From Virgil’s Works, The Aeneid, Eclogues, Georgics translated by J. W. Mackail, Introduction by Charles L. Durham, Ph.D., New York: the Modern Library; 1934; pp. vii-2.
Mixed Metal Sculpture by Serena Thirkell, great granddaughter of J. W. Mackail.
© Serena Thirkell.
(Image used with permission).
SO ran the epitaph which an old but surely unreliable tradition tells us that Rome’s greatest poet himself composed to mark his final resting place. The inscription with the grave has disappeared, and another spot on Posilipo is pointed out to the curious traveler today as the tomb of Virgil, but posterity still knows him as the author of the three immortal works the Bucolics (rura) [the Eclogues in the Modern Library edition], the Georgics (pascua), and the Aeneid (duces).
Born near Mantua on the fifteenth of October, 70 B.C., Publius Vergilius Maro died on September twenty-first, 19 B.C., at Brindisi, in Calabria, where after an interrupted sojourn in Greece, he had barely landed once again on the soil of his beloved Italy. His ashes were carried back to Campania, for there in Sorrento and Posilipo, his favorite spots near Naples, he had for many years lived and pursued his literary labors.
From no authentic sources or contemporary evidence do we learn, nor do we need to know, concerning Virgil all of those more intimate details of private life and of personal experience without which a poet like Catullus or Horace could not adequately be interpreted.
A lofty genius, set apart from the emotions of love and hate, from passing fancy, from the closer comradeship of those with puny talents, with few intimate friendships, he went on viii his majestic and secluded way. By the brilliancy of his talents, Virgil won the favor of Maecenas and merited the recognition of Augustus. The plaudits of the Roman populace, however, on the rare occasions of his visits to the great city, were, we are told, the source of intense embarrassment to his modest and retiring spirit. To the genial Horace there was “no soul of purer white” nor one “to whom he was more deeply attached.” It was “optimus Vergilius” who vouched for the lyric bard to Maecenas, the head of perhaps the most famous literary circle that the world has ever known. His younger contemporary, the elegiac poet Propertius, heralds the coming of the Aeneid by the author whose recognition had already been assured through the Bucolics (the Eclogues) and the Georgics: “Virgil now wakes to life the arms of Trojan Aeneas and the city walls he built on the Lavinian strand! Yield ye, O writers of Rome, yield ye, Greeks! something mightier than the Iliad now comes to birth!”2 Ovid — born in 43 B.C. and therefore only twenty-four years of age when Virgil died — laments in his later years of exile at Tomi, far from the imperial city and Italy, that he “had only caught a glimpse” of Virgil, but in the Ars Amatoria this singer of tender loves bears eloquent witness to “Exile Aeneas, the founding of lofty Rome” as the most brilliant work of the Latian land, and his famous prophecy in the Amores has been more than fulfilled: “Tityrus (the Bucolics) and the Harvest (the Georgics) and the Arms of Aeneas (the Aeneid) will be read as long as Rome is mistress of a conquered world.”
The splendor of Virgil’s poetic genius was thus fully recognized in his own lifetime, and through the succeeding centuries his greatness is universally attested. Silius Italicus3 was a devoted admirer of Virgil. He possessed a famous collection ix of Vergilian busts, and annually celebrated the poet’s birth with great solemnity, visiting his tomb with as much reverence as if it had been a temple. To St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.), Virgil was poeta ille clarissimus, and even in the succeeding darker ages before the Renaissance the Virgilian influence persisted in manifold ways. Dante, in the first Canto of the Inferno, acknowledges Virgil as his inspiration:
Tu se’ lo mio maestro, e il mio autore!4
In the second Canto, Virgil is addressed:
O anima cortese Mantovana,
di cui la fama ancor nel modo dura,
e durerà quanto il moto lontana! . . .
Professor Mackail5 has finely said: “Virgil is not merely a prince of poets; he is one of the makers and founders of English poetry. He has exercised, and continues to exercise, this influence both directly and by indirect transmission. The influence has been continuous, from Bede and Cynewulf in the eighth century down to poets who are writing now. Virgil is one of the few Latin classics who were never lost sight of even in the Dark Ages. He has always been a schoolbook for youth, a treasure-house for mature appreciation, a model for artists. He is a ‘lord of language,’ as Tennyson truly says of him, who stands out as having shown what perfect expression is, as having achieved the utmost beauty, melody and significance of which human words seem to be capable. He has given expression, once for all, to many of our highest thoughts and most profound emotions. Nor has he, like others who in their day have been great germinal forces, become absorbed in or been replaced by his successors. For he is a consummate artist; and a work of art is substantive and permanent in its value. It is not a means to an end, but an end x attained. Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare remain alive after hundreds or thousands of years.”
Virgil’s immortal fames rests on his three “major” works, the Bucolics, the Georgics, the Aeneid. The earliest of these, the Bucolics, published when the poet was in his late twenties, shows a perfection, of technique which surely must have had a background of rather extensive earlier experience in the poetic art. Within a short time after the death of the poet a group purporting to be youthful poems of Virgil was published, and by the end of the first century A.D., several additional poems, some of considerable length, were also currently attributed to the great Maro. Concerning the authenticity of these minor poems, scholarship is today sharply divided, some critics accepting as genuinely Virgilian practically all of the poems in his so-called Appendix Vergiliana, while others reject the whole collection. In the translation of Mackail presented in this volume, the “minor works” are not included, and properly so, for Virgil as the heritage of the literary world is the creator of the Bucolics, the Georgics, the Aeneid.
The Bucolics. These poems, ten in number, were composed between 42 B.C. and 39 B.C., when Virgil was approximately thirty years of age. The name “Bucolic,” i.e. “pastoral,” is appropriate for each poem in the group with the possible exception of the fourth; the term Eclogue (“selection”) appears in the manuscripts for the individual poems n the group, and the name “Eclogues” is frequently applied to the group as a whole.
The Bucolics are formally pastoral poems in the spirit of the Idyls of the Sicilian poet Theocritus (flourished c. 280 B.C.). They are however far from being superficial reproductions of the shepherd songs with the rustic swains of Arcadia and Sicily. On this transmitted form of pastoral poetry Virgil has imprinted the mark of his own genius, and through his own poetic power the Latin “pastoral” in Virgil’s hands became for all succeeding ages the classic form of this type of poetry. There has unfortunately been an effort to interpret as allegorical well nigh all of the Bucolics. The Fourth Eclogue in particular, the so-called Messianic Prophecy, with Virgil xi in the rôle of a pagan Isaiah, has been a center of attraction for the allegorizers of every generation.
The Georgics. In this perhaps the most perfect work of Virgil, we see a poet who has now become the truly national singer of the glories of Italy with a clearly heralded promise of the Aeneid, the epos of Rome’s destiny as ruler of the world.
Dedicated to Maecenas and undertaken apparently at his suggestion, the introductory lines of the First Georgic give in adequate outline the subjects of the four books into which the work is divided.
The Georgics do not form a practical manual of husbandry, and the purpose of the work is primarily in no sense didactic. To be sure, Italian agriculture had in large measure been destroyed by generations of civil war, and the Roman world was at the time in sore need of a clarion call back to the simple life, to nature, to industry and unremitting toil, but the Georgics as a work of poetic art is essentially the song of the glories of Italy. No one who reads the magnificent passage in the second book (lines 136-137) can fail to be thrilled with its patriotic fervor. In no other work of Virgil do we so fully realize the perfection of the poet’s craftsmanship, the felicity of his thought and word, the serene majesty and beauty of his poetic style.
After seven laborious years, Virgil completed the Georgics with their scarcely more than two thousand lines, and the finished work was read to Augustus on his return from the East in 29 B.C. The remainder of the poet’s life was devoted to the composition of the Aeneid, but this great work still lacked the finishing hand when Virgil died in 19 B.C. We are informed that his last wish was that the whole poem should be suppressed, but at the behest of Augustus it was subsequently given to the world substantially as Virgil had left it.
The Aeneid. To the general lover of literature, Virgil’s best-known work is unquestionably the Aeneid. Unfortunately, however, the average reader’s unfamiliarity with this great poem does not extend beyond the sixth of the twelve books, and he xii therefore completely fails to grasp the real spirit and full meaning of this consummate work of art.
The Aeneid is the epic song of Rome’s imperial destiny and of the mission of the House of Julius through Augustus to direct and guide the conquered world.
The fall of Troy, the wanderings of Aeneas and his devoted band, the sojourn in Carthage and the pathetic episode of Dido’s love, the landing at Cumae, all lead to that mighty scene in the Elysian Fields, where, in the sixth book, Anchises relates to Aeneas the glories of the Rome that is to be.
The concluding six books with their stirring drama are introduced by a new invocation to the Muse and a new prologue, as a mightier story is now begun. The Trojans land where the Tiber flows into the sea; the ever-mindful wrath of Juno still pursues them with her deadly hatred; the Italian hosts are marshalled to repel the sons of a Troy that would rise again. The leader of the native forces, Turnus — the most dramatic character perhaps in the whole Aeneid — stands out as the supreme foe of Aeneas. Innumerable brilliant and moving episodes are interspersed: that of Nisus and Euryalus; the death of the young prince Pallas; Camilla, the virgin warrior. Then comes the end with tragic climax in the closing book whose mighty force Virgil does not elsewhere equal. The hostile gods are appeased at last; Turnus falls in single combat with the hero Aeneas. The decree of heaven will be fulfilled, the imperial grandeur of Rome as mistress of the world is now assured!
No introduction to the works of Virgil would be complete without Tennyson’s tribute on the occasion of the nineteenth centenary of Virgil’s death:
Roman Virgil, thou that singest
Ilion’s lofty temples robed in fire,
Ilion falling, Rome arising,
wars, and filial faith, and Dido’s pyre;
Landscape-lover, lord of language
more than he that sang the Works and Days,
All the chosen coin of fancy
flashing out from many a golden phrase;xiii
Thou that singest wheat and woodland,
tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd;
All the charm of all the Muses
often flowering in a lonely word;
Poet of the happy Tityrus
piping underneath his beechen bowers;
Poet of the poet-satyr
whom the laughing shepherd bound with flowers;
Chanter of the Pollio, glorying
in the blissful years again to be,
Summers of the snakeless meadow,
unlaborious earth and oarless sea;
Thou that seëst Universal
Nature moved by Universal Mind;
Thou majestic in thy sadness
at the doubtful doom of human kind;
Light among the vanish’d ages;
star that gildest yet this phantom shore;
Golden branch amid the shadows,
kings and realms that pass to rise no more;
Now thy Forum roars no longer,
fallen every purple Cæsar’s dome —
Tho’ thine ocean-roll of rhythm
sound for ever of Imperial Rome —
Now the Rome of slaves hath perish’d,
and the Rome of freemen holds her place,
I, from out the Northern Island
sunder’d once from all the human race,
I salute thee, Mantovano,
I that loved thee since my day began,
Wielder of the stateliest measure
ever moulded by the lips of man.
Professor Mackail regards Virgil not only as the precursor, but also as “one of the most direct, powerful and continuous sources of the whole splendid body of our poetry from the fourteenth to the twentieth century. As a master, a model, an inspiration, he has not lost and will not lose his virtue,” and with this opinion I cordially agree.
As a contribution toward a more intimate knowledge of the xiv works of the great Mantuan, the inclusion of the Mackail translation of Virgil in the Modern Library is most welcome. The version itself is accurate and adequate, and is distinguished by that felicity of expression with which this eminent Latinist has for so many years charmed the thousands of his readers.
Ithaca, New York
1 Mantua bore me; the Calabrians snatched me away; Naples now holds me. I sang of pastures, country, leaders.
2 qui nunc Aeneas Troiani suscitat arma
jactaque Lavinis moenia litoribus.
Cedite Romani scriptores, cedite Grai ;
nescio quid maius nascitur Iliade.
3 Silius, who died in 101 A.D., was the composer of the longest poem in the Latin language, the Punica, an epos on the Second Punic War. His greatest literary indebtedness was to Virgil.
4 “Thou art my master and my author.”
“O courteous Mantuan Spirit, whose fame still lasts in the world, and will last as long as Time!” (Divine Comedy — Modern Library, pp. 21, 25.)
5 Virgil and His Meaning to the World of Today. Boston, 1922, p. 7.
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