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THE POET VIRGIL.
If you take from Virgil his diction and metre, what do you leave him?
Coleridge's Table Talk.
The great writer, whose words I have quoted above, used to say that all Eton men were wont to swear per Maronem.” Perhaps indeed, this is hardly the case in point of fact, but if it were so, there would, I believe, be great differences of opinion, whether or not it should be looked upon as a reproach. It is with a view of endeavouring to ascertain upon some fixed principles, the position which this celebrated poet is entitled to hold, that I have ventured to throw together the following considerations.
There are few distinguished names in literature, perhaps none, which hold so anomalous a position as that of Virgil. The well-known epigram places him in the triad of great poets. Scaliger, and in later times the Zoili of the French school were inclined to exalt him above even Homer, as the perfect master of finished elegance. We, in these days, are in no danger of falling into this mistake.
We are rather given to deny his being a poet at all, than to place him at the head, or even in the first ranks of the sacred band. Originality, depth, philosophy, naturalness, insight; these are the characteristics of our ideal poet, and we refuse to grant the name to any one, who cannot shew us all, or most of these mental qualities. Hence it is that while Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Shelley, are to various classes of minds the very Gods of their idolatry, few will now-a-days be found to declare for Pope, or his followers. Perhaps our present feelings are on the right side. Perhaps the extreme of the (so called) romantic, is better than the extreme of the (so called) classic school. That we are in an extreme, I very strongly believe, and the common language we hear used of Virgil, I think, amply proves it.
I cannot certainly deny that in some of the abovementioned qualities, Virgil is very signally deficient. He cannot boast of much originality. Niebuhr in a very eloquent passage has pointed out the utter want of it in the Æneid, which be describes as but a splendid piece of patchwork, a skilful specimen of mosaic, brilliant indeed and highly polished, but lacking the consistent unity, the informing spirit of a master mind; not poured into the mould in one full unbroken stream, but joined together like a cabinet, bit by bit, through minute and elaborate mechanism. Of the Æneid as compared with the Iliad, we may perhaps say, (and here I wish to speak quite generally,) that the one is the work of talent, but the other of genius; we can analyze our feelings as to the one, we cannot as to the other; the workmanship strikes us in the one, we scarce think of it in the other; the work
Niebuhr, vol. I. p. 197. 3d. Ed.
of genius cannot, strictly speaking, be judged of, or estimated; it has its own laws and its own standard ; we may take up the work of talent, ruthlessly handle it, look into it, and accurately weigh it in the critical scale; we gaze at the one as a magnificent result, but what it is the result of, we know not; the other we admire, not so much for its excellency when done, as from the known difficulty of doing it at all.
I said that I was speaking generally, for it is evident that this statement requires qualification. Yet on the whole it is sabstantially correct. Let us consider for a moment what is the case as to his similes. Whether these be addressed to the mental or to the bodily eye, whether they be similes of the fancy or the imagination, they are one of the best tests of the genius of the poet. Now with scarcely an exception these are translated in the Æneid from some former poet, and, generally speaking, they lose much of their freshness and vigour in the process.
Let me shew this by an instance or two ; and I will first take one in which, as has been remarked often before, Virgil at first sight has the advantage, from the extreme sweetness of his lines. When did Latin, (perhaps even Greek,) ever flow in such surpassing melody as this ?
Qualis populeâ merens Philomela sub umbrâ
Geor. IV, 511.
But compare it with its vigorous original, and what becomes of it?
“Ως δ' οτε Πανδαρέου κουρή, χλωρήις αηδων
What has become in Virgil's transcript of the time of year when the nightingale is in best song?
Where are the thick leaves in which we know she delights to hide herself? We have lost the exquisite truth of the flattering motion, the quick half-startled change of position. And how superior to “miserabile carmen” is “ πολυηχέα φωνήν” as applied to the bird who sings
“ So many voluntaries, and so quick,
Meeting in one full centre of delight," 2 Virgil's lines are certainly highly polished, elegant, and melodious, but they are also dim, and vague, and general, and unnatural, compared with the animated and picturesque reality of the elder poet. Let us take another, in which I presume to think the superiority of the Grecian bard, if possible, still more incontestable. Here, as before, Virgil presents an unrivalled model of smooth, yet dignified and stately rhythm
Ac veluti montis saxum de vertice præceps
Æn. XII, 684.
2 The Lover's Melancholy: J. Ford.
Now then let us place by its side the Homeric prototype.
'Ολοοίτροχος ως από πέτρης,
Il, v. 136.
Perhaps the mere reading them together may supersede all criticism; yet it can hardly be a waste of time to descend even to minuteness in examining the works of great minds. I would point out then, as before, the far greater particularity, the superior nervousness and strength of Homer's expressions. How vivid are the words ώση and ρήξας έχματα compared with the Latin equivalents. How superior to “exultatque solo" is ύψι τ' αναθρώσκων πέτεται, words s0 accurately descriptive of the rushing of a rock down a mountain, touching the ground only here and there, and flying forth upon its course, Antæus-like, with power and swiftness renewed and increased by cvery contact.
I dare to call the last words of Virgil's simile, a loose, untrue, school-boy generality, contrasting very ill with the natural truth and the simplicity of Homer, whose conclusion (entirely dropped by Virgil,) gives a completeness, and a finish, and a repose to his image, such as the Roman has failed to impart to his.
Time, space, and patience would all alike fail me, were I to attempt to go thus into detail with many more of the similes of Virgil and Homer. Yet I can conceive few things more useful, and at the same time more deeply interesting, than a lengthened comparison of the two