Virgil was a perfectionist. Among the few items in the highly unreliable biographical tradition that have a ring of truth are his remark that he created a poem like a she-bear, gradually licking it into shape, and the report that as he lay dying at Brindisi in 19 BC, he ordered his executors to destroy the manuscript of his major work, the Aeneid, because it lacked a final revision (an order, fortunately, countermanded by Augustus). Virgil had lived only fifty-one years, but, in spite of his slow rate of composition (seven years for the 2,183 lines of the Georgics), he left the huge legacy of three works that contain close to 16,000 hexameter lines.

They were lines that opened up new vistas for Latin poetry by the originality and dexterity of their adaptation of the Greek models—Theocritus, Hesiod, and, above all, Homer. They drew on the achievements of his predecessors in the epic meter—Ennius and Lucretius—to create a Roman epic style and a poetic eloquence of enormous range, one that moves effortlessly from the impassioned rhetoric of Dido’s denunciation of Aeneas to the pastoral tranquillity of Evander’s humble dwelling on what will one day be the site of Rome’s great buildings; from the love songs and banter of imaginary Sicilian shepherds to the fire and slaughter of Troy’s destruction.

This poetic style is what Dante learned from Virgil, as he tells him when they meet at Hell’s gate: “You alone are the one from whom I took the fine style that has brought me honor”—lo bello stile che m’ha fatto onore. He has previously paid Virgil the compliment of adapting his words for his own opening address: Or sei tu quel Virgilio… “Are you that Virgil…?” It is an unmistakable echo of the half-incredulous question Dido addresses to her Trojan guest as he reveals his identity: Tune ille Aeneas… “Are you that Aeneas…?”

Virgil’s lines are also the medium of a subtle and powerful music which has stamped his words unforgettably on the memories of countless readers in the Western world ever since. “He is,” says Dryden, “everywhere elegant, sweet and flowing in his hexameters.” But it was not only Augustan English poets that fell under his spell. Tennyson called his line the “stateliest measure/ever moulded by the lips of men.” Later Latin poets—Ovid, Lucan, Statius—would learn from him but though one or the other might occasionally rise to Virgil’s level in sweetness and elegance, none could hope to rival his mastery of the inner harmonics of a line that seems at times sheer magic. Perhaps this was one of the features of his work that established his reputation, in medieval times, as a magician, one who could put a stop to a visitation of bloodsucking leeches or turn the fountains at Pozzuoli into medicinal baths that cured all diseases.

Virgil was already famous in Rome long before his death, not only for his Eclogues and Georgics but also for the as yet unpublished Aeneid, from which he had read excerpts for Augustus and his family and which his younger contemporary Propertius heralded in the famous lines: “Make way, Greek and Roman writers! Something greater than the Iliad is being born.”1 With the publication of the full text Virgil became the Roman classic, studied in schools and annotated and analyzed by commentators and critics over the centuries. Still extant is the voluminous commentary compiled by one Servius in the fourth century AD; it was the forerunner of a huge proliferation of exegesis, criticism, and controversy that began with the first printing of Virgil’s poems sometime around 1469.

This is a literature which reached epic proportions in our own century and shows no signs of abating as we approach the millennium; one of its highpoints was the bimillennium of Virgil’s birth—around 70 BC—in the 1930s, which saw the publication of J.W. Mackail’s fine edition of the Aeneid2—“designed not so much for professional scholars and students… as for readers and lovers of great poetry”—and also of Haecker’s Vergil: Vater des Abendlandes, a book to which T.S. Eliot acknowledged his indebtedness when in his 1957 lecture he called Virgil “the classic of all Europe.” Since then Virgil’s stock has shown no sign of declining. He is the only classical author, for example, to be assigned a volume in the Cambridge University Press’s prestigious series of Companions to Literature.3 And excellent translations, such as Robert Fitzgerald’s Aeneid and Day-Lewis’s Georgics, have made Virgil available to readers with ears no longer attuned to the eighteenth-century diction and heroic couplets of Dryden’s version, which is still in some respects the finest in English.

An attempt to assess Virgil’s monumental achievement in a single volume is a rare event; Michael Putnam, for example, who has been hailed as “the most distinguished American scholar of Virgil,” has just added to three previous volumes,4 one on each of Virgil’s three poems, a fourth: Virgil’s Epic Designs. His previous book on the Aeneid also deals with designs in a sense; it is a close and revealing analysis of Books II, V, VIII, and XII, which examines “those subtle variations and repetitions of metaphor and image by which action and structure are defined and unified.” The choice of Books V and VIII is at first surprising; Book V, for example, with its long account of the funeral games for Aeneas’ father, Anchises, is often neglected; Mackail speaks of “what is perhaps a common mistake, that the whole book is a mere episode, occupied with matter that is structurally unimportant.” But Putnam’s lucid and perceptive exploration of themes that lie just beneath the surface and verbal echoes that reinforce these themes reveals the organic unity of Books V and VIII with II and XII and the poem as a whole.

Advertisement

In the new volume he tackles another subject that turns on the question of unity, the prevalence in the poem of what the ancient critics called ekphrasis,5 a late Greek critical term denoting a set-piece description, usually of a work of art, embedded in a narrative. The Aeneid has several such passages, prominent among them the description of the murals depicting the war at Troy in the temple of Juno at Carthage, which draw from Aeneas the famous line Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tanciunt—“They weep here/For how the world goes, and our life that passes/Touches their hearts.”6 Another is the elaborate description of the shield made for Aeneas by Vulcan in Book VIII with its panorama of Roman history culminating in the battle of Actium. In both these cases Putnam uses the insights of recent studies of narrative (and occasionally a little too much of their often baffling terminology) to illuminate the passage “as a paradigm for the poem as a whole…claiming the reader’s contemplative attention, as the narrative appears to stop, to the nexus of multiple meanings which it harbors.” Though the reader at times may come to feel that too much is being made of too little (as in the case of the description of the cloak given to Cleanthus as his victory prize in the funeral games for Anchises), no one can read this book without learning a great deal and seeing deeper into the complexities of Virgil’s poetic mind at work.

Two writers have recently taken the plunge and produced a single book on the whole range of Virgil’s achievement, and one of them, Peter Levi’s Virgil: His Life and Times, is of moderate length. It makes, however, a resounding claim. “There is a pressing need,” he writes in his introduction, “to restore Virgil’s poetry to the true, unglamorised history of his own times, and to the poet’s private life as far as we can know it, and the process of analysis of Virgil against the background of his own world is among the motives of this book.” The words “unglamorised history” announce Levi’s unenthusiastic view of Roman civilization; its imperial mission is dismissed as “nasty heroics,” and as for the Georgics, Virgil’s paean to Italian earth and the men that work it, Levi writes, “What about the slaves? Horace owned at least a dozen and Virgil probably more….” These phrases are typical of the book’s almost conversational style, which descends at times to the colloquial and even lower to what might be described as “folksy.” His summaries of the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, accompanied by interpretative and critical commentary, are enlivened by sentences such as “Juno bribes the old brute Aeolus with a nymph and he eats out of her hand…. Venus complains to her son about nasty Juno…. Dido coos like any pigeon about Aeneas.” And the tragic drama of Aeneas’ dilemma over Dido in Book IV is introduced by the words

But now his behaviour seems dire and his fate not worth having. If you are in love with a nice, generous, beautiful lady in the desert, you do not give up and leave her to suicide just to become the founder of Rome, do you?

In addition, disapproval of some parts of the Aeneid is expressed in a plangent personal tone that may well set some readers’ teeth on edge. He has no use, for example, for the account of the funeral games for Anchises in Book V: “In the course of a lifetime I have nearly never reread all this nonsense.” As for the shield of Aeneas in Book VIII, it has “an order and a climax that I find absurd or intolerable.”

Advertisement

All through his summaries and discussions of the poems Levi quotes generously but always in translation; he evidently feels that few if any of his readers will be able to make anything of the original. The translations are sometimes in blank verse, which, since it is unattributed, is presumably his own. But most of them are from the versions of Dryden and his predecessor Ogilby, both of whom wrote in heroic couplets. From many points of view Dryden’s is the best translation into English but unfortunately those closed rhymed couplets, infinitely skillful though they may be, give the illatinate reader a totally false impression of the original, which depends time after time for its most subtle effects on enjambment, which Milton, in his rejection of rhyme for his own epic, defined as “the sense variously drawn out from one line into another.” Nevertheless, for those readers for whom Latin is a sealed book Levi will serve as a useful introduction; one of his strengths is his knowledge and appreciation of the Italian countryside, which enriches his discussion of the Georgics and the last six books of the Aeneid.

The other book on Virgil, Richard Jenkyns’s Virgil’s Experience: Nature and History; Times, Names, and Places, could hardly be more different from Levi’s. For one thing, it is almost three times as long (though he tells us that he originally had in mind one “slim volume less than the usual length”). For another, it quotes the Latin text copiously, accompanying it always with a prose translation that he characterizes as “literal rather than elegant”; it is carefully crafted so that anyone who has ever known any Latin, however little, should be able to feel the effect of Virgil’s words and music. One of his primary purposes, he says, is

to illuminate the meaning of the verse through a close study of the text, an enquiry into the details of language and sense (a good deal that is written about Latin poetry would apply equally if the words were prose) but also into the larger form; for no one understood better than Virgil how structure could express meaning.

The book is also a rare example of literary criticism of the highest quality, a major work presented with the clarity, elegance, and wit that readers of Jenkyns’s other books have come to expect of him.7

And it is very ambitious. “At the heart of the book,” he tells us, “is an investigation into [Virgil’s] attitude to nature and landscape; his feeling for Rome, Italy and small-scale locality; his sense of history, process, and the passing of time; his capacity to crystallize moments of experience and things seen; and the relationship within his imagination between these several areas of mental life.” Jenkyns is also concerned to see Virgil in “the circumstances in which he found himself,” to explore the meeting of “an acutely personal vision” with “literary tradition, popular ideas, and conventional attitudes.”

This explains why, after an introduction dealing mainly with what little is known about Virgil’s life (and aside from our knowledge of his being born to a provincial, landowning family near Mantua, a lot has been invented), he proceeds to devote a chapter to the treatment of nature in Greek poetry and another to the culture of Italy. After a chapter on Virgil’s first work, the Eclogues, there follow two on Lucretius, a poet who was a formative influence on Virgil and whose work is important for a major theme of Jenkyns’s book—“the development of attitudes to nature.” Jenkyns writes that in putting emphasis on those attitudes he is presenting a linear history which begins with Homer, argues for Lucretius and Virgil as the promoters of a revolution in sensibility, takes the tale on to Virgil’s younger contemporaries, and offers a few glimpses further forward still. “This transformation…is part of the history of European thought and feeling, and has been permanent in its effect.” The two chapters that follow deal with the Georgics; five chapters are devoted to the Aeneid, one to Virgil’s successors, and a final chapter, one of the most remarkable in the book, to Virgil and Augustus.

In a short introduction Jenkyns deals with the biographical tradition and dismisses the now fashionable view of Virgil as the possessor of “a homosexual sensibility.”8 He makes a strong case for dismissing the stories of Virgil’s slave-boy lovers as speculation based on the second Eclogue (the one Byron described as “that horrid one/Beginning with Formosum pastor Corydon“). It was a common practice of ancient biographers, faced with a dearth of authentic material, to construct it from the author’s works, a practice which in this case Jenkyns dismisses as “an attempt to make sows’ ears out of silk purses.”

He points out that apart from this poem and the tale of Nisus and Euryalus in Book IX of the Aeneid there is not even a veiled reference to male homosexual love in the whole of Virgil’s work—a striking contrast to its almost routine appearance in Horace and Catullus. On the other hand an examination of the women in Virgil reveals “a poet susceptible to feminine charm”; one who can create not only a Dido, whom we see both as “the great queen” and a woman in “the madness of passion”—a figure whom “no one later can match…not Turnus or Latinus”—but also the strange and pathetic figure of Camilla, the virgin Italian warrior, the tender scene of Creusa’s farewell to Aeneas in the blazing ruins of Troy, and the sensual description of Venus in the arms of Vulcan. All this points to an “evocation of an impalpable, evanescent femininity” that “no Latin poet can match.”

In the next two chapters Jenkyns studies “the forces acting upon his time and place,” examining first the changing depiction of landscape in Greek poetry, and then the social and political circumstances of Italy and Rome. He traces the emergence of what Ruskin called the “pathetic fallacy”—the tendency to ascribe human emotions to nature—from its embryonic form in Homer to its full development in Virgil. In the few cases in Homer of landscape features endowed with human feeling it is always a manifestation of the presence of a god, as in the rejoicing of the waves at the presence of Poseidon in the Iliad. This is true also of the reaction of the environment to the approach of Aphrodite in a fragment of Sappho and of the participation of all nature in the intoxication of Dionysus’ coming in the Bacchae. In Hellenistic poetry, especially in the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, there are detailed descriptions of landscape, but they seem to indicate only “secularized interest in landscape for its own sake.”

At the end of Theocritus’ seventh Idyll, however, Jenkyns finds “touches of the pathetic fallacy, explicit or implied,” in the elaborate, lengthy description of the farm of Phrasidamus. And in the famous invocation of Venus that opens Lucretius’ great poem, “the pathetic fallacy…is fundamental to Lucretius’way of describing all matter.” Though this might seem to be a reaction to a divinity comparable to the Homeric example, Jenkyns points out that this Venus is not, like the gods in Homer, Sappho, and Theocritus, “found…through or within or behind or beyond nature: she is the working of nature itself.” And with Virgil we find full emergence of the phenomenon, which Jenkyns illustrates in a brilliant analysis of a passage “steeped in the pathetic fallacy”—the description of Aeneas’ landfall on the African coast in Book I of the Aeneid.

Literary influences on a poet are important but just as important is his involvement in the real world of time and place, a theme explored in Chapter Three—“A Transpadane’s Experience.” “Transpadane” means across the Po River from Rome, and Virgil’s birthplace, the village of Andes near Mantua, was well north of the river. He grew up in a region that at the time of his birth had not yet become a part of Roman Italy; it was a province, governed by a Roman official, called Gallia Cisalpina—Gaul this side of the Alps. Virgil became a Roman citizen when, in 49 BC, the Transpadane Italians were granted the rights won by the rest of Italy only after a bitter civil war that ended in 87 BC.

Though Virgil was a Roman poet, one who celebrated Rome’s divinely decreed imperial destiny and the victory of Augustus at Actium that finally brought peace to the Mediterranean world after decades of civil war, he was also the poet who in the Georgics and the Aeneid created a “blend of Roman and Italian patriotism” that would have been impossible fifty years earlier, when the peoples of Italy were still “not united by race, language, or culture” and shared no sense of nationality “unless by connection with the Roman state.”

In the inscription (now preserved on a triumphal arch in Ankara) which celebrates the achievements of his career, Augustus claims that before the battle of Actium in 32 BC “all Italy”—tota Italia—swore allegiance to him. Jenkyns suggests that this is an ex post facto claim: there is no such official claim—no tota Italia—on the coinage, no echo of it in the ode Horace wrote to celebrate the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra. “Many things had happened between the Battle of Actium and the time that Augustus composed his Res Gestae,” Jenkyns points out,

but not the least of them was the writing of the Aeneid, where for the first time in our sources Actium is portrayed as a struggle of Italy against the barbarian. We tend to think of the poets responding (or not) to the men in power; in this case it may have been the poet who inspired the ruler of the world.

Jenkyns next deals with Virgil’s first published work, the Eclogues of 42 or 41 BC.9 His account of these ten short poems stresses their “fluidity, elusiveness, and inconsistency”; they are, he says, “fugitive, various, and eccentric poems”—characteristics which he demonstrates in detail in his close analysis. Yet they became the “fountainhead from which the vast and diverse tradition of pastoral in many European literatures was to spring.” The process of pastoral’s development, however, involved misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the original and Jenkyns is at pains to scrape off “the barnacles of later tradition and interpretation” with which the poems have “become so encrusted.”

The most important of these incrustations is the idea that Virgil is the inventor of Arcadia, a mythical “land of shepherds and shepherdesses, the land of poetry and love.” The words are those of Bruno Snell, who, in his influential book The Discovery of the Mind,10 speaks of “the discovery of a spiritual landscape”—Arcadia—“in the year 42 or 41 BC.” Arcadia was to become a fantasy dreamland for tired city dwellers and aristocrats wearied by the etiquette of Italian ducal courts through the centuries all the way to its parodic reflection in Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, where the Queen and her ladies discarded formality and played at being milkmaids.

Jenkyns corrects Bruno Snell’s text. “Instead of ‘in the year 42 or 41 BC’ we should read ‘around AD 1500’ and for Virgil we should read the name of Jacopo Sannazaro,” whose best-selling Arcadia featured “Silvio, a gentleman suffering from the woes of love [who] retires into an idyllic countryside populated by shepherds and shepherdesses.” Jenkyns points out that there is no mention in any ancient author (including Latin pastoralists and commentators) of Virgil as the inventor of Arcadia, and that the name rarely occurs in the Eclogues. In six of the ten poems there is no mention of it at all. When it occurs in IV it is mentioned because the god Pan, whose home it was, is being invoked. In VIII an Arcadian mountain, Maenalus, is mentioned, but it is not the scene of the poem. In VII two herdsmen are described as Arcadians, but the scene of the poem seems to be the Italian river Mincius, near Virgil’s birthplace. Elsewhere there are a few references to Arcadian singers. In X, however, the poem is clearly set in Arcadia, but it is nothing like the Arcadia of the later tradition; it is the real Arcadia, a mountainous area of the Peloponnese, cold and rocky.

This dismissal of the claim that Virgil is the inventor of Arcadia is not, however, a denial of his originality. The Eclogues are clearly modeled on the pastoral idylls of Theocritus but one of the many Virgilian departures from Theocritean practice is his frequent allusion, indirect but telling, to the real world in which he lived, and including, as Wendell Clausen, the book’s most recent editor, puts it, “a wider range of experience—politics and politicians, the ravages of civil war, religion, poetry, literary criticism—in a pastoral definition.”11 Some of the intrusions of reality are unexpectedly disturbing; I and IX introduce shepherds expelled from their land and holdings, which are now occupied by a “stranger” and a “godless soldier,” both passages clear references to the confiscation of land in North Italy to pay off veterans of the civil wars by the victors of Philippi, of whom Octavian, later to become Augustus, was one. In IV, a magnificent celebration of the return of the golden age as the result of the coming birth of a son, the reference is not, as so many medieval Christians supposed, to the birth of Christ, but to the fruit of the marriage of Octavia, Octavian’s sister, to Antony, a birth that many hoped might heal the breach between them that threatened a renewal of civil war.

Before tackling Virgil’s next book, the Georgics, Jenkyns devotes two full chapters to his immediate predecessor in the development of the Latin hexameter line, Lucretius, who, together with Virgil, was to “transform the poetic perception of nature.” Though Virgil must have known Lucretius’ poem when he wrote the Eclogues, that knowledge did not yet “affect him in more than a superficial way. The Georgics, by contrast, are saturated in the older poet’s influence.” Jenkyns opens his long, revealing discussion of Lucretius’ achievement by quoting in full the poem’s magnificent opening address to the goddess Venus, who is, among other things, Aeneadum genetrix, “mother of Aeneas’ race.”

But this is not the side of her emphasized in the forty-three lines of Lucretius’ magnificent prologue to his presentation of the atomic theory that was the basis of Epicurean philosophy. Venus is invoked as the creative force behind all natural phenomena: it is through her that all things are born and flourish, for her that the earth grows flowers; it is she who inspires love and desire in all creatures, inducing them to reproduce their kind. This hymn to Venus ends with a prayer that she will persuade her husband, Mars, the war god, to grant “quiet peace for the Romans.” The picture of her appeal to Mars is a voluptuous Titian canvas: the god casts himself back into Venus’ lap and “looking up…feeds his greedy eyes with love, gaping upon you, goddess, while…his breath hangs on your lips. As he lies back upon your hallowed body, do you, goddess, pour yourself around him from above….” This splendid prologue to the poem is, as Jenkyns points out, “a revolution in the depiction of nature…. Despite the changes in the centuries between Homer and Lucretius, it would be hard to find a precedent for an evocation of the natural world either so dynamic or so independent of man’s presence and convenience.”

It also seems far removed from the conception of the gods offered by the Epicurean philosophy that is Lucretius’ program, a philosophy which taught that the gods, composed of atoms like everything else, “lived their carefree everlasting life”—Horace’s jocular phrase—totally indifferent to human action and suffering. This apparent contradiction is explored and resolved by Jenkyns in a brilliant argument that needs to be read in full to be appreciated; one of its most telling points is that Lucretius “extends the sexual idea so that it underlies his entire exposition of Epicurean physics,” using such metaphors as semina and genitalia corpora as basic technical terms of his exposition where Epicurus used the word atomos, which means simply something that cannot be divided.

Jenkyns sums up

the elements in Lucretius’ picture. He views nature in terms of growth and process; variety and rhythm; the limits imposed by physical law; the emotional link between man and the world around him realized in his sense of belonging and of individual origin.

And all this, he continues,

will be found again, with a difference of temperament and emphasis, in Virgil. Perhaps Virgil’s most distinctive contribution to this nexus of feeling will be to link it with the patriotic idea. He will not use the maternal image with Lucretius’ insistency, but he will show us that the word “patria” (fatherland) is not in his hands a dead one. The sense of belonging will be associated with Italy as a whole and with one’s own locality or “patria” within Italy; the idea of variety will be directed to the diversity of Italian landscapes, brought out by vignettes of Italian scenery, sharply particularized; the idea of parenthood will be enlarged into a sense of ancestry, of rootedness in a deep past, solemnized by the nation’s history and institutions. Virgil’s sense of these things is both original and profound, but without Lucretius it would not have been possible.

Like the Eclogues, the Georgics has its Greek predecessor and model, one much more ancient than Theocritus’ Idylls: the Works and Days of Hesiod, a poet writing in epic hexameters around 700 BC. It deals with the very unepic subject of work, hard work, on the land. Virgil’s Georgics (a Greek word meaning, roughly, “farming”—which had already been used as a title by the Hellenistic poet Nicander) covers not only agriculture in the first book but also, in the following three, cultivation of the olive and vine, livestock, and beekeeping. (The bees owe their pride of place to the fact that sugar was unknown in Europe and the Middle East until medieval times.)

But Virgil’s poem is not (as Nicander’s, to judge from the remaining fragments, seems to have been), a technical treatise. The Georgics is a “poem of the earth” (Putnam’s title for his book), a celebration of the glories and riches of the Italian land. Jenkyns’s two chapters—“Earth and Country,” “Land and Nation”—explore with refined critical insight the architectural frame of the whole and Virgil’s genius for selection of significant detail in what Dryden, who translated it, called “the best work of the best poet.”

The Hesiodic model is relevant only for the first book; after that, “like the butterfly cracking open its chrysalis, the poem breaks out of its hard archaic casing and expands gloriously into three more glitteringly variegated books.” Book II, for example, begins with an invocation to Bacchus, a proper exordium for a treatise on growing vines and olives, but after a hundred or so lines on the plants, the various soils, and the technique of grafting, turns into a gaudy pageant of geographical and mythological names which ring their changes as Virgil celebrates the trees of Mount Ida near Troy, the magical gardens of Alcinous in the Odyssey, Syrian pear trees, the vines of Lesbos, and then moves east to Arabia, India and China, Africa… This long recital of exotic place names is suddenly interrupted by a blunt monosyllabic conjunction, Sed—“But.” “That Sed,” Jenkyns writes, “is the mightiest conjunction in Latin literature.” It makes suddenly clear that the catalog of exotic, far-off lands is merely a prologue to the praise of Italy, a country which surpasses in splendor “the woods of Media, richest of lands, the beauty of the Ganges, the river Hermus thick with gold.”

Jenkyns analyzes in depth the magnificent panegyric of Italy which follows, and shows how it evokes

the Greek, Roman, and old Italian elements of a single but complex nation, the sense of particular locality and of pan-Italian patriotism, the fecundity of the land, the traditions of its people, rural landscape and urban temples, pastoral life at home and conquest abroad, the ancient sanctity of Clitumnus and the elaborated civic religion of Rome.

By the time Virgil reaches the end of his panegyric of Italy, naming Caesar Augustus as the latest of the great line of Roman conquerors, he has come close, according to Jenkyns, to anticipating the idea of the nation-state, something foreign to the mentality of the Greeks and for that matter to the Romans.

What he celebrates as a focus of common loyalty is the shared experience over time of people inhabiting a large continuous area of land, diverse in character but with its diversity contained by an overarching unity…. Virgil’s idea, or complex of ideas, adds a new element to the imaginative inheritance of humanity and entitles him to rank among the makers of the modern mind.

It was this new conception of a kind of nationhood that inspired the Aeneid, the epic poem that deals, not with Caesar’s battles and everlasting fame (as he had promised in the opening lines of the third Georgic), but with a Trojan hero whose wandering course west from the blazing ruins of Troy brought him eventually to Italy where, by armed struggle, he established a base from which sprang the race that united Italy and made the Mediterranean mare nostrum, “our sea,” one enclosed on all sides by the Roman Empire.

Jenkyns’s discussion of the Aeneid is organized in five chapters, the first of which—“A Trojan’s Experience: The Wanderings of Aeneas”—covers the first three books of the poem. One of Jenkyns’s concerns here is to explore what he calls “the great game of playing with proper names, of handling them to feel their weight and significance.” Virgil has, for example, four slightly different names for the river Tiber; Ascanius, Aeneas’ son, whose line will eventually produce Romulus, the founder of Rome, is also called Ilus and Iulus.

But, as Jenkyns demonstrates, Virgil’s use of these names is far from haphazard; they, and many other variant names, are used to emphasize and connect basic themes of great complexity, such as the Asiatic foreignness of the invading Trojans and at the same time their Italian origin in a far-off past; we are meant to understand the paradoxical aspects of foreign conquerors who are reclaiming their homeland, but will eventually shed their Trojan identity and become Romans.

Jenkyns’s demonstration of the “complexity of associative force that Virgil can get out of names” is one of the most valuable features of his rewarding book. Particularly striking in this chapter is his discussion of the marvelous lines in Book II that describe Aeneas’ meeting with the ghost of Creusa, his late wife, who died in trying to escape from Troy. This Jenkyns describes as “one of literature’s greatest tributes to married love” and he shows that the name Creusa echoes through this part of the book. One such passage—ipsius umbra Creusa (the shade of Creusa herself)—Saint Augustine read in school some four hundred years after Virgil’s death, and he lists it foremost among those which he found “delightful” and to which he gave “pride of place in his affection.”12

In a short chapter that deals with Book VI—Aeneas’ visit to the underworld to see his dead father—Jenkyns discusses Virgil’s characteristic technique of evocation rather than description to depict the darkness of the realm of death and defines the mode of Virgil’s depiction of the blessed souls in Elysium as “ennobled pastoral,” Virgil’s answer to the question “How is a poet to portray Paradise without making it seem vapid, dull, or pompous?” But the next five chapters are devoted to the last six books of the poem, the books least appreciated by most modern readers, the Iliad of Aeneas, which unlike that of Homer, comes after his Odyssey.

In Book VII Aeneas reaches at last the Western country, Hesperia, that the shade of Creusa told him was his goal. But Italy is not “a golden world”; the palace of Latinus, the king whose daughter, Lavinia, Aeneas will eventually marry, “bristles with the memorials of war” and Aeneas wins his promised bride only after the “wars, dreadful wars” which the Sybil foresaw for Aeneas when he first landed on Italian soil.

Here Jenkyns deals with the palace of Latinus, a king of immemorially old Italian lineage, and the rural home of Evander, a Greek from Argos, who has settled in a place by the Tiber that will one day, far in the future, be the site of imperial Rome. Latinus and Evander, Jenkyns writes, represent only two of the diverse national and cultural strands that will go into the making of Italy, but both of their settlements foreshadow, in different ways, the greatness of the future capital of the world. A description of the ceremonies connected with declaring war in Virgil’s Rome, for example, “repeatedly echoes the description of Latinus’ palace,” and at Evander’s “little city” and “humble senate,” he and Aeneas see “cattle lowing in the Roman Forum and smart Carinae.” Carinae in Virgil’s time was the fashionable, the chic quarter of Rome. Jenkyns compares the comedy to “Beerbohm’s Regency rake, Lord George Hell, escaping from London to an arcadian retreat in deepest Kensington.” This is not the only example of Jenkyns’s talent for apt citations from modern literature; no less pointed, if more serious, is his comparison of Virgil’s description of the voyage upriver to Evander, through the “long bends,” to a passage from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The essence of Books VII and VIII is “Virgil’s exploration of Italy” and Jenkyns sums up the effect of Virgil’s pictures of the two kingdoms in a memorable passage.

The Italy of Evander is as much an ancestor of the poet’s Italy as is the kingdom of Latinus, but Evander’s Italy blends, evolves, and assimilates, as the Greekness of the Arcadians’ origin reveals, while the world of Latinus is deeply, primevally Italic. Virgil’s very success disguises how unpromising a subject for poetry was the prehistory of Roman institutions; it is an exceptional imagination that shapes from this dusty material a sense both of immemorial rootedness and of a developing complexity of traditions, tinged with Grecian civility, and makes each seem part of the true Italian inheritance.

There was of course one more element to be added, the Trojan, and this is accomplished as Aeneas kills Turnus, the leader of the Italian resistance. The Trojan victory is complete, but Italy will not become Trojan. Rather, as Jupiter promised Juno before the duel between Aeneas and Turnus began, the Trojans will become Italians. “The Italians will keep their fathers’ language, ways, and name; the Trojans will be submerged, incorporated.” The poem ends with an unexpected act of infuriated vengeance. Turnus, wounded and lying at Aeneas’ feet, concedes defeat, renounces his claim to Lavinia’s hand, and begs for his life. Aeneas hesitates; Turnus’ words begin to take effect but Aeneas suddenly catches sight of the belt Turnus is wearing, the belt that once belonged to Pallas, son of Evander, a young warrior whom Aeneas had promised to protect. In a sudden rage, he plunges his sword into Turnus’ breast. It is an abrupt and surprising ending but, as Jenkyns says, it is a complete success,

perhaps the most brilliantly organized piece of construction in his epic. Jupiter recapitulates the grand themes he announced in the first book; what there was prophecy is now achieved, or ready to be achieved or ready for achievement through Aeneas’ victory and Juno’s conversion; the story is complete, the issues resolved and the poet is free to storm through to a coda unmatched for velocity and force.

The ending also, it might be added, reminds us that the making of Italy has its high price in blood, and that, if Dido’s tremendous curse has any effect, Aeneas too, though he will eventually become a native god, will die before his time and lie unburied in the sand.

Jenkyns goes on to discuss Virgil’s impact on his successors. It was formidable. “The example of the Aeneid did not deter some minor figures from writing mythological poems, but the bigger men saw that where epic was concerned, Virgil was a Bad King Wenceslas, in whose steps none might tread.” Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the only narrative poem to challenge the Aeneid in length, but far from dealing with the single action recommended by Aristotle and exemplified by Homer and Virgil, it tells more than two hundred different stories, and in a variety of genres. “He can do you Lucretian-cosmological, rural-idyllic, mythological-comical, neoteric-decadent, tragical-declamatory, tragical-melodramatic, epic-grotesque. The variety of genres comprised within the poem is a kind of anti-epic device, but despite that variety it is held together by a virtue, Ovid’s inventive wit.” In the final books of the Metamorphoses Ovid does tell Italian stories that are in the Virgilian orbit but few readers will disagree with Jenkyns’s conclusion that “he is not sufficiently different when handling Virgil’s stories, and that Virgil has managed better.”

Ovid was writing much later than Virgil (“Virgil I only saw,” he tells us in a poem written from his exile in Tomi) but Horace was Virgil’s contemporary and close friend. He wrote, however, in an entirely different literary mode, one, in fact, which he had created—Latin lyric—and shows few signs of a Virgilian influence. 13 But in the love elegies of Tibullus and Propertius, though they wrote not in epic hexameter but in elegiac couplets, Jenkyns finds echoes “of the tone and ambience of the Eclogues.” The poems of Tibullus “are the expression of a sincere and abiding love-affair—with the poetry of Virgil,” and Jenkyns sees in his “praise of rural quietism combined with an enjoyment of the traditional religious ceremonies of the countryside…the working of Tibullus’ individual temper upon a reading of the Georgics.” On Propertius the Virgilian influence was even stronger; he “drank deep from the same source.” Both poets turn in their later work—“when the love poetry starts to fade”—to the early history of Italy and in such territory they are heavily in Virgil’s debt; Jenkyns presents us with a perceptive analysis of their tactics as they acknowledge it or try, especially in the case of Propertius, to assert their independence.

The book ends with what is in some ways the most important and impressive of its fifteen chapters. It is a brilliant discussion of the relationship of the ideology Virgil had created—his “vision of nature, history, and process …bound up with his idea of what it is to be an Italian and a Roman”—to politics in the more obvious sense, “that is, to the figure of Augustus and, perhaps more interestingly, to his constitutional settlement and to the moral and social outlook associated with his name.” Until comparatively recent times this was not a controversial issue. There was a standard view: “Augustine and Dante, Milton and Dryden surely did not underestimate the grief and compassion in his poetry, but they also saw him as a confident proclaimer of the imperial order.” But many recent critics and scholars have tended to lay heavy stress on the grief and compassion and to depict Virgil as “a pessimistic voice…in some degree a critic of the Augustan idea.”

Jenkyns sees the basis for such approaches not only in the modern distrust for authoritarian rule—Augustus as “a classical Mussolini”—but also in the tendency of modern academic critics to be “unable to find in any texts any tones that are not equivocal, subversive, or unsettling.” Also to be reckoned with is the prestige in the modern world of the idea of the “tragic view of life,” a sentiment for which Jenkyns has little sympathy, characterizing it as offering “profundity at a cheap rate” and lending “the denial of redemption an appearance of manly maturity.”

To redress the balance Jenkyns embarks on a careful examination of Virgil’s attitude to the main pillars of the republican ideology which Augustus (and the Aeneid) were to replace. They are summed up in Cicero’s “republican watchwords”—dignitas, “the assertion of personal distinction,” libertas, freedom to participate in the government of the community, and otium, peace, leisure. His survey of the surprisingly few occurrences of these words (in the case of the metrically inadmissible dignitas the adjective dignus) comes to the conclusion that “Cicero’s political values seem to be absent from Virgil,” who “leaves the topic of political liberty aside.” This may well be, Jenkyns surmises, because Virgil was born too late to have known a republic that was not “under the shadow of the dynasts,” and could not in any case have been a significant participant in Roman political life because of his humble and provincial background.

But, though Virgil, in Jenkyns’s view, accepts the new political dispensation, he is not slavishly acquiescent to all its demands. Augustus was devoted to the cult of his father by adoption, Julius Caesar. But when Aeneas’ father, Anchises, has a vision of Rome’s future great men in Book VI of the Aeneid, he foresees the war between Caesar and Pompey and calls on Caesar to be the first to throw down his sword, so that he “in effect attributes to him the greater blame for the civil war.” And Jenkyns points out how some aspects and claims of the new regime that might seem appropriate for mention are passed over in silence—“the recovery of liberty, the re-establishment of the republic, the drive for moral purity, the rebuilding of the temples and the buttressing of religious institutions.” Unlike Horace who “says all the right things, Virgil [says] only some of them.”

But, like everyone else, Virgil cooperated in the construction of the “myth of Actium.” This was the naval battle that gave Augustus mastery of the Roman world; it is presented on the shield of Aeneas in Book VIII (as it is elsewhere, in Horace and other poets) as the victory of Augustus over a vast array of Eastern barbarians who threaten invasion of the West. In fact, as everyone knew, it was very much a civil war battle; the two consuls and two hundred senators were on Antony’s side, and in any case the issue had already been decided by Agrippa’s previous defeat of Antony’s lieutenant Sosius. But the new regime and its founder needed a great victory and Virgil played his part in the creation of the myth. He knew that it was a myth but it was one that “appealed strongly to [his] imagination.” In the lines that commemorate the victory in Book VIII, Jenkyns sums up, “one kind of ‘politics’ in poetry—praise of the ruler—is fused with political ideology of a wider and deeper kind—the sense of nationhood achieved through historical process and shared experience.”

As for the “tragic sense,” Jenkyns contrasts Virgil’s epic with the Iliad, which ends with Hector’s funeral. But there is no doubt about what comes next. Priam had asked for a ten-day cease-fire; after that, “if it must be,” the war will go on. And it must be. Achilles too will die, and Priam, and a great city will be utterly destroyed. At the end of the Aeneid, too, we know the future. Though the price in human life and suffering has been high, the foundation has been laid for a city which will one day be much greater than Troy could ever be, the Rome of Augustus, the center of the world. Jenkyns compares the ending to that of Paradise Lost—“The world was all before them where to choose/Their place of rest, and Providence their guide….” Jenkyns is well aware that there are large differences between the two poems.

Milton has been handling the supreme, indeed the only tragedy of mankind, to which all the woes that have afflicted humanity since are but a corollary; the sufferings in the Aeneid, great though they be, are incidental to the hero’s victory. Milton describes failure softened by a good providence, Virgil success shadowed by sorrow…. For all their unlikenesses of theme, temper and belief, they have this in common, that they are yea-sayers, they affirm: beyond the ruck and reel of immediate and painful circumstance, the further vision is of hope.

This Issue

November 18, 1999

  1. 1

    Propertius II.34, 65-66. Some critics have suggested that Propertius writes with tongue in cheek, which would not be unlike him. Ezra Pound, in his “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” added a cynical tag to his version of the lines: “Make way, ye Roman authors/clear the street, O ye Greeks/For a much larger Iliad is in course of construction/(and to Imperial order).” There is a Greek precedent for taking maius as “larger” or “longer”; Aeschines, in his courtroom speech indicting Demosthenes in fourth-century Athens, describes him as handing to the clerk to read out “a proposal longer than the Iliad” (Ctesipontem 100). 

  2. 2

    The Aeneid, edited with an introduction and commentary by J.W. Mackail (Clarendon Press, 1930). Its dedication reads: Principi Poetarum Natali MM (“To the Prince of poets on his 2000th birthday”). 

  3. 3

    Charles Martindale, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Virgil (Cambridge University Press, 1997). 

  4. 4

    Virgil’s Pastoral Art: Studies in the Eclogues (Princeton University Press, 1970); Virgil’s Poem of the Earth: Studies in the Georgics (Princeton University Press, 1979); The Poetry of the Aeneid (Harvard University Press, 1965). 

  5. 5

    The Cambridge Companion contains a fine essay on ekphrasis in Virgil by Alessandro Barchieri, whose brilliant book on the Fasti of Ovid I recently reviewed in these pages (The New York Review, January 15, 1998). 

  6. 6

    Robert Fitzgerald’s gallant attempt to translate the untranslatable. Dryden settled for a prosaic gloss: “And Trojan griefs the Tyrians’ pity claim.” 

  7. 7

    The Victorians and Ancient Greece (Harvard University Press, 1980); Three Classical Poets (Harvard University Press, 1982); Classical Epic: Homer and Virgil (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1992); editor, The Legacy of Rome (Oxford University Press, 1992). 

  8. 8

    Jenkyns cites an impressive list of modern scholars who hold this view, one which Peter Levi agrees with. In his discussion of the catalogue of Italian warriors in Book VII he remarks: “This list, being written by a homosexual poet…, is too pretty at first, dwells too long on the lovely youths and their fine bodies….” 

  9. 9

    David Ferry, whose translation of The Odes of Horace I recently reviewed in these pages (The New York Review, June 11, 1998), has now produced an accomplished translation of the Eclogues, a bilingual edition published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

  10. 10

    Die Entdeckung des Geistes (Hamburg: Claaszen & Goverts, 1948); English translation by Thomas G. Rosenmeyer (Harvard University Press, 1953). 

  11. 11

    A Commentary on Virgil, Eclogues, (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1994). 

  12. 12

    Augustine’s schoolboy devotion to Virgil was the beginning of a lifetime engagement with his ideas and influence. This is the subject of Sabine MacCormack’s fascinating book, The Shadows of Poetry: Vergil in the Mind of Augustine (University of California Press, 1998). Augustine, she writes in her introduction, was “undoubtedly Virgil’s most intelligent and searching ancient reader” and she explores their intellectual and religious encounter through its complex development in his voluminous writings, up to the greatest and last, The City of God, a work begun soon after Rome, the city of Virgil, was captured by Alaric the Visigoth. MacCormack, with the general reader in mind, presents her thesis in lucid prose; the immense learning which supports it is made available for specialists in the footnotes. The book also contains reproductions of fifteen illustrations from two medieval manuscripts of Virgil, one of them contemporary with Augustine. 

  13. 13

    One exception is Odes III.9, a dialogue between two young lovers who have parted but now seem to regret it, but not strongly enough to abandon their new partners. It is a poem, says Jenkyns, which, “in its balance of formality and feeling, its awareness that distance may actually become the vehicle of pathos…comes nearer than anything to [the tone and ambience of] some parts of the Eclogues.”