Publius Vergilius Maro was born at the village of Andes, near Mantua, on the 15th of October, 70 B.C. The province of Cisalpine Gaul, though not formally incorporated with Italy till twenty years later, had before this become thoroughly Romanised, and was one of the principal recruiting grounds for the legions. But the population was still, by blood and sympathy, very largely Celtic; and modern theorists are fond of tracing the new element of romance, which Virgil introduced with such momentous results into Latin poetry, to the same Celtic spirit which in later ages flowered out in the Arthurian legend, and inspired the whole creative literature of mediaeval Europe. To the countrymen of Shakespeare and Keats it will not seem necessary to assume a Celtic origin, on abstract grounds, for any new birth of this romantic element. The name Maro may or may not be Celtic; any argument founded on it is of little more relevance than the fancy which once interpreted the name of Virgil's mother, Magia Polla, into a supernatural significance, and, connecting the name Virgilius itself with the word Virgo, metamorphosed the poet into an enchanter born of a maiden mother, the Merlin of the Roman Empire.
Virgil's father was a small freeholder in Andes, who farmed his own land, practised forestry and bee-keeping, and gradually accumulated a sufficient competence to enable him to give his son—an only child, it would appear, of this marriage—the best education that the times could provide. He was sent to school at the neighbouring town of Cremona, and afterwards to Milan, the capital city of the province. At the age of seventeen he proceeded to Rome, where he studied oratory and philosophy under the best masters of the time. A tradition, which the dates make improbable, was that Gaius Octavius, afterwards the Emperor Augustus, was for a time his fellow-scholar under the rhetorician Epidius. In the classroom of the Epicurean Siro he may have made his first acquaintance with the poetry of Lucretius.
For the next ten years we know nothing of Virgil's life, which no doubt was that of a profound student. His father had died, and his mother married again, and his patrimony was sufficient to support him until a turn of the wheel of public affairs for a moment lost, and then permanently secured his fortune. After the battle of Philippi, the first task of the victorious triumvirs was to provide for the disbanding and settlement of the immense armies which had been raised for the Civil war. The lands of cities which had taken the Republican side were confiscated right and left for this purpose; among the rest, Virgil's farm, which was included in the territory of Cremona. But Virgil found in the administrator of the district, Gaius Asinius Pollio, himself a distinguished critic and man of letters, a powerful and active patron. By his influence and that of his friends, Cornelius Gallus and Alfenus Varus—the former a soldier and poet, the latter an eminent jurist, who both had been fellow-students of Virgil at Rome—Virgil was compensated by an estate in Campania, and introduced to the intimate circle of Octavianus, who, under the terms of the triumvirate, was already absolute ruler of Italy.
It was about this time that the Eclogues were published, whether separately or collectively is uncertain, though the final collection and arrangement, which is Virgil's own, can hardly be later than 38 B.C. The impression they made on the world of letters was immediate and universal. To some degree no doubt a reception was secured to them by the influence of Maecenas, the Home Minister of Octavianus, who had already taken up the line which he so largely developed in later years, of a public patron of art and letters in the interest of the new government. But had Virgil made his first public appearance merely as a Court poet, it is probable that the Eclogues would have roused little enthusiasm and little serious criticism. Their true significance seems to have been at once realised as marking the beginning of a new era; and amid the storm of criticism, laudatory and adverse, which has raged round them for so many ages since, this cardinal fact has always remained prominent. Alike to the humanists of the earlier Renaissance, who found in them the sunrise of a golden age of poetry and the achievement of the Latin conquest over Greece, and to the more recent critics of this century, for whom they represented the echo of an already exhausted convention and the beginning of the decadence of Roman poetry, the Eclogues have been the real turning-point, not only between two periods of Latin literature, but between two worlds.
The poems destined to so remarkable a significance are, in their external form, close and careful imitations of Theocritus, and have all the vices and weaknesses of imitative poetry to a degree that could not well be exceeded. Nor are these failings redeemed (as is to a certain extent true of the purely imitative work of Catullus and other poets) by any brilliant jewel-finish of workmanship. The execution is uncertain, hesitating, sometimes extraordinarily feeble. One well-known line it is impossible to explain otherwise than as a mistranslation of a phrase in Theocritus such as one would hardly expect from a well-grounded schoolboy. When Virgil follows the convention of the Greek pastoral his copy is doubly removed from nature; where he ventures on fresh impersonation or allegory of his own, it is generally weak in itself and always hopelessly out of tone with the rest. Even the versification is curiously unequal and imperfect. There are lines in more than one Eclogue which remind one in everything but their languor of the flattest parts of Lucretius. Contemporary critics even went so far as to say that the language here and there was simply not Latin.
Yet granted that all this and more than all this were true, it does not touch that specific Virgilian charm of which these poems first disclosed the secret. Already through their immature and tremulous cadences there pierces, from time to time, that note of brooding pity which is unique in the poetry of the world. The fourth and tenth Eclogues may be singled out especially as showing the new method, which almost amounted to a new human language, as they are also those where Virgil breaks away most decidedly from imitation of the Greek idyllists. The fourth Eclogue unfortunately has been so long and so deeply associated with purely adventitious ideas that it requires a considerable effort to read it as it ought to be read. The curious misconception which turned it into a prophecy of the birth of Christ outlasted in its effects any serious belief in its historical truth: even modern critics cite Isaiah for parallels, and are apt to decry it as a childish attempt to draw a picture of some actual golden age. But the Sibylline verses which suggested its contents and imagery were really but the accidental grain of dust round which the crystallization of the poem began; and the enchanted light which lingers over it is hardly distinguishable from that which saturates the Georgics. Cedet et ipse mari vector, nec nautica pinus mutabit merces—the feeling here is the same as in his mere descriptions of daily weather, like the Omnia plenis rura natant fossis atque omnis navita ponto umida vela legit; not so much a vision of a golden age as Nature herself seen through a medium of strange gold. Or again, in the tenth Eclogue, where the masque of shepherds and gods passes before the sick lover, it is through the same strange and golden air that they seem to move, and the heavy lilies of Silvanus droop in the stillness of the same unearthly day.
Seven years following on the publication of the Eclogues were spent by Virgil on the composition of the Georgics. They were published two years after the battle of Actium, being thus the first, as they are the most splendid, literary production of the Empire. They represent the art of Virgil in its matured perfection. The subject was one in which he was thoroughly at home and completely happy. His own early years had been spent in the pastures of the Mincio, among his father's cornfields and coppices and hives; and his newer residence, by the seashore near Naples in winter, and in summer at his villa in the lovely hill-country of Campania, surrounded him with all that was most beautiful in the most beautiful of lands. His delicate health made it easier for him to give his work the slow and arduous elaboration that makes theGeorgics in mere technical finish the most perfect work of Latin, or perhaps of any literature. There is no trace of impatience in the work. It was in some sense a commission; but Augustus and Maecenas, if it be true that they suggested the subject, had, at all events, the sense not to hurry it. The result more than fulfilled the brilliant promise of the Eclogues. Virgil was now, without doubt or dispute, the first of contemporary poets.
But his responsibilities grew with his greatness. The scheme of a great Roman epic, which had always floated before his own mind, was now definitely and indeed urgently pressed upon him by authority which it was difficult to resist. And many elements in his own mind drew him in the same direction. Too much stress need not be laid on the passage in the sixth Eclogue—one of the rare autobiographic touches in his work—in which he alludes to his early experiments in “singing of kings and battles.” Such early exercises are the common field of young poets. But the maturing of his mind, which can be traced in theGeorgics, was urging him towards certain methods of art for which the epic was the only literary form that gave sufficient scope. More and more he was turning from nature to man and human life, and to the contemplation of human destiny. The growth of the psychological instinct in the Georgics is curiously visible in the episode of Aristaeus, with which the poem now ends. According to a well-authenticated tradition, the last two hundred and fifty lines of the fourth Georgic were written several years after the rest of the poem, to replace the original conclusion, which had contained the praises of his early friend, Cornelius Gallus, now dead in disgrace and proscribed from court poetry. In the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in the later version, Virgil shows a new method and a new power. It stands between the idyl and the epic, but it is the epic method towards which it tends. No return upon the earlier manner was thenceforth possible; with many searchings of heart, with much occasional despondency and dissatisfaction, he addressed himself to the composition of the Aeneid.
The earlier national epics of Naevius and Ennius had framed certain lines for Roman epic poetry, which it was almost bound to follow. They had established the mythical connection of Rome with Troy and with the great cycle of Greek legend, and had originated the idea of making Rome itself —that Fortuna Urbis which later stood in the form of a golden statue in the imperial bedchamber—the central interest, one might almost say the central figure, of the story. To adapt the Homeric methods to this new purpose, and at the same time to make his epic the vehicle for all his own inward broodings over life and fate, for his subtle and delicate psychology, and for that philosophic passion in which all the other motives and springs of life were becoming included, was a task incapable of perfect solution. On his death-bed Virgil made it his last desire that the Aeneid should be destroyed, nominally on the ground that it still wanted three years' work to bring it to perfection, but one can hardly doubt from a deeper and less articulate feeling. The command of the Emperor alone prevented his wish from taking effect. With the unfinished Aeneid, as with the unfinished poem of Lucretius, it is easy to see within what limits any changes or improvements would have been made in it had the author lived longer: the work is, in both cases, substantially done.
The Aeneid was begun the year after the publication of the Georgics, when Virgil was forty years of age. During its progress he continued to live for the most part in his Campanian retirement. He had a house at Rome in the fashionable quarter of the Esquiline, but used it little. He was also much in Sicily, and the later books of the Aeneid seem to show personal observation of many parts of Central Italy. It is a debated question whether he visited Greece more than once. His last visit there was in 19 B.C. He had resolved to spend three years more on the completion of his poem, and then give himself up to philosophy for what might remain of his life. But the three years were not given him. A fever, caught while visiting Megara on a day of excessive heat, induced him to return hastily to Italy. He died a few days after landing at Brundusium, on the 26th of September. His ashes were, by his own request, buried near Naples, where his tomb was a century afterwards worshipped as a holy place. The Aeneid, carefully edited from the poet's manuscript by two of his friends, was forthwith published, and had such a reception as perhaps no poem before or since has ever found. Already, while it was in progress, it had been rumoured as “something greater than the Iliad,” and now that it appeared, it at once became the canon of Roman poetry, and immediately began to exercise an overwhelming influence over Latin literature, prose as well as verse. Critics were not indeed wanting to point out its defects, and there was still a school (which attained greater importance a century later) that went back to Lucretius and the older poets, and refused to allow Virgil's preeminence. But for the Roman world at large, as since for the world of the Latin races, Virgil became what Homer had been to Greece, “the poet.” The decay of art and letters in the third century only added a mystical and hieratic element to his fame. Even to the Christian Church he remained a poet sacred and apart: in his profound tenderness and his mystical “yearning after the further shore,” as much as in the supposed prophecy of the fourth Eclogue, they found and reverenced what seemed to them like an unconscious inspiration. The famous passage of St. Augustine, where he speaks of his own early love for Virgil, shows in its half-hysterical renunciation how great the charm of the Virgilian art had been, and still was, to him: Quid miserius misero, he cries, non miserante se ipsum, et flente Didonis mortem quae fiebat amando Aeneam, non flente autem mortem meam quae flebat non amando te? Deus lumen cordis mei, non te amabam, et haec non flebam, sed flebam Didonem exstinctam, ferroque extrema secutam, sequens ipse extrema condita tua relicto te! To the graver and more matured mind of Dante, Virgil was the lord and master who, even though shut out from Paradise, was the chosen and honoured minister of God. Up to the beginning of the present century the supremacy of Virgil was hardly doubted. Since then the development of scientific criticism has passed him through all its searching processes, and in a fair judgment his greatness has rather gained than lost. The doubtful honour of indiscriminate praise was for a brief period succeeded by the attacks of an almost equally undiscriminating censure. An ill-judged partiality had once spoken of the Aeneid as something greater than a Roman Iliad: it was easy to show that in the most remarkable Homeric qualities the Aeneid fell far short, and that, so far as it was an imitation of Homer, it could no more stand beside Homer than the imitations of Theocritus in theEclogues could stand beside Theocritus. The romantic movement, with its impatience of established fames, damned the Aeneid in one word as artificial; forgetting, or not seeing, that the Aeneidwas itself the fountain-head of romanticism. Long after the theory of the noble savage had passed out of political and social philosophy it lingered in literary criticism; and the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” poetry was held to be like that between light and darkness. It was not till a comparatively recent time that the leisurely progress of criticism stumbled on the fact that all poetry is artificial, and that the Iliad itself is artificial in a very eminent and unusual degree.
No great work of art can be usefully judged by comparison with any other great work of art. It may, indeed, be interesting and fertile to compare one with another, in order to seize more sharply and appreciate more vividly the special beauty of each. But to press comparison further, and to depreciate one because it has not what is the special quality of the other, is to lose sight of the function of criticism. We shall not find in Virgil the bright speed, the unexhausted joyfulness, which, in spite of a view of life as grave as Virgil's own, make the Iliad and Odyssey unique in poetry; nor, which is more to the point as regards the Aeneid, the narrative power, the genius for story-telling, which is one of the rarest of literary gifts, and which Ovid alone among the Latin poets possessed in any high perfection. We shall not find in him that high and concentrated passion which in Pindar (as afterwards in Dante) fuses the elements of thought and language into a single white heat. We shall not find in him the luminous and untroubled calm, as of a spirit in which all passion has been fused away, which makes the poetry of Sophocles so crystalline and irreproachable. Nor shall we find in him the peculiar beauties of his own Latin predecessors, Lucretius or Catullus. All this is merely saying in amplified words that Virgil was not Lucretius or Catullus, and that still less was he Homer, or Pindar, or Sophocles; and to this may be added, that he lived in the world which the great Greek and Latin poets had created, though he looked forward out of it into another.
Yet the positive excellences of the Aeneid are so numerous and so splendid that the claim of its author to be the Roman Homer is not unreasonable, if it be made clear that the two poems are fundamentally disparate, and that no more is meant than that the one poet is as eminent in his own form and method as the other in his. In our haste to rest Virgil's claim to supremacy as a poet on the single quality in which he is unique and unapproachable we may seem tacitly to assent to the judgment of his detractors on other points. Yet the more one studies the Aeneid, the more profoundly is one impressed by its quality as a masterpiece of construction. The most adverse critic would not deny that portions of the poem are, both in dramatic and narrative quality, all but unsurpassed, and in a certain union of imaginative sympathy with their fine dramatic power and their stateliness of narration perhaps unequalled. The story of the last agony of Troy could not be told with more breadth, more richness, more brilliance than it is told in the second book: here, at least, the story neither flags nor hurries; from the moment when the Greek squadron sets sail from Tenedos and the signal- flame flashes from their flagship, the scenes of the fatal night pass before us in a smooth swift stream that gathers weight and volume as it goes, till it culminates in the vision of awful faces which rises before Aeneas when Venus lifts the cloud of mortality from his startled eyes. The episode of Nisus and Euryalus in the ninth book, and that of Camilla in the eleventh, are in their degree as admirably vivid and stately. The portraiture of Dido, again, in the fourth book, is in combined breadth and subtlety one of the dramatic masterpieces of human literature. It is idle to urge that this touch is borrowed from Euripides or that suggested by Sophocles, or to quote the Medea of Apollonius as the original of which Dido is an elaborate imitation. What Virgil borrowed he knew how to make his own; and the world which, while not denying the tenderness, the grace, the charm of the heroine of the Argonautica, leaves the Argonautica unread, has thrilled and grown pale from generation to generation over the passionate tragedy of the Carthaginian queen.
But before a deeper and more appreciative study of the Aeneid these great episodes cease to present themselves as detached eminences. That the Aeneid is unequal is true; that passages in it here and there are mannered, and even flat, is true also; but to one who has had the patience to know it thoroughly, it is in its total effect, and not in the great passages, or even the great books, that it seems the most consummate achievement. Virgil may seem to us to miss some of his opportunities, to labour others beyond their due proportion, to force himself (especially in the later books) into material not well adapted to the distinctive Virgilian treatment. The slight and vague portrait of the maiden princess of Latium, in which the one vivid touch of her “flower- like hair” is the only clear memory we carry away with us, might, in different hands—in those of Apollonius, for instance,—have given a new grace and charm to the scenes where she appears. The funeral games at the tomb of Anchises, no longer described, as they had been in early Greek poetry, from a real pleasure in dwelling upon their details, begin to become tedious before they are over. In the battle-pieces of the last three books we sometimes cannot help being reminded that Virgil is rather wearily following an obsolescent literary tradition. But when we have set such passages against others which, without being as widely celebrated as the episode of the sack of Troy or the death of Dido, are equally miraculous in their workmanship—the end of the fifth book, for instance, or the muster-roll of the armies of Italy in the seventh, or, above all, the last hundred and fifty lines of the twelfth, where Virgil rises perhaps to his very greatest manner—we shall not find that the splendour of the poem depends on detached passages, but far more on the great manner and movement which, interfused with the unique Virgilian tenderness, sustains the whole structure through and through.
In merely technical quality the supremacy of Virgil's art has never been disputed. The Latin hexameter, “the stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man,” was brought by him to a perfection which made any further development impossible. Up to the last it kept taking in his hands new refinements of rhythm and movement which make the later books of the Aeneid (the least successful part of the poem in general estimation) an even more fascinating study to the lovers of language than the more formally perfect work of the Georgics, or the earlier books of the Aeneid itself. A brilliant modern critic has noted this in words which deserve careful study. “The innovations are individually hardly perceptible, but taken together they alter the character of the hexameter line in a way more easily felt than described. Among the more definite changes we may note that there are more full stops in the middle of lines, there are more elisions, there is a larger proportion of short words, there are more words repeated, more assonances, and a freer use of the emphasis gained by the recurrence of verbs in the same or cognate tenses. Where passages thus characterised have come down to us still in the making, the effect is forced and fragmentary; where they succeed, they combine in a novel manner the rushing freedom of the old trochaics with the majesty which is the distinguishing feature of Virgil's style. The poet's last words suggest to us possibilities in the Latin tongue which no successor has been able to realise.” In these later books likewise, the psychological interest and insight which keep perpetually growing throughout Virgil's work result in an almost unequalled power of expressing in exquisite language the half-tones and delicate shades of mental processes. The famous simile in the twelfth Aeneid—
Ac velut in somnis oculos ubi languida pressit
Nocte quies, nequiquam avidos extendere cursus
Velle videmur, et in mediis conatibus aegri
Succidimus, nec lingua valet, nec corpore notae
Sufficiunt vires aut vox et verba sequuntur—
is an instance of the amazing mastery with which he makes language have the effect of music in expressing the subtlest processes of feeling. But the specific and central charm of Virgil lies deeper than in any merely technical quality. The word which expresses it most nearly is that of pity. In the most famous of his single lines he speaks of the “tears of things;” just this sense of tears, this voice that always, in its most sustained splendour and in its most ordinary cadences, vibrates with a strange pathos, is what finally places him alone among artists. This thrill in the voice, come colui che piange e dice, is never absent from his poetry. In the “lonely words,” in the “pathetic half-lines” spoken of by the two great modern masters of English prose and verse, he perpetually touches the deepest springs of feeling; in these it is that he sounds, as no other poet has done, the depths of beauty and sorrow, of patience and magnanimity, of honour in life and hope beyond death.
A certain number of minor poems have come down to us associated more or less doubtfully with Virgil's name. Three of these are pieces in hexameter verse, belonging broadly to the class of the epyllion, or “little epic,” which was invented as a convenient term to include short poems in the epic metre that were not definitely pastorals either in subject or treatment, and which the Alexandrian poets, headed by Theocritus, had cultivated with much assiduity and considerable success. The most important of them, the Culex, or Gnat, is a poem of about four hundred lines, in which the incident of a gnat saving the life of a sleeping shepherd from a serpent, and being crushed to death in the act, is made the occasion for an elaborate description of the infernal regions, from which the ghost of the insect rises to reproach his unconscious murderer. That Virgil wrote a poem with this title is alluded to by Martial and Statius as matter of common undisputed knowledge; nor is there any certain argument against the Virgilian authorship of the extant poem, but various delicate metrical considerations incline recent critics to the belief that it is from the hand of an almost contemporary imitator who had caught the Virgilian manner with great accuracy. The Ciris, another piece of somewhat greater length, on the story of Scylla and Nisus, is more certainly the production of some forgotten poet belonging to the circle of Marcus Valerius Messalla, and is of interest as showing the immense pains taken in the later Augustan age to continue the Virgilian tradition. The third poem, the Moretum, is at once briefer and slighter in structure and more masterly in form. It is said to be a close copy of a Greek original by Parthenius of Nicaea, a distinguished man of letters of this period who taught Virgil Greek; nor is there any grave improbability in supposing that theMoretum is really one of the early exercises in verse over which Virgil must have spent years of his laborious apprenticeship, saved by some accident from the fate to which his own rigorous judgment condemned the rest.
So far the whole of the poetry attributed to Virgil is in the single form of hexameter verse, to the perfecting of which his whole life was devoted. The other little pieces in elegiac and lyric metres require but slight notice. Some are obviously spurious; others are so slight and juvenile that it matters little whether they are spurious or not. One elegiac piece, the Copa, is of admirable vivacity and grace, and the touch in it is so singularly unlike the Virgilian manner as to tempt one into the paradox of its authenticity. That Virgil wrote much which he deliberately destroyed is obviously certain; his fastidiousness and his melancholy alike drove him towards the search after perfection, and his mercilessness towards his own work may be measured by his intention to burn the Aeneid. Not less by this passionate desire of unattainable perfection than by the sustained glory of his actual achievement,—his haunting and liquid rhythms, his majestic sadness, his grace and pity,— he embodies for all ages that secret which makes art the life of life itself.