Page images
PDF
EPUB

the poet was exposed were, that either by treating his subject too literally, he should make it dry and repulsive; or that he should so overlay it with ornament, as to render his instructions useless and unintelligible; or that he should, by undue elevation of what is apparently mean and trivial, degenerate into affectation and bombast. These dangers he has completely escaped. He gives rules with all the precision of a scientific treatise, and all the charms of true poetry, manifesting that pregnant power of exact expression in which he has no rival. Like all good teachers, he abounds in illustration. What can be apter, for instance, than his reminiscence of the old gardener, probably visited by him on the journey to Brundusium with Horace and Maecenas, which he gives with so much enjoyment, and such exquisitely minute touches, subordinate, however, all the while to his main purpose of teaching how bees may be most profitably reared ? Belonging also to the same illustrative faculty is his habit of seizing hold of an incident common enough in rural life, and giving it activity and personality, as in his instructions regarding the viper, Cape saxa manu, cape robora, pastor. But his poetical power is principally displayed in those episodes, by which he has enriched the Georgics with some of the most finished specimens of poetry that exist in any language. Donatus tells us that Virgil, while writing the Georgics, was in the habit of dictating to his amanuensis in the morning several lines, and that his sole employment during the day was to reduce their number, and bring the selected few to the proper state of polish; and adds, that he compared himself not unaptly to a bear licking her cubs into shape. Whether this be true or not, the result of his labours undoubtedly is, that in the Georgics we have one of the most finished productions of which human language seems susceptible.

We cannot say the same of the third, the longest and most ambitious of Virgil's works—the AENEID. But in our remarks on this poem, we must remember that it is an unfinished production, and did not enjoy the master's polishing touches to soften asperities, to remove inconsistencies, and to effect those callidae juncturae which are often the result of minute elaboration. The avowed subject is the settlement of Aeneas and the Trojans in Italy—that theme which had been a favourite tradition of the Romans, at least prior to the time of Naevius.2 The poem opens in the seventh summer after the destruction of Troy, with the

1 Donatus, in the same passage, says that Virgil first wrote the Aeneid in prose. If both these assertions had been made of the same poem, they would have been singularly analogous with the procedure of Goldsmith in his exquisitely-finished poem of the Deserted Village.

2 B.C. 235. Clinton, F. H. vol. iii. p. 29. Niebuhr's Lectures on the Early History of Rome, p. 29.

landing of Aeneas on the coast of Carthage, and his hospitable reception by Dido.1 In the two following books Aeneas narrates to Dido his wanderings, from the downfall of Troy up till that time. The fourth contains the loves of Aeneas and Dido, the departure of the former by the command of the gods, and the despair and voluntary death of the latter. In the fifth, Aeneas visits Sicily; and in the sixth arrives in Italy, where, at Cumae, he descends to the shades, and has an interview with his father Anchises. The remaining books are occupied with his struggles to obtain a settlement in Italy, the land destined to his race—the offers of Latinus, king of the Latins, who agrees to marry to him his daughter, and give him a kingdom-the opposition of the Rutulian king, Turnus, to whom Lavinia had been betrothed— the mustering of allies on both sides—the repeated defeats of the Rutulians, in spite of the gallant deeds of Turnus, his final overthrow and death, and the triumph of Aeneas.

Objections have been made to the Aeneid, altogether independently of its being an unfinished work. These resolve themselves into Virgil's want of originality, his alleged poverty of invention, the sameness of his characters, and, above all, the fatal objection that his hero is totally devoid of interest. To some of these no satisfactory answer can be given. It was an unfortunate thing that he chose to form himself so much on the model of Homer, and to trust too little to his own original powers. That he has done so cannot be denied. And if the question were, whether the Aeneid is to be read solely for its own underived excellencies? we should have to except a very large portion. But the question assumes a very different aspect when we wish to examine not the powers of the poet, but the charms of the poem. In this view we are at liberty to admire the new form in which Virgil often reproduces the thoughts of his master. The alleged poverty of invention, in incidents at least, is not so apparent. The rapid changes of scenery and event, especially in the early books, are a convincing proof that his powers were not essentially deficient in this respect. Nor can the charge of sameness of character be admitted. No doubt there is too much of the fortemque Gyan, fortemque Cloanthum. But there must be walking gentlemen in all populous representations. And surely the old age of Anchises is not that of Evander or Latinus, nor the youth of Euryalus that of Ascanius, nor the bravery of Mezentius that of

1 As the date of the foundation of Carthage by Dido is generally placed upwards of two hundred years after that assigned to the destruction of Troy, Virgil has here been charged with an Anachronism, or error in point of time. From this he is elaborately defen by Martyn in his Dissertations upon the Aeneid of Virgil, pp. 1-26 ; and by Gibbon, Miscellaneous Works, vol. ii. p. 469. Res non operae pretium est.

Turnus, nor the rage of Amata that of Dido? The deities also preserve their characteristics; and Jupiter's dignity is as different from that of Neptune, as the lineaments and state of Venus are different from those of Juno. The last objection-- that founded on the character of Aeneas-seems the most serious and unsurmountable of all, as it runs through the whole work, and affects its power to please, apart from the question of originality. It has been alleged that Virgil has here failed, because his aim was to represent Augustus in Aeneas, and that the character of the former was incompatible with heroic dignity. But, critically considered, though this were the case, it would only prove that he was destitute either of skill in selection, or of that power of creating a character which constitutes the true poet. There is no question that he did intend to compliment Augustus. He had personally experienced the fearful woes to which his country had been subjected by the civil wars. He seems early to have abandoned the party of Antony, to which his own retired and meditative habits had probably never induced him to form an attachment stronger than that which arose from the ties of personal affection to some of its leading men. Thenceforth he flung himself entirely on the side of Maecenas and Augustus, as of men who alone could heal the bleeding wounds of the country which he so ardently loved. He fondly hoped that. Rome would rival Greece in arts, as she had before conquered her in arms; and he strove to do his best to accomplish this end. And in all this Augustus was his hope, as it was that of Horace and other reflective and leading minds of that age. But it seems an overrefinement to suppose that in the Aeneid the characters are representations of those men that thronged the court of Augustus, or took place in the events that affected his history, and that the battles and struggles are intended to shadow forth the conflicts that raised Augustus to the empire. Virgil seems to have had before him in Aeneas, not a representation of Augustus, but a distinct conception of a character noble in itself, though, unfortunately for his main design, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to invest it with interest when success is to accompany it. His design was, having before him the destinies of the mightiest empire that the world had ever seen, to give its founder a character befitting. He was to be a man of warm affections, eager to see his storm-buffetted friends and followers at last reposing in peace, but with implicit reliance on the will of Heaven, and determined to forego all considerations, not for himself, but for that posterity whose destinies depended on his obedience to the behests of the gods. Hence the pius Aeneas sacrifices his own feelings at all times to posterity. For this he wanders from clime to clime--for this he gives up Dido—for this he plunges into a bloody war in a strange land. Now to invest such a character with interest, he must be unsuccessful; he must be the object of our admiration for the real hardships and evils to which he submits, his unselfishness appearing evident in his meek submission. Unfortunately, it was necessarily Virgil's plan, as it was part of the tradition, to bestow success on Aeneas; and thus his character is invested with an obedience which has no real trials; his self-conflicts all end in his self-aggrandisement. One thing alone could have imparted interest to the successful Aeneas -a strong will struggling manfully, and by its own indomitable energies. Unfortunately, this is the very attribute with which the poet has endowed Turnus; and it cannot be denied that the reader is irresistibly drawn to wish success to the enemy of the Roman race, and to mourn his fall.

But in spite of these serious drawbacks, the Aeneid, while it would be folly to demand for it a place with the Iliad, will ever be a deeply interesting poem. Its style a model of correct taste, its diction pure and majestic, its versification full and flowing, its vivacity unbounded, the spirit of its incidents unfailing, it presents a charming field over which to roam in search of the sweet and the stately. In one characteristic, at least, Virgil surpasses Homer—in the exquisite pathos with which he delineates human suffering; while not Homer himself is more sublime than Virgil in his loftiest flights, as when he describes the gods congregated for Troy's downfall, or the Egyptian fleeing in awe-struck dread from the pointed arrow of Apollo.

[graphic]

VIRGILII BUCOLICA.

E C LOGA I.

The title Bucolica was probably given to these poems by Virgil himself.

It is derived from Bcuzonizós, pastoral. The title Ecloga is from ézhora, a selected piece; and in consequence of its application to

these bucolics, Eclogue came to mean a pastoral poem. The subject of this Eclogue is the gratitude of Virgil to Augustus, for

having restored to him his lands, in the neighbourhood of Mantua, as has been stated in the INTRODUCTION. The poet brings this out by a dialogue between two shepherds, one of whom, Meliboeus, is compelled by the soldiers to leave his country. The other shepherd, Tityrus, representing one of the dispossessed inhabitants, is settled in the enjoyment of freedom and peace, both of which he had gained in a visit to Rome. This is intended to indicate, in a general way, Virgil's own condition.

TITYRUS.

MELIBOEUS-TITYRUS,

MELIBOEUS.

TITYRE, tu, patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi,
Silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena:

1. Tityre. The proper names of Greek origin in the Eclogues are borrowed from Theocritus and Pindar. Recubans and lentus (verse 4), implying ease and security, are opposed to linquimus and fugimus (verses 3 and 4). Tegmine. In Cicero (de Nat. Deor. 2, 44, 112) occurs lato sub tegmine coeli. Fagi. Though no beech-trees are now found in the vicinity of Mantua, we must not thence conclude that such did not exist in Virgil's time. A plantation of aged beeches would seem to have been a distinguishing feature of his farm, so often does he mention it; cf. Ed. 2, 3; 3, 12; 9,9; and Georg. 4, 566. The fagus of the Romans must not be confounded with the onyós of the Greeks. The latter was a species of oak, but the former was the beech, as is evident from the words of Pliny: Fagi glans, nucleis similis, triangula cute includitur.—2. Meditaris (as if for melitaris, from usdemáw) is here

« PreviousContinue »