S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
The greatest modern critics have laid it down as a rule, That an heroic poem should be founded upon some important precept of morality, adapted to the constitution of the country in which the poet writes. Homer and Virgil have formed their plans in this view.
I need not tell my reader that I here point at the reign of Augustus; and I believe he will be of my opinion, that neither Virgil nor Horace would have gained so great a reputation in the world, had they not been the friends and admirers of each other. Indeed, all the great writers of that age, for whom singly we have so great an esteem, stand up together as vouchers for one anothers reputation, But at the same time that Virgil was celebrated by Gallus, Propertius, Horace, Varius, Tucca, and Ovid, we know that Bavius and Mævius were his declared foes and calumniators.
Virgil falls infinitely short of Homer in the characters of his poem, both as to their variety and novelty. Æneas is indeed a perfect character; but as for Achates, though he is styled the heros friend, he does nothing in the whole poem which may deserve that title. Gyas, Mnestheus, Sergestus, and Cloanthes, are all of them men of the same stamp and character.
Nor is it sufficient for an epic poem to be filled with such thoughts as are natural, unless it abound also with such as are sublime. Virgil in this particular falls short of Homer. He has not indeed so many thoughts that are low and vulgar; but at the same time has not so many thoughts that are sublime and noble. The truth of it is, Virgil seldom rises into very astonishing sentiments, when he is not fired by the Iliad. He everywhere charms and pleases us by the force of his own genius; but seldom elevates and transports us where he does not fetch his hints from Homer.
This tendency, however, to ascribe an universality of genius to great men, led Dryden to affirm, on the strength of two smart satirical lines, that Virgil could have written a satire equal to Juvenal. But, with all due deference to Dryden, I conceive it much more manifest that Juvenal could have written a better epic than Virgil than that Virgil could have written a satire equal to Juvenal. Juvenal has many passages of the moral sublime far superior to any that can be found in Virgil, who, indeed, seldom attempts a higher flight than the sublime of description. Had Lucan lived, he might have rivalled them both, as he had all the vigour of the one, and time might have furnished him with the taste and elegance of the other.
I have studied Virgils design, his disposition of it, his manners, his judicious management of the figures, the sober retrenchments of his sense, which always leaves somewhat to gratify our imagination, on which it may enlarge at pleasure; but, above all, the elegance of his expression, and the harmony of his numbers.
There is an inimitable grace in Virgils words, and in them principally consists that beauty which gives so inexpressible a pleasure to him who best understands their force. This diction of his (I must once again say) is never to be copied; and since it cannot, he will appear but lame in the best translation.
This exact propriety of Virgil I particularly regarded as a great part of his character, but must confess that I have not been able to make him appear wholly like himself. For where the original is close, no version can reach it in the same compass.
The warmest admirers of the great Mantuan poet can extol him for little more than the skill with which he has, by making his hero both a traveller and a warrior, united the beauties of the Iliad and the Odyssey in one composition; yet his judgment was perhaps sometimes overborne by his avarice of the Homeric treasures; and for fear of suffering a sparkling ornament to be lost, he has inserted it where it cannot shine with the original splendour.
It is therefore necessary to inquire after some more distinct and exact idea of this kind of writing. This may, I think, be easily found in the pastorals of Virgil, from whose opinion it will not appear very safe to depart, if we consider that every advantage of nature, and of fortune, concurred to complete his productions; that he was born with great accuracy and severity of judgment, enlightened with all the learning of one of the brightest ages, and embellished with the elegance of the Roman court; that he employed his powers rather in improving than inventing, and therefore must have endeavoured to recompense the want of novelty by exactness; that, taking Theocritus for his original, he found pastoral far advanced towards perfection, and that, having so great a rival, he must have proceeded with uncommon caution.
The Roman Epic abounds in moral and poetical defects; nevertheless it remains the most complete picture of the national mind at its highest elevation; the most precious document of national history, if the history of an age is recorded in its ideas, no less than in its events and incidents.
Charles Merivale: History of the Romans under the Empire, c. xli.
I came home a little later than usual the other night; and, not finding myself inclined to sleep, I took up Virgil to divert me until I should be more disposed to rest. He is the author whom I always choose on such occasions; no one writing in so divine, so harmonious, nor so equal a strain, which leaves the mind composed and softened into an agreeable melancholy: the temper in which, of all others, I choose to close the day. The passages I turned to were those beautiful raptures in his Georgics, where he professes himself entirely given up to the Muses, and smit with the love of poetry, passionately wishing to be transported to the cool shades and retirements of the mountain Hæmus.