LIFTED by gentle hands, Virgil had been brought from his sick room to the portico opening upon the garden, and made comfortable on a couch of tortoise shell and ivory, covered with crimson silk cushions which warmed a little the pallor of his long thin face. It was an afternoon of late September, and the sun over Brindisi was still almost as hot as that sun over Megara which, ten days ago, had seemed to drop a burning shaft upon the poet’s head. But in this house of Tullus, near the sea, there was every defense against the blazing sky and the heated streets. Within the protecting wall the large rooms were kept shaded. The slaves who waited on the invalid day and night seemed to know just when to bring him cooling drinks, just when to change his position, just how to bathe his body without exhausting him.
Racked from the journey across the Adriatic, Virgil had accepted without question the arrangements made for him at the command of Augustus. With gratitude he found himself the guest of Tullus, an intimate friend of a member of the imperial entourage. The emperor, who in Athens had persuaded his best-beloved poet to turn back with him, and who had been responsible for the sight-seeing tour among the ruins of Megara, had ordered his physician, Antonius Musa, always the attendant of his travels, to remain in Brindisi, keeping with him several slaves especially skillful in nursing. It had been evident that Virgil was in no condition to take the journey to his home in Naples, even in the most comfortable of carriages.
The fever had quieted down, and to-day, in spite of the invalid’s great weakness, Musa had decided to try an hour’s change in the fresher air of the portico. Virgil lay very still, the cool splash of the garden fountain soothing his ear. ‘Rest yourself now,’ he had whispered weakly to the servant who had put the pillows so comfortably under his head, and the man looked half-asleep, there on the marble bench, his patient, kindly face relaxed from its habitual attentiveness. But Virgil did not sleep. Thoughts followed each other through his mind, like a flock of migrating birds.
So this was Brindisi again, and he was sick here, instead of in his own sweet Parthenope. Outside of this wall there was no blue bay of Naples, no familiar Vesuvian cone, no shore of Capri, to catch the rose and daffodil from the sunset. The harbor of Brindisi had never attracted him, in spite of the gathering of ships from lands beyond the horizon. Perhaps it had looked its best to him that morning — could it be so few weeks ago? — when he had set sail with high hopes of happy travel in Greece.
The sun had been shining brilliantly, without betraying its hostility. He had been hoarding for the journey his none too great allowance of strength, so that he had felt comparatively well and able to cope with ardent enjoyment. The Æneid was at least in its first draft, after much agony of spirit, and he had believed for the first time since the inception of the work — the sudden inspired hour ten years ago — that after drinking of Greek fountains he would be able to bring it to a final form.
To-day he felt so weak, although the fever and pain had gone. Musa had said that he had a good fighting chance for his life, but who was he to fight? Life had rarely seemed to him worth the struggle, and now that he had passed the half century, fulfilled his ten lustrums, why should he struggle longer? It was not as if anybody cared very much whether he lived or died. No wife, no child, to hold him. Years ago his brothers had died, as well as his father and mother. There was nobody nearer than a friend, and even the closest of them — Horace, Varius, Tucca — could pursue their accustomed ways without him. Gallus, the dearest comrade of his youth, had already preceded him to the world of shades. Perhaps if they met there the tragedy of this friend’s wrongdoing and self-inflicted death could be forgotten, they could tread the asphodel together and talk once more of the holy Muses. As for Mæcenas, as for Augustus, these bright stars would shine on in the firmament of Rome, losing no ray of light because a poet died. Their friendship was beneficence, not dependence.
It was odd that the emperor should be sheltering him now in Brindisi — how extraordinary such an idea would have seemed when he first saw the place twenty years ago! The emperor was only Octavian then, and Mæcenas, journeying down from Rome to mediate between him and Antony, had made up a pleasant literary party in order to sweeten politics with draughts from the Pierian spring. Horace had started with him, and Varius, Tucca, and Virgil himself had joined on at Sinuessa. Horace had written it up in his inimitable way. Who else would have thought of informing the public that when Mæcenas played ball he and Virgil took a nap!
The sick man with an effort lifted his thin hand and looked at it. Yes, always, always, he had been shut out from rough-and-tumble physical exercise. Neither had he been able to be a soldier, in those young days when Horace left his Athenian studies and fought with Brutus. In a way, it was odd that he, too, had not gone to Athens for more study after the student days in Rome. Perhaps even then the effort of travel had seemed too great. Suppose he had gone, and sickened and died before he had written as much as an eclogue? In that would there have been cause for tears? Not for others, surely, but he would have missed those wander-years among Italy’s hills and lakes, her beautiful fields and vineyards, and the storied towns reared on hilltops above her ancient rivers. Whenever he had wanted to be young again, it had been most of all to recapture the first sweet ardor of knowing the Italian country, from the north, where snowy Alps wore the coronals of the morning and the evening, to the south, where Sicily took the sea to her warm breast.
To be young again! Really young — not even a youth in love with Italy, but a child at home! Virgil’s eyes closed weakly. On tired wings his thoughts slipped back to his boyhood on his father’s farm near Mantua. It was there that he had first watched the flush of rose come on the far-off Alps. And there were friendlier hills, too, where the shadows lay, when the smoke rose from the little homes in the clear evening air, and a homely river — he could almost smell the reeds and hear the hum of bees in the willow trees on the banks. Such swims as he and his brother had had after the spring rains! And in the woods they used to build beech-wood fires and cook bacon when their father took them on a picnic. The woods bordered a large field, where in the spring narcissi and hyacinths and violets grew in thick clumps. Once he had plunged his hand down among purple hyacinths and touched a snake — even yet he remembered its slimy coldness. Apple trees were safer — the red fruit was so firm and fresh in the hand when you had stood on tiptoe and pulled down a heavy bough. Always there had been something interesting, from the spring ploughing and planting to the autumn vintage. The cattle and even the bees were playmates. On rainy days the farm hands welcomed help in mending the tools or parching the corn or plaiting the baskets, and filled the hours with old country stories and songs.
But even more clearly into the sick poet’s memory slipped the silver music of his childish dreams of Rome, that distant city of whose temples and streets and hills his father had often told him. The only town he knew was Mantua, to which he was taken on market days, and he had merely enlarged it into Rome, because he had seen that puppies looked like dogs and kids looked like their dams! How could he guess the magnificence of a city which carried her head as high above all others as cypresses rise toward the blue sky from among low hedgerow trees?
Rome! In her service he had been long enlisted. She was his commander, his goddess, his mistress. Virgil stirred restlessly and opened his eyes. The servant, sensitive to the least sound, came hurrying to him, and was frightened by the excited flush in his face. A deep impulse had wrested Virgil back from the past, into which he had almost lost consciousness, to a feverishly practical anxiety. He must accomplish his purpose before it was too late. The Æneid must be destroyed. It was not worthy of Rome. Incomplete, imperfect, it must die with him. Yesterday he had asked for his packet of papers, to tear in shreds the manuscript, but they had put him off with excuses. He was helpless, for he could not stand on his feet. Hoarsely, he asked for the slave who took letters. When he came with his wax tablet and stilus, the poet’s voice held out to dictate to Varius a strict order that none of his unpublished works should be allowed to reach the public. His voice died away. The flush in his face changed to pallor. His breath could scarcely be detected. But the household hung upon that breath. Before midnight a swift courier was dispatched northward along the Appian Way to Rome.
The elder Sosius, head of the chief publishing firm in Rome, was taking an October holiday in Baiæ, and gladly accepted an invitation from Varius and Tucca to spend a few days with them in Virgil’s villa at Posilipo. The two friends, fortunately, had been spending September at Capri, so that the news of the poet’s death, which shocked and grieved rich and poor alike in Naples, reached them quickly and they were able to perform the last offices of friendship when his body, under military escort, was brought home from Brindisi. Now they were staying on to make the necessary arrangements about the house and slaves.
The most valuable part of the villa was the library, for, simple as the country-born poet’s tastes were in furnishings and manner of life, he had given free rein to indulgence in books. Every golden line of Greek literature that he could put his hands on he had gathered in. Latin literature was completely represented, many of the contemporary manuscripts being gifts from the authors. Of historical and antiquarian material there was no end. Virgil kept twice as many copyists as kitchen slaves, and they never were idle.
In this library Varius, Tucca, and Sosius were discussing the publication of the Æneid, which the emperor had commanded. A slave had brought a bowl of wine and the silver cups decorated with lilies in bas-relief which Octavia had sent to Virgil after hearing him read the description of her dead son, Marcellus. The sixth book of the epic was among the few portions which the poet had revealed in private audience, and the emperor’s sister had been deeply moved.
Varius had been distressed over the fact that they must go against Virgil’s wishes, when he had trusted their friendship. ‘Well,’ said Tucca, practical as always, ‘we have no choice, since Augustus says “publish.” And, after all, Virgil undertook the epic as an imperial service. It was n’t his private affair.’
‘Not when it was his lifeblood poured into the hexameters?’ asked Varius. ‘His brain, his nerves, his heart, have known no peace for ten years. And then an incomplete work passes from his dead hands to the barking critics!’
‘Why so incomplete?’ asked Tucca. ‘There are twelve books. If he had lived forever, he could n’t have completed Roman history. The books as they are — I have been studying them — seem to me supremely well done. In the name of Apollo, why was he so worried ? ’
‘That has puzzled me, too,’ Varius answered, ‘ but I believe I can give you three reasons.’ He began to check them off on his fingers. ‘First, there are really incomplete lines and passages. To us they seem negligible, but you know what a craftsman he was. One roughness and the marble was gravel. One flaw and the jewel was not precious. His own comparison is even better — a bear licking her cubs into shape. We found him gentle, but in his creative labor there was a curious fierceness. Second,’ — the middle finger went up, — ‘I believe he wanted to rearrange some values, change his architectural design. Just before he went to Greece, he told me he was afraid he had overdone the legendary material in the later books, and that the individual combats were too prolonged. Years ago he told me that he meant to get twelve books done, and then weld them into a harmonious creation before going on.’
Varius held up his third finger and looked meditatively at a handsome intaglio ring, a cornelian incised with a tragic mask. Then, letting it relax, he went on: ‘The third reason, I am convinced, was due to nature instead of art. Virgil could no more help being distrustful of the quality of his work than he could help being frail, or gentle, or having a beautiful voice or a heavenly disposition. He was destined to write great poetry and have no joy out of it. His effort to destroy the Æneid sprang from an inner iconoclasm. The very intensity of his love for Rome kept destroying his confidence in his own power to serve her. We are a patriotic race, but most of us are more sure that we match our country!’
Sosius had begun to show signs of being restless. As Varius ended on a smile, he filled his cup again from the bowl of wine, and said, ‘Could you two adapt your alternate strains to telling me more about the Æneid? I have had only snatches of it. Is it really greater than the Iliad, as the younger poets are prophesying?’
‘ You can’t compare heroic sagas with a conscious artistic creation,’ said Varius. ‘The Iliad was made by the people and lay at hand for the poet, who then gave it back to them transfigured. The Æneid has been deliberately made for the people by a poet inspired by patriotic and philosophical purposes. But three things he does take over from Homer: the rich, golden civilization of the Trojan age, the presence of the gods and goddesses among men, — sometimes, I must say, overdone for our modern taste, — and the use of similes.
‘By the way, these are most interesting. I read on and on last night, — poor old Syra had to fill my lamp three times! —and I was struck by their freshness. Men building a city work as hard as bees in the early summer fields. When a boy dies in battle his neck sinks and settles on his shoulder as poppies bow their heads if they are overweighted by a shower. A woman smitten suddenly by love is like an innocent deer, wandering free in the woods and being smitten by a shepherd’s arrow. Flowers and birds and winds and storms, fire and stars, a working woman busy all night, a boy spinning a top — can’t you see how out of the matrix of his rural life he has fashioned jewels for a crown for Rome? This epic, I do assure you, Sosius, has a dignity, a grandeur even, that is Roman to the core. The hexameters are marvelous, even statelier than those of the Georgies. You will find them taking Rome by storm.’
‘But what about the subject?’ persisted the publisher. ‘We are an agricultural people, and the Georgies reached the popular heart because fundamentally it yearns toward the life of the farm. No matter how high the poet lifts his eyes, his feet are on the soil that we live from. The most air-born hexameters do not sweep away the solid information about how to raise the crops! Is the Æneid going to reach beyond the intellectuals? Can’t you give me some outline of this epic that turns you into a lyricist?’
Tucca rose and went over to a table on which was laid out, in twelve rolls, the copy of the Æneid which had come back with Virgil’s body. ‘Let me run through these for you,’ he said with a smile. ‘I can keep to the highroad more steadily than Varius can.’ As he proceeded with his long task, his fingers seemed to stroke the unrolling papyrus, as if he felt his friend’s hand.
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expelled and exiled, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Italian realm and built the destined town;
His banished gods restored to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.1
‘Well, there in the opening lines you have it all — the philosophical interplay of man and destiny, the epic device of gods, the dangers and troubles, the wars and conflicts, the final triumph of our progenitor, the foreshadowing of the greatness of Rome. But having pushed himself out to sea on these lines, our Virgil had the inspired good sense to plunge from them into the salt currents of a story. Carthage is the scene — the tale of her origin will pleasantly remind us of how we destroyed our proudest enemy! I would not have credited Virgil with so keen a dramatic sense.
‘Carthage is new and fresh, founded by Dido, widow of Sychæus, an immigrant from Tyre. Æneas, in the seventh summer of his wanderings, is driven here by a storm, brought about by the malignancy of Troy-hating Juno. Queen and court hospitably receive him and the companions of his seven ships. Hosts and guests feast together, and Dido begs Æneas to tell her the tale of his wanderings. By the will of Juno, helped by Venus, she has already fallen in love with the princely stranger.
‘So much for the Prologue. The next two books give Æneas’s story to date. I assure you, you will never have a more brilliant description of the sack of Troy and an exile’s escape. It is not only Homeric, but Euripidean in its humanity. As the morning star rises over the high ridges of Mount Ida, Æneas finds himself the leader of a pitiful group of refugees, his city destroyed, his wife dead, his feeble old father on his back, his little son dragging at his hand. They put to sea, to wander for seven ill-starred years.
‘I must hold you up with one of the earlier episodes when they have entered a harbor of Epirus. Æneas has heard that Andromache has been married again to Helenus and is living inland. His heart is kindled with a desire to see an old friend, and so he leaves his ships and makes his way to her. Their meeting, her memories of Hector, her first love, the generous hospitality of Helenus, the happiness of Æneas in living once more in a city made to look like the Troy they have loved and lost — I still remember the cadences of Virgil’s voice when he first read all this to me. His voice broke on Æneas’s farewell speech to these friends: —
You have no shores to search, no seas to plow,
Nor fields of flying Italy to chase,
Deluding visions and a vain embrace!
‘Well, on the wanderers sail, until one morning, just at daybreak, they see the dim hills and low plains of Italy. All seems well. But Polyphemus, the Cyclops, must be reckoned with, and Scylla and Charybdis. Only a few ships escape. Anchises, the old father, who had made every care and danger seem light to Æneas, dies — you remember, Varius, how deeply Virgil loved his father?
“ But I must not linger here. The next book, Sosius, would make your fortune, if you put it on the market separately. You have heard about it, I know — the love story of Dido and Æneas. It has amazed his friends, because we have never known of Virgil loving a woman. The frenzies of Propertius and Tibullus used to trouble him — often he would say he wished they might see Rome as their true mistress. But here he has portrayed a proud, passionate, impetuous woman as perhaps even Catullus could not have done, had he liked high themes.
4 A high theme this certainly remains; Dido, the victim of love, is still the queen who led her people from one land to another and built a great city. Juno, hoping to keep Æneas from Italy, brings the love to consummation, and queen and guest pass the long winter together in revelry, regardless of their public trusts. The towers and bastions of Carthage remain unfinished. By day Æneas forgets his god-given mission. But his dreams are troubled. In them his young son and the ghost of his old father reproach him.
‘Finally, Jupiter exercises his will. Mercury comes to remind Æneas that he was not rescued from Troy to dally in Carthage, but to rule an Italy teeming with empire and to lay all the world beneath his law. The man of destiny prepares to depart. Reproached by Dido, he can only say that he does not go of his own free will. The tragedy culminates. Æneas sails before dawn. When morning breaks, Dido from her watchtower sees the empty harbor and the sails far out upon the sea. On a pretext she has built a funeral pyre, surmounted by the marriage bed. Upon it she kills herself with the sword of Æneas. Her soul passes out upon the winds that speed him toward Italy.
‘Well, after all this tragedy, we come back to the epic mood. A storm drives the Trojans to the same Sicilian harbor from which they had set sail for Carthage. It is the anniversary of Anchises’ death and Æneas celebrates it by athletic games — you will recognize the Eighth Book of the Odyssey. This is a pleasant interlude. But Juno busies herself again. She drives the weary women mad so that they set fire to the ships which threaten once more to take them out upon the sea. Only three ships are left. Æneas divides his forces, leaving in Sicily the women and all who are content to have none of glory. The chosen remnant are ready for the last dash for Italy.
‘The sea is calm, the sky clear. As night comes on, the sailors nod and sleep. Even Palinurus, the helmsman of Æneas’s own ship, drowses and is washed overboard. The leader must take the helm himself. As he guides the ship through the night of waters he mourns his friend: —
Thy naked corpse is doomed on shores unknown to lie.’
Tucca laid down the fifth roll, and came back to the mixing bowl. ‘You know the next book, Sosius, the divine Sixth — you heard Virgil read it himself. Here in Naples the world of the dead seemed near to him. From Cumæ, almost at his door, he plunged down among the shades. Certainly to us now, in this hour, the journey of Æneas does not seem as imaginary as it did that day on the Palatine.
‘Talk about Æneas’s journey being modeled on that of Odysseus! I suppose this book contains the quintessential difference between Virgil and Homer. Our poet uses the legend of Hades as a vehicle of philosophy. For one thing, he lets Anchises give his Platonic views about the nature of the soul. The old father informs his son that within man there is a fiery glow, a heavenly nature, a struggling against the clogs of corrupting flesh. The lapse of ages will cleanse the ingrained stain and leave a residue of heavenly intelligence. For another thing, also Platonic, he lets Anchises rehearse the list of the unborn souls who are to appear on earth. So he inverts life and death. It is a roster of our national heroes, down to Augustus Cæsar himself — born to restore the Golden Age and to extend our sway beyond the solar path, beyond the starry way. But fate has deprived him of a successor in the young Marcellus. These very cups we are holding mark Octavia’s feeling when her beautiful son was described. “Heap lilies with ungrudging hands” — Virgil’s voice was like a lute among spring flowers — you remember how our lady broke down in tears.’
Having drunk his wine, Tucca went back to the table and took up the rolls again, moving more quickly this time. ‘Five more books, Sosius, and I wager you know practically nothing of them, and yet they contain a galaxy of portraits. The coloring is Iliadic; Æneas has to fight his way to win Latium, which at last he reaches. Our poet sings now of “grim wars, embattled lines, kings whom honor drove on death, and all Hesperia enrolled in arms.” He uses our dim legends, our immemorial customs and ceremonies, as epic material. The substance of our national origins he embroiders with rich details.
‘ But the opening of Book Seven is as idyllic as any passage in the Eclogues or Georgies. After a moonlight sail up the coast, Æneas describes in the early morning, just as the calm water is reddening under the sun, a richly wooded shore and the river Tiber flowing down to the sea. The birds are filling the bright air with song. Joyfully the wanderers turn their prows and glide into the shady river. Latinus, the king, receives them kindly, and because of favorable omens promises to give his daughter in marriage to the princely stranger.
‘Then again Juno interferes. The young prince of the Rutuli, who is betrothed to Lavinia, declares war. Æneas goes for assistance to Evander, who rules at Pallantium — our Palatine, you see. I know that Virgil spent months of research on this portion, tracing back the Capitoline, and the Campus Martius and the Forum. But he never forgets the story. Evander gives troops under his son Pallas, praying that if fate has death in store for the boy the thread of his own life may be snapped now while he still holds him in his arms. As Æneas carries off the boy to fight for the destiny of Rome the servants are seen to lift the old father from the ground,
‘Always the “pity” of tragedy, is n’t it, Varius? Youth dies all through these later books. You could make a score of plays out of them. Take the Trojan Nisus and Euryalus, for example, friends such as Euripides drew in I phigenia in Tauris. The mother of Euryalus had refused to stay in Sicily, when he was chosen to accompany Æneas. He is killed here in Latium like a purple flower severed by the plough. That’s Sappho, I suppose, but Virgil saw it as often as she did. Nisus avenges him and dies. And Euryalus’s mother, hearing the news at her loom, wails so bitterly that the martial spirit of all who hear her flags and faints.
’Then there is the young Mezentius, King of Etruria, and Camilla, the Amazon princess of the Volscians, a beautiful creature. They all have to die, that Æneas may triumph. Finally, Turnus himself is killed by Æneas. The gods desert him. He fights on as in a nightmare, moving as we move in dreams when we try to run and cannot and our tongues try to speak and cannot. Wounded, lying on the ground, he reminds the conqueror that he is loved by his father, as Æneas was loved by Anchises. But he is wearing a trophy taken from Pallas, who had been sent back dead to his father. In rage Æneas slays him. The soul of Turnus flies groaning into the dark.
‘The Æneid ends! My friends, will our Virgil tread the same asphodel with Homer? Where is his joy in combat? True, the great Mæonian felt the pathos of humanity. As are the generations of leaves, so also are the generations of men, burgeoning in the spring, only to fail in the autumn. But it seems to me that Virgil saw each leaf as it fell. And now he, too, has fluttered to the ground.’
Tucca slowly rolled up the last papyrus. Neither Varius nor Sosius spoke. But from the door a harsh sob broke the silence, revealing the presence in the shadows of grizzled old Geta, who had been Virgil’s chief copyist for many years. Sosius beckoned to him, and he crept in like a dog deserted and forlorn. ‘Come to Rome with me,’ said a kind voice, ‘and help me to make your master still live.’
Horace to his Mœcenas. Greeting
The evening air is clear and the smoke is going up from the little farmhouses. Sabine quiet is falling on my own farm. We were busy to-day in the vineyard, harvesting my modest store of grapes. With the warm work went the usual merriment. But I kept thinking of the day — how long ago! — when Virgil went about my few acres with me, to pick out the best exposure and test the looseness of the soil.
Dear friend of mine, pride and glory of Rome’s poets, what limit can be set to our longing for him? I cannot read to-night. I have told Davus to admit no guests. And yet in this last month my neighbors here have comforted me more surely than I should have been comforted had I gone back to Rome. They accept the decrees of fate with a patience which is more tranquilizing than the equanimity of the philosophers. They say farewell to their dead with those old rites which seem to unite the generations of men, and then, without speculation, without complaint, they go about their business. Virgil used to say to me that it was because they know the processes of nature, and, as unconsciously as the cattle or the trees, submit to the beginning, the maturity, the end of all that lives.
He was really a countryman, was n’t he? How shy, how sweet he was! Do you remember his embarrassment that day in the theatre when the audience rose because one of his lines was quoted on the stage? And on the street I have seen the blood rush to his face if he realized that he was being pointed out to a stranger. The acclaim of Rome — for whom else in our generation has it been so loud and clear? — seemed never to sound for him above the inward voice of his own ideals. Your golden friendship, the emperor’s divine favor, issued in love, in gratitude, in endeavor, never in self-assertion, scarcely, alas! even in self-confidence.
In this hour I want only to talk of him, as if through the gate of horn, a real presence, he could come back to us, for a space, from the Eternal Sleep. I asked him once why he had Æneas and the Cumæan Sibyl return from Hades through the gate of ivory. Was it all a false dream — that triumph of the heavenly nature? But he only smiled, a little sadly, and said, ‘Certainty belongs only within the eye’s radius, does n’t it, Horace?’ He could follow Plato in hope, but not in the assurance of a soul which has made its way from the shadows of the Cave to the sunlight of Truth.
And yet, how beautiful, my friend, was our Virgil’s hope! Straight through from the Eclogues to the end of the Æneid he kept his vision of a better age for us all, of peace and goodness prevailing among men. But it was not a mirage. Out of the body of the Roman character he fashioned it. Do you remember the delight of Augustus in that superb passage in the Sixth of the Æneid, where he chisels the face of Rome as distinct from the face of Greece? Grant to Greece all her arts and sciences, yet Rome, too, has a destiny. To govern nations justly, to impose the rule of peace — ‘These are imperial gifts and worthy thee.’
But his intense patriotism was not without fear. I suppose that only the one who hopes most for Rome can know the full measure of terror for her shortcomings. How many do you suppose hear with spiritual ears that impassioned call in the Georgics back to the rural gods, back to home and hearthstone, to the natural employments of the seasons, to simple virtues and sweet content? The turmoil of the Forum seemed mad to him, as if it all meant evil ambition, and greed, and poisonous luxury. Fundamentally I know that his desire for a purer life among the people made him malleable to the emperor’s wish for an epic to glorify Rome. He believed that if we could be brought back to a reverence for the early strength which started us on our road to greatness, we should work more ardently for a noble future. You and I know how he immersed himself in that early history which is based on the idea that Rome was predestined by the divine will to become mighty. He believed the past to be a fount of inspiration. Who knows?
Yet he could not accept the power of Destiny in our approved Roman way. My peasant neighbors, your senatorial neighbors,you, I,say at most,‘It is hard, yet patience makes it bearable.’ But Virgil! How divine his pity was! Did you ever know him to fail to think of the weak instead of the strong, the unhappy instead of the happy? The tears in things he never forgot. Marvelously the Æneid, which is a glorification of Rome, is also a setting forth of compassion. Every triumph of Æneas means another’s defeat. And in his destiny Æneas takes no joy. When Dido begs him to stay in Carthage, he tells her that his real choice, were he free from fate’s desire, would lead him back to the Trojan shore.
Ah, yes! Our Virgil was the whitest soul among us. Greed and lust and meanness slunk from his sight. If I said so in our youth, how much better do I know it now! One day on the shore at Naples, he read me his lines on the woodland princess, martial Camilla. As I listened — we shall never hear that voice again — I thought to myself that in her he had unconsciously projected his own spirit, in which virility and virginity met and mingled. I do not wonder that the Neapolitans called him Parthenius!
I have been writing with my own hand, as you see. The autumn wind is rising, prophesying rain. The brazier grows cold. My friend, my guard and my defense, such part of my heart as our Virgil has not taken with him I dedicate to your service. Farewell.
- The verse passages are from Dryden’s classic English translation. — AUTHOR↩