Virgil the Great

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…

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