« PreviousContinue »
In turning from the Eclogues and Georgics to the Aeneid, we are no longer confronted by the opinion which insists on Virgil's claims as a strictly original poet. The days are past when Scaliger could compare Virgil and Homer in detail, and pronounce that the scholar had in almost every instance excelled his master; nor would a modern reader easily tolerate even those less invidious parallels, such as were not infrequent in the last century, where Virgil was measured against Homer on the same principles on which Johnson has measured Pope against Dryden, and with substantially the same results. It is hard to read without a smile the apologetic tone in which Pope himself vindicates Homer against the admirers of Virgil, pleading that the old Greek has at all events the advantage of having written first; that if he had a less cool judgment, he holds the heart under a stronger enchantment, and that to endeavour to exalt Virgil at his expense is much the same as if one should think to raise the superstructure by undermining the foundation'. It is now the turn of the critic of the Aeneid to use the language of extenuation and speak with bated breath. On the one side it is admitted, as it is asserted on the other, that in undertaking the Aeneid at the command of a superior Virgil was venturing beyond the province of his genius, and that all we can expect to find is the incidental success which could not fail to be obtained even on uncongenial ground by the poet of the Georgics. I have elsewhere explained the reasons which lead me to question the appropriateness of the special praise usually given to Virgil's agricultural poetry, and conceded, though with more hesitation, to his pastoral compositions, as if the true bent of his mind were to be found in his sympathy with external nature, at the same time that I bave spoken as strongly as it was in my power to speak of the marvellous grace and delicacy, the evidences of a culture - most elaborate and most refined, which shine out in the midst of a
thousand incongruities of costume and outward circumstance, and make us forget that we are reading Bucolic poems of which line after line is to be found in Theocritus, and precepts about husbandry which are far more
i Preface to Homer.
intelligibly stated in Theophrastus or in the Geoponica. It is precisely this measure which I would wish now to extend to the Aeneid. So far it may seem that I am substantially at one with the opinion which I have mentioned as that which is now generally entertained on Virgil's claims as an epic poet. It is possible however that the habit of sharply contrasting the characteristics of the several works of Virgil may have led to an exaggeration on the one side, as I believe it has on the other,that the Aeneid may have been brought too exclusively to the standard of the Iliad and Odyssey, and that Virgil may have been blamed, as Pope complains that Homer has been blamed, for not doing what he never intended.
There can be little doubt that too much has been made of Virgil's supposed disqualification or disinclination for epic poetry. We have his own confession in the Sixth Eclogue that his early ambition was to sing of kings and battles : and though Phoebus may have whispered in his ear that such themes were too high for one so young, so bumble, and so unknown, we are not obliged to conclude that the aspiration was then and there finally abandoned, or that as he rose naturally from short pastorals to a long didactic poem, he may not have cherished the hope of rising by an equally natural ascent to a still longer epic. If Pope's epic poem of Alcander was the dream of his boyhood, when he fancied himself the greatest poet that ever lived, his epic poem on Brutus was no less the vision of his later years, when he had come, as he thought, to take a just measure of his powers. That Augustus may have exercised some pressure on Virgil, urging him to undertake heroic poetry, is very possible; but Virgil's words in the Third Georgic, and the similar language held by other poets, such as Horace and Propertius, would lead us to agree with a recent German editor?, that what the emperor wished for was a direct celebration of his own actions; nor is there any thing, even in the apocryphal notices of the pseudo-biographer, to compel us to any other conclusion. It was only natural that Augustus should take an interest, as we know him to have done, in the progress of a poem which, in grandeur of scope and compass, promised to transcend any previous effort of the Roman muse, and so could not but reflect in. direct glory on his reign. We may observe, however, that in the only words of Virgil on the subject which have come down to us: the poet expresses himself with considerable reserve, and is by no means forward to gratify the imperial curiosity. Nor need we to lay any stress on the story which, supported as it is by the authority of the elder Pliny', there seems no reason to doubt, that Virgil himself, when dying, condemned his Aeneid to the flames. Rightly understood, that story seems to con
• Gossrau, Praef. ad Aeneidem.
Nat. Hist. vii. 30.
s Macrobius, Sat, i. 24.
tain, not a confession that he had mistaken bis powers, but simply one more instance of the fastidious and exacting nature of his self-criticism. The words of the pseudo-biographer, who in this case at least is telling a plausible tale, inform us distinctly that it was the uncorrected and unfinished state of the work whicn made Virgil anxious that it should not survive him, “ comburi iussit ut rem inemendatam imperfectamque $.” The explanation is consonant to all that we know of Virgil's character, as shown in his writings ; and it can only be a private opinion which we may ourselves entertain about the merit of the poein that would lead us to seek for any other. The biographer tells us, and here again bis story is credible enough, that Virgil was overtaken by death at the time when he was intending to spend three years in polishing and elaborating the Aeneid : and we may imagine for ourselves what would be the value of three years of correction in the judginent of a poet like Virgil, and how abortive he might consider the work which had lost the advantage of so loug a gestation. We cannot, indeed, except in a very few obvious cases, such as the hemistichs, tell what may bave been the actual short. comings of the poem as they appeared to its author. He may have introduced verses, as the story says he did, which were intended as mere temporary make-shifts', props to stay the building until more solid supports should be forthcoming; but modern criticism has not in general been very happy in pointing out these weak places, and for the present we must be content to admit that, as regards the execution of the poem, at any rate, our conceptions of what is required fall infinitely short of Virgil's own; and that though we may hope, in some measure, to appreciate what he has done, we can form no potion of what he left yet to do. Such an admission of ignorance is no more than the tribute which we pay, naturally and cheerfully, to a consummate artist. In any case, we need not doubt that the feeling which made Virgil wish to rob the world of his greatest poem was simply the mortification of leaving in a state of comparative imperfection a work which he had intended to be bis masterpiece. To imagine that he was sensible of the unreality which, to a certain extent, characterizes the Aeneid, as compared with the Homeric poems, is to imagine an anachronism and an impossibility, to attribute to him a thought which is inconsistent with the whole tenor of his writings, and must have been alien to the entire current of senti. ment among his contemporaries, whether admiring or adverse. He seems never to have tormented himself with doubts that he had not realized the rustic vigour of Theocritus, or the primitive simplicity of Hesiod. He appropriates their form boldly and openly, and does not ask himself whether he has reproduced their spirit. To be the Roman
s Donatus, Life of Virgil, § 14. 52.
6 Ibid. & 9. 35.
Homer; to write the sequel of the tale of Troy, not as an inferior, but as an equal, not as a younger son of the victorious race, but as the heir of those many ages which had lifted the conquered people to a height far above their conquerors; to combine the glories of the heroic age with the august antiquities of his own nation; this was an ideal which might well captivate á mind like Virgil's, and which less partial voices than those of an applauding court might have told him that he was able to attain.
The chasm which separates the Aeneid from the Iliad and Odyssey is undoubtedly one which is not easily spanned. It is true that sufficient account has not always been taken of the numerous intervening objects which break the distance and afford resting places to the eye. The substance of the Homeric poetry, the conduct of the action and the conception of the actors, came to Virgil modified by the intermediate agency of the Greek drama. His view of the form may have been similarly affected by the example of those later Greek epics of which the poem of Apollonius is the only surviving specimen, and by the precepts of that critical fraternity of which the author of the Argonautics was no undistinguished member. But the unsurpassed eminence of the two writers, the bard or bards of pre-historic Greece and the poet of Augustan Rome, will always make them prominent objects of comparison or contrast; and the parallel is itself one which Virgil, far from avoiding, has done his utmost to challenge. To a modern reader the exactness of the parallel cnly serves to make the contrast deeper and more unmistakeable. Mr. Gladstone says nothing which a critic not sworn, like himself, absolutely to the service of Homer, need hesitate to admit, when he calls attention to the extraordinary amount of admitted imitation and obvious similarity on the surface of the Aeneid, and pronounces nevertheless that the poem stands in almost every fundamental particular in the strongest contrast to the Iliad?. Both features, the identity and the diversity, are, as I have just said, sufficiently familiar to us; we have seen them in Virgil's treatment of Theocritus and Hesiod, and we shall not be surprised to meet them again in his treatment of Homer. the identity, indeed, there is but little to say which has not been anticipated in what I have advanced in my Introduction to the Eclogues. The diversity is a more complex question, and may well occupy us somewhat longer.
The production of the Aeneid was part of that general burst of literary enthusiasm which distinguished the Augustan period. Roman
? Studies on Homer, vol. iii. p. 502. I may here express my obligations generally to this part of Mr. Gladstone's work, which has in fact suggested much of the present Essay, though I have mostly found myself unable to agree with his views.