T.S. Eliot, contemplating in lordly style the whole of Western literature, found only one author who fully deserved the title of classic: the Roman poet Virgil. His poems, written in the generation immediately before the birth of Christ, were fully mature in style; they were also central in position, poised at the unique and crucial moment between the great works of the pagan classical world and the revelation of the new, all-conquering Christian religion.
Dante had already shown Virgil as a prophet of the coming of Christ and, crucially, as his own guide through the next world for two thirds of The Divine Comedy. He claimed Virgil as his master and teacher, and he gave him a political aspect, too: Virgil became the prophet of the Christian empire which meant so much to Dante, both personally and politically, and which he hoped that his own time would see fully reestablished.
Not everyone, of course, was so intelligent or so high-minded. We learn from The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years that other traditions, in the largely illiterate Europe of the early Middle Ages, naturally made Virgil, who had been “a great clerk,” into a magician. He balanced the city of Naples on an egg; he devised impregnable fortifications; he delivered the city from a plague of leeches by creating a golden leech; he made a bronze fly, which kept all other flies away. And so on. His poems, too, were no merely mortal productions. They could be consulted, choosing a line or a passage at random, for practical advice in the taking of important decisions.
Latin literature, it was hard to deny, cut a modest figure in comparison with the vast wealth and protean variety of Greek. It was much smaller in bulk and range. It contained few undeniable masterpieces—and they, of course, were themselves created and appreciated in the context, and in the tradition, of the mighty literature of Hellas. It was a fearful struggle to drag up the Latin language, and Roman readers, to a level which could stand any comparison with those classic works. Many educated Romans simply despaired of the possibility and stuck to reading, and even writing, in Greek. There might easily not have been a Latin literature at all.
But gradually, with great and rather touchingly visible efforts, a high literature in Latin came to birth. It had to be recognizably in the Greek tradition. Works in the established Greek literary forms, but written in Latin— tragedy and comedy, history and philosophy and lyric poetry—all struggled into existence. They were always looking over their shoulder at the classic Greek models. By the first century BCE, Rome could boast writers of greater stature and higher interest than any contemporary Greek: Catullus, Cicero, Horace, Virgil. Rome had now, after two hundred years of effort, fully assimilated the lessons of the Greek masters.
The Greeks, of course, simply refused to notice. It was bad enough to have been conquered, looted, and exploited by these Roman barbarians: to admit that they had a literature, that there were writers in Latin who could stand comparison with their own classics, would have been altogether too much to bear. For many Greek writers of the first century of the common era, Roman literature does not exist.
Posterity has taken a different view. Cicero was a greater man of letters, more powerful in range and more commanding in style, than any Greek of his time. In the next generation, the poets whom Maecenas, the supreme patron, fostered and subsidized and published were the greatest poets alive. Greece, in fact, had not produced anything comparable for generations. The lyric poet Horace, the love poets Propertius and Tibullus, the subversive but irresistible Ovid, and—above all—the great Virgil, the Roman Homer, who succeeded in creating the longed-for epic poem in Latin: they surpassed anything produced by their contemporaries in Greek.
That superiority was to be even more important as the destinies of the Latin West and the Greek-speaking East increasingly diverged. While Britain and Gaul and Spain were overwhelmed by barbarian invaders, and the Eternal City of Rome itself was repeatedly captured and looted, still Byzantium, also known as Constantinople, as New Rome, and—simply —as the City, long survived the fall of the empire in the West. But the Western Church took up Latin, the imperial speech of Rome, and made it her own.
For Christians, of course, the writings of the great pagan authors presented a fearful problem. How to savor their beauty, relish their achievements, even emulate their style, while keeping conscientiously clear of their contents: seductively beautiful, dangerously pagan, and full not only of false theology but also of the values of a fallen and sinful world? Much of Latin literature celebrates worldly pomp and pride, military conquests and imperial rule. Its poetry is hardly less filled with another set of radically un-Christian values: of overwhelming emotions, and of passionate sexual love.
Some Christian writers simply rejected pagan literature and wrote it off altogether. Saint Jerome called it a beautiful vase full of poisonous snakes. Saint Augustine reproached himself bitterly, in later life, for having wept over the tragedy of Virgil’s deserted queen Dido, not over his own sins and the sufferings of his Savior. Alcuin, an important figure in the civilized court of Charlemagne, loved Virgil in his youth; later on, he forbade his pupils to read him, and he reproached himself for having valued Virgil’s poetry more highly than the Psalms.
We see something that would recur repeatedly in the history of Christianity, and indeed of Islam, too: the struggle between the love of mortal beauty, dangerous to look upon, and the focusing of all energy and all desire on values which should be ascetic, spiritual, and, very often, positively and explicitly anti-aesthetic.
But Virgil still remained central to education in the West, whatever the qualms, at one time or another, of the Church. The long and very interesting book edited by Jan Ziolkowski and Michael Putnam sets out to offer
a series of starting points, or angles of vision, for the study of Rome’s greatest poet and of the heritage he conveyed, from his contemporary world until the fifteenth century of the common era.
That is a challenging project, well carried out.
The whole idea of high epic poetry was kept alive by the works of Virgil through centuries of literary desolation. Apart from his being claimed by Dante as the source of his style, Virgil is the model for the grand manner of Milton, and the source of Purcell’s enchanting Dido and Aeneas, first performed in 1689. Indeed, Virgil is important, as the editors suggest, in all the literatures of Europe.
As for the high poetry of imperial Rome itself, here the influence of Virgil proved all too powerful. We possess, though most of us do not often read, the works of later epic poets in Latin—Lucan’s Pharsalia, for example, or the Thebaid of Statius —who sank under the weight of Virgil’s influence, or who were more or less intimidated by his example. The book under review contains a collection of no less than fifty-seven explicit tributes, by significant writers, to Virgil and his influence. From the Latin poet Ovid, who records that in youth he once saw Virgil but never had the chance to speak to him, they range to Dante and Petrarch and Chaucer.
The selected poets, in various languages, offer “a representative collection of ‘appreciations’ of Rome’s greatest poet,” from his own lifetime to 1428 CE. The story does not end there, of course. No poet was more creatively influenced by Virgil than Milton; none was more explicit in his praise than Tennyson. But that, as Rudyard Kipling used to say, is another story. Neither Tennyson nor Kipling gets a mention in this book. They are excluded by chronology.
The writers selected by the editors as having been seriously influenced by Virgil are amazingly diverse. Christian authors like Augustine in his City of God interpreted his work allegorically. In 1428 Maffeo Vegio completed the Aeneid, left unfinished at Virgil’s death, with a Book Thirteen, of 630 lines, which describes Aeneas’s marriage to Lavinia and his subsequent reign over Italy. It is a notable service of The Virgilian Tradition that it includes a text and English translation of Vegio’s work, which is otherwise not at all easy to find. Most of us, however, will continue to prefer the marvelously balanced and suggestive form in which Virgil actually left the Aeneid at his death.
The poem was often read allegorically. Petrarch produces some striking examples. In Book One, Aeneas is shipwrecked by a storm. In the 1360s, Petrarch wrote:
To me those winds have always seemed to be nothing but the impulses of lust and wrath, and the emotions dwelling in the breast and beneath the heart, disturbing the serenity of human life, as if they were storms that disturb the calm sea. But Aeolus [god of the winds, who calms the storm] is reason itself, controlling and restraining the soul’s appetite toward wrath and lust.
Petrarch did have some qualms, it appears: in another essay, he explicitly rejects that type of commentary. And Aeneas and his men are seen as really shipwrecked by the storm, on the shore of Africa, where they have to stay and repair their battered ships, and where they will have their fateful encounter with Queen Dido. The medieval mind was attracted by allegory, as Virgil’s generally was not; and the modern reader is, on the whole, only very rarely and reluctantly drawn to allegory, when left with absolutely no alternative, as in The Pilgrim’s Progress: “Now Christian meets Beelzebub, lord of Vanity Fair….”
In the Middle Ages every kind of nonsense attached itself to the great poet’s name. There was an ancient tradition that as a boy Virgil had been given the Greek nickname “Parthenius,” “Girly,” because of the modesty of his demeanor. Medieval accounts of Virgil tell us that “he was called by all ‘Parthenius,’ that is, ‘holding himself well’ or ‘setting in motion'”: these were wild guesses at a Greek etymology, by men who knew no Greek.
Virgil had studied everywhere, it seemed: Naples, Milan, Athens, all claimed him, and he had studied so deeply that his poems, we read in these medieval ramblings, “can be explained,” the editors write,
grammatically, rhetorically, historically, literally, allegorically, morally, and anagogically: for what he says is so filled with meaning that it lies open to every interpretation, because everything is included in it.
He was famously a school fellow of Octavian, later the Emperor Augustus. His authority both in the imperial Roman world and in medieval times was such that it became a custom, at moments of significant choice, to consult him, by opening his text at random (the sortes Vergilianae). His poem attained, at certain times and places, something like the standing of the Bible itself.
As we have seen, another approach, congenial to the medieval mind, was to declare that the poet had been a sorcerer. Not only did he balance the city of Naples on an egg, he constructed a market there, said the legend, in which the meat never went bad. Others, we are told by the editors, took a more orthodox view. A German monk of the ninth century cries, with engaging Christian frankness,
Let us…abandon now Virgil, most false with his Sinon* and buried in the Styx, the worst of swamps, with Apollo and his Muses…. May the king of heaven curse such fictions. Is there anything I can call these same fictions, if not the falling dung of the horses… which draw your carriage?
Still others, more famously, took an opposite line. Beginning in the early fourth century, Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, a poem predicting the birth of a Savior for the world, was read as a Christian prophecy, and the poet appears as a true prophet. In a musical sequence sung at mass in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and later inscribed by Petrarch in his own copy of works by Virgil, Saint Paul was imagined standing at his tomb and lamenting, “What I should have made of you, if I had found you living, mightiest of poets!” We see him portrayed, alongside the Hebrew prophets, in medieval stained glass windows.
Biographers hate gaps in the lives of their subjects, and they are soon filled in. That is seen with embarrassing clarity in the case of Shakespeare. What we actually know about him is pitifully inadequate. So we love to hear that he was prosecuted for poaching, that he wrote his female roles for a runaway aristocratic girl; one day someone will claim he was the real author of the works of Francis Bacon. That, too, is a kind of tribute to his greatness and to his continuing importance and interest.
Much of The Virgilian Tradition brings together material that will be unfamiliar even to professed Virgilians. It can hardly be said that it sheds much light on the real Virgil or his work; but it is fascinating in illuminating the minds of his readers through the ages. Above all, it shows some of the ways in which the great poet’s admirers have tried to bring him to life and to show that his own story is somehow comparable with his poetic achievement and significance.
June 26, 2008