an epic conclusion, such as Aeneas' headlong flight from Dido (with nothing like Odysseus' doubts or complaints about Calypso) or his dropping out of action just when there is the chance to make the great epic speech. Even though the Aeneid is modeled, superficially, on both Iliad and Odyssey, at a deeper level, follows the Odyssey in being the story of a man forced to introspection in order to find out who he is through the agency of his experience, in the last analysis it is not much like any "epic" before or since.
I have said that Aeneas began his heroic "career" in Homer's Iliad. I used that odd word "career" for a purpose, to imply that for him heroism was not to be a way of being, but simply a profession for a time. And that profession is aborted in Aeneid II (606 ff.): in a desultory skirmish with a band of Greek looters on the night Troy is taken, Aeneas is suddenly commanded by his mother Venus to break off the engagement and flee, because he has other work to do: "do not fear the commands of your mother, nor refuse to obey my orders" (tu ne qua parentis / iussa time, neu praeceptis parère recusa …, words which will never read quite the same to me after Portnoy's Complaint). Aeneas obeys instantly. He is no Achilles proclaiming to his mother his resolve to follow the heroic code until it kills him. Nor is Venus a Thetis: she simply will not stand by wringing her hands to see her boy killed for no purpose: he is destined to a political career as the founder of a new state, and she is determined that he will have it. The tone suddenly drops in this passage to the practical, if not the bourgeois. Epic assumptions are destroyed and Aeneas is propelled by his mother—playing a Roman matron on the model of the great political matriarchs like Cornelia—into the new world of policy, calculation, and caution. From here on he is searching for a new role to assume, and by the time he reaches Carthage he is already half a politician. At the sight of the rising walls of Carthage he bursts out to Achates: O fortunati quorum iam moenia surgunt (I, 437). Walls, structures, are now of primary concern to him because they are the surest tokens of social reality and continuity. Real epic heroes are not interested in buildings but in deeds of the moment. In her speech to Aeneas prevailing on him to abandon Troy, Venus had dwelt on the horror of seeing mightly buildings destroyed (II, 608–612) and implied that this was even worse than the destruction of people. She was teaching him a lesson about the permanence of society as represented by its buildings—buildings as a prerequisite for all civilized life, and even for life itself. And through his subsequent experience Aeneas will be forced to learn at first hand the malaise of an unhoused, non-political existence, to the extent that he quickly becomes an almost fantatical apostle of the civic life and the concrete artifacts upon which it depends.
Aeneas' ejaculation O fortunati came as he was gazing on the temple of Juno, his arch-enemy, and on the frescoes adorning its walls which told the story of the destruction of Troy! Sunt lacrimae rerum and all that. But none of this matters to him at this moment. Here is the most positive civic achievement known to him, the erection of great public buildings which somehow protect a people while encouraging them to believe in their own survival despite any challenge time may hurl upon them.
But a politicians is more than a builder. He is a leader of people (not, as the phrase usually has it, a leader of men—readers often forget that Aeneas led a band of men and women from Troy). And a leader, except in the simplified terms of warfare—another boundary situation—is no hero. He is simply one who organizes other people's energies. He leads (often) by pretending that a given common aim is both realizable and beneficial, though he personally may doubt the first and not even understand the second. Those who have searched the Aeneid for a second Achilles and found only the "priest" of Yeats' story, have simply misunderstood the arena in which this "hero" is operating. All those flat, dull speeches of encouragement, all that weariness, that general hangover quality Aeneas both experiences
and communicates when he looks out upon the world, are the politician's special burden. He must pretend to enthusiasms he does not feel, repress emotions he does feel, and generally behave not as a free individual but as the incorporation of a society's needs, a trust-officer for other people's future. The heraldic badge of the Aeneid is the vignette of Aeneas carrying his lame father and leading his small son away from the ruins of Troy. It sums up precisely the fate and role of Aeneas: go-between, maker or agent of continuity, link between past and future, doubly burdened by both. And finally of course the politician has the misfortune—and the wretchedness—of accepting responsibility for the actions of his subordinates. Aeneas must face the grim results of his son's ill-timed hunting expedition, and of the foolish bravado of Nisus and Euryalus. This is a world totally different from that of Achilles, whose sense of role is so personal as to be infantile: he quarrels with a superior, retires from action, delegates command to an inferior, and then reacts to the inferior's defeat only in terms that reflect his personal feeling of outrage and loss. A real leader, a politician, has no time for the ego-cultivation of an Achilles (Virgil might say); he is just a center around which effective historical action may take place. That is, if he's lucky, if he can hang on, hope for the best, and keep his power intact for as long as possible.
For such reasons as these Aeneas the politician is always on the point of escaping from the status of a literary character under his creator's control, into another world where the poet cannot easily follow. Again and again he turns his back on the kinds of action and self-expression that literature can normally take into its forms. His abandonment of Dido is the prime case in point. Virgil, and Aeneas, have been attacked a thousand times because Virgil has Aeneas, after one warning from Mercury, drop Dido with no complaints and no arguments, and certainly with no dramatic expressions of his passion or the loss he is incurring. Thus Aeneas is cold and calculating, a cad, a jellyfish, without backbone or balls—so the indictments run. But they are not to the point. Any politician with a capacity for introspection would instantly understand even this as simply an extreme case of what politics always demands from its practitioners, a readiness to deny and ignore the promptings of mere nature when policy, the duty of role-playing, the communal purpose demand it. True, the average politician suffers little more than the loss of regular dinners with his family, but the possibility of greater sacrifice is always there, as the fateful careers of two Kennedys have instructed us. The Dido story is a metaphor for what any politician must be prepared to do: to sacrifice every last personal tie, if necessary, to help keep the political enterprise going, to maintain the quest. Literature has never found this sort of thing very palatable, either because it is devoted to exploring the private passions of man, or because it holds an implicit ethics denying the validity, if not the reality, of the abstruse and probably corrupt doings of politics. Literature may be right, and politics wrong, in the final judgment. But insofar as politics exists and there are politicians to observe, Virgil is saying, it is proper to present what politics really is like and how a politician lives, since that is what Aeneas was.
I suggested above that Virgil anticipated the modern conviction that social programs, intangible institutional reforms (e.g., Social Security), are even more significant monuments to a political career than memorials in stone. As evidence, consider the prophecy of Anchises in Book VI, already cited to make a narrower point. What Anchises declares, in effect, is not just how Greek and Roman cultures should compose their differences in a viable scheme that carries on the best of both; he also enunciates a new constitutional principle: parcere victis et debellare superbos, "spare the conquered and war down the proud." This, if finally understood, would accomplish the total conversion of Aeneas from a bloodletting epic hero to a wise philosopher-king. For it says that warfare, that plaything of epic heroes, is to be conducted solely under the guidance of cold-eyed impersonal policy. To a large extent Aeneas' own character manages to conform itself to this principle even though the following of principle so intently tends to obliterate and bury that character, which is only "rescued" by a horrid paradox at the end. It is noticeable that Aeneas begins to curtail all instinctive, natural reactions and replace them with political calculation, in the better sense. And for this the poet rewards him by switching from the epithet pius—which implied, in the first six books, his subjection to paternal and ancestral control, that of both Anchises and Venus—to the epithet pater, father, indicating his acceptance of, and title to, full responsibility and political authority in the last six books. Likewise, Aeneas ages significantly in the last six books: we can no longer imagine him appearing as a lover. In the words of Professor Clausen: "We see him, middle-aged and a widower, bound to pursue his reluctant way from Troy to Italy, from a past he has lost to a future he will never possess." The last phrase sums up a politician's vocation about as well as anything can. Aeneas becomes cautious and stiff; he develops a resistance to emotional appeals, whether to fear or vanity. And he becomes caught in the categorical imperative of politics: preservation of the leader's person is inextricably involved with the accomplishment of his purposes, to an extent that even he can grasp only in rare moments.
The Aeneid ends with the murder of Turnus. It is a murder precisely because it would have been a piece of behavior perfectly normal for an epic hero on the Homeric model. But it comes long after Aeneas has been taught, and has accepted, the new constitutional principle which subjects war, and all other behavior, to the demands of a rational, and humanitarian politics: parcere victis, "spare the conquered." Critics hostile to Virgil seem to blame this atrocity on the poet himself. Yet Aeneas does no more than what Achilles does to Hector, and Hector is admirable while Turnus most certainly is not. Yet a charge must be made: Aeneas is wrong. His act is one of excess. And worse, it is a personal act.
Political leaders cannot afford to act on personal grounds. Aeneas is no Achilles; he does not occupy that primitive sphere in the shame culture which countenances a permanent adolescence forever clamoring for attention and given to smashing the furniture if it does not get it. Aeneas is simply subject to different and higher standards, standards to which he with at least partial understanding, has lent himself. It is not even an excuse that he has considerable human grounds for his act. Turnus is a narrow, violent, and rather stupid egomaniac (he is an Achilles), and he had savagely killed the most unoffending and ideal human type who appears in the Aeneid, Pallas, the saintly son of Evander. The disparity between their characters can hardly be measured. Moreover Virgil supplies an extra irony. Pallas is clearly portrayed as a cadet-leader from the younger generation, possessing all the qualities of incipient leadership that would make him Aeneas' ideal successor. And any half-competent politician spends at least half his time worrying about the problem of capable and acceptable successors. In politics continuity is always the problem. It may be that Aeneas saw Pallas, rather than his own son Ascanius, at least for a few hopeful moments, as his own successor, via the procedure of adoption. This procedure was common among the great political families of Rome. Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. The saintly Marcellus was, likewise, the adoptive heir of Augustus, and the untimely and horrid death of Pallas at the hands of Turnus is perhaps a literary parallel with the untimely and regrettable death of Marcellus. Yet even this does not excuse a political failure, which is what the murder of Turnus is. Aeneas has multiple motives, but a multiplicity of motives does not constitute a reason for political action, not for a politician. The new constitutional order demands that he restrain himself—even as he had been restrained by Venus from killing Helen in Book II—and that he substitute policy for spontaneous, natural human action.
Aeneas fails the final political test, yet, paradoxically, he reasserts his humanity at the same time. Why? The answer is not that Virgil is an obtuse and disoriented writer. Rather he is a poet who is also a shrewd and reliable witness of the real world. Aeneas is shown in the last six books growing in political consequence and command. Meanwhile his personality deteriorates and fades. His motives are less and less subject to scrutiny as those of a simple human being. Yet in the end he fails as a politician because human nature finally breaks through. But it is too late, and the wrong moment. His world and his vocation have changed, but at the last moment he himself betrays the new system he has instituted. Virgil shows us that the tension between natural man and civic man will probably never be fully resolved. This point is given excruciating prominence in Book VI, near the end of Anchises' prophetic vision of the panorama of Rome's history. Of Brutus, the first consul after the overthrow of the Etruscan kings, Virgil writes:
consults imperium hie primus saevasque securis
accipiet, natosque pater nova bella moventis
ad poenam pulchra pro libertate vocabit,
infelix, utcumque ferent ea facta minores.
(He first will receive the power of the consulate and the dread axes, and he, as father, will call his sons, plotting revolution, to due punishment, for the sake of dear liberty—a wretched man—or so lesser men will think who retell these things.)
The phrase "wretched man, or so lesser men will think … " is the exact description of the terrible paradox of the political leader, the sensitivities of natural man meeting the leader's self-imposed duties to his society rather than to his blood and feelings. It is a tragedy, and tragedy quite beyond the matter of individual griefs, that political leadership, though indispensable, so often seems to end up in a situation in which a leader, having systematically educated himself to reject the promptings of mere nature, will either go a step too far and use policy in such an unnatural way that he disgusts other men, even if they appear to benefit from his acts, or else he will suffer a momentary lapse and abandon policy for a natural act at precisely the wrong point. The former was the fate of the first Brutus, who horrified the ancient Romans quite as much as the second Brutus horrified Plutarch and Shakespeare by killing Caesar; the latter is the fate of Aeneas. Virgil has planned the moment carefully: he has brought back personal motivation at the point where it is at one and the same time politically unacceptable, but artistically necessary and conclusive.
The politician is yet always a human being, even if the unique pressures of his profession tend to persuade him that this is not true. He cannot always see every problem presented to him as though it were a simple theorem in the geometry of power and of responsibility for the community. Usually his own humanity and weaknesses will at some point invade his behavior and this, though acceptable to art, will be disastrous for politics. It is not always the general dehumanization of politics that makes our collective social life especially dangerous, but sometimes its sudden re-humanization at the worst possible moment on an unpredictable schedule. The politician's existential risk is twofold, and probably intolerable for complete mental health: either he will lose his humanity entirely and become a robot or a fanatic, or he will reassert it at precisely the wrong moment, as Aeneas does, only to put everything wrong.
The ambiguity of critics and criticism when facing the Aeneid is simply a copy of the ambiguity an observer like Virgil must have felt in studying the careers of successful Roman politicians like Scipio, Sulla, Julius Caesar or Augustus. How can one do justice to a man who is both an individual and the embodiment of the res publical It really can't be done. Virtually no one can stand the strain, ultimately, of both roles. Virgil's alleged and much-discussed demurrer against the Augustan system, if it exists, is not to be found at some superficial level like distrust of imperialism or autocracy. He is hardly interested in such abstractions. His entry into the political problem of Aeneas is effected at a much deeper point: he sees the acceptance of political leadership as a crucial denial of natural human feelings, which in the long run will probably rebel, and the eventuating crisis will destroy the characters of all but the strongest. Leadership is a necessary good—or evil, perhaps—but hardly ever can it provide ethical or personal satisfaction for the chosen vehicle. Fata dederunt: Aeneas often silences grumblers with such a phrase, but it only quiets lesser folk. For him all it means is that he personally has no escape and no prospect of contentment. What the fates have really granted is his own unwilled yoking to an enterprise that systematically overrules the feelings, or else guarantees that expression of natural life and feeling will bring him only gigantic troubles and endanger his civic aims. This honest and sympathetic account of the politician's dilemma in no sense makes the Aeneid an artistic failure. Far from it: it makes the poem a perfect portrayal of one of mankind's most serious and besetting problems, which no other literary work I know has expressed so convincingly.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2888
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 passion—and 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 aspects that suggest the dangerous of the Augustan system. The two most eloquent of the "new" critics, M. C. J. Putnam [in The Poetry of the "Aeneid, " 1965] and W. R. Johnson [in Darkness Visible, 1978], have argued for reading the Aeneid as a political statement warning Augustus of potential dangers, as a text that not only celebrated the powers of rational man but also warned of the dangers involved in achieving a rule that necessitates the suppression of all subsidiary faculties, including passion.
While the political ambitions and beliefs of Cicero differed radically from those of Augustus, the method of their actions and the dynamics established between ruler and audience were certainly analogous. For this reason—a thematic rather than historical one—I propose that a comparison of the humanist rhetorical model with Vergil's use of rhetoric could prove fruitful.
Putnam and Johnson take as one of their main targets the goddess Juno and suggest that a tremendous risk is run in suppressing her and her ilk. Yet both these critics insist ultimately that she is a negative figure; both show her to be of a strength that must be reckoned with and not suppressed; both also indicate that she is a necessary evil.
Augustus presumably knew of the powers of Juno and all she stood for; otherwise he would not have suppressed rebellion with such vigor and would not have insisted on the superiority of reason. While I agree that the Aeneid is not a celebration of the status quo and that it does indeed introduce the problems of the darker forces, I would not agree that these forces need be viewed as negative. I would propose, rather, that Vergil is working within the current rhetorical system, that he is trying to suggest the limits of that system and, perhaps subconsciously, to escape from such a system, an effort in which he all but suceeds.
I will argue from the premise that Juno is meant not as the negative personification of the irrational but rather as the embodiment of all that is oppressed in a humanist world. She is, in short, the dominatrix animi, and it is with her exile as much as with Aeneas' journey that the text concerns itself. That Vergil is intersted in Juno can be seen from the start of the Aeneid. While the first eight lines introduce Aeneas, they do not employ a traditional or expected form. The Iliad and the Odyssey, the two other important epics upon which the Aeneid is modeled, both begin with an invocation to the muses. Vergil includes such an invocation, yet postpones it to line 8:
Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso
quidve dolens regina deum tot volvere casus
insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores
impulerit. Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?
Muse, remind me of the reasons: what divinity was harmed, why did she, the sorrowing queen of the gods, set in motion so many difficulties, so many trials for a man known for goodness. Is there such anger in heavenly minds?
Is this perhaps an indication that we are to see these lines as a second beginning of the text? If so, then we are faced with several problems. First, why not invoke the muses in the opening line? Second, why have two beginnings? Perhaps Vergil's text is really two epics. The first is indeed about Aeneas, arms, men, war, and all the trappings of a Ciceronian and rhetorically correct society, a Rome that both Cicero and Augustus would recognize and approve of … in esse. The second epic is Juno's, and it remains in posse. Since her will is not a valorized part of the world as it was rhetorically and socially structured, the language to express it does not exist. This may seem like a paraphrase of Putnam and Johnson, but I intend to push their ideas one step further. Not only does Juno represent the long-suppressed irrational, as character and symbol, she is the hero of the epic Vergil would have written and in part did write. Not only Juno is clearly frustrated; Vergil, too, is frustrated in his attempt to articulate the truth. It is worth remembering that Juno's epic has the true epic beginning.
Moreover, it is Juno, not Aeneas, who is allowed the first speech of the text. She is thus the first to get our attention, and, more, her introduction and speech are written to elicit some sympathy for her, even if one is biased against her, as any Roman would most likely have been. Despite her recent victories at Troy, Juno remains hurt:
manet aha mente repostum
iudicium Paridis spretaeque iniuria formae
et genus invisum et rapti Ganymedis honores
in the depths of her mind remain implanted the Judgment of Paris and the injury to her spurned beauty; the hated race and honors given raped Ganymede.
Why mention this? There is no need to suggest that Juno has any motive for her anger beyond keeping Aeneas from Carthage. Yet these few lines add a significant dimension to her character. She is not just a goddess protecting her Carthaginian wards. She is a vulnerable figure who still carries with her, alta mente, unhealed wounds. Within a few lines she is thus transformed from Saturnia, daughter of Saturn, as she is first introduced, to a spurned and rejected lover, and the cause of her anger is allotted to this very human rejection with which we as readers can identify. That the pain she carries with her alta mente causes her anger is important since it is emblematic of her role in the text: such pain bears the same relation to her character as she does to the pantheon. Always frustrated, always suppressed ("et quisquam numen lunonis adorât I praeterea aut supplex aris imponet honorem?" "and, henceforth, will anyone adore the glory of Juno or, kneeling at her altars, pay her honor?" as she says a few lines later), she can do nothing but
erupt from the depths. She causes the pain in the system that her rejection causes her.
Juno's next action, in which she seduces Aeolus into creating a storm that causes Aeneas to shipwreck and lose some of his men, is usually used as proof of her destructive nature. She is rebellious, and she is indeed constantly causing pain to others. Yet how else can she react? What other role is she offered? Though sister and wife to Jove, she has never been granted due homage. This, more than keeping Aeneas from destroying Carthage, is her reason for opposing him so directly; she continues to war with him until he makes his peace with her. A character identified throughout Greco-Roman mythology with jealousy, spite, and rejection, Juno exists to give voice to the irrational forces within us. She is therefore not allowed to act in a rational way—such an act would be by definition out of character. In order to be heard she must erupt; her inferiority and irrationality are built into the structure of the pantheon. In other words, the explicit pantheon of the Aeneid reflects the hierarchy implicit in humanist rhetoric: reason is superior to passion; Jupiter is superior, at least at the start, to Juno, even though (or perhaps because) she is his sister and wife. The role she is alloted is the one she plays: she is the defining irrationality against which rationality and reason are highlighted and defined; without her Jupiter could not retain his superiority.
To view the Aeneid as, at least in part, an attack on the rhetorical paradigm is to present the work as a series of unfinished tales. Rather than viewing the epic through Aeneas' eyes, as it were, and following a continuous narrative from Troy to Latium, we will analyze the Aeneid from the perspective of the choices he rejects and follow where they lead. Such an approach is made entirely possible and justifiable by the fact that Vergil encourages us in this direction. Far from suggesting that the oppressed exist only to support the oppressor, he offers us time and again tantalizing and unfinished glimpses of the roads not taken. The prospects we see at these junctures—certainly not rhetorically apt—suggest other systems of thought….
Dido is the most striking and tragic victim of the epic, and through her Vergil makes his most eloquent plea for change. She appears while Aeneas is in Juno's temple studying the scenes from the Trojan War, and her arrival is given godlike flourish: she is presented as if she were Diana [cf. Aeneid. I.496–501; 503–4].
Dido thus begins the text as a figure who is both removed and chaste, since she rules her city as a female king and oversees the building of its walls and turrets. Through her love for Aeneas, she becomes a woman of nature, passion, and instinct. Once allowed to pursue her presumably innate desires, however, she cannot remain a part of the text. Vergil writes her out of it when he can no longer explain her; like the story of Troilus, her life story is only partially complete.
On one level Dido is indeed a figure who interferes with Aeneas' journey to Rome. She is thus arguably a negative figure (or at the very least a temptation) in the epic. But this is not the Dido that Vergil offers us. Rather, he shows us a Dido who, though first introduced as invincible, becomes vulnerable. Before she falls in love she builds her city and prepares for war; she rules, in other words, in a way that supports the system. But once in love, Dido is transformed into a character who subverts the system. She does not become like Venus, a submissive female who, never at a loss for words, appeals to her father figure for support (as in Aeneid. 1.229–53). She becomes instead, a sympathetic character guided by her emotions who is nonetheless not submissive. She is thus an anomaly in the rhetorical system and, more important, a threat to it.
Significantly, the progress of her transformation can be charted through her speeches. Eminently articulate at the start, speaking in a tone that aligns her with the male characters of Jupiter and Neptune, once in love she finds she cannot speak (Aeneid. 4.76) or finish her speeches. This is not just evidence of dementia; it indicates as well that she cannot put into words what she is feeling. As we have already noted in Cicero, such emotions do not build buildings or cities. And even when she does speak, it is a speech that begins with her eyes askance, a sign that she is unable to summon the rational powers necessary to combat Aeneas.
If Aeneas' reasons for leaving Dido are made clear, Vergil's reasons for staying are not. After Aeneas departs for Rome Dido plays no major part in the plot of the text; the bulk of book 4 could easily have been discarded. Rather than abandoning Dido when Aeneas does, however, Vergil stays with her, clearly sympathizing with her point of view as he shows the departure of the Trojans through her eyes and slowly marks her decline into magic and madness to her death on the funeral pyre. In both her own and the narrator's words, she becomes a tragic heroine of the Medea type. Though Vergil ultimately writes her out of the text, he does so in the slowest and most painful way possible, showing not only a sympathy for her but a real ambivalence toward her character. In addition, she is not allowed to die an inglorious death: her suicide is officially sanctioned by Juno and thus, to a degree, by Vergil as well. His treatment of her is, in the end, perplexing. He needn't have dwelt on her; in killing her off, he needn't have done it so slowly. He seems both to want her out of the text—because she is at that point as much a threat to its rhetorical fabric as she is to Aeneas' fate—and to want her to remain because she represents something of value….
Throughout the Aeneid Vergil suggests ways in which the assumptions of the humanist rhetorical system are limited. Characters like Nisus and Euryalus and incidents such as the death of Pallas speak directly to this problem, and, for the most part, such criticism as Vergil makes follows the pattern established in the stories of Troilus and Dido: a gentle nudging of the audience, pointing to the pain of those suppressed, accompanied by a suggestion that "Roman" ways are neither unique nor best. But Vergil also had, I believe, a definite sense of the direction in which he would have liked to see change occur, even if he had no clearly formulated model in mind, and this sense, hinted at in various places in the text, is spelled out most directly in the final lines of the work….
Vergil ends the epic as he began it, bis conatus, as he gives the oppressed the first and last utterances of the text. Not only do these glosses suggest a sympathy on his part for a non-Roman, non-Ciceronian order, but the very fact that he glossed both beginning and end points to a form of oration that is other than humanist. In doubling both and in making the text come full circle, he subverts the true sense of beginning and ending. Instead of an architectonic structure with a clear start and finish, Vergil's epic has a circular structure that is more organic. It suggests an undermining of precisely the kind of distinction classical rhetoric depends upon, and in its blurring of essential formal elements, it suggests the qualities that characters such as Camilla represent. A sense of transformation and mediation, not of distinction and oppression, prevails at the end of the text.
The message of the Aeneid, then, is that we, like Icarus, need an art that does more than the Roman artes given us by Anchises: we need to do more than spare the suppliant and bear down on the proud. We need, in short, to come up with an art that does not hierarchize in such a way as to divide the world into the suppliants and the proud, or into passion and reason, for as liberating as Anchises' words seem in the general context of the text, they nonetheless do little to restructure the system of thought. Instead, Anchises' words advocate a reinforcement of the extant hierarchy. By insisting on a duality posited between proud and humble—a duality that translates into that of reason and passion, Jupiter and Juno—Anchises' words do not resolve a thing. All people in power will judge those most like them to be the humble, those unlike, the proud. Juno, for instance, gains nothing from this dictum: her actions, provoked out of anger and frustration, will appear to those in power as the actions of the proud; those on the bottom can be judged as nothing but proud as they fight for rightful dignity and acknowledgement by those in power, while those on top can only be judged humble, as they have nothing more to aspire toward, and can defer at every instance. What the Aeneid pleads eloquently for is a system in which pride need not be humbled. Aeneas' actions are a step in that direction; as a resurrected Icarus, Aeneas paves the way for the rewriting of myths such as those of the supreme powers of reason and the consequent danger of passion. By using every form of persuasion to attack the Roman artes, Vergil makes clear the limits and drawbacks of such an order.
Vergil also, as I have suggested, points in the direction in which such a new system—a new Roman rhetoric or art—would develop. Such an order, as I have tried to show, would allot Juno a rightful and valorized place in the new pantheon, would allow characters such as Dido, Camilla, and Turnus to be played out, and would allow what was written in the dust to be spelled out in marble and gold, as it would somehow give voice to what had been kept silent for so long. He comes closest to actually doing this himself in the characters and passages that prove most problematical and in his use of ambivalent allusions, such as the various ekphrases and metaphors like caecus ignis. He emphasizes repeatedly the need for mediation—in character, in style, in plot, and in the world—and for an intellectual framework and language that would allow for such mediation to find voice. His work, therefore, shows most strongly the inadequacies of the old yet, at the same time, suggests, however tentatively and in however incomplete a fashion, one possible method for achieving a true new.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1662
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.
Dinsmore, Charles Allen. "Virgil: Who Placed an Ideal before Imperial Rome." In his The Great Poets and the Meaning of Life, pp. 101–24. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1937.
General overview of Vergil's life and career, culminating in a discussion of the Aeneid. According to Dinsmore, Vergil intended that his epic "elevate [the Romans'] characters to the level of their divine mission."
Frank, Tenney. Vergil: A Biography. 1922. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965, 200 p.
Rejects Donatus's "unauthenticated" Life of Vergil, the ancient source most commonly consulted for biographical information, instead using the poet's alleged juvenilia to reconstruct the events of his life
Bailey, Cyril. Religion in Virgil. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1935, 337 p.
Studies the influence of magic and superstition, early Italian animism, Graeco-Roman anthropomorphism, and Roman philosophy on Vergil's works.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Vergil: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, 223 p.
Collection of essays by noted classical scholars, such as J. William Hunt, K. W. Gransden, Michael C. J. Putnam, and others.
Bowra, C. M. "Virgil and the Ideal of Rome." In his From Virgil to Milton, pp. 33–85. London: Macmillan and Co., 1945.
Contends that the Aeneid's purpose and hero are quintessentially Roman, maintaining that Vergil romanizes the Homeric materials he reworks; that he considers belief in "divine justice" prerequisite to belief in Roman hegemony, and that Aeneas represents a more civilized, psychologically realistic concept of heroism than that embodied by Dido and Turnus. The greatest victory in the Aeneid, Bowra concludes, is over personal weakness.
Boynton, H. W. "Virgil." In his The World's Leading Poets, pp. 12–4. 1912. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968.
Reviews Vergil's literary career in the context of the Augustan patronage system. Boynton sees Aeneas as a "helpless … puppet of the gods" who is necessary to Vergil's depiction of Rome, but whom neither the author nor readers like very much.
Camps, W. A. An Introduction to Virgil's "Aeneid". London: Oxford University Press, 1969, 164 p.
General study of the Aeneid containing discussion of the epic's characters, structure, style, and sources.
Commager, Steele, ed. Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966, 186 p.
Contains essays on the Aeneid by C. M. Bowra, C. S. Lewis, Brooks Otis, Adam Parry, Bernard Knox, Viktor Poschl, and others.
Comparetti, Domenico. Vergil in the Middle Ages. Translated by E. F. M. Benecke. 1908. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1966, 376 p.
Widely acclaimed study of critical and popular responses to Vergil from Roman times through the early Renaissance.
Duckworth, George E. Structural Patterns and Proportions in Virgil's "Aeneid": A Study in Mathematical Composition. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1962, 268 p.
Diagrams the dovetailed "archetectonic designs" that enhance Virgil's "interwoven" themes in the Aeneid.
Dudley, D. R., ed. Virgil. New York: Basic Books, 1969, 219 p.
Essays on Virgil which address his originality, his influence on subsequent poets and artists, the fluctuations in his critical reception, and his depiction of the afterlife. Selection includes pieces by Brooks Otis, W. F. Jackson Knight, and R. D. Williams.
Glover, Terrot Reaverley. Studies in Virgil, London: Edward Arnold, 1904, 312 p.
Comprehensive treatment of the poet's work which includes discussion of the Aeneid's mythic sources and literary influences; its appeal to indigenous Italian peoples and national unity; its expression of Roman patriotism and Augustan loyalty; its depiction of Dido, Aeneas, Hades, and Olympus; and its optimistic re-sponse to contemporary philosophical questions.
——. "Virgil, An Appreciation." The Classical Journal XXXI, No. 1 (October 1930): 28–36.
Contends that the Aeneid must be read as a whole because "the manner is so essentially the mind, the style so exactly the thought," and defends the love of country and empire that permeates the poem.
Gransden, K. W. Virgil's "Iliad": An Essay on Epic Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 219 p.
Analyzes the structural significance of the last six books of the Aeneid, examining Vergil's adaptation of the Iliad. Gransden's approach is influenced by his study of narrative theory.
Gray, Wallace. "Aeneid." In his Homer to Joyce, pp. 96–107. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1985.
Overview of the poem for general readers. Gray defends Vergil's reworkings of Homer as enriching; identifies Stoic traits in Aeneas; discusses Dido and Turnus as foils for Aeneas, who embodies the Roman concept of heroism; associates Jupiter with Fate, and concludes that the Aeneid anticipates Christianity, psychological realism, and modern conceptions of art's significance.
Harrison, E. L. "The Aeneid and Carthage." In Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus, edited by Tony Woodman and David West, pp. 95–115. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Examines the relation of the Aeneid to contemporary events, specifically the large-scale Roman colonization of Carthage.
Highet, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, 763 p.
Respected work which traces the influence of Vergil and other Classical writers on significant members of the European literary tradition, including Dante, Spenser, and Milton.
Knight, W. F. Jackson. Introduction to the Aeneid, by Vergil, translated by W. F. Jackson Knight, pp. 11–24. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1958.
General overview encompassing Augustan history, biographical information, Vergil's adaptation of Roman myth and literary tradition, and thematic and stylistic features of the Aeneid.
——. Roman Vergil. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1966, 463 p.
In-depth study focusing on Vergil's modification of literary materials and conventions.
——. Vergil: Epic and Anthropology. Edited by John D. Christie. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967, 320 p.
Reprints three essays on Books II and VI of the Aeneid: "Vergil's Troy," "Cumaean Gates," and "The Holy City of the East." These essays were written in 1932, 1936, and 1939, respectively.
Mackail, J. W. "The Aeneid." In his Lectures on Poetry, pp. 72–92. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1911.
Praises the comprehensive vision of the Aeneid but concludes that the reader may well wonder "whether the task [of achieving poetic unity in the work] had not become one for which no art or skill was perfectly adequate."
——. "The Aeneid as a Work of Art." The Classical Journal XXVI, No. 1 (October 1930): 12–18.
Praises the epic's unity, defends its allegedly weaker second half, and terms it "the voice of Rome and … of mankind."
Otis, Brooks. Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry. London: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1964, 436 p.
Analyzes the revision of Hellenistic themes and styles which enabled Vergil to infuse the epic form with new vitality, concentrating upon how he reworked the Iliad and the Odyssey to introduce a psychological dimension.
Pöschl, Viktor. "The Poetic Achievement of Virgil." The Classical Journal 56 (1961): 290–99.
Praises Vergil for synthesizing ancient civilizations and literatures in the Aeneid, while introducing an introspective sensibility related to the development of Christianity, and for technical innovations, including structural unity, complex contrasts, musical lyricism, and painterly interplay of light and dark.
Prescott, Henry W. The Development of Virgil's Art. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1927, 490 p.
Analyzes the development of Latin poetry as a continuation of Greek forms as evidenced by Vergil's works. Examining the themes, structure, and style of the major works, Prescott concludes that Vergil's "ultimate achievement… is something superior to the accomplishment of Hellenistic Greece."
Quinn, Kenneth. Virgil's "Aeneid": A Critical Description. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968, 448 p.
Comprehensive explication of the Aeneid for general readers. Quinn addresses the epic's structure, narration, characterization, use of tragic devices, style, imagery, and its "most important theme," the limitations of Homeric heroism.
——. "Did Virgil Fail?" In Cicero and Virgil: Studies in Honour of Harold Hunt, edited by John R. C. Martyn, pp. 192–206. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1972.
Asserts that Vergil's ambivalence toward the Roman empire does not render the Aeneid a failure, as some critics have charged, but notes that the poem depicts the war of Books 7–12 and the character of Aeneas inconsistently. Quinn believes these conflicts result from Vergil's continual and increasingly complex revisions of the poem, which were incomplete when he died.
Ross, David O., Jr. "The Sixth Eclogue: Virgil's Poetic Genealogy." In his Backgrounds to Augustan Poetry: Gallus Elegy and Rome, pp. 18–38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Discusses poetry as the preeminent theme of the "Sixth Eclogue," focusing on an interpretation of the song of Silenus as the "ritual initiation of the poet Gallus."
Sellar, W. Y. The Roman Poets of the Augustan Age: Virgil. Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1883, 423 p.
Comprehensive study of Vergil's body of work, the noting political, social, and literary influences of the Augustan age.
Slaughter, Moses Stephen. "Virgil: An Interpretation." In his Roman Portraits, pp. 25–58. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1925.
Analysis of Vergil's philosophical development, with a special focus on the Aeneid. Slaughter asserts that Vergil moves beyond pastoral to elegiac poetry in his epic, and that his emphasis on piety renders the poem inaccessible for many modern readers.
Thornton, Agathe. The Living Universe: Gods and Men in Virgil's "Aeneid." Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago Press, 1976, 223 p.
Interprets the Aeneid to demonstrate that it reveals Vergil's natural philosophy. According to Thornton, Vergil believed that the gods determined the structure of human society, and that the cyclic nature of human history could be attributed to the alternating dominance of various immortals.
Williams, Gordon. "A Version of Pastoral: Virgil, Eclogue 4." In Quality and Pleasure in Latin Poetry, edited by Tony Woodman and David West, pp. 31–46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974.
Explicates "Eclogue 4," paying particular attention to its theme of prophesy.
Williams, R. D. "The Aeneid" In his Virgil, pp. 23–44. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1967.
Studies the conflicts between national destiny and individual tragedy, Stoicism and Epicureanism, Homeric and Roman values, and supernatural and mortal realms in the Aeneid, reviewing the history of critical responses to these tensions.
——. Introduction to The Aeneid of Virgil, edited by R. D. Williams, pp. ix–xxxvi. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973.
Discusses criticism of the Aeneid; Vergil's life and relationship to Augustus; sources for and influences on the poem, and its structure, themes, and style.
Additional coverage of Vergil's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vol. 9; and DISCovering Authors.