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26 June, 2013
Letters On Literature
On Virgil
by Lang, Andrew


To Lady Violet Lebas.

Dear Lady Violet,--Who can admire too much your undefeated resolution to admire only the right things? I wish I had this respect for authority! But let me confess that I have always admired the things which nature made me prefer, and that I have no power of accommodating my taste to the verdict of the critical. If I do not like an author, I leave him alone, however great his reputation. Thus I do not care for Mr. Gibbon, except in his Autobiography, nor for the elegant plays of M. Racine, nor very much for some of Wordsworth, though his genius is undeniable, nor excessively for the late Prof. Amiel. Why should we force ourselves into an affection for them, any more than into a relish for olives or claret, both of which excellent creatures I have the misfortune to dislike? No spectacle annoys me more than the sight of people who ask if it is "right" to take pleasure in this or that work of art. Their loves and hatreds will never be genuine, natural, spontaneous.

You say that it is "right" to like Virgil, and yet you admit that you admire the Mantuan, as the Scotch editor joked, "wi' deeficulty." I, too, must admit that my liking for much of Virgil's poetry is not enthusiastic, not like the admiration expressed, for example, by Mr. Frederic Myers, in whose "Classical Essays" you will find all that the advocates of the Latin singer can say for him. These heights I cannot reach, any more than I can equal that eloquence. Yet must Virgil always appear to us one of the most beautiful and moving figures in the whole of literature.

How sweet must have been that personality which can still win our affections, across eighteen hundred years of change, and through the mists of commentaries, and school-books, and traditions! Does it touch thee at all, oh gentle spirit and serene, that we, who never knew thee, love thee yet, and revere thee as a saint of heathendom? Have the dead any delight in the religion they inspire?

Id cinerem aut Manes credis curare sepultos?

I half fancy I can trace the origin of this personal affection for Virgil, which survives in me despite the lack of a very strong love of parts of his poems. When I was at school we met every morning for prayer, in a large circular hall, round which, on pedestals, were set copies of the portrait busts of great ancient writers. Among these was "the Ionian father of the rest," our father Homer, with a winning and venerable majesty. But the bust of Virgil was, I think, of white marble, not a cast (so, at least, I remember it), and was of a singular youthful purity and beauty, sharing my affections with a copy of the exquisite Psyche of Naples. It showed us that Virgil who was called "The Maiden" as Milton was named "The Lady of Christ's." I don't know the archeology of it, perhaps it was a mere work of modern fancy, but the charm of this image, beheld daily, overcame even the tedium of short scraps of the "AEneid" daily parsed, not without stripes and anguish. So I retain a sentiment for Virgil, though I well perceive the many drawbacks of his poetry.

It is not always poetry at first hand; it is often imitative, like all Latin poetry, of the Greek songs that sounded at the awakening of the world. This is more tolerable when Theocritus is the model, as in the "Eclogues," and less obvious in the "Georgics," when the poet is carried away into naturalness by the passion for his native land, by the longing for peace after cruel wars, by the joy of a country life. Virgil had that love of rivers which, I think, a poet is rarely without; and it did not need Greece to teach him to sing of the fields:

Propter aquam, tardis ingens ubi flexibus
Mincius et tenera praetexit arundine ripas.

"By the water-side, where mighty Mincius wanders, with links and loops, and fringes all the banks with the tender reed." Not the Muses of Greece, but his own Casmenae, song-maidens of Italy, have inspired him here, and his music is blown through a reed of the Mincius. In many such places he shows a temper with which we of England, in our late age, may closely sympathize.

Do you remember that mediaeval story of the building of Parthenope, how it was based, by the Magician Virgilius, on an egg, and how the city shakes when the frail foundation chances to be stirred? This too vast empire of ours is as frail in its foundation, and trembles at a word. So it was with the Empire of Rome in Virgil's time: civic revolution muttering within it, like the subterranean thunder, and the forces of destruction gathering without. In Virgil, as in Horace, you constantly note their anxiety, their apprehension for the tottering fabric of the Roman state. This it was, I think, and not the contemplation of human fortunes alone, that lent Virgil his melancholy. From these fears he looks for a shelter in the sylvan shades; he envies the ideal past of the golden world.

Aureus hanc vitam in terris Saturnus agebat!

"Oh, for the fields! Oh, for Spercheius and Taygetus, where wander the Lacaenian maids! Oh, that one would carry me to the cool valleys of Haemus, and cover me with the wide shadow of the boughs! Happy was he who came to know the causes of things, who set his foot on fear and on inexorable Fate, and far below him heard the roaring of the streams of Hell! And happy he who knows the rural deities, Pan, and Sylvanus the Old, and the sisterhood of the nymphs! Unmoved is he by the people's favour, by the purple of kings, unmoved by all the perfidies of civil war, by the Dacian marching down from his hostile Danube; by the peril of the Roman state, and the Empire hurrying to its doom. He wasteth not his heart in pity of the poor, he envieth not the rich, he gathereth what fruits the branches bear and what the kindly wilderness unasked brings forth; he knows not our laws, nor the madness of the courts, nor the records of the common weal"--does not read the newspapers, in fact.

The sorrows of the poor, the luxury of the rich, the peril of the Empire, the shame and dread of each day's news, we too know them; like Virgil we too deplore them. We, in our reveries, long for some such careless paradise, but we place it not in Sparta but in the Islands of the Southern Seas. It is in passages of this temper that Virgil wins us most, when he speaks for himself and for his age, so distant, and so weary, and so modern; when his own thought, unborrowed and unforced, is wedded to the music of his own unsurpassable style.

But he does not always write for himself and out of his own thought, that style of his being far more frequently misapplied, wasted on telling a story that is only of feigned and foreign interest. Doubtless it was the "AEneid," his artificial and unfinished epic, that won Virgil the favour of the Middle Aces. To the Middle Ages, which knew not Greek, and knew not Homer, Virgil was the representative of the heroic and eternally interesting past. But to us who know Homer, Virgil's epic is indeed, "like moonlight unto sunlight;" is a beautiful empty world, where no real life stirs, a world that shines with a silver lustre not its own, but borrowed from "the sun of Greece."

Homer sang of what he knew, of spears and ships, of heroic chiefs and beggar men, of hunts and sieges, of mountains where the lion roamed, and of fairy isles where a goddess walked alone. He lived on the marches of the land of fable, when half the Mediterranean was a sea unsailed, when even Italy was as dimly descried as the City of the Sun in Elizabeth's reign. Of all that he knew he sang, but Virgil could only follow and imitate, with a pale antiquarian interest, the things that were alive for Homer. What could Virgil care for a tussle between two stout men-at-arms, for the clash of contending war-chariots, driven each on each, like wave against wave in the sea? All that tide had passed over, all the story of the "AEneid" is mere borrowed antiquity, like the Middle Ages of Sir Walter Scott; but the borrower had none of Scott's joy in the noise and motion of war, none of the Homeric "delight in battle."

Virgil, in writing the "AEneid," executed an imperial commission, and an ungrateful commission; it is the sublime of hack-work, and the legend may be true which declares that, on his death-bed, he wished his poem burned. He could only be himself here and there, as in that earliest picture of romantic love, as some have called the story of "Dido," not remembering, perhaps, that even here Virgil had before his mind a Greek model, that he was thinking of Apollonius Rhodius, and of Jason and Medea. He could be himself, too, in passages of reflection and description, as in the beautiful sixth book, with its picture of the under world, and its hints of mystical philosophy.

Could we choose our own heavens, there in that Elysian world might Virgil be well content to dwell, in the shadow of that fragrant laurel grove, with them who were "priests pure of life, while life was theirs, and holy singers, whose songs were worthy of Apollo." There he might muse on his own religion and on the Divinity that dwells in, that breathes in, that is, all things and more than all. Who could wish Virgil to be one of the spirits that

Lethaeum ad flumen Dues evocat agmine magno,

that are called once more to the Lethean stream, and that once more, forgetful of their home, "into the world and wave of men depart?"

There will come no other Virgil, unless his soul, in accordance with his own philosophy, is among us to-day, crowned with years and honours, the singer of "Ulysses," of the "Lotus Eaters," of "Tithonus," and "OEnone."

So, after all, I have been enthusiastic, "maugre my head," as Malory says, and perhaps, Lady Violet, I have shown you why it is "right" to admire Virgil, and perhaps I have persuaded nobody but myself.

P.S.--Mr. Coleridge was no great lover of Virgil, inconsistently. "If you take from Virgil his diction and metre, what do you leave him?" Yet Mr. Coleridge had defined poetry as "the best words, in the best order"--that is, "diction and metre." He, therefore, proposed to take from Virgil his poetry, and then to ask what was left of the Poet!

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