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CHAPTER II. VIRGIL (70-19 B.C.).

PUBLIUS VIRGILIUS, or more correctly, VERGILIUS [1] MARO, was born in the village or district [2] of Andes, near Mantua, sixteen years after the birth of Catullus, of whom he was a compatriot as well as an admirer. [3] As the citizenship was not conferred on Gallia Transpadana, of which Mantua was a chief town, until 49 B.C., when Virgil was nearly twenty-one years old, he had no claim by birth to the name of Roman. And yet so intense is the patriotism which animates his poems, that no other Roman writer, patrician or plebeian, surpasses or even equals it in depth of feeling. It is one proof out of many how completely the power of Rome satisfied the desire of the Italians for a great common head whom they might reverence as the heaven-appointed representative of their race. And it leads us to reflect on the narrow pride of the great city in not earlier extending her full franchise to all those gallant tribes who fought so well for her, and who at last extorted their demand with grievous loss to themselves as to her, by the harsh argument of the sword. To return to Virgil. We learn nothing from his own works as to his early life and parentage. Our chief authority is Donatus. His father, Maro, was in humble circumstances; according to some he followed the trade of a potter. But as he farmed his own little estate, he must have been far removed from indigence, and we know that he was able to give his illustrious son the best education the time afforded. Trained in the simple virtues of the country, Virgil, like Horace, never lost his admiration for the stern and almost Spartan ideal of life which he had there witnessed, and which the levity of the capital only placed in stronger relief. After attending school for some years at Cremona, he assumed at sixteen the manly gown, on the very day to which tradition assigns the death of the poet Lucretius. Some time later (53 B.C.), we find him at Rome studying rhetoric under Epidius, and soon afterwards philosophy under Siro the Epicurean. The recent publication of Lucretius's poem must have invested Siro's teaching with new attractiveness in the eyes of a young author, conscious of genius, but as yet self-distrustful, and willing to humble his mind before the “temple of speculative truth,” The short piece, written at this date, and showing his state of feeling, deserves to be quoted:—

  “Ite hinc inanes ite rhetorum ampullae... 
  Scholasticorum natio madens pingui:... 
  Tuque o mearum cura, Sexte, curarum 
  Vale Sabine: iam valete formosi. 
  Nos ad beatos vela mittimus portus 
  Magni patentes docta dicta Sironis, 
  Vitamque ab omni vindicabimus cura. 
  Ite hinc Camenae... 
  Dulces Camenae, nam (fatebimur verum) 
  Dulces fuistis: et tamen meas chartas 
  Revisitote, sed pudenter et varo.”

These few lines are very interesting, first, as enabling us to trace the poetic influence of Catullus, whose style they greatly resemble, though their moral tone is far more serious; secondly, as showing us that Virgil was in aristocratic company, the names mentioned, and the epithet formosi, by which the young nobles designated themselves, after the Greek kaloi, kalokagathoi, indicating as much; and thirdly, as evincing a serious desire to embrace philosophy for his guide in life, after a conflict with himself as to whether he should give up writing poetry, and a final resolution to indulge his natural taste “seldom and without licentiousness.” We can hardly err in tracing this awakened earnestness and its direction upon the Epicurean system to his first acquaintance with the poem of Lucretius. The enthusiasm for philosophy expressed in these lines remained with Virgil all his life. Poet as he was, he would at once be drawn to the theory of the universe so eloquently propounded by a brother-poet. And in all his works a deep study of Lucretius is evidenced not only by imitations of his language, but by frequent adoption of his views and a recognition of his position as the loftiest attainable by man. [4] The young Romans at this time took an eager interest in the problems which philosophy presents, and most literary men began their career as disciples of the Lucretian theory. [5] Experience of life, however, generally drew them away from it. Horace professed to have been converted by a thunder-clap in a clear sky; this was no doubt irony, but it is clear that in his epistles he has ceased to be an Epicurean. Virgil, who in the Eclogues andGeorgics seems to sigh with regret after the doctrines he fears to accept, comes forward in the Aeneid as the staunch adherent of the national creed, and where he acts the philosopher at all, assumes the garb of a Stoic, not an Epicurean. But he still desired to spend his later days in the pursuit of truth; it seemed as if he accepted almost with resignation the labours of a poet, and looked forward to philosophy as his recompense and the goal of his constant desire. [6] We can thus trace a continuity of interest in the deepest problems, lasting throughout his life, and, by the sacrifice of one side of his affections, tinging his mind with that subtle melancholy so difficult to analyse, but so irresistible in its charm. The craving to rest the mind upon a solid ground of truth, which was kept in abeyance under the Republic by the incessant calls of active life, now asserted itself in all earnest characters, and would not be content without satisfaction. Virgil was cut off before his philosophical development was completed, and therefore it is useless to speculate what views he would have finally espoused. But it is clear that his tone of mind was in reality artistic and not philosophical. Systems of thought could never have had real power over him except in so far as they modified his conceptions of ideal beauty: he possessed neither the grasp nor the boldness requisite for speculative thought; all ideas as they were presented to his mind were unconsciously transfused into materials for effects of art. And the little poem which has led to these remarks seems to enshrine in the outpourings of an early enthusiasm the secret of that divided allegiance between his real and his fancied aptitudes, which impels the poet's spirit, while it hears the discord, to win its way into the inner and more perfect harmony.

After the battle of Philippi (42 B.C.) he appears settled in his native district cultivating pastoral poetry, but threatened with ejection by the agrarian assignations of the Triumvirs. Pollio, who was then Prefect of Gallia Transpadana, interceded with Octavian, and Virgil was allowed to retain his property. But on a second division among the veterans, Varus having now succeeded to Pollio, he was not so fortunate, but with his father was obliged to fly for his life, an event which he has alluded to in the first and ninth Eclogues. The fugitives took refuge in a villa that had belonged to Siro, [7] and from this retreat, by the advice of his friend Cornelius Gallus, he removed to Rome, where, 37 B.C., he published his Eclogues. These at once raised him to eminence as the equal of Varius, though in a different department; but even before their publication he had established himself as an honoured member of Maecenas's circle. [8] The liberality of Augustus and his own thrift enabled him to live in opulence, and leave at his death a very considerable fortune. Among other estates he possessed one in Campania, at or near Naples, which from its healthfulness and beauty continued till his death to be his favourite dwelling-place. It was there that he wrote the Georgics, and there that his bones were laid, and his tomb made the object of affectionate and even religious veneration. He is not known to have undertaken more than one voyage out of Italy; but that contemplated in the third Ode of Horace may have been carried out, as Prof. Sellar suggests, for the sake of informing himself by personal observation about the localities of the Aeneid; for it seems unlikely that the accurate descriptions of Book III. could have been written without some such direct knowledge. The rest of his life presents no event worthy of record. It was given wholly to the cultivation of his art, except in so far as he was taken up with scientific and antiquarian studies, which he felt to be effectual in elevating his thought and deepening his grasp of a great subject. [9] The Georgics were composed at the instance of Maecenas during the seven years 37-30 B.C., and read before Augustus the following year. The Aeneid was written during the remaining years of his life, but was left unfinished, the poet having designed to give three more years to its elaboration. As is well known, it was saved from destruction and given to the world by the emperor's command, contrary to the poet's dying wish and the express injunctions of his will. He died at Brundisium (19 B.C.) at the comparatively early age of 51, of an illness contracted at Megara, and aggravated by a too hurried return. The tour on which he had started was undertaken from a desire to see for himself the coasts of Asia Minor which he had made Aeneas visit. Such was the life and such the premature death of the greatest of Roman bards.

Even those who have judged the poems of Virgil most unfavourably speak of his character in terms of warmest praise. He was gentle, innocent, modest, and of a singular sweetness of disposition, which inspired affection even where it was not returned, and in men who rarely showed it. [10] At the same time he is described as silent and even awkward in society, a trait which Dante may have remembered when himself taunted with the same deficiency. His nature was pre-eminently a religious one. Dissatisfied with his own excellence, filled with a deep sense of the unapproachable ideal, he reverenced the ancient faith and the opinions of those who had expounded it. This habit of mind led him to underrate his own poetical genius and to attach too great weight to the precedents and judgment of others. He seems to have thought no writer so common-place as not to yield some thought that he might make his own; and, like Milton, he loves to pay the tribute of a passing allusion to some brother poet, whose character he valued, or whose talent his ready sympathy understood. In an age when licentious writing, at least in youth, was the rule and required no apology, Virgil's early poems are conspicuous by its almost total absence; while the Georgics and Aeneid maintain a standard of lofty purity to which nothing in Latin, and few works in any literature, approach. His flattery of Augustus has been censured as a fault; but up to a certain point it was probably quite sincere. His early intimacy with Varius, the Caesarian poet, and possibly the general feeling among his fellow provincials, may have attracted him from the first to Caesar's name; his disposition, deeply affected by power or greatness, naturally inclined him to show loyalty to a person; and the spell of success when won on such a scale as that of Augustus doubtless wrought upon his poetical genius. Still, no considerations can make us justify the terms of divine homage which he applies in all his poems, and with every variety of ornament, to the emperor. Indeed, it would be inconceivable, were it not certain, that the truest representative of his generation could, with the approbation of all the world, use language which, but a single generation before, would have called forth nothing but scorn.

Virgil was tall, dark, and interesting-looking, rather than handsome; his health was delicate, and besides a weak digestion, [11] he suffered like other students from headache. His industry must, in spite of this, have been extraordinary; for he shows an intimate acquaintance not only with all that is eminent in Greek and Latin literature, but with many recondite departments of ritual, antiquities, and philosophy, [12] besides being a true interpreter of nature, an excellence that does not come without the habit as well as the love of converse with her. Of his personal feelings we know but little, for he never shows that unreserve which characterises so many of the Roman writers; but he entertained a strong and lasting friendship for Gallus, [13] and the force and truth of his delineations of the passion of love seem to point to personal experience. Like Horace, he never married, and his last days are said to have been clouded with regret for the unfinished condition of his great work.

The early efforts of Virgil were chiefly lyric and elegiac pieces after the manner of Catullus, whom he studied with the greatest care, and two short poems in hexameters, both taken from the Alexandrines, called Culex and Moretum, of which the latter alone is certainly, the formerly possibly, genuine. [14] Among the short pieces called Catalecta we have some of exquisite beauty, as the dedicatory prayer to Venus and the address to Siro's villa; [15] others show a vein of invective which we find it hard to associate with the gentle poet; [16] others, again, are parodies or close imitations of Catullus; [17] while one or two [18] are proved by internal evidence to be by another hand than Virgil's. The Copa, “Mine Hostess,” which closes the series, reminds us of Virgil in its expression, rhythm, and purity of style, but is far more lively than anything we possess of his. It is an invitation to a rustic friend to put up his beast and spend the hot hours in a leafy arbour where wine, fruits, and goodly company wait for him. We could wish the first four lines away, and then the poem would be a perfect gem. Its clear joyous ring marks the gay time of youth; its varied music sounds the prelude to the metrical triumphs that were to come, and if it is not Virgil's, we have lost in its author a genre poet of the rarest power.

The Moretum is a pleasing idyll, describing the daily life of the peasant Simplus, translated probably from the Greek of Parthenius. On it Teuffel says, “Suevius had written a Moretum, and it is not improbable that the desire to surpass Suevius influenced Virgil in attempting the same task again.” [19] Trifling as this circumstance is, nothing that throws any light on the growth of Virgil's muse can be wanting in interest. Virgil was not one of those who startle the world by their youthful genius. His soul was indeed a poet's from the first, but the rich perfection of his verse was not developed until after years of severe labour, self-correction, and even failure. He began by essaying various styles; he gradually confined himself to one; and in that one he wrought unceasingly, always bringing method to aid talent, until, through various grades of immaturity, he passed to a perfection peculiarly his own, in which thought and expression are fused with such exceeding art as to elude all attempts to disengage them. If we can accept the Culex in its present form as genuine, the development of Virgil's genius is shown to us in a still earlier stage. Whether he wrote it at sixteen or twenty-six (and to us the latter age seems infinitely the more probable), it bears the strongest impress of immaturity. It is true the critics torment us by their doubts. Some insist that it cannot be by Virgil. Their chief arguments are derived from the close resemblances (which they regard as imitations) to many passages in the Aeneid; but of these another, and perhaps a more plausible, explanation may be given. The hardest argument to meet is that drawn from the extraordinary imperfection of the plot, which mars the whole consistency of the poem; [20] but even this is not incompatible with Virgil's authorship. For all ancient testimony agrees in regarding the Culex of Virgil as a poem of little merit. [21] Amid the uncertainty which surrounds the subject, it seems best not to disturb the verdict of antiquity, until better grounds are discovered for assigning our present poem to a later hand. To us the evidence seems to point to the Virgilian authorship. The defect in the plot marks a fault to which Virgil certainly was prone, and which he never quite cast off. [22] The correspondences with the mythology, language, and rhythm of Virgil are just such as might be explained by supposing them to be his first opening conceptions on these points, which assumed afterwards a more developed form. [23] And this is the more probable because Virgil's mind created with labour, and cast and re-cast in the crucible of reflection ideas of which the first expression suggested itself in early life. Thus we find in theAeneid similes which had occurred in a less finished form in the Georgics; in both Georgics and Aeneid phrases or cadences which seem to brood over and strive to reproduce half-forgotten originals wrought out long before. Nothing is more interesting in tracing Virgil's genius, than to note how each fullest development of his talent subsumes and embraces those that had gone before it; how his mind energises in a continuous mould, and seems to harp with almost jealous constancy on strings it has once touched. The deeper we study him, the more clearly is this feature seen. Unlike other poets who throw off their stanzas and rise as if freed from a load, Virgil seems to carry the accumulated burden of his creations about with him. He imitates himself with the same elaborate assimilation by which he digests and reproduces the thoughts of others.

It is probable that Virgil suppressed all his youthful poetry, and intended the Eclogues to be regarded as the first-fruits of his genius. [24] The pastoral had never yet been cultivated at Rome. Of all the products of later Greece none could vie with it in truth to nature. Its Sicilian origin bespoke a fresh inspiration, for it arose in a land where the muse of Hellas still lingered. Theocritus's vivid delineation of country scenes must have been full of charm to the Romans, and Virgil did well to try to naturalise it. Not even his matchless grace, however, could atone for the want of reality that pervades an imported type of art. Sicilian shepherds, Roman literati, sometimes under a rustic disguise, sometimes in their own person; a landscape drawn, now from the vales round Syracuse, now from the poet's own district round Mantua; playful contests between rural bards interspersed with panegyrics on Julius Caesar and the patrons or benefactors of the poet; a continual mingling of allegory with fiction, of genuine rusticity with assumed courtliness; such are the incongruities which lie on the very surface of the Eclogues. Add to these the continual imitations, sometimes sinning against the rules of scholarship, [25] which make them, with all their beauties, by far the least original of Virgil's works, the artificial character of the whole composition; and the absence of that lofty self-consciousness on the poet's part [26] which lends so much fire to his after works: and it may seem surprising that the Eclogues have been so much admired. But the fact is, their irresistible charm outweighs all the exceptions of criticism. While we read we become like Virgil's own shepherd; we cannot choose but surrender ourselves to the magic influence:

  “Tale tuum carmen nobis, divine poeta, 
  Quale sopor fessis in gramine, quale per herbam 
  Dulcis aquae saliente sitim restinguere rivo.” [27]

This charm is due partly to the skill with which the poet has blended reality with allegory, fancy with feeling, partly to the exquisite language to which their music is attuned. The Latin language had now reached its critical period of growth, its splendid but transitory epoch of ripe perfection. Literature had arrived at that second stage of which Conington speaks, [28] when thought finds language no longer as before intractable and inadequate, but able to keep pace with and even assist her movements. Trains of reflection are easily awakened; a diction matured by reason and experience rivals the flexibility or sustains the weight of consecutive thought. It is now that an author's mind exhibits itself in its most concrete form, and that the power of style is first fully felt. But language still occupies its proper place as a means and not an end; the artist does not pay it homage for its own sake; this is reserved for the next period when the meridian is already past.

It has already been said that the Georgics were undertaken at the request of Maecenas. [29] From more than one passage in the Eclogues we should infer that Virgil was not altogether content with the light themes he was pursuing; that he had before his mind's eye dim visions of a great work which should give full scope to the powers he felt within him. But Virgil was deficient in self-reliance. He might have continued to trifle with bucolic poetry, had not Maecenas enlisted his muse in a practical object worthy of its greatness. This was the endeavour to rekindle the old love of husbandry which had been the nurse of Rome's virtue, and which was gradually dying out. To this object Virgil lent himself with enthusiasm. To feel that his art might be turned to some real good, that it might advance the welfare of the state, this idea acted on him like an inspiration. He was by early training well versed in the details of country life. And he determined that nothing which ardour or study could effect should be wanting to make his knowledge at once thorough and attractive. For seven years he wrought into their present artistic perfection the technical details of husbandry; a labour of love wrought out of study and experience, and directed, as Merivale well says, to the glorification of labour itself as the true end of man.

Virgil's treatment is partially adapted from the Alexandrines; but, as he himself says, his real model is Hesiod. [30] The combination of quaint sententiousness with deep enthusiasm, which he found in the old poet, met his conception of what a practical poem should be. And so, although the desultory maxims of the Works and Days give but a faint image of the comprehensive width and studied discursiveness of theGeorgics, yet they present a much more real parallel to it than the learned trifling of Aratus or Nicander. For Virgil, like Lucretius, is no trifler: he uses verse as a serious vehicle for impressing his conviction; he acknowledges, so to say, the responsibility of his calling, [31] and writes in poetry because poetry is the clothing of his mind. Hence the Georgics must be ranked as a link in the chain of serious treatises on agriculture, of which Cato's is the first and Varro's the second, designed to win the nation back to the study and discipline of its youth. And that Columella so understood it is clear both from his defending his opinions by frequent quotation from it as a standard authority, and from his writing one book of his voluminous manual in verses imitated from Virgil. The almost religious fervour with which Virgil threw himself into the task of arresting the decay of Italian life, which is the dominant motive of the Aeneid, is present also in the Georgics. The pithy condensation of useful experience characteristic of Cato,

  “Utiliumque sagax rerum et divina futuri 
  Sortilegis non discrepuit sententia Delphis,” [32]

the fond antiquarianism of Varro, “laudator temporis acti,” unite, with the newly-kindled hope of future glories to be achieved under Caesar's rule, to make the Georgics the most complete embodiment of Roman industrial views, as the Aeneid is of Roman theology and religion. [33] Virgil aims at combining the stream of poetical talent, which had come mostly from outside, [34] with the succession of prose compositions on practical subjects which had proceeded from the burgesses themselves. Cato and Varro are as continually before his mind as Ennius, Catullus, and Lucretius. A new era had arrived: the systematising of the results of the past he felt was committed to him. Of Virgil's works the Georgics is unquestionably the most artistic. Grasp of the subject, clearness of arrangement, evenness of style, are all at their highest excellence; the incongruities that criticism detects in the Eclogues, and the unrealities that often mar the Aeneid, are almost wholly absent. There is, however, one great artistic blemish, for which the poet's courage, not his taste, is to blame. We have already spoken of his affection for Gallus, celebrated in the most extravagant but yet the most ethereally beautiful of the Eclogues; [35] and this affection, unbroken by the disgrace and exile of its object, had received a yet more splendid tribute in the episode which closed the Georgics. Unhappily, the beauties of this episode, so honourable to the poet's constancy, are to us a theme for conjecture only; the narrow jealousy of Augustus would not suffer any honourable mention of one who had fallen under his displeasure; and, to his lasting disgrace, he ordered Virgil to erase his work. The poet weakly consented, and filled up the gap by the story, beautiful, it is true, but singularly inappropriate, of Aristacus and Orpheus and Eurydice. This epic sketch, Alexandrine in form but abounding in touches of the richest native genius, [36] must have revealed to Rome something of the loftiness of which Virgil's muse was capable. With a felicity and exuberance scarcely inferior to Ovid, it united a power of awakening feeling, a dreamy pathos and a sustained eloquence, which marked its author as the heir of Homer's lyre, “ magnae spes altera Romae.” [37]

In a work like this it would be obviously out of place to offer any minute criticism either upon the beauties or the difficulties of the Georgics. We shall conclude this short notice with one or two remarks on that love of nature in Latin poetry of which the Georgics are the most renowned example. Dunlop has called Virgil a landscape painter. [38] In so far as this implies a faithful and picturesque delineation of natural scenes, whether of movement or repose, [39] the criticism is a happy one: Virgil lingers over these with more affection than any previous writer. The absence of a strong feeling for the peaceful or the grand in nature has often been remarked as a shortcoming of the Greek mind, and it does not seem to have been innate even in the Italian. Alpine scenery suggested no associations but those of horror and desolation. Even the more attractive beauties of woods, rills, and flowers, were hailed rather as a grateful exchange from the turmoil of the city than from a sense of their intrinsic loveliness; it is the repose, the comfort, ease, in a word the body, not the spirit of nature that the Roman poets celebrate. [40] As a rule their own retirement was not spent amid really rustic scenes. The villas of the great were furnished with every means of making study or contemplation attractive. Rich gardens, cool porticoes, and the shade of planted trees were more to the poet's taste than the rugged stile or the village green. Their aspirations after rural simplicity spring from the weariness of city unrealities rather than from the necessity of being alone with nature. As a fact the poems of Virgil were not composed in a secluded country retreat, but in the splendid and fashionable vicinity of Naples. [41] The Lake of Avernus, the Sibyl's cave, and the other scenes so beautifully painted in the Aeneid are all near the spot. From his luxurious villa the poet could indulge his reverie on the simple rusticity of his ancestors or the landscapes famous in the scenery of Greek song. At such times his mind called up images of Greek legend that blended with his delineations of Italian peasant life: [42]

                     “O ubi campi 
   Spercheiosque, et virginibus bacchata Lacaenis 
   Taygeta; o qui me gelidis in vallibus Haemi 
   Sistat, et ingenti ramorum protegat umbra!”

The very name Tempe, given so often to shady vales, shows the mingled literary and aesthetic associations that entered into the love of rural ease and quiet. The deeper emotion peculiar to modern times, which struggles to find expression in the verse of Shelley or Wordsworth, in the canvass of Turner, in the life of restless travel, often a riddle so perplexing to those who cannot understand its source; the mysterious questionings which ask of nature not only what she says to us, but what she utters to herself; why it is that if she be our mother, she veils her face from her children, and will not use a language they can understand—

  “Cur natum crudelis tu quoque falsis 
  Ludis imaginibus? Cur dextrae iungere dextram 
  Non datur, et veras audire et reddere voces?”

feelings like these which—though often but obscurely present, it would indeed be a superficial glance that did not read in much of modern thought, however unsatisfactory, in much of modern art, however imperfect —we can hardly trace, or, if at all, only as lightest ripples on the surface, scarcely ruffling the serene melancholy, deep indeed, but self- contained because unconscious of its depth, in which Virgil's poetry flows.

At what time of his life Virgil turned his thoughts to epic poetry is not known. Probably like most gifted poets he felt from his earliest years the ambition to write a heroic poem. He expresses this feeling in theEclogues [43] more than once; Pollio's exploits seemed to him worthy of such a celebration. [44] In the Georgics he declares that he will wed Caesar's glories to an epic strain, [45] but though the emperor urged him to undertake the subject, which was besides in strict accordance with epic precedent, his mature judgment led him to reject it. [46] Like Milton, he seems to have revolved for many years the different themes that came to him, and, like him, to have at last chosen one which by mounting back into the distant past enabled him to indulge historical retrospect, and gather into one focus the entire subsequent development. As to his aptitude for epic poetry opinions differ. Niebuhr expresses the view of many great critics when he says, “Virgil is a remarkable instance of a man mistaking his vocation; his real calling was lyric poetry; his small lyric poems show that he would have been a poet like Catullus if he had not been led away by his desire to write a great Graeco-Latin poem.” And Mommsen, by speaking of “successes like that of the Aeneid” evidently inclines towards the same view. It must be conceded that Virgil's genius lacked heroic fibre, invention, dramatic power. He had not an idea of “that stern joy that warriors feel,” so necessary to one who would raise a martial strain. The passages we remember best are the very ones that are least heroic. The funeral games in honour of Anchises, the forlorn queen, the death of Nisus and Euryalus, owe all their charm to the sacrifice of the heroic to the sentimental. Had Virgil been able to keep rigidly to the lofty purpose with which he entered on his work, we should perhaps have lost the episodes which bring out his purest inspiration. So far as his original endowments went, his mind certainly was not cast in a heroic mould. But the counter-balancing qualifications must not be forgotten. He had an inextinguishable enthusiasm for his art, a heart

  “Smit with the love of ancient song,”

a susceptibility to literary excellence never equalled, [47] and a spirit responsive to the faintest echo of the music of the ages. [48] The very faculties that bar his entrance into the circle of creative minds enable him to stand first among those epic poets who own a literary rather than an original inspiration. For in truth epic poetry is a name for two widely different classes of composition. The first comprehends those early legends and ballads which arise in a nation's vigorous youth, and embody the most cherished traditions of its gods and heroes and the long series of their wars and loves. Strictly native in its origin, such poetry is the spontaneous expression of a people's political and religious life. It may exist in scattered fragments bound together only by unity of sentiment and poetic inspiration: or it may be welded into a whole by the genius of some heroic bard. But it can only arise in that early period of a nation's history when political combination is as yet imperfect, and scientific knowledge has not begun to mark off the domain of historic fact from the cloudland of fancy and legend. Of this class are the Homeric poems, the Nibelungen Lied, the Norse ballads, the Edda, the Kalewala, the legends of Arthur, and the poem of the Cid: all these, whatever their differences, have this in common, that they sprang at a remote period out of the earliest traditions of the several peoples, and neither did nor could have originated in a state of advanced civilization. It is far otherwise with the other sort of epics. These are composed amid the complex influences of a highly developed political life. They are the fruit of conscious thought reflecting on the story before it and seeking to unfold its results according to the systematic rules of art. The stage has been reached which discerns fact from fable; the myths which to an earlier age seemed the highest embodiment of truth, are now mere graceful ornaments, or at most faint images of hidden realities. The state has asserted its dominion over man's activity; science, sacred and profane, has given its stores to enrich his mind; philosophy has led him to meditate on his place in the system of things. To write an enduring epic a poet must not merely recount heroic deeds, but must weave into the recital all the tangled threads which bind together the grave and varied interests of civilized man.

It is the glory of Virgil that alone with Dante and Milton he has achieved this; that he stands forth as the expression of an epoch, of a nation. That obedience to sovereign law, [49] which is the chief burden of the Aeneid, stands out among the diverse elements of Roman life as specially prominent, just as faith in the Church's doctrine is the burden of Mediaevalism as expressed in Dante, and as justification of God's dealings, as given in Scripture, forms the lesson of Paradise Lost, making it the best poetical representative of Protestant thought. None of Virgil's predecessors understood the conditions under which epic greatness was possible. His successors, in spite of his example, understood them still less. It has been said that no events are of themselves unsuited for epic treatment, simply because they are modern or historical. [50] This may be true; and yet, where is the poet that has succeeded in them? The early Roman poets were patriotic men; they chose for subjects the annals of Rome, which they celebrated in noble though unskilled verse. Naevius. Ennius, Accius, Hostius, Bibaculus, and Varius before Virgil, Lucan and Silius after him, treated national subjects, some of great antiquity, some almost contemporaneous. But they failed, as Voltaire failed, because historical events are not by themselves the natural subjects of heroic verse. Tasso chose a theme where history and romance were so blended as to admit of successful epic treatment; but such conditions are rare. Few would hesitate to prefer the histories of Herodotus and Livy to any poetical account whatever of the Persian and Punic wars; and in such preference they would be guided by a true principle, for the domain of history borders on and overlaps, but does not coincide with, that of poetry.

The perception of this truth has led many, epic poets to err in the opposite extreme. They have left the region of truth altogether, and confined themselves to pure fancy or legend. This error is less serious than the first; for not only are legendary subjects well adapted for epic treatment, but they may be made the natural vehicle of deep or noble thought. The Orlando Furioso and the Faery Queen are examples of this. But more often the poet either uses his subject as a means for exhibiting his learning or style, as Statius, Cinna, and the Alexandrines; or loses sight of the deeper meaning altogether, and merely reproduces the beauty of the ancient myths without reference to their ideal truth, as was done by Ovid, and recently by Mr. Morris, with brilliant success, in his Earthly Paradise. This poem, like the Metamorphoses, does not claim to be a national epic, but both, by their vivid realization of a mythology which can never lose its charm, hold a legitimate place among the offshoots of epic song.

Virgil has overcome the difficulties and joined the best results of both these imperfect forms. By adopting the legend of Aeneas, which, since the Punic wars, had established itself as one of the firmest national beliefs, [51] he was enabled without sacrificing reality to employ the resources of Homeric art; by tracing directly to that legend the glorious development of Roman life and Roman dominion, he has become the poet of his nation's history, and through it, of the whole ancient world.

The elements which enter into the plan of the Aeneid are so numerous as to have caused very different conceptions of its scope and meaning. Some have regarded it as the sequel and counterpart of the Iliad, in which Troy triumphs over her ancient foe, and Greece acknowledges the divine Nemesis. That this conception was present to the poet is clear from many passages in which he reminds Greece that she is under Rome's dominion, and contrasts the heroes or achievements of the two nations. [52] But it is by no means sufficient to explain the whole poem, and indeed is in contradiction to its inner spirit. For in the eleventh Aeneid [53] Diomed declares that after Troy was taken he desires to have no more war with the Trojan race; and in harmony with this thought Virgil conceives of the two nations under Rome's supremacy as working together by law, art, and science, to advance the human race. [54] Roman talent has made her own all that Greek genius created, and fate has willed that neither race should be complete without the other. The germs of this fine thought are found in the historian Polybius, who dwelt on the grandeur of such a joint influence, and perhaps through his intercourse with the Scipionic circle, gave the idea currency. It is therefore rather the final reconciliation than the continued antagonism that the Aeneid celebrates, though of course national pride dwells on the striking change of relations that time had brought.

Another view of the Aeneid makes it centre in Augustus. Aeneas then becomes a type of the emperor, whose calm calculating courage was equalled by his piety to the gods, and care for public morals. Turnus represents Antony, whose turbulent vehemence ( violentia) [55] mixed with generosity and real valour, makes us lament, while we accept his fate. Dido is the Egyptian queen whose arts fell harmless on Augustus's cold reserve, and whose resolve to die eluded his vigilance. Drances, [56] the brilliant orator whose hand was slow to wield the sword, is a study from Cicero; and so the other less important characters have historical prototypes. But there is even less to be said for this view than for the other. It is altogether too narrow, and cannot be made to correspond with, the facts of history, nor do the characters on a close inspection resemble their supposed originals. [57] Beyond doubt the stirring scenes Virgil had as a young man witnessed, suggested points which he has embodied in the story, but the Greek maxim that “poetry deals with universal truth,” [58] must have been rightly understood by him to exclude all such dressing-up of historical facts.

There remains the view to which many critics have lent their support, that the Aeneid celebrates the triumph of law and civilization over the savage instincts of man; and that because Rome had proved the most complete civilizing power, therefore it is to her greatness that everything in the poem conspires. This view has the merit of being in every way worthy of Virgil. No loftier conception could guide his verse through the long labyrinth of legend, history, religious and antiquarian lore, in which for ten years of patient study his muse sought inspiration. Still it seems somewhat too philosophical to have been by itself his animating principle. It is true, patriotism had enlarged its basis; the city of Rome was already the world, [59] and the growth of Rome was the growth of human progress. Hence the muse, while celebrating the imperial state, transcends in thought the limits of space and time, and swells, as it were, the great hymn of humanity. But this represents rather the utmost reach of the poet's flight after he has thrown himself into the empyrean than the original definitely conceived goal on which he fixed his mind. We should supplement this view by another held by Macrobius and many Latin critics, and of which Mr. Nettleship, in a recent admirable pamphlet [60] recognises the justice, viz. that the Aeneid was written with a religious object, and must be regarded mainly as a religious poem. Its burning patriotism glows with a religious light. Its hero is “religious” (pius), not “beautiful” or “brave.” [61] At the sacrifice even of poetical effect his religious dependence on the gods is brought into prominence. The action of the whole poem hinges on the Divine will, which, is not as in Homer, a mere counterpart of the human, far less is represented as in conflict with resistless destiny, but, cognizant of fate and in perfect union with it, as overruling all lower impulses, divine or human, towards the realization of the appointed end. This Divine Power is Jupiter, whom in the Aeneid he calls by this name as a concession to conventional beliefs, but in the Georgicsprefers to leave nameless, symbolised under the title Father. [62] Jupiter is not the Author, but he is the Interpreter and Champion of Destiny (Fata), which lies buried in the realm of the unknown, except so far as the father of the gods pleases to reveal it. [63] Deities of sufficient power or resource may defer but cannot prevent its accomplishment. Juno is represented doing this—the idea is of course from Homer. But Jupiter does not desire to change destiny, even if he could, though he feels compassion at its decrees ( e.g. at the death of Turnus). The power of the Divine fiat to overrule human equity is shown by the death of Turnus who has right, and of Dido who has the lesser wrong, on her side. Thus punishment is severed from desert, and loses its higher meaning; the instinct of justice is lost in the assertion of divine power; and while in details the religion of the Aeneid is often pure and noble, its ultimate conceptions of the relation of the human and divine are certainly no advance on those of Homer. The verdict of one who reads the poem from this point of view will surely be that of Sellar, who denies that it enlightens the human conscience. Every form of the doctrine that might is right, however skilfully veiled, as it is in theAeneid by a thousand beautiful intermediaries, must be classed among the crude and uncreative theories which mark an only half-reflecting people. But when we pass from the philosophy of religion to the particular manifestation of it as a national worship, we find Virgil at his greatest, and worthy to hold the position he held with later ages as the most authoritative expounder of the Roman ritual and creed. [64] He shared the palm of learning with Varro, and sympathy inclined towards the poet rather than the antiquarian. The Aeneid is literally filled with memorials of the old religion. The glory of Aeneas is to have brought with him the Trojan gods, and through perils of every kind to have guarded his faith in them, and scrupulously preserved their worship. It is not the Trojan race as such that the Romans could look back to with pride as ancestors; they are the bis capti Phryges, who are but heaven-sent instruments for consecrating the Latin race to the mission for which it is prepared. “Occidit” says Juno, “occideritque sinas cum nomine Troja:” [65] and Aeneas states the object of his proposal in these words—

  “Sacra deosque dabo; socer arma Latinas habeto.” [66]

This then being the lofty origin, the immemorial antiquity of the national faith, the moral is easily drawn, that Rome must never cease to observe it. The rites to import which into the favoured land cost heaven itself so fierce a struggle, which have raised that land to be the head of all the earth, must not be neglected now that their promise has been fulfilled. Each ceremony embodies some glorious reminiscence; each minute technicality enshrines some special national blessing.

Here, as in the Georgics, Cato and Varro live in Virgil, but with far less of narrow literalness, with far more of rich enthusiasm. We can well believe that the Aeneid was a poem after Augustus's heart, that he welcomed with pride as well as gladness the instalments which, before its publication, he was permitted to see, [67] and encouraged by unreserved approbation so thorough an exponent of his cherished views. To him the Aeneid breathed the spirit of the old cult. Its very style, like that of Milton from the Bible, was borrowed in countless instances from the Sacred Manuals. When Aeneas offers to the gods four prime oxen (eximios tauros) the pious Roman recognised the words of the ritual. [68] When the nymph Cymodoce rouses Aeneas to be on his guard against danger with the words “ Vigilas ne deum gens? Aenea, vigila!” [69] she recalls the imposing ceremony by which, immediately before a war was begun, the general struck with his lance the sacred shields, calling on the god “Mars, vigila!” These and a thousand other allusions caused many of the later commentators to regard Aeneas as an impersonation of the pontificate. This is an error analogous to, but worse than, that which makes him represent Augustus; he is a poetical creation, imperfect no doubt, but still not to be tied to any single definition.

Passing from the religious to the moral aspect of the Aeneid, we find a gentleness beaming through it, strangely contradicted by some of the bloody episodes, which out of deference to Homeric precedent Virgil interweaves. Such are the human sacrifices, the ferocious taunts at fallen enemies, and other instances of boasting or cruelty which will occur to every reader, greatly marring the artistic as well as the moral effect of the hero. Tame as he generally is, a resigned instrument in the divine hands, there are moments when Aeneas is truly attractive. As Conington says, his kindly interest in the young shown in Book V. is a beautiful trait that is all Virgil's own. His happy interview with Evander, where, throwing off the monarch, he chats like a Roman burgess in his country house; his pity for young Lausus whom he slays, and the mournful tribute of affection he pays to Pallas, are touching scenes, which without presenting Aeneas as a hero (which he never is), harmonise far better with the ideal Virgil meant to leave us. But after all said, that ideal is a poor one for purposes of poetry. Aeneas is uninteresting, and this is the great fault of the poem. Turnus enlists our sympathy far more, he is chivalrous and valiant; the wrong he suffers does not harden him, but he lacks strength of character. The only personage who is “proudly conceived" [70] is Mezentius, the despiser of the gods. The absence of restraint seems to have given the poet a more masculine touch; the address of the old king to his horse, his only friend, is full of pathos. Among female characters Camilla is perhaps original; she is graceful without being pleasing. Amata and Juturna belong to the class virago, a term applied to the latter by Virgil himself. [71] Lavinia is the modest maiden, a sketch, not a portrait. Dido is a character for all time, the chef d'oeuvre of the Aeneid. Among the stately ladies of the imperial house —a Livia, a Scribonia, an Octavia, perhaps a Julia—Virgil must have found the elements which he has fused with such mighty power, [72] the rich beauty, the fierce passion, the fixed resolve. Dido is his greatest effort: and yet she is not an individual living woman like Helen or Ophelia. Like Racine, Virgil has developed passions, not created persons. The divine gift of tender, almost Christian, feeling that is his, cannot see into those depths where the inner personality lies hidden. Among the traditional characters few call for remark. The gods maintain on the whole their Homeric attributes, only hardened by time and by a Roman moulding. Venus is, however, touched with magic skill; it may be questioned whether words ever carried such suggestions of surpassing beauty as those in which, twice in the poem, her mystic form [73] is veiled rather than pourtrayed. The characters of Ulysses and Helen bear the debased, unheroic stamp of the later Greek drama; the last spark of goodness has left them, and even his careful study of Homer, seems to have had no effect in opening the poet's eyes to the gross falsification. Where Virgil did not feel obliged to create, he was to the last degree conventional.

A most interesting feature in the Aeneid—and with it we conclude our sketch—is its incorporation of all that was best in preceding poetry. All Roman poets had imitated, but Virgil carried imitation to an extent hitherto unknown. Not only Greek but Latin writers are laid under contribution in every page. Some idea of his indebtedness to Homer may be formed from Conington's commentary. Sophocles and the other tragedians, Apollonius Rhodius and the Alexandrines are continually imitated, and almost always improved upon. And still more is this the case with his adaptations from Naevius, Ennius, Lucretius, Hostius, Furius, &c. whose works he had thoroughly mastered, and stored in his memory their most striking rhythms or expressions. [74] Massive lines from Ennius, which as a rule he has spared to touch, leaving them in all their rugged grandeur planted in the garden of his verse, to point back like giant trees to the time when that garden was a forest, bear witness at once to his reverence for the old bard and to his own wondrous art. It is not merely for literary effect that the old poets are transferred into his pages. A nobler motive swayed him. The Aeneid was meant to be, above all things, a National Poem, carrying on the lines of thought, the style of speech, which National Progress had chosen; it was not meant to eclipse so much us to do honour to the early literature. Thus those bards who like Naevius and Ennius had done good service to Rome by singing, however rudely, her history, find their Imagines ranged in the gallery of the Aeneid. There they meet with the flamens and pontiffs unknown and unnamed, who drew up the ritual formularies, with the antiquarians and pious scholars who had sought to find a meaning in the immemorial names, [75] whether of places or customs or persons; with the magistrates, moralists, and philosophers, who had striven to ennoble or enlighten Roman virtue; with the Greek singers and sages, for they too had helped to rear the towering fabric of Roman greatness. All these meet together in theAeneid as if in solemn conclave, to review their joint work, to acknowledge its final completion, and predict its impending fall. This is beyond question the explanation of the wholesale appropriation of others' thought and language, which otherwise would be sheer plagiarism. With that tenacious sense of national continuity which had given the senate a policy for centuries, Virgil regards Roman literature as a gradually expanded whole; coming at the close of its first epoch, he sums up its results and enters into its labours. So far from hesitating whether to imitate, he rather hesitated whom not to include, if only by a single reference, in his mosaic of all that had entered into the history of Rome. His archaism is but another side of the same thing. Whether it takes the form of archaeological discussion, [76] of antiquarian allusion, [77] of a mode of narration which recalls the ancient source, [78] or of obsolete expressions, forms of inflection, or poetical ornament, [79] we feel that it is a sign of the poet's reverence for what was at once national and old. The structure of his verse, while full of music, often reminds us of the earlier writers. It certainly has more affinity with that of Lucretius than with that of Lucan. A learned Roman reading the Aeneid would feel his mind stirred by a thousand patriotic associations. The quaint old laws, the maxims and religious formulae he had learnt in childhood would mingle with the richest poetry of Greece and Rome in a stream flowing evenly, and as it would seem, from a single spring; and he who by his art had effected this wondrous union would seem to him the prophet as well as the poet of the era. That art, in spite of its occasional lapses, for we must not forget the work was unfinished, is the most perfect the world has yet seen. The poet's exquisite sense of beauty, the sonorous language he wielded, the noble rivalry of kindred spirits great enough to stimulate but not to daunt him, and the consciousness of living in a new time big with triumphs, as he fondly hoped, for the useful and the good, all united to make Virgil not only the fairest flower of Roman literature, but as the master of Dante, the beloved of all gentle hearts, and the most widely-read poet of any age, to render him an influential contributor to some of the deepest convictions of the modern world.