Annourbis.com
Roman Empire | Roman Religious Practices
Google

Prev | Next | Contents


LECTURE XVIII - RELIGIOUS FEELING IN THE POEMS OF VIRGIL


My justification for devoting a whole lecture to Virgil must be that this great poet, more warmly and sympathetically than any other Latin author, gives expression to the best religious feeling of the Roman mind. And this is so not only in regard to the tendencies of religion in his own day; he stands apart from all his literary contemporaries in that he sums up the past of Roman religious experience, reflects that of his own time, and also looks forward into the future. No other poet, no historian, not even Livy, who sprang from the same region and in his tone and spirit in some ways resembles Virgil, has the same broad outlook, the same tender interest in religious antiquity, the same all-embracing sympathy for the Roman world he knew, and the same confident and cheerful hope for its future. Each of the Augustan poets--Horace, Ovid, Propertius, Tibullus--has his own peculiar gift and charm; but those who know Virgil through and through will at once acknowledge the difference between these and the man possessed of spiritual insight. They are helpful in various ways to the student of Roman religion, and Tibullus especially has a simple reverence for the old religion which has inspired a few exquisite descriptions of this aspect of Italian life. But, if I may use the word, they had no mission; they were true poets, yet not poets of the prophetic order; they had not thought deeply and reached conviction, like Lucretius and Virgil. A few words from the conclusion of an Edinburgh professor's admirable work on Virgil will sufficiently express what I mean. "His religious belief," says Sellar, "like his other speculative convictions, was composite and undefined; yet it embraced what was purest and most vital in the religions of antiquity, and in its deepest intuitions it seems to look forward to the belief which became dominant in Rome four centuries later."[869] In fact, Virgil gathers up what was valuable in the past of Rome and adds to it a new element, a new source of life and hope. It was this that made it possible for a great French critic to assert that for those who have read Virgil there is nothing astonishing in Christianity.[870] Let us try and realise what these writers mean. The Scotsman is sober and earnest, the Frenchman epigrammatically exaggerating; but the feeling that underlies both utterances is a true one.

We have traced the gradual paralysis of the secularised State religion. We have glanced at the two types of philosophical thought which took the place of that religion in the minds of the cultivated section of Roman society, neither of which could adequately supply the Roman and Italian mind with an expression of its own natural feeling, never wholly extinct, of its relation to the Power manifesting itself in the universe. Stoicism came near to doing what was needed, by rehabilitating itself on Italian soil and indulging Roman preconceptions of the divine; but it could not greatly affect the mass of men, and its appeal was not to feeling, but to reason. Epicurism, though perhaps more popular, was in reality more in conflict with what was best in the Italian nature, and the passionate appeal of Lucretius to look for comfort to a scientific knowledge of the rerum natura had no enduring power to cheer. Lastly, we have examined the tendency of the same age towards mysticism and Cicero's doubting and embarrassed expression of it, and we found that this tendency rather illustrates a sense of something wanting than hopefully satisfies it. We may well feel ourselves, now we have arrived at the close of the Republican era, just as the best men of that day felt, that there is something wanting. In their minds this feeling almost amounted to despair; in ours, as we read the story of the troublous time after the death of Caesar, it is pity and wonder. There was, in fact, more than a sense of weariness and discomfort, moral and material, in the Roman mind of that generation--there was also what we may almost call a sense of sin, such a feeling, though doubtless less real and intense, as that which their prophets, from time to time, awoke in the Jewish people, and one not unknown in the history of Hellas. It was essentially a feeling of neglected duty--of neglected duty to the Power and of goodwill wanting towards men. Lucretius had been unconsciously a powerful witness to this feeling, but had not found the remedy. In the early Augustan age it is again expressed by Horace, by Sallust, and more deeply and truly in the beautiful preface to Livy's History.[871] Livy there says that he devoted himself to the early annals of Rome that he might shut his eyes to the evils of his own time--"tempora quibus nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus."

This something wanting was then a feeling, a religio, if we can venture to use the old word once more in the sense which I have so often attributed to it. Not an unreasonable or ungovernable feeling, not a superstitio, but a feeling of happy dependence on a higher Power, and a desire to conform to His will in all the relations of human life. This is the kind of feeling that had always lain at the root of the Roman pietas, the sense of duty to family and State, and to the deities who protected them. In the jarring of factions, the cruelty and bloodshed of tyrants, and the luxurious self-indulgence of the last two generations, the voice of pietas had been silenced, the better instincts of humanity had gone down. We have to see what was done by our poet to awake that voice again and to put fresh life into those instincts. Only let us remember that more permanent good is done in this world by a beautiful nature giving itself its natural expression, than by precept or denunciation; and beware of attributing to Virgil more direct consciousness of his mission than he really felt. It is the nature of the man that is of value to us in our studies, as it was to the Romans in their despair, a nature ruled by sweet, calm feeling, full of sympathy and full of hope.

The something wanting in others which we find in Virgil only, or in him more convincingly felt and more resonantly expressed, is a kindly and hopeful outlook on the world, with a deep and real sympathy for all sorrow and pain. It is not the result of any definite religious conviction; it is in the nature of the man, and is of the very fibre of his being; but it made him a better religious teacher than the rest, just because real religion is not a matter of reason only, or of convention, or of art, but of feeling. This was the true antidote to despair or depression--a sympathy with man in all he does or suffers, not an indignant cry of remonstrance like that of Lucretius. Virgil's sympathetic outlook includes not only Man, but the animal world, and there can be no better proof that his feeling was genuine. The nightingale robbed of her young,[872]

  quem durus arator

observans nido implumes detraxit: at illa flet noctem, ramoque sedens miserabile carmen integrat et maestis late loca questibus implet;

the cattle smitten by the plague,[873] the migrating birds coming in from the sea,[874] and many another tender touch, all show us the feeling of which I am speaking; for he who could so feel towards animals must needs have a soul of pity for man. So, too, with the inanimate nature of Italy; the land in which Virgil's shepherds and husbandmen live and work is one full of such detailed loveliness as might suggest a beneficent Power presiding over it all, inviting man to lift up his heart in gratitude or prayer. As Sellar has well remarked,[875] the sense of natural beauty is in the Georgics intertwined with the toil of man, raising, as it were, the toiler to a higher level of humanity as he lifts his eyes from his work. And this natural beauty is made real for the reader by the life and force that everywhere pervades it; all nature is alive and full of feeling; the fruit trees, for example, in the second Georgic seem instinct with an almost human life.[876] The moment this comes home to us we see how it harmonises with all we have learnt of the old Italian conception of the divine, of the forceful numina working for man's benefit if properly propitiated. And even when Virgil is using the language of the Stoics to explain the life of nature, we feel that behind the philosophical theory there lies this feeling of the Italian:

deum namque ire per omnes

terrasque tractusque maris caelumque profundum: hinc pecudes, armenta, viros, genus omne ferarum.[877]

This is the religious spirit of the Georgics; the divine forces are everywhere, and a man must submit himself to them and seek their aid. He finds his true resource rather in prayer than in philosophy, his part in the world is "laborare et orare." The hard lot of the Hesiodic labourer is not that of the agricola of the Georgics, who carries on his campaign of toil with a cheerful heart and a clear conscience, for he is in right relation with the Power manifesting itself in the life around him.

This, then, so far as I can describe it without going too far into detail, is the feeling, the religio, which was needed in the Italy of that day. We may, perhaps, venture to compare its revival in the work of Virgil with the return to nature in the English poetry of a century ago, which also brought with it a revival of religious fervency. Though Virgil and Wordsworth are in many ways as unlike as two poets can be, they are alike in the possession of that gentle and trustful outlook on the world of nature which stimulates the mind to think of itself in its relation to the Power. We do not need to analyse the process or to put it into any logical shape; we may rest content with it as a fact in the history of Roman religious experience.

In Virgil's case, as in Wordsworth's, this feeling had the effect of reconciling the poet's mind to the old forms of religious worship. Reconcile is, perhaps, hardly the right word; we may doubt whether he had ever quarrelled with them. As he believed in the Power and its manifestations, so too he believed in the traditional modes of propitiating it, not asking himself the raison d'être of this or that ceremony, still less looking on them with pity and contempt, like Lucretius, but accepting them in his broad humanity as part of the life and thought of man in Italy.

fortunatus et ille Deos qui novit agrestes.[878]

Let us mark the word novit. The husbandman has come to recognise these emanations of the Power and to know them as friends; the word could not have been used of malignant spirits. As I said in an early lecture, man advances in his knowledge of the Power as he advances in civilisation. So the rural rites have a claim on his sympathy no less than the men who performed them; he knew them in their detail, and he knew them in the spirit which animated them. He must have studied them in detail, and not only the rural cults, but those of the city too; every gesture in worship has an interest for him, and so great is our respect for his accuracy that we accept what he tells us even if we cannot explain it.[879] His careful learning in all these details has been the means of preserving for us large sources of knowledge; for Servius, Macrobius, and other commentators accumulated stores of it in endeavouring to interpret him.

Now, this is not mere antiquarianism in Virgil, any more than is the detail of old life which abounds in Scott's poems and novels. These two men had the same wide, sympathetic outlook on the world. Scott was interested in everything and everybody, whether living or dead long ago, and in all they did; and I think we may say the same of Virgil, though he is said to have been rather reserved and shy than genial and talkative like Scott. Virgil's mind was not so much "curious," I think, as sympathetic, and his delight in these religious details arises from his love of Italy and all that man did in it. He caught the spirit of the old Italian worship, which, as we saw, demanded that each act should be performed accurately according to rules laid down. He recognises the necessity, and with true Italian instinct he acts upon it as he writes. He knows that these acts of cult are one outward expression of that quality which had made Rome great--pietas, the sense of duty to family, State, and Deity.

So far I have been considering what I may call the psychological basis of Virgil's religion--the man's sympathetic nature and wide outlook, which included in its love of Italy even the old practical worship of Italians. I have now to go on to the poet's greatest work, in which the idea of duty was not merely recognised in religious acts but exemplified in an ideal Roman. It is mainly in the Aeneid that we see him looking forward as well as backward, for it is there that we have the chart of the Roman's duty drawn to the scale of his past history, and meant to guide him in the future in still more glorious travel.

There are two ways in which we may contemplate the Aeneid as a whole and the teaching it offered the Roman of that day. We may think of it (if I may for a moment use musical language) as a great fugue, of which the leading subject is the mission of Rome in the world. Providence, Divine will, the Reason of the Stoics, or, in the poetical setting of the poem, Jupiter, the great protecting Roman deity, with the Fates behind him somewhat vaguely conceived,[880] had guided the State to greatness and empire from its infancy onwards, and the citizens of that State must be worthy of that destiny if they were to carry out the great work. This mighty theme pervades the whole poem and, like the subject of a fugue, enters and re-enters from time to time in thrilling tones. It is given out in the prophecy put into the mouth of Jupiter himself at the beginning of the first book; it is heard in still more magnificent music from the shade of old Anchises in the last moments of the hero's visit to Hades in the sixth book, and again in the description of the shield which Venus gives her son.[881] Though the poem is unequal and some parts of it are left without the final touches, yet whenever the poet comes upon this great theme the tone is that of a full organ. This is, I think, apart from those exquisite beauties of detail which are for those only who have been initiated in the Virgilian mysteries, what chiefly moves the modern reader of Virgil. There are drawbacks which, for us moderns at least, detract from the general effect: the intervention of gods and goddesses after the Homeric manner, but without the charm of Homer; the seeming want of warm human blood in the hero; the stern decrees of Fate overruling human passions and interests; but he who keeps the great theme ever in mind, watching for it as he reads, as one watches for the new entry of a great fugue-subject, will never fail to see in the Aeneid one of the noblest efforts of human art--to understand what makes it the world's second great epic.

But this great destiny of Rome has been accomplished by the service of man; by his loyalty, self-sacrifice, and sense of duty; by that quality known to the Romans as pietas; and the second lesson or reminder of the Aeneid lies in the exemplification of this truth in the person and character of the hero. We moderns find it hard to interest ourselves in the character of Aeneas. But as Prof. Nettleship remarked long ago,[882] a Roman reader would not have thought him dull or uninteresting; if that had been so, the poem could hardly have become popular from the moment of its publication. I am inclined to think that the development of the character of Aeneas under stress of perils, moral and material, was much more obvious to the Roman than it is to us, and much more keenly appreciated. For him it was the chief lesson of the poem, which makes it as it were a "whole duty of the Roman"; and as this lesson is really a part of Roman religious experience I am going to occupy the rest of this lecture with it.

The development of the character of Aeneas, under the influence of perils and temptations through which he is guided by Jupiter and the Fates, is not a subject which has received much attention from modern criticism.[883] Yet to me, at least, it would be surprising if the leading character of the poem were, so to speak, a statue once and for all conceived and executed by the artist, instead of a human being subjected to various experiences which work upon his character as well as his career. There were circumstances in Virgil's time which made it natural that a poet of a serious and philosophical turn of mind should be interested in the development of character and make it part of his great subject. We have more than once had occasion to notice the growth of individualism in the last two centuries B.C. Beyond doubt personal character had a great interest at this time for thinking men, apart from its development; the world was ruled by individuals, and at no time has so much depended on the disposition of individuals. Men had long begun to take themselves very seriously, and to write their own biographies. So entirely had the individual emancipated himself from the State, that he had almost forgotten that the State existed and claimed his pietas; he worked and played for his own ends.[884] Even the armies of that melancholy age were known and thought of, not as the servants of the State, but as Sullani, Pompeiani, and so on. This almost arrogant self-assertion of the individual was a fact of the time, and could not be suppressed entirely; it was henceforward impossible to return to the old times when the State was all in all and the individual counted for little.

But in the Aeneid, if I am not mistaken, there is an almost perfect balance between the two conflicting interests. The State is the pivot on which turns all that is best in individual human character; in other words, Aeneas is not playing his own game, but fulfilling the order of destiny which was to bring the world under Roman dominion. Individualism of the wrong type, that of Dido, Turnus, Mezentius, has to be escaped or overcome by the hero, for whom the call of duty is that of the State to be; but, all the same, the hero is an individual, and one conceived not merely as a type or a force. True, he is typical of Roman pietas, and bears his constant epithet accordingly; but if we look at him carefully we shall see that his pietas is at first imperfect, and that his individualism has to be tamed and brought into the service of the State with the help of the State's deities. This is what makes the Aeneid a religious poem; the character of Aeneas is pivoted on religion; religion is the one sanction of his conduct. There is no appeal in the Aeneid to knowledge, or reason, or pleasure,--always to the will of God. Pietas is Virgil's word for religion, as it had been Cicero's in his more exalted moments. In the Dream of Scipio we read that "piis omnibus retinendus est animus in custodia corporis: nec iniussu eius a quo ille est vobis datus, ex hominum vita migrandum est, ne munus humanum adsignatum a deo defugisse videamini."[885] In these words, as is shown by those that follow, the munus hominum is exactly what it is in the Aeneid, duty to Man and the State, and as it is laid down for man by God, it is also duty to Him. The State finds its perfection in the individual so long as he thus fulfills the will of God.[886]

Let us now go on to watch Aeneas as he gradually develops this perfect balance of motive.

Aeneas is marked at the very outset of the poem as "insignem pietate virum"; the key-note of his character is sounded here at once with skill, and the key thus suggested (to use musical metaphor once more) is maintained steadily throughout it. The quality demanded by the gods from every true Roman who would take his part in carrying out the divine mission of Rome must be emphasised in the ideal Roman. Yet, as we read on, we soon discover that Aeneas was by no means as yet a perfect character. It can hardly be by accident that the poet has described him as yielding to despair and bewailing his fate on the first approach of danger--forgetting the mission before him and the destiny driving him on, and wishing that he were lying dead with Hector under the walls of Troy (i. 92 foll.). It would have been easy enough for Virgil to have taken up at once the heroic vein in the man, as it was left him by Homer,[887] and to have made him urge his men to bestir themselves or to yield bravely to fate. And this is precisely what Aeneas does when the storm is over and the danger past (198 foll.); yet even then he is not whole-hearted about it:

talia voce refert, curisque ingentibus aeger spem voltu simulat, premit alto corde dolorem.

At the very moment, that is, when he expresses his belief in his destiny and the duty of making for Italy, he still has misgivings, though he dare not express them.

Heinze has remarked[888] that before this, at the sack of Troy, he had shown a want of self-control, and yielded to a mad passion of desperate fighting that is not to be found in the Aeneas of the last six books (ii. 314 foll.):

arma amens capio nec sat rationis in armis.

Furor and ira drive him headlong; we are reminded of the mad fury of Mezentius or Turnus.

Again, after the death of Priam Venus has to remind him of his duty to his father, wife, and son (ii. 594 foll.), reproaching him for his loss of sanity and self-control:

nate, quis indomitas tantus dolor excitat iras? quid furis, aut quonam nostri tibi cura recessit? non prius aspicies ubi fessum aetate parentem liqueris Anchisen, superet coniunxne Creusa Ascaniusque puer?[889]

During the wanderings narrated in the third book it is Anchises who leads, and who receives and interprets the divine warnings; he seems to be the guardian and guide of his son: to that son he is "omnis curae casusque levamen" (iii. 709), and he is "felix nati pietate" (iii. 480). He is, in fact, the typical Roman father, who, unlike Homer's Laertes, maintains his activity and authority to the end of his life, and to whom even the grown-up son, himself a father, owes reverence and obedience. As Boissier has pointed out,[890] the death of Anchises is postponed in the story as long as possible, and it is only after his death that Aeneas is exposed to a really dangerous temptation; it is immediately after this event that, as we saw, he loses heart at the first storm, and then, on landing in Africa, falls a victim for the moment to the queenly charms of Dido. We may notice that up to this point his pietas has been a limited one, hardly called upon for exercise beyond the bounds of family life and duty; when he is himself at the head, not only of the family, but, so to speak, of the State, it has to take a wider range, and to be put to a severe test.

To all that has at different times been written about Virgil's treatment of the Dido legend I must venture here to add another word. Heinze has shown[891] that no certain origin can be discovered for the form of the story as Virgil tells it; it may have been Naevius who first took Aeneas to Sicily, but we do not know whether he or any successor of his invented the essential point of Virgil's story,--the suicide of Dido as a consequence of her desertion by Aeneas.[892] In any case the question arises, why our poet should have deliberately abandoned the current and popular version, and exposed his hero to such imminent danger of deserting the path which Jupiter and the Fates had marked out for him,--of sacrificing his great mission to the passion of a magnificent woman, and to the prospect of illicit ease and unsanctioned dominion. Heinze is of opinion that Virgil's motive was here a purely artistic one; he wanted an opportunity to introduce the pathetic element into his epic. "There was no lack of models; the latest bloom of Greek poetry had been in nothing more inventive than in dealing with all the phenomena of the passion of love,--its agony, shame, and despair, and the self-immolation of its victims."[893] He enforces this view with great learning, and all he writes about it is of value; but I must confess that he has not convinced me that this was Virgil's chief motive. He seems to me to leave out of account two important considerations: first, that though the poet drew freely on every available source, Greek and Roman, for the enrichment of his subject and its treatment, yet the whole design and purpose of the Aeneid is Roman and not Greek, and the introduction of a love-story as such would have been foreign to that design, and also to the aims and hopes of Augustus and the best men of the age. Secondly, Heinze seems to forget, like so many others who have written about the Dido episode, that Virgil had before his very eyes facts sufficiently striking, a romance quite sufficiently appalling, to suggest the adoption of the form of the story as we have it in the fourth book. Twice in his own lifetime did a single formidable woman work a baleful spell upon the destinies of the Roman empire. In neither case did the spell take fatal effect; Julius escaped in time from the wiles and the splendour of Cleopatra; Antony failed indeed to escape, but brought himself and her to fortunate ruin. It is to me inexplicable, considering how all Virgil's poems abound with allusions to the events of his time, and with side-glances at the chief agents in them, that neither Heinze nor Norden should have even touched on the possibility that Cleopatra was in the poet's mind when he wrote the fourth book. It is perhaps difficult for one who puts the poem on the dissecting-board, and whose attention is continually absorbed in the investigation of minute points in the fibre of it, to bear in mind the extraordinary events of the poet's lifetime,--the civil war, the murder of Julius, the division of the Roman world, the distraction of Italy, the attempt of Antony, or rather, indeed, of his enslaver, to set up a rival Oriental dominion, and the rescue of Romanism and civilisation by Augustus. Had Lucretius himself lived in that generation, he could hardly have escaped the influence of these appalling facts. Whoever will turn to the late Prof. Nettleship's essay on the poetry of Virgil, appended to his Ancient Roman Lives of Virgil,[894] can hardly fail to be convinced that on the later poet's mind they had produced a profound impression, the effects of which are traceable throughout the whole mass of his work. His Roman readers, whose state and empire had been brought to the verge of ruin by the exaltation of individual passions and ambitions, would look for these constant allusions and understand them far better than we can.

I maintain, then, that the poet adopted his version of the story of Dido not simply as an affecting and pathetic episode, but (in keeping with his whole design) to emphasise the great lesson of the poem by showing that the growth and glory of the Roman dominion are due, under providence, to Roman virtus and pietas--that sense of duty to family, State, and gods, which rises, in spite of trial and danger, superior to the enticements of individual passion and selfish ease. Aeneas is sorely tried, but he escapes from Dido to perform the will of the gods; it is Jupiter, ruler of the Fates and the Roman destinies, who rescues him, and thus the divine care for Rome, an idea of which Augustus wished to make the most, is carefully preserved in the tale. If for us the character of Aeneas suffers by his desertion of Dido, that is simply because the poet, seized with intense pity for the injured queen, seems for once, like his own hero, to have forgotten his mission in the poem, and at the very moment when he means to show Aeneas performing the noblest act of self-sacrifice, renouncing his individual passion and listening to the stern call of duty, human nature gets the better of him, and what he meant to paint as a noble act has come out on his canvas as a mean one.

In Virgil's story, then, we have in contrast and conflict the opposing principles of duty and pleasure, of patriotism and selfishness, and the victory of the latter in the person of Aeneas by the help of the great god who was the guardian of the destinies of Rome, and of the goddess who was the mother of the hero and the reputed progenitor of the Julian family. When once this great trial is over, the way is clear for the accomplishment of Aeneas' mission, though he still has trials to face, and as yet is not fully equipped for meeting them.

Whoever, after reading the stormy scenes of the fourth book, will go straight on to the fifth, cannot but be struck with a change of tone which would have been doubly welcome to a man of that true Roman feeling which Virgil was counting on as well as inculcating throughout his work--doubly welcome, because he would find it not only in the incidents, but in the character of Aeneas. We here leave self and passion behind, and are introduced to scenes where the careful performance of religious and family duties seems to produce ease of mind and the tranquillity that comes of a soothed conscience. For the first time in the poem we meet with a characteristic of that best Roman life which was dear to the heart of Augustus, and with which we may be quite certain that the poet himself was entirely in sympathy. Strange, indeed, it is that this should be the case in a book so wholly based for its externals on Greek poetical traditions; but it is none the less true, and it is a striking example of Virgil's wonderful genius for transforming old things with new light and meaning.[895]

It is not only then, or even mainly, the traditional necessity of describing games in an epic poem, that is the raison d'être of the fifth book; the object was rather, as I understand it, to gain the needful contrast to the stormy passion of the fourth, and a relief for the mind of the Roman reader before he approached the awful scenery and experiences of the sixth, while at the same time there could be indicated--and for a Roman reader more than indicated--the first beginning of a change in the character of the hero. All this is effected with wonderful skill by making Aeneas perform with detailed carefulness the Roman ritual of the Parentalia as it was known to the Romans of the Augustan age. The Parentalia, as I have said elsewhere,[896] were not days of terror or ill-omen, but rather days on which the performance of duty was the leading idea in men's minds; that duty was a pleasant and cheerful one, for the dead were still members of the family, and there was nothing to fear from them so long as the living performed their duties towards them under the due regulations of the ius divinum. The ritual indicates the idea of the yearly renewal of the rite of burial, with the propitiation of the departed which was necessary for the welfare of the family; and when the liturgical nine days were over, the living members met together in the Caristia, a kind of love feast of the family, at which all quarrels were to be forgotten, and from which all guilty members were excluded. In families of wealth and distinction in Virgil's time the days of mourning might be followed by games in honour of the departed. Thus a Roman would at once recognise the fact that Aeneas is here presented to us for the first time as a Roman father of a family, discharging the duties essential to the continuance and prosperity of that family with cheerfulness as well as with gravitas; and that his pietas here takes a definite, practical, and truly Roman form, though it is not as yet extended to its full connotation as the performance of duty towards the State and its gods.

All this is quite in keeping with the little touches of characterisation which we can also notice in this book. In the second line Aeneas pursues his way certus, even while he gazes at the flames of Dido's funeral pyre, not knowing what they meant. He presides at the games with the dignity of a Roman magistrate, and reproachingly consoles the beaten Dares with words which seem to reflect his late experience at Carthage (v. 465):

infelix, quae tanta animum dementia cepit? non vires alias conversaque numina sentis? cede deo.

When the ships are burnt he does not give way to despair, as in the storm of the first book, but prays for help to the omnipotent Jupiter, in whose hand were the destinies of his descendants (v. 687 foll.). But he is not yet perfect in his sense of duty; he feels the blow severely, and for a moment wavers (v. 700 foll.):

... casu concussus acerbo

nunc huc ingentis, nunc illuc pectore curas mutabat versans, Siculisne resideret arvis oblitus fatorum, Italasne capesseret oras.

It needs the cheering advice of old Nautes (quicquid erit, superanda omnis fortuna ferendo est), and the appearance of the shade of Anchises, to confirm his wavering will with renewed sense of his mission. This appearance of his father, "omnis curae casusque levamen," with the summons to meet him in Hades, is, as Heinze has seen,[897] a turning-point in the fortunes and the character of Aeneas, and prepares us for the final ordeal and initiation which he undergoes in the following book.

I here use the word initiation because I have no doubt that Virgil had in his mind when writing it the Greek idea of initiation into mysteries preparatory to a new life. An actual initiation was, of course, out of the question; on the other hand a catabasis, a descent into Hades, was part of the epic inheritance he derived from Homer, and this, like the funeral games in the fifth book, he might use with an earnestness of purpose wanting in Homer, to work in with the great theme of his poem, not merely as an artistic effort. The purpose here was to make of Aeneas a new man, to regenerate him; to prepare him by mystic enlightenment for the toil, peril, and triumph that await him in the accomplishment of his divine mission. We must not look too closely into the process; it is a strange mélange of popular and philosophic ideas and scenery, made at once intelligible and magnificent by the wonderful resources of the poet; but we may be sure that it has the same general meaning as the visions of Dante long afterwards. As Mr. Tozer has said, Dante's conversion and ultimate salvation were the primary object of his journey through the three realms of the spiritual world.[898] In this sense it can be called an initiation, an ordeal, a sacrament.

So much has been written about this wonderful book that I do not need to dwell upon it here. I will content myself with pointing out very briefly a fact which struck me when I last read it. The ordeal of preparation is not complete till the very end of the book, when the shade of Anchises has shown his son all the great things to come, the due accomplishment of which depends on his sense of duty, his pietas. Up to that moment Aeneas is always thinking and speaking of the past, while in the last six books he is always looking ahead, absorbed in the work each hour placed before him, and in the prospect of the glory of Rome and Italy. The poet had contrived that his hero should himself narrate the story of the sack of Troy and his subsequent wanderings, and narrate them to the very person who would have made it impossible for him ever again to look forward on the path of duty. Surely this is significant of a moral as well as an artistic purpose; the passionate love of the queen urges her to keep his mind fixed on the past, to engage him in the story of events that concerned himself and not his mission (i. 748):

necnon et vario noctem sermone trahebat infelix Dido, longumque bibebat amorem multa super Priamo rogitans, super Hectore multa, etc.

After the shade of Creusa had told him of his destiny, which she was not to share, the past was still in his mind, and he seems to have forgotten the warning; he calls himself an exile (iii. 10):

litora cum patriae lacrimans portusque relinquo et campos ubi Troia fuit. Feror exsul in altum--

I find an exception after the meeting with Andromache, when he thinks of the future for a moment, but even then half-heartedly as it seems to me, with a very distinct reluctance to face the dangers to come, and with a touching envy of those who could "stay at home at ease" (iii. 493 foll.). His want of faith in the future is again shown in Book v., in the passage quoted just now; and even in Book vi. he is at first purposely depicted as "slack," as having his attention caught by what is for the moment before him, or with the figures of old friends and enemies whom he meets, until the last awakening revelation of Anchises. Thus no sooner has he landed in Italy than he is attracted by the pictures in the temple of Apollo and incurs a rebuke from the priestess (vi. 37 foll.):

non hoc ista sibi tempus spectacula poscit; nunc grege de intacto septem mactare iuvencos praestiterit, etc.;

so also a little farther on she has to warn him again (50 foll.) at the entrance to the cave:

"cessas in vota precesque,

Tros" ait "Aenea, cessas?"

It may be fancy in me to see even in his prayer which follows a leaning to think of Troy and his past troubles (56 foll.). But I cannot but believe that in this book he is meant to take a last farewell of all who have shared his past fortunes, have helped him or injured him; he meets Palinurus, Dido, Tydeus, Deiphobus, and the rest, and while meditating over these he has once more to be hurried by his guide (538):

sed comes admonuit breviterque adfata Sibylla est: nox ruit, Aenea, nos flendo ducimus horas.

When Anchises appears the whole tone changes, and his famous words seem to me to show conclusively that hesitation and want of fixed, undeviating purpose had been so far his son's chief failing (806):

et dubitamus adhuc virtutem extendere factis, aut metus Ausonia prohibet consistere terra?

The father's vision and prophecy are of the future and the great deeds of men to come, and henceforward Aeneas makes no allusion to the past and the figures that peopled it, abandons talk and lamentations, "virtutem extendit factis." At the outset of Book vii. we feel the ship moving at once; three lines suffice for the fresh start; Circe is passed unheeded. "Maior rerum mihi nascitur ordo," says the poet in line 43; "maius opus moveo;" for the real subject of the poem is at last reached, and a heroic character by heroic deeds is to lay the foundation of the eternal dominion of Rome.

A very few words shall suffice about the Aeneas of the later books. Let us freely allow that he is not strongly characterised; that for us moderns the interest centres rather in Turnus, who is heroic as an individual, but not as a pioneer of civilisation divinely led; that there is no real heroine, for feminine passion would be here out of place and un-Roman, and the courtship of Lavinia is undertaken, so to speak, for political reasons. The rôle of Aeneas, as the agent of Jupiter in conquest and civilisation, would appeal to a Roman rather than to a modern, and it was reserved for the modern critic to complain of a lack of individual interest in him. So, too, it is in Jewish history; we feel with Esau more than with Jacob, and with David more than with Moses, who is none the less the grandest typical Israelite in the Old Testament. And, indeed, Virgil's theme here is less the development of a character or the portraiture of a hero than the idealisation of the people of the Italy which he loved so well, who needed only a divinely guided leader and civiliser to enter upon the glorious career that was in store for them.

I cannot escape the belief, as I read again through these books, that Virgil did intend to depict in Aeneas his ideal of that Roman character to which the leading writers of his day ascribed the greatness of their race. His pietas is now confirmed and enlarged, it has become a sense of duty to the will of the gods as well as to his father, his son, and his people, and this sense of duty never leaves him, either in his general course of action or in the detail of sacrifice and propitiation. His courage and steadfastness never fail him; he looks ever forward, confident in divine protection; the shield he carries is adorned--a wonderful stroke of poetic genius--with scenes of the future, and not of the past (viii. 729 foll.):

talia per clipeum Volcani, dona parentis, miratur rerumque ignarus imagine gaudet attollens umero famamque et fata nepotum.

He is never in these books to be found wanting in swiftness and vigilance; when he cheers his comrades it is no longer in a half-hearted way, but as at the beginning of the eleventh book, with the utmost vigour and confidence, "Arma parate, animis et spe praesumite bellum" (xi. 18).

His humanitas again is here more obvious than in his earlier career, and it is plainly meant to be contrasted with the heroic savagery of Mezentius and Turnus. So keenly did the poet feel this development in his hero's character, that in his descriptions of the death of Lausus and the burial of Pallas--noble and beautiful youths whom he loved in imagination as he loved in reality all young things--his tenderness is so touching that even now we can hardly read them without tears. And not only is the hero heroic and humane, but he is a just man and keeps faith; when, in the twelfth book, the Rutulians break the treaty, and his own men have joined in the unjust combat (xii. 311):

at pius Aeneas dextram tendebat inermem nudato capite atque suos clamore vocabat: "quo ruitis? quove ista repens discordia surgit? o cohibete iras; ictum iam foedus et omnes compositae leges: mihi ius concurrere soli."

He claims for himself alone, under the guiding hand of providence, the right to deal with Turnus, the enemy of humanity and righteousness. And we may note that when it came to that last struggle, though conquering by divine aid, he was ready to spare the life of the conquered till he saw the spoils of the young Pallas upon him.

The character of Aeneas, then, though not painted in such strong light as we moderns might expect or desire, is intentionally developed into a heroic type in the course of the story--a type which every Roman would recognise as his own natural ideal. And this growth is the direct result of religious influence. It is partly the result of the hero's own natural pietas, innate within him from the first, as it was in the breast of every noble Roman; partly the result of a gradually enlarged recognition of the will of God, and partly of the strengthening and almost sacramental process of the journey to Hades, of the revelation there made of the mysteries of life and death, and of the great future which Jupiter and the Fates have reserved for the Roman people. In these three influences Virgil has summed up all the best religious factors of his day: the instinct of the Roman for religious observance, with all its natural effect on conduct; the elevating Stoic doctrine which brought man into immediate relation with the universal; and, lastly, the tendency to mysticism, Orphic or Pythagorean, which tells of a yearning in the soul of man to hope for a life beyond this, and to make of this life a meet preparation for that other.

Only one word more. We can hardly doubt the truth of the story that the poet died earnestly entreating that this greatest work of his life should perish with him, and this may aptly remind us that though I have been treating the Aeneid as a poem of religion and morals, yet, after all, Virgil was a poet rather than a preacher, and thought of his Aeneid, not as a sermon, but as a work of art. Had he thought of it as a sermon he could hardly have wished to deprive the Roman world of it. The true poet is never a preacher except in so far as he is a poet. If the Greeks thought of their poets as teachers, says the late Prof. Jebb, "this was simply a recognition of poetry as the highest influence, intellectual and spiritual, that they knew." "It was not merely a recreation of their leisure, but a power pervading and moulding their whole existence." Surely this is also true of Virgil, and of the best at least of his Roman readers. No one can read the sixth Aeneid, the greatest effort of his genius, without feeling that poetry was all in all to him; that learning, legend, philosophy, religion, whatever in the whole range of human thought and fancy entered his mind, emerged from it as poetry and poetry only.[899]



Prev | Next | Contents








[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]
[14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24]