« PreviousContinue »
founder of the Julian family; he therefore called this work, which he divided into twelve books, the Aeneid. He had already been employed eleven years upon his task, and had not yet put to it the finishing hand, when he was overtaken by his last sickness. He made a voyage to Greece, with the intention of visiting Attica and Asia. On arriving at Athens he met Augustus, who happened to be at that time returning from Asia Minor to Italy. Virgil was easily persuaded by his friend and patron to return with him immediately to Rome, but he was destined never again to see the capital city. His malady had continually increased during the voyage, and a few days after landing at Brundisium he expired. His death occurred in B.C. 19. His remains were conveyed from Brundisium to Naples, and buried on the hill of Posilippo, in the tomb still preserved and revered as the 'tomb of Virgil.'
There are no authentic portrait busts of Virgil. Outside of literary sources, our only knowledge of the personal appearance of the poet is derived from miniatures of some existing manuscripts, notably the Codex Romanus, and from two mosaics. One of these mosaics was discovered at Trier in 1884. The other, a representation of which forms the Frontispiece of this book, was found at Susa in Tunis, in 1896. It is about three feet square. In the center sits the poet, clothed in a white toga having a blue border. His feet rest upon a footstool. He holds a partly open scroll on which are the words :
This is sufficient to identify the poet. On one side stands Clio, the muse of history, reading from a roll; on the other is Melpomene, muse of tragedy, identified as such by the tragic mask which she holds. The mosaic dates probably from the first century A.D.
The literary history of Virgil during the Middle Ages affords a most interesting study. His fame as a poet was never dimin
1 See The Bookman, April, 1897, p. 104; and School Review, 1898, pp. 598 sqq. 2 Aeneid I, 8, 9.
ished. The fourth Eclogue was misinterpreted, and was believed to be a prophecy of the approaching birth of Christ. This, together with other influences, led to the mediæval conception of Virgil as a great magician. Many fantastical legends were woven about his name. It was believed that Virgil's name was derived from virga, 'a magic wand.' Thus, in time this came to be spelled Virgilius, from which the current English form of the name is descended. As early as the second century the custom prevailed of inquiring into future events by opening at random a volume of the poet's works. These chance oracles were called Sortes Vergilianae.
It is said that Virgil, a short time before his death, desired to burn the manuscript of the Aeneid, because of the imperfect state in which it would necessarily be left. But being dissuaded from this purpose by his friends Tucca and Varius, he directed them by his will to strike out all the verses that were incomplete, but to add nothing. It does not appear, however, that anything was erased by them, while many passages betray a lack of finish that undoubtedly would have been changed and corrected had the poet lived to make a revision of the whole work.
Thus the Aeneid, like some of the grandest sculptures of Michael Angelo, was left unfinished, and with some parts, perhaps, in the rough. But our interest is even enhanced in the works of both of these great Italian masters by the very fact that these unfinished parts show us the hand, as it were, still holding the chisel, and in the act of creation.
Virgil was an imitator. He borrowed without stint from Homer, from Apollonius, from the Greek tragedies ; in short, he laid under contribution all the earlier poets both of Greece and of Rome. Nothing beautiful in them, nothing fitted to his purpose, escaped his search. But he so appropriated to himself, and assimilated to his own modes of thought their ideas, images, and forms of expression, that they come before us in the Aeneid in all the freshness and individuality of new creations. The Aeneid stands nearly in the same relation to all preëxisting literature as does
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.
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!
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. be observed in their building operations. The bulky Coliseum presents a striking contrast to the perfect proportion and symmetry 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