Billeder på siden


From this time Virgil lived at Rome or Naples enjoying the bounty and friendship of the Emperor and forming part of the select circle of distinguished men, which his minister Maecenas-the great literary patron of the day-gathered round him in his mansion on the Esquiline. It was at the request of Maecenas1 that he composed the four Books of the Georgics, written between 37 B.C. and 30 B.C., and dedicated to him.2 We know little of his life, but it was he who introduced Horace to Maecenas, and in Horace's writings we catch an occasional glimpse of him, notably in the description of the famous journey to Brundisium,' when he joined the party of Maecenas at Sinuessa, and, along with Plotius and Varius, is classed by his brother-poet in a memorable phrase among 'the fairest souls and dearest friends on earth,'4 while on another occasion Horace makes his starting for a tour in Greece the occasion for an Ode, in which he prays that the ship which bears so dear a trust may restore it safe to the shores of Italy, and preserve the half of my life.'5

In the opening lines of the third Georgic Virgil had already announced his intention of attempting a loftier theme and producing a great national epic, of which Augustus should be the central figure, and the Emperor

1 Georg. 3. 41.

2 Georg. 1. 2.

3 Hor. Sat. 1. 6. 54 optimus olim | Vergilius, post hunc Varius dixere quid essem.

4 Sat. 1. 5. 41 animae, quales neque candidiores | terra tulit neque quis me sit devinctior alter.

5 Od. 1. 3. 8 et serves animae dimidium meae. Those who choose can suppose that there were two Virgils thus dear to Horace.

himself is said to have written to him from Spain (B.c. 27) encouraging him to publish the poem, which he was known to have in hand, and which Propertius a year or two later heralds as 'something greater than the Iliad.' While he was engaged on its composition in B.C. 23, Marcellus, the nephew and destined heir of Augustus, died, and Virgil introduced into the sixth Book the famous passage (860-887) in which he is described, and of which the story is told that when the poet recited it in the presence of Octavia, the bereaved mother fainted away.2 In B.C. 20 he visited Greece and met Augustus, who was returning from Samos, at Athens, whence he accompanied him homewards, but his health, which had been long weak, broke down, and he died at Brundisium Sept. 22, B.C. 19.

He was buried at Naples on the road which leads to Puteoli. The inscription said to have been inscribed on his tomb refers to the places of his birth, death, and burial, and to the subjects of his three great works :

Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc
Parthenope: cecini pascua, rura, duces.

Virgil was largely read in his own day, and his works, like those of Horace, at once became a standard text-book in schools, and were commented on by numerous critics and grammarians, of whom Aulus Gellius in the second century and Macrobius and

1 Prop. 3. 26. 65 Cedite Romani scriptores, cedite Grai,

Nescio quid maius nascitur Iliade.

2 Donatus, § 47 Octavia, cum recitationi interesset, ad illos de filio suo versus, Tu Marcellus eris, defecisse fertur atque aegre refocillata dena sestertia pro singulo versu Vergilio dari iussit.

3 Juv. Sat. 7. 226.

Servius in the fourth are the most important. The early Christians in the belief, still unquestioned in the days of Pope,1 that the fourth Eclogue contained a prophecy of Christ, looked upon him almost with reverence, and it is not merely as the greatest of Italian singers, but also as something of a saint, that Dante claims him as his master and guide in the Inferno. In popular esteem he was long regarded as a wizard (possibly owing to his description of the Sibyl and the under world in the sixth Aeneid), and it was customary to consult his works as oracles by opening them at random and accepting the first lines which were chanced upon as prophetic. The emperor Alexander Severus thus consulted the Sortes Vergilianae, and opened at the words Aen. 6. 852 tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento, while Charles I. in the Bodleian Library at Oxford came upon the famous lines Aen. 4. 615-620: at bello audacis populi vexatus et armis, finibus extorris, complexu avulsus Iuli, auxilium inploret, videatque indigna sucrum funera; nec, cum se sub leges pacis iniquae tradiderit, regno aut optata luce fruatur,

sed cadat ante diem mediaque inhumatus harena.

In considering Virgil's writings, it must be borne in mind that, with the exception of satire, Roman poetry is entirely modelled on Greek. Terence copies Menander, Lucretius Empedocles, Horace Alcaeus and Sappho, Propertius Callimachus, and so on. Virgil in his Eclogues professedly imitates Theocritus, in his Georgics Hesiod, and in the Aeneid Homer. The 1 See his 'Messiah, a sacred Eclogue in imitation of Virgil's Pollio.'


cultured circle of readers for whom he wrote would probably have turned aside with contempt from a poem which relied wholly on native vigour, and did not conform, at any rate outwardly, to one of the accepted standards of literary excellence. They relished some happy reproduction of a Greek phrase, which was 'caviare to the general,' much in the same way that English scholars sometimes dwell with peculiar satisfaction on passages of Milton which it needs a knowledge of Latin to appreciate. Horace in his treatise on Poetry (1. 268) lays down the law which was considered universally binding on all poets:

vos exemplaria Gracca

nocturna versate manu, versate diurna;

and Seneca (Suas. 3) tells us that Virgil borrowed from the Greeks non surripiendi causa, sed palam imitandi, hoc animo ut vellet adgnosci.

The Bucolics (Вovкoλiká songs about herdsmen') consist of ten short poems commonly called Eclogues 2 (i.e. Selections') and belong to the class of poetry called 'pastoral.' They are largely copied from Theocritus, the first writer of pastoral poetry, who flourished during the first half of the third century B.c. and who, though born at Cos and for some time resident in

1 The term is doubtless Virgil's; Ovid Tr. 2. 538 calls them Bucolici modi.

2 The name is probably due to the grammarians, as are the various titles given to the separate Eclogues, though Virgil may himself have given that of Varus to the sixth (cf. 6. 12). In 5. 86, 87 and G. 4. 565 the second, third, and first are referred to by quoting their first line.

Alexandria, lived for the most part in Sicily,1 a country famous for its pastoral life and also for the natural vivacity of its inhabitants (Cic. Verr. 2. 4. 43 nunquam tam male est Siculis quin aliquid facete et commode dicant). His poems called 'Idylls' (Eidúλλia 'small sketches') are descriptive for the most part of country life, and often take the form of dramatic dialogue. Their origin is to be traced to that love of music and song which is developed by the ease and happiness of a shepherd's existence in a southern clime (cf. Lucr. 5. 1379 seq.), and to the singing-matches and improvisations which were common at village feasts, especially among the Dorian race, and which in Sicily had already produced the comedies of Epicharmus and the mimes of Sophron. The Idylls however, though they serve as a model for the Eclogues, differ from them in a most marked They are true to nature; the scenery is real; the shepherds are beings of flesh and blood'; 2 their broad Doric has the freshness and native vigour of the Scotch of Burns. The Eclogues, on the other hand, are largely artificial; the scenery belongs to nowhere ; it is Italian, Sicilian, or Arcadian; the shepherds are the shepherds of a masquerade, and at times put off their disguise to show themselves as Virgil (= Tityrus in Ecl. 1; Menalcas 9. 10), or Gallus, or Caesar (: Daphnis 5. 55). Convention has been imposed upon nature, and pastoral poetry, instead of reproducing rural


1 Hence 'Sicilian'=' pastoral verse'; cf. 4. 1 Sicelides Musae; 6. 1 Syracosio versu; 10. 1 Arethusa; Pope's Pastorals 1. 3

'Fair Thames, flow gently from thy sacred spring,

While on thy bank Sicilian muses sing.'

2 Fritzsche, Theocr. Introd.

« ForrigeFortsæt »