« PreviousContinue »
been engaged for some time in its composition, the greatest curiosity and interest concerning it began to be felt at Rome. A work, it was generally believed, was in progress, which would eclipse the fame of the Iliad. Augustus himself at length became desirous of reading the poem so far as it had been carried; and, in the year 729, while absent from Rome on a military expedition against the Cantabrians, he wrote to the author from the extremity of his empire, entreating him to be allowed a perusal of it. Macrobius has preserved one of Virgil's answers to Augustus: “I have of late received from you frequent letters. With regard to my Æneas, if, by Hercules, it were worth your listening to, I would willingly send it. But so vast is the undertaking, that I almost appear to myself to have commenced such a work from some defect in judgment or understanding; especially since, as you know, other and far higher studies are required for such a performance.” (Sat. i. 24.) Prevailed on, at length, by these importunities, Virgil, about a year after the return of Augustus, recited to him the sixth book, in presence of his sister Octavia, who had recently lost her only son Marcellus, the darling of Rome, and the adopted child of Augustus. The poet, probably, in the prospect of this recitation, had inserted the affecting passage in which he alludes to the premature death of the beloved youth:
O nate, ingentem luctum ne quiere tuorum, &c. But he had skilfully suppressed the name of Marcellus till he came to the line,
Tu Marcellus eris-manibus date lilia plenis. It may well be believed that the widowed mother of Marcellus swooned away at the pathos of these verses, which no one, even at this day, can read unmoved. Virgil is said to have received from the afflicted parent 10,000 sesterces (dena sestertia) for each verse of this celebrated passage. Having brought the Eneid to a conclusion, but not the perfection which he wished to bestow upon it, Virgil, contrary to the advice and wish of his friends, resolved to travel into Greece, that he might correct and polish this great production at leisure in that land of poetic imagination. It was on undertaking this voyage that Horace addressed to him the affectionate ode beginning,
Sic te Diva potens. Cypri, &o. (i. 3.)
Virgil proceeded directly to Athens, where he commenced the revisal of his epic poem, and added the magnificent introduction to the third book of the Georgics. He had been thus engaged for some months at Athens, when Augustus arrived at that city, on his return to Italy, from a progress through his eastern dominions. When he embarked for Greece, it had been the intention of Virgil to have spent three years in that country in the correction of his poem ; after which he proposed to pass his days in his native country of Mantua, and devote the rest of his life to the study of philosophy, or to the composition of some great historical poem. The arrival of Augustus, however, induced him to shorten his stay, and to embrace the opportunity of returning to Italy in the retinue of the emperor. But the hand of death was already upon him. From his youth he had been of a delicate constitution; and, as age advanced, he was afflicted with frequent headaches, asthma, and spitting of blood. Even the climate of Naples could not preserve him from frequent attacks of these maladies, and their worst symptoms had increased during his residence in Greece. The vessel in which he embarked with the emperor touched at Megara, where he was seized with great debility and languor. When he again went on board, his distemper was so increased by the motion and agitation of the vessel, that he expired a few days after he had landed at Brundisium, on the south-eastern coast of Italy. His death happened A.U.C.734, when he was in the 51st year of his age. When he felt its near approach, he ordered his friends Varius and Plotius Tucca, who were then with him, to burn the Æneid as an imperfect poem. Augustus, however, interposed to save a work which he no doubt saw would at once confer immortality on the poet and on the prince who patronized him. It was accordingly intrusted to Varius and Tucca, with a power to revise and retrench, but with a charge that they should make no additions; a command which they so strictly observed as not to complete even the hemistichs which had been left imperfect. They are said, however, to have struck out twentytwo verses from the second book, where Æneas, perceiving Helen amid the smoking ruins of Troy, intends to slay her, till his design is ted by his goddess mother. These lines, accordingly, were wanting in many of the ancient manuscripts, but they have been subsequently restored to their place. There
was also a report long current, that Varius had made a change, which still subsists, in the arrangement of two of the books, by transposing the order of the second and third, the latter having stood first in the original manuscript. According to some accounts, the four lines “Ille ego quondam,” &c., which are still prefixed to the Æneid in many editions, were expunged by Varius and Tucca; but, according to others, they never were written by Virgil, and are no better than an interpolation of the middle ages. Virgil bequeathed the greater part of his wealth, which was considerable, to a brother. The remainder was divided among his patron Mæcenas, and his friends Varius and Tucca. Before his death, he had also commanded that his bones should be carried to Naples, where he had lived so long and so happily. This order was fulfilled, under charge of Augustus himself. According to the most ancient tradition and the most commonly-received opinion, the tomb of Virgil lies about two miles to the north of Naples, on the slope of the hill of Pausilippo, and over the entrance to the grotto or subterraneous passage which has been cut through its ridge, on the road leading from Naples to Puteoli. Cluverius and Addison, indeed, have placed the tomb on the other side of Naples, near the foot of Mount Vesuvius; but the other opinion is based upon the common tradition of the country, and accords with the belief of Petrarch, Sannazarius, and Bembo : it may still be cherished, therefore, by the traveller who climbs the hill of Pausilippo, and he may still think that he hails the shade of Virgil on the spot where his ashes repose. Notwithstanding, however, the veneration which the Romans entertained for the works of Virgil, his sepulchre was neglected before the time of Martial, who declares that Silius Italicus first restored its longforgotten honours. What is at present called the tomb, is in the form of a small, square, flat-roofed building, placed on a sort of platform, near the brow of a precipice on one side, and on the other sheltered by a superincumbent rock. Half a century ago, when More travelled in Italy, an ancient laurel (a shoot perhaps of the same which Petrarch had planted) overhung the simple edifice. (MORE's Travels, Letter 65.) Within the low vaulted cell was once placed the urn supposed to con. tain the ashes of Virgil. Pietro Stefano, who lived in the thirteenth century, mentions that he had seen the urn, with
the epitaph inscribed on it, which is said to have been written by the poet himself a few moments before his death :
Mantua me genuit; Calabri rapuere; tenet nunc
Parthenope. Cecini pascua, rura, duces. Passing by the Eclogues and Georgics, our remarks on which will be reserved for a future occasion, we will conclude the present biographical sketch with a few observations on the Æneid. This production has for its subject the settlement of the Trojans in Italy, and, belonging to a nobler class of poetry than the Georgics, is almost equally perfect in its kind. It ranks, indeed, in the very highest order, and it was in this exalted species that Virgil was most fitted to excel. Undisturbed by excess of passion, and never hurried away by the current of ideas, he calmly consigned to immortal verse the scenes which his fancy had first painted as lovely, and which his understanding bad afterward approved. The extent, too, and depth of the design proposed in the Æneid rendered this subjection to the judgment indispensable.
The chief objection which critics in all ages have urged against the Æneid, or, at least, against the poetical character of its author, is the defect in what forms the most essential quality of a poet, originality and the power of invention. It has never, indeed, been denied that he possessed a species of invention, if it may be so called, which consists in placing ideas that have been preoccupied in a new light, or presenting assemblages, which have been already exhibited, in a new point of view. Nor has it been disputed that he often succeeds in bestowing on them the charm of novelty, by the power of more perfect diction, and by that poetic touch which transmutes whatever it lights on into gold. But it is alleged that he has contrived few incidents, and opened up no new veins of thought. It is well known that the Roman dramatic writers, instead of contriving plots of their own, translated the master-pieces of Sophocles, Euripides, and Menander. The same imitative spirit naturally enough prevailed in the first attempts at epic poetry. When any beautiful model exists in an art, it so engrosses and intimidates the mind, that we are apt to think that, in order to execute successfully any work of a similar description, the approved prototype must be imitated. It is supposed that what had pleased once, must please always; and circumstances, in them
selves unimportant, or perhaps accidental, are converted into general and immutable rules. It was natural then for the Romans, struck with admiration at the sublime and beautiful productions of the epic muse of Greece, to follow her lessons with servility. The mind of Virgil also led him to imitation. His excellence lay in the propriety, beauty, and majesty of his poetical character, in his judicious contrivance of composition, his correctness of drawing, his purity of taste, his artful adaptation of the conceptions of others to his own purposes, and his skill in the combination of materials. Accordingly, when Virgil first applied himself to frame a poem, which might celebrate his imperial master, and ernulate the productions of Greece, in a department of poetry wherein she was as yet unrivalled, he first naturally bent a reverent eye on Homer; and, though he differed widely from his Grecian master in the qualities of his mind and genius, he became his most strict and devoted disciple. The Latin dramatists, in preparing their pieces for the stage, had frequently compounded them of the plots of two Greek plays, melted, as it were, into one; and thus compensated for the want of invention and severe simplicity of composition by greater richness and variety of incident. From their example, Virgil comprehended in his plan the arguments of both the siad and Odyssey ; the one serving him as a guide for the wanderings and adventures of his hero previous to the landing in Latium, and the other as a model for the wars which he sustained in Italy, to gain his destined bride Lavinia.
He bad thus before him all the beauties and defects of Homer, as lights to gaze at, and as rocks to be shunned, with the judgment of ages on both, as a chart which might conduct him to yet greater perfection. In the Tiad, however, there was this superiority, that a sense of injury (easily communicated to the reader) existed among the Greeks; and in the Odyssey, we feel, as it were, the hero's desire of returning to his native country. But both these ruling principles of action are wanting in the Æneid, where the Trojans rather inflict than sustain injury, and reluctantly seek a settlement in new and unknown lands.
Another objection made to the Æneid is its occasional violation of the order of time, and among the instances of ana