« PreviousContinue »
shadowy figures to us, but to Virgil they had a real personal existence ; they may have modified the form of his poem ; they must to a certain extent bave supplied the data from which he constructed his story. It is not till we come to the Athenian drama that we are able to trace definitely the operation of a really powerful agency upon Virgil's genius. Even there our losses are neither few nor unimportant; we know that a considerable number of the plays of the three great tragedians embraced various parts of the tale of Troy, yet of these we can only be said to possess the Ajax and the Philoctetes of Sophocles, the Rhesus, the Troades, and the Hecuba of Euripides. Of Sophocles especially we are told, that “he so greatly delighted in the epic cycle as to have borrowed whole dramas from its contents,” and there is reason to think that no less than three of his plays traversed the ground occupied by Virgil in the second Aeneid ; but of the Laocoon we have only a brief outline of the plot, and thirteen lines, six of them significant ; of the Eoampópoi, a bare indication of the subject, so bare that it is a question whether it really points to a separate play ; of the Sinon, three unimportant words. Great, however, as our losses are, we need not doubt that our gains are greater. That which constitutes the main value of Greek tragedy as a step in intellectual progress can be abundantly appreciated from the specimens that have come down to us, and we are able distinctly to recognize its influence upon Virgil. I have in some measure anticipated what I am going to say, in the observations which I have ventured on Virgil's treatment of character, as compared with Homer's : but the point is one which will well bear to be explained and enforced further.
Mr. Grote has shown his characteristic insight in remarking that " the great innovation of the Athenian dramatists consisted in the rhetorical, the dialectical, and the ethical spirit which they breathed into their poetry.” “Of all this,” he continues, "the undeveloped germ doubtless existed in the previous epic, lyric, and gnomic composition ; but the drama stood distinguished from all these by bringing it out into conspicuous amplitude, and making it the substantive means of effect." The structural exigencies of form must have combined with the intellectual temper of the time in giving especial prominence to these kindred features. A drama is shorter than an epic; it traverses not the whole of a long history, but some special part of it; and the treatment of that special part may evoke interests conflicting with those which would be called out by the treatment of the whole. Had the plot of the Agamemnon been merged in a longer narrative, we should not have been led to pause on the character of Clytaemnestra, and examine as we now
& Hist. of Greece, vol. viii. chap. 67.
do the ground of her actions. The institution of the trilogy, apparently contrived as a means of taking the hearer through the various stages of a lengthened story, was frequently made to be directly subservient to this conflict of interests, the first and second plays complicating a knot which it was the business of the third to unravel. No more striking instance of this can have existed than that furnished to us by the chance which has robbed us of the first and third plays of the Promethean trilogy and preserved the second. The grounds of Zeus's vengeance are not set before us as clearly as they doubtless were in the opening drama, nor have we more than the faintest glimpses of the terms of reconciliation which were ratified in the third; we simply see the Titan in the first agony of his suffering, we feel his wrongs, we hear of his good deeds, we witness a display of his prophetic power, and our sympathies are wholly on his side. Accident has allowed us to hear but one part of the summing up, and we mistake it, as modern writers of genius have mistaken it, for a piece of powerful advocacy. As the Greek drama advanced, its rhetorical and dialectical aspects became still more apparent. The chorus, gradually divested of its musical glories, yet compelled as a general rule to continue on the stage, becomes a mere moderator between disputants, interposing a couplet of common-place at the end of the animated orations in which the various parties advocate their competing views.
It is needless to dwell on the profound intellectual effect which such a species of composition was calculated to produce. Many modern readers will have experienced the same stimulus in reading contemporary works of fiction ; they will vividly remember the time when they came to be interested, not so much in unexpected incidents or a skilfully constructed plot, as in the evolution of character, and the statement or solution of some complex moral problem. Not without a considerable sacrifice of beauty of form, the modern prose fiction combines the depth of tragedy with the breadth of epic poetry, and a modern reader under the spell of some powerful analyst of character and motive may interpret to himself many of the feelings of an Athenian spectator at the Great ** Dionysia. Perhaps it would have been impossible for a poet writing after the opening of this new fountain of human interest to return to the simpler portraiture of the elder epic: at any rate there can be little doubt that Virgil is strongly tinctured by the dramatic spirit, and that he has sacrificed to it the general effect of his narrative. I do not say that Virgil's conception of character is so consistent or so vivid as Homer's; doubtless it is not: I only say that the dramatic feeling, the drawing of character for character's sake, the delight in doing rhetorical justice to the personages of the story, is more strongly shown in the Aeneid than in the Homeric poems. One signal instance of this I have
already noted in the character of Dido; the character of Turnus affords another not less remarkable.
It has been ingeniously suggested that the reason for the enthusiasm with which Virgil throws himself into the character of Turnus, is that here at least he feels himself to be “an Italian minstrel, singing to Italians about an Italian hero." National feeling did undoubtedly work in Virgil, but not, I think, national feeling of this kind. Like the rest of his countrymen, he cared for Italy not independently of Rome, but as the broad base on which Roman power was built. His creed as a patriot would be expressed by the words of Varro, “Licet omnia Italica
pro Romanis habeam.” The Virgil of Dante's vision may talk of "that low Italy for which Camilla the virgin, Euryalus, and Turnus, and Nisus died of wounds" ;" but with the poet himself the object of the struggle is the establishment of Rome; and those who resisted the Trojan invaders' were not Italian patriots, but men deaf to the voices of the gods, and blind to the course of destiny. Here again the secret seems to be, that Virgil.is impregnated with modern feeling, and that Turnus occupies ground which, to modern feelings, appear unassailable. As in the case of Dido, the fact that the gods are on the side of Aeneas makes but little impression on us; we hear their dictates and their warnings, but the note does not ring with the same awful clearness as in the Homeric poems; our human feelings are roused, and our ears are filled with other sounds. The words of the oracle are express, and we feel that Amata's interpretation of them is a mere gloss; but it is good enough for the purpose; it gives a verbal sanction to a course which our hearts tell us to be the true one, and we are satisfied with it accordingly. Aeneas is called the Phrygian freebooter, who comes to drive peaceful inhabitants from their homes, and break the plighted engagements of a royal house; and we sympathize with topics so well adapted to conciliate modern readers. Homer would not have allowed us to feel so; he would have given no space to the pleadings of the natives for their rights, but would have thrown his whole strength on the case of the invaders, as being perfectly conformable to the code of the heroic age. Virgil must have sympathized with Aeneas, not only as realizing the adopted type of heroic action, but as representing the undeviating and relentless march of Roman greatness. But the modern spirit was too strong for him ; in describing Turnus as he conceived him to have been, he was led, in fact, to advocate his cause, and to record a protest
9 Gladstone, vol. iii. p. 512. Gossrau makes a similar remark on Aeneid 9. 155 : but it is obvious to reply that we are not expected to take Turnus and his friends at their own valuation. One curious fact however he mentions, that Silius Italicus uses “Rutuli” as one of his poetical synonymes for the Romans.
Dante, Inferno i. 106 foll. (Carlyle's translation.)
against heroic and Roman aggression alike. It is the spirit of the drama allowing itself free play; and the result is the enlargement of human sympathy, the vindication of the weaker as well as of the stronger. In many respects, as I have intimated, the character of Turnus does not command our approval ; there is fierceness in it, and blind fury, and, in the case of Pallas at least, savage cruelty. But this barbarity is the outgrowth of weakness ; it is the impotent beating of a captive against the iron bars of destiny ; and as an exhibition of weakness we sympathize even with it. So it is weakness, rendered hopeless and helpless, that engages our interest in the closing scene. It is modelled, no doubt, on the fall of Patroclus, who is paralyzed and disarmed by Apollo before he is killed by Hector ; but the incidents which, as we read them in Homer, touch us as we are touched by a fairy tale, are wrought up by Virgil to a terrible moral significance. The fates of the combatants have been balanced by Jupiter, and we know that in a short time the only obstacle that keeps Aeneas from his destined empire will be removed by Turnus's death. Yet that brief space only serves to intensify our interest for the doomed man; our wishes lend him wings as he is flying for his life, and calling by name on each of his terrified comrades ; and we echo the agonized prayer in which he implores the gods of his native land to hold fast Aeneas's spear. The strife of the Olympian deities is over ; Juno herself has abandoned Turnus, and is reconciled to the prospect of a Trojan empire without the name of Troy ; but we refuse to look so far into the future. We follow Turnus through the few remaining stages of helpless effort, dreamy bewilderment, and final overthrow, feeling that till he is dead we can spare no thoughts for the conqueror and the fruits of his victory. All this, I repeat, is simply the tribute we pay to the profound human interest with which Virgil's dramatic power leads him to invest a person for whom no minstrel of the heroic age would have claimed a tear. If Virgil had been the poet of the Odyssey, it is possible that our recollections of insolence, cruelty, and lawless sensuality would not have wholly hindered us from feeling for the slaughter of the suitors.
The influence of the Greek drama is also to be observed in the prominence given throughout the Aeneid to female characters. Mr. Gladstone has remarked with justice, that while Homer's women are uniformly feminine and retiring, Virgil's are slightly masculine and generally of a pronounced type ; they are agitated by violent passions and meet with violent ends. This is ascribed by an able critic in a weekly journal' to Virgil's experience of his own age, when, for the first
• Vol. iii. p. 527. He remarks later, p. 594, on the change produced in the Homeric women when they appear as stage heroines.
3 Saturday Review, Sept. 25, 1858.
time in Roman history, women came upon the stage of public life : it is, I think, no less due to the influence of the actual stage of Attica. Whether or no women were admitted as spectators of theatrical repre. sentations at Athens, in the stories that were represented they had to bear as conspicuous a part as men: the exigencies of dramatic art required it; and perhaps the fact that their parts were not only written but acted by men, tended still further to give them an equality which Homer would never have dreamed of, and which Athenian life did not sanction. They are not only merged in the aggregate of a sympathizing but subordinate chorus, accompanying the action as it were with an under-song ; they, occupy individually a large portion of the drama, sometimes, like Io or Electra, as sufferers, sometimes, like Clytaemnestra or Hecuba, as actors rising to masculine importance. Virgil may have had actual precedents, in history or fiction, for the characters of Dido, Amata, Juturna, and Camilla ; but even if he had not, his recollections of Greek art must have been amply sufficient both to suggest the thought and to guide the pencil.
Of Virgil's more palpable and measurable obligations to the writings of the Greek tragedians there is less to be said. As I have already intimated, several of the plays from which he is likely to have borrowed are lost ; and in the remainder the question is one rather of conjecture and inference than of direct observation. There can be no doubt, however, that the changes which the Homeric characters sustained in passing through the hands of the dramatists, as well as in the wear and tear of common tradition, had their full effect on Virgil's conception of the personages who make up his gallery of the heroic age. The appearance of Helen in the Troades of Euripides, where her more than feminine logic is overpowered by the superior logic of Hecuba, intensified by hatred, made it easier for Virgil to represent her as he has done in the second and sixth books of the Aeneid, though that representation, as I have said previously, was forced upon him by the circumstances of his story, and is sufficiently justified by them. So it was natural that Aeneas should be antipathetic to Ulysses ; but the grounds of antipathy are strengthened by the later Greek representations of the wily Greek, who is made, by a substitution characteristic of an Athenian writer during the Peloponnesian war, to exchange his part of a popular counsellor for that of a mere mob orator, and whose nobler qualities are transferred to a rival character, Palamedes, of whom he is the enemy and the treacherous murderer. Probably, also, there are situations which Virgil has conveyed from the Greek drama less directly and openly. One such I seem to observe in the steps by which Dido approaches the resolution of putting herself to death, talking freely and wildly of the thought while it is only a thought, carefully concealing it