Page images
PDF
EPUB

the Paradise Lost. The authors of these two epics are the greatest of all plagiarists; but the borrowed thought in both of them assumes so much of their individuality that their plagiarism becomes a beauty and a virtue. They are plagiarists of the older poets in the same sense that the painter is a plagiarist of nature.

But while the Aeneid, through the premature death of the poet, has been left to us somewhat incomplete, and while it claims no great degree of originality, but is largely the offspring, not of Virgil alone, but of the genius of all antiquity, it has always been, and always will be, justly regarded as the best and noblest of all the poetic creations of the Roman mind, and as one of the choicest productions of all literature. There are fashions in criticism as well as in other things; not, indeed, so changeful and transitory as those of dress, but fashions, nevertheless; and of late years some scholars, even eminent scholars, have fallen into the habit or affectation of speaking with some contempt of the court poets of the Augustan age. This fashion will have its day; but it cannot set aside the verdict of so many generations past. Virgil and Horace are in no danger. The Aeneid is too grand, too beautiful, too pure, to be despised, neglected, or lost.

It is replete with all the qualities that are essential to a great work of art. It is great in conception and invention.

It is wonderfully diversified in scenes, incidents, and characters, while it never departs from the vital principle of unity. It is adorned with the finest diction and imagery of which language is capable. In discoursing of great achievements and great events, it never falls short of the grandeur which befits the epic style ; in passages of grief and suffering it takes hold of our sympathies with all the power of the most affecting tragedy. What a sublime epic of itself is the account of the sack of Troy ! what a tragedy of passion and fate is presented in the story of Dido ! Indeed, the student will find in the Aeneid many dramatic scenes, many vivid pictures of life and manners, many lively narratives of adventure, any one of which would be of itself a poem, and would secure to its author an enviable fame.

FRIEZE'S AENEID - 2

of the preëminent worth of Virgil's poems, and of their importance as literary studies, the most striking proof is presented in the fact that so many of the classics of modern poetry, in all cultivated languages, have manifestly been produced under the molding and refining influence of this great master of the art. Dante, who felt all the power of the Mantuan,' ascribes to him whatever excellence he has himself attained in beauty of style ; and, in the generous avowal of his indebtedness, he utters one of the noblest eulogies ever bestowed by any poet upon a brother poet :

Glory and light of all the tuneful train !
May it avail me that I long with zeal
Have sought thy volume, and with love immense
Have conn'd it o'er. My master, thou, and guide!
Thou he, from whom alone I have derived
That style, which for its beauty into fame
Exalts me.'1

II. THE AENEID AS AN EPIC 2

The Aeneid, while essentially the product of Roman genius and imagination, is yet indebted for many of its scenes and episodes to those masterpieces of the Greek mind, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Each of these has for its subject events connected with the Trojan war; the Iliad relates the wrath of Achilles and the closing events of the war; the Odyssey describes the wanderings of Odysseus (Ulysses) in his journey homeward.

In writing a national epic, which was to embody Roman ideas and sentiments, and which was to appeal first of all to Romans, Virgil was compelled to conform to certain tendencies that were likely to affect any form of narrative poetry among the Romans. In the first place, such an epic had to satisfy a strong national

1 Dell' Inferno. Canto I, 82 (Cary's translation).

2 The revising editor desires to acknowledge his indebtedness, here and elsewhere, especially to the masterly work of Sellar, The Roman Poets of the Augustan Age, Virgil, and to the excellent essays, of Myer on Virgil in his Essays Classical, and of Nettleship, Suggestions Introductory to the Study of the Aeneid, in his Essays in Latin Literature.

sentiment; it was expected to revive and perpetuate great events in Roman history, and so transmit them to posterity. The Roman, then, in contrast with the Greek, chose to portray in poetical form actual historical events, past, or even contemporary, history that bore witness to the greatness of the nation. Secondly, it was a Roman instinct to honor great individuals, men who achieved success in arms in the interest of the Roman state. Accordingly the Roman singled out foremost leaders whom he glorified and whose name he perpetuated. This tendency also the Roman epic poet had to respect. A third characteristic of the Romans was their conception of all works upon a large scale. This may be observed in their building operations. The bulky Coliseum presents a striking contrast to the perfect proportion and symme. try of the Parthenon. The literary productions of the Romans might similarly be expected to be of large proportions both in design and conception, and to be executed upon a large scale.

These three motives are to be discovered in Roman epic writers of all periods, and indeed in other departments of literary activity as well, namely, the sentiment of national glory; the desire to perpetuate the name and magnify the deeds of great Romans; and the production of works of wide scope and massive workmanship. The Greek poet, on the other hand, appealed to his readers by the human interest which he aroused in his portrayal of the successes and reverses of mankind in general. In other words, the Greek conception was ideal, whereas the Roman was practical.

Keeping in mind these three motives which tended to influence every Roman composition, it is not difficult for us to discover how Virgil came to choose the story of Aeneas as the subject of his epic.

The charming narration of events in the Homeric poems had affected Roman as well as Greek, and many a dramatic action in both languages took for its subject one of these heroic legends. Now the story of Aeneas, in the later developed form in which Virgil found it, is the only one of national significance that is connected with the events of the Trojan war. The selection of the story of Aeneas was further influenced by the fact that

Augustus Caesar and his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, claimed descent through the Julian gens from Iulus, Aeneas, and the goddess Venus. The real purpose of the Aeneid, as a national epic, was the glorification of Augustus and the culmination of events under his wise and beneficent rule. This could be done in no better or more effective way than by depicting the wanderings of his Trojan ancestor to the Western Land, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto; by representing the Olympian gods as taking an active interest in his fortunes; and by setting forth the shaping of events preparatory to the establishment of universal Roman dominion during the administration of Augustus, imperium Oceano famam qui terminet astris.

In selecting the story of Aeneas, Virgil thus united all the qualities necessary for a successful Roman epic. The character of the hero possessed interest in belonging to the distant, legendary period of the Trojan war, yet satisfied the national sentiment in being closely connected with Roman fortunes of the day, and this latter was the more important condition to meet. • The real keynote to the poem is not the "arma virumque" with which it opens, but the “Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem" with which the exordium closes. The expansion of this subject also gave an opportunity of magnifying the names of Romans great in national history. This is done in the scene in Hades, described in Book VI, where Anchises points out to Aeneas the souls that are to return to the upper world and become distinguished Romans of future generations. At the same time the Aeneid is conceived upon a large scale, covering as it does the history of the establishment of Roman greatness, and, partly by way of intimation, of all succeeding events, culminating with the rule of the Emperor Augustus.

In two ways the Aeneid differs from its Greek models. In the first place it belongs to the type of the literary epic, in distinction from the Iliad and Odyssey, which belong to the class of primitive epics. The latter are the spontaneous narration of early legends and traditions. They are characterized by a charming naturalness of manner and language, by vividness, and a lively imagina

tion. The literary epic, of which the Aeneid is the representative, is the product of a different and a later epoch in civilization ; it is less spontaneous and so more artificial. It presupposes a long development in the literary history of a people, and implies on the part of the poet extraordinary powers of arranging and combining masses of material.

In the second place, the Aeneid is, as we have seen, a national epic, while the Iliad and Odyssey are epics of human life. But Virgil's poem is not by any means devoid of scenes of human interest. On the other hand, it abounds in pathetic incidents and exciting situations, and presents many spectacles of human life and manners and passion.

The characters in this epic drama play their part well. Aeneas is of course the leading one. "The general conception of Aeneas is indeed in keeping with the religious idea of the Aeneid. He is intended to be the embodiment of the courage of an ancient hero, the justice of a paternal ruler, the mild humanity of a cultivated man living in an age of advanced civilization, the saintliness of the founder of a new religion of peace and pure observance, the affection for parent and child which was one of the strongest instincts in the Italian race.' 'In the part he plays he is conceived of as one chosen by the supreme purpose of the gods, as an instrument of their will, and thus necessarily unmoved by ordinary human impulses. The strength required in such an instrument is the strength of faith, submission, patience, and endurance; and it is with this strength that Aeneas encounters the many dangers and vicissitudes to which he is exposed, and withdraws from the allurements of ease and pleasure.' Cf. notes on I, 1o, 220.

Besides Aeneas the characters that stand out most prominently are Dido and Turnus, the former dominating the first half of the poem, the latter the last half. The character of the ill-fated queen Dido is strong. Hers was a generous and trusting, but pure and noble soul. Her succumbing to the fatal passion was brought about by divine agency. The queen's real nature is exhibited

« PreviousContinue »