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THE LATER DIDACTIC POETS OF ROME.
HAVING spoken of the Latin Pastoral writers who came after Virgil, I may naturally be expected to say something of his successors in Didactic Poetry. It is true that the two cases are not precisely parallel: in the one not only the kind of poetry, but the subject, was the same as Virgil's own: in the other the similarity merely affects the form, and does not extend to the matter. Like Virgil, Calpurnius and Nemesianus sang of the contests, the loves, the laments of shepherds: unlike Virgil, Manilius, Gratius, Nemesianus, and Serenus Sammonicus, sing of astronomy and astrology, of the chase, and of the cure of diseases. Here, however, as in the Introductory Essay to the Georgics, I am addressing those who, like myself, are students of Roman poetry, not students of Roman agriculture, so that I shall need no apology for devoting a short time to the examination of writers whose works resemble the Georgics as the Georgics themselves resemble not the treatises of Cato and Varro, but the poems of Lucretius. These writers of course will be themselves considered simply with reference to their form: to discuss their matter is a task which is fortunately beyond my purpose, as it is certainly beyond my ability.
The most considerable Latin Didactic poem subsequent to the Georgics is unquestionably the Astronomica of Manilius. It is divided into five books, consisting respectively of 926, 970, 682, 935, and 745 lines, so that its length is nearly double that of Virgil's work. Its date is still an unsolved problem. No allusion to it occurs in any ancient writers: it is not even quoted by a single grammarian: indeed, there is no trace of its existence till the eleventh century, which also happens to be the probable date of its earliest MS.; while, on the other hand, its own internal evidence, as estimated by the most competent critics, would
1 I have adopted the forms 'Astronomica,' 'Cynegetica,' &c., rather than ‘Astronomicon,'' Cynegeticon,' which seem to be merely genitives belonging to the omitted substantive 'liber' or 'libri,' as the Latin title of the Georgics shows. Similar mistakes were made by early English writers, who talked about Virgil's Aeneidos,' and are not uncommonly made by modern English bookbinders. Pliny however (H. N. 32. 2) seems to regard' Halieuticon' as a neuter singular.
seem to refer it to the reign of Tiberius. Professor Ramsay, to whose article in the Dictionary of Biography those who are desirous of further information may be profitably referred, reconciles these apparently conflicting facts by supposing that the poem, bearing, as it does, marks of incompleteness, may never have been published, but that a copy or two may have got into private circulation, and so may have been accidentally preserved. I do not pretend to have given the work such an examination as would qualify me to form an independent opinion; nor would I venture to decide whether, as some have supposed, his language would not lead us to believe him to have been a foreigner. The work is apparently written with that average command of the hexameter which, after the example set by Virgil, became almost a matter of course for a Roman poet, and the language has much of that elaboration and point which after the Augustan age was exacted as a necessity, while it almost ceased to be a merit but there is no genuine energy or felicity of diction: the expressions are frequently forced, and the thoughts, where not obvious, are apt to degenerate into conceits. I propose to justify this character of a poem which numbers the younger Scaliger and Bentley among its editors, and Creech, not the worst versifier of Dryden's contemporaries, among its translators, by a few extracts from the more professedly poetical passages, and afterwards to give some notion of the general mode of treatment by an analysis of the First Book.
Each of the five books is introduced by a long exordium, in which the author was evidently anxious to display his powers as a poet. The first book has an introduction of 117 lines, the second of at least 59, the third of 42, the fourth of 121, the fifth of 29: and similar halting places are furnished by the conclusions of the first and third books. In the opening of the second book Manilius elaborates the same thought which is enforced by Virgil at the beginning of the Third Georgic, the difficulty of finding a subject which had not been exhausted by previous treatment: but it is easy to see how far the rhetorician is removed from the poet. After speaking of Homer in lines of which the text is too uncertain to make them worth quoting, he comes to Hesiod.
Hesiodus memorat divos divumque parentis
Silvarumque deos, sacrataque munia nymphis,
The first remark which occurs to the mind is on the needless frigidity of this enumeration of Hesiod's works and their various subjects, when a line or two, mentioning the poet and indicating the character of his poetry, would have been quite sufficient: the second is on the equally gratuitous conceits with which the details are embellished, as in the lines about the creation, about Jupiter, and about Bacchus.
In entering upon the third book he tells us that he is undertaking a new and difficult part of his subject, and prepares himself for the extraordinary effort by proclaiming what he is not going to sing.
"Non ego in exscidium caeli nascentia bella
Quam sint acta, loquar: Romanae gentis origo,
Yet, if these lines are frigid in their conception and affectedly obscure in their expression, we need not refuse the praise of ingenuity to those which immediately follow, in which he contrasts the ease of writing on such hackneyed themes with the mechanical difficulties of his own subject.
"Facile est ventis dare vela secundis,
Temporaque et varios casus, momentaque mundi,
Signorumque vices, partisque in partibus ipsis
Luctandum est, quae nosse nimis, quid? dicere, quantum est ?
Carmine, quid, proprio? pedibus, quid, iungere certis ?"
The fourth book commences with some reflections on the problem of human life, which he solves by the doctrine of fate.
"Quid tam sollicitis vitam consumimus annis,
Victuros agimus semper, nec vivimus unquam ?
Materiam struimus magnae per vota ruinae,
Et summum census pretium est, effundere censum.
Totque supervacuis vitam deflere querelis.
Longaque per certos signantur tempora casus.'
Not content with enunciating his discovery, he proceeds to apply it, tediously enough, to the various events in mythical and historical times. Without fate, he asks, could the fire have fled from Aeneas? could Troy have been victorious at the very crisis of its destiny? would the wolf have reared the two brothers? would Rome have been developed out of a few cottages? could shepherds have made the Capitol the seat of the lightnings, and enclosed Jupiter in his own fortress? Mucius, Horatius, Cloelia, the fate of the Curiatii, the battles of Cannae and Trasimene, the fall of Carthage, the escape of Hannibal by death, the social and civil wars, Marius lying a ruin among ruins, and rising from the precincts of Carthage to conquer a world, Pompey burnt on the shore of Nile, and Caesar bleeding in the senate, all show that there must be Fate in the world.
"Hoc nisi fata darent, nunquam fortuna tulisset."
A specimen of his narrative power occurs in the fifth book, where, having to speak of the constellation of Andromeda, he tells the tale of her deliverance by Perseus in a style which, as Bernhardy aptly remarks 2, reminds us of the show-pieces of Seneca the tragedian. These are Perseus' feelings when he first sees the beautiful prisoner.
"Isque ubi pendentem vidit de rupe puellam,
2 Grundriss der Römischen Litteratur, p. 454 (2nd edition).
But I must redeem my promise of analyzing an entire portion of the poem, the first book.
Manilius proposes his subject, characterizing it very briefly as divinas artis et conscia fati Sidera, diversos hominum variantia casus,' and recommending it as a new strain, which is to shake the woods of Helicon. With equal brevity, Caesar, the worthy heir of a world which the gods gave to his father, is acknowledged as the poet's inspiring deity. When the universe is at peace, the secrets of the universe may be most fitly unfolded. The poet kindles fire on two altars, and feels a two-fold heat, the heat of song and the heat of his subject, which is no less than the world itself. Who first revealed such divine secrets to men ? Who but the gods? It was Mercury who first disclosed the wondrous movements of the stars: Nature assisted in the work of making herself known, and taught Egyptian and Assyrian kings to scrutinize that heaven which their power so nearly reached. The next step was made by the priests, who, long familiar with divine things, were allowed to perceive the influence of the stars on human life. Knowledge was reduced to a system: occult laws were discovered, and the universe was seen to be regulated by eternal reason. Till then all was uncertainty: men wept to find stars vanish, and were rejoiced at their reappearance. Those were, indeed, days of darkness, when earth was untilled, mines unworked, the sea unnavigated, and every one thought his stock of knowledge enough. Time, penury, and experience worked the cure, and taught language, agriculture, commerce, and the arts of war and peace-nay (to pass from more hackneyed topics), taught divination, magic, and necromancy, and did not stop till they had mounted up to heaven and studied nature's operations, the causes of thunder, conflagrations, earthquakes, rain and wind, and the reason why winter snow is softer than summer hail-till the fiery bolt had been wrested from Jove and transferred to the clouds. Hence came the knowledge of the stars, the poet's present subject, which he hopes to be permitted to pursue through the gentle decline of a long life.
First he undertakes to describe the appearance of the universe, glancing, as he passes, at the various theories of its origin, chaotic or atomic, Vulcanian or Neptunian, a problem which he seems to think beyond divine no less than human comprehension. The upper part of the mundane system is fire: next comes air, which serves as it were to fan the flame: thirdly water, which in like manner feeds the air by its exhalations: lastly earth, which occupies at once the lowest place and the centre, the other elements falling off from it in equal proportions on all sides. This balance of the earth preserves the regular succession of day and night, the sun having space in which to circle round it. The entire universe in fact is similarly balanced in the void, so that the earth