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Virgil

HAS not Virgil violated the immutable laws of common sense, which exist in full force in all ages, and in all countries, by his strange miracles, which, Marville says, are not less insupportable than those which the ancient chroniclers relate of their saints? Among these, we may observe, is that of transforming into the Leaves of a Tree, of which Polydore is the Root, the Lances with which Polymnestor had pierced him in the third book of the Æneid; in making the Branch of a Tree produce a Golden Bough, in the sixth; and in metamorphosing into Sea Nymphs, in the eleventh book, the Ships of Æneas, which were set on fire. A critic has said, that these fictions are not miraculous, but ridiculous, and only serve to blemish so beautiful a composition!

We must also condemn, in Virgil, that cruel Piety by which he has distinguished Æneas, in causing him to immolate eight persons on the funeral-pile of Pallas. The example of Homer, which he has here followed, cannot excuse a barbarity which shocks our feelings. This cruel action was characteristic of the furious Achilles in the circumstance of the death of Patroclus, but should not have been performed by the pious Æneas. Besides, Virgil, who had more judgment than Homer, and who lived in a more polished age, is less excusable in having made his Hero commit so barbarous an action.

In the fourth book of the Æneid, we are compelled to animadvert on another fault, which pains our sensibility. In that book, where the poet expresses so well the madness of a despairing lover, Æneas appears by much too cold; and his excuses are, indeed, not very ingenious for his desertion of Dido—in a word, not a little unfeeling. To all the reproaches of the passionate and tender queen, he has only to oppose the orders of Jupiter, and the severity of his fate. He cannot doubt of the extreme violence of her passion; and he must necessarily know to what an excess a woman of her fervid spirit, who pretended to be united to him as his wife, would carry it: yet he sleeps, in the most perfect tranquillity, in his vessel, till Mercury awakens him.

Some of his adventures seem copies of each other. Sinon and Acheminedes present themselves to the Trojans on two very different occasions, but in nearly a similar manner. The one in his second book, and the other in the third, say the same things. The descriptions of the tempests too frequently resemble each other; and they begin two or three times by the same verses. This beautiful verse—

Obstupui, Steteruntque comæ et vox faucibus hæsit,

is too often repeated. There are also contradictions; which, probably, he would have corrected, had he lived.

He relates, in the fifth book, the circumstances of the death of Palinurus in one manner; and Palinurus himself, in the sixth, relates it differently. In one, it is the god of Sleep, under the figure of Phorbas, who having caused the pilot to fall asleep, precipitates him and the rudder into the sea; in the other, it is a gale of wind that carries them both away. In one place, Palinurus is swallowed up in a profound sleep by the sea; in the other; he is perfectly awake, and has time to reflect that the ship will now wander without a pilot.

Virgil should not have caused Æneas to return from Hell by the gate of Ivory, but by that of Horn. By employing here the gate of Ivory, from whence issued fables and fictions, formed at pleasure—Sed falsa ad Cœlum mittunt insomnia manes—is it not destroying, at a single stroke, the whole that he has been recounting in that incomparable book; and tacitly informing Augustus, that all he had imagined most flattering for him and his ancestors is nothing but a mere idle fiction?

In the second book of the Æneid, Ascanius appears a little child, led by the hand of his father: he could not have attained to more than seven years. In the third, Andromache, calling to mind Astyanax her son, and addressing herself to Ascanius, says—“Were he living, he would now, like you, have reached the age of puberty”—

Et nunc æquali tecum pubesceret ævo.”

Ascanius was not, then, a child, before he went to Africa? Yet Virgil makes him again but seven years in his fourth book, when Dido holds Cupid in her lap, who had assumed his figure: yet, in the very same book, he is represented, not as a child, but as a young and vigorous man, in a hunting-match, of which he gives a description.

These things are very irregular and dissimilar: contradictions which are very material, and which cannot be reconciled. Virgil, on his death-bed, commanded his friends to burn his Æneid. The great poet was conscious of its unfinished state. Fortunately for posterity, they did not in this respect obey the injunctions of their dying friend. The loss had, indeed, been irreparable.

Let it not be considered, that I have collected these criticisms to diminish the reputation of Virgil. As the Æneid is acknowledged not to have received the finishing hand, it may be rendered useful in exercising the youthful mind to discern the petty blemishes amongst the great beauties of a great master.

Virgil can be defended from a censure, which attacks at once the poet and the man. Several eminent critics (observes Menage) are much surprized that Virgil, in his sixth book of the Æneid, describing the Laurel Grove which he has assigned for the residence of the Poets, makes no mention of Homer. On this they have taxed Virgil with ingratitude and envy; since here an occasion presented itself so favourably to bestow a beautiful eulogium on Homer, to whom he stood so deeply indebted; and they have been astonished why he preferred to do this honour to the ancient Musæus. But this censure is very unjust, and could only be occasioned by not reflecting sufficiently on the order of time. Let us consider, that Virgil only follows his hero: if he speaks of Musæus, it is that he had no other design but to mention those poets who died before the taking of Troy. He was too judicious to cause Æneas to relate that he had seen Homer amongst the poets, who was not born till at least one hundred and sixty years after the destruction of Troy.

The sage Huet affords me another observation, which appears just. He says, that faults will escape the attention of the greatest men. Virgil is fallen into a gross error, when he compares Orpheus deploring the loss of his beloved Eurydice with the Nightingale who regrets the loss of her young. He first makes the nightingale sing in the shade of a poplar—Populea mærens; philomela sub umbra; and directly after this song is a nocturnal song—flet noctem. How can the night and the shade of the poplar meet together? Besides, the nightingale ceases to sing when it is delivered of its young.

Virgil, in the second book of the Georgics, has bellowed high eulogiums on the fertile territory of Nole, in Campania: but, the inhabitants of this city not chusing to allow their waters to run through his lands, he erased Nole, and put Ora in its place. So dreadful is the vengeance of a poet!

The banquet which Alcinous gives Ulysses, in the Odyssey, is very beautiful, and perfectly gallant: but it appears there are none but men present. That with which Dido entertains Æneas is not by any means comparable to it in festal elegance. In one, they sing the adventures of the gods, and other themes, not less agreeable than gallant: in the other, they sing concerning the stars, and other philosophical matters. Let the festive splendours of Alcinous be removed to the court of Carthage, and the feast of Dido to the Pheacian Island; and every thing will then be in character.

To this article may be added an account of a thirteenth book of the Æneid. A poet, named Maphœus Vegius Laudanensis—so Naudé writes it, but I observe his commentator tells us it should be Laudensis—was born at Lodi, in the year 1407. At sixteen years of age he gave evident marks of an excellent genius. What is remarkable of him, he has, with great felicity, added a thirteenth book to the Æneid.