Colin Burrow

  • Virgil’s Experience: Nature and History; Times, Names and Places by Richard Jenkyns
    Oxford, 712 pp, £50.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 19 814033 9

Virgil is the only Western writer to have been a set work for schoolchildren more or less continuously from the moment his verse appeared. No sooner were the Eclogues and Georgics published, in the mid-20s BC, than they were taught as canonical works; children in European schools have sweated over the grammar of the Aeneid ever since 19 BC. To add to the poet’s misfortune, his work has attracted more, and more various, commentary than any Western text apart from the Bible. This makes it difficult – perhaps uniquely difficult – to read. Critical opinion is deeply entrenched, and most of it sounds as though it were originally uttered by retired colonels. He is ‘the father of the West’ (Haeker); ‘the classic of all Europe’ (Eliot); and, worst of all, a panegyrist of empire: ‘the intention of Virgil was to imitate Homer and to praise Augustus through his ancestors’ (Servius).

Texts which we have been made to read, and about which there are so many obiter dicta, are always peculiarly hard to reread. Voices of schoolteachers mingle with the accents of the poet (I still can’t read Book 4 of the Aeneid without smelling chalk), and tell us so loudly what we ought to be thinking that it becomes hard to know what we are in fact thinking. Interpretations which do not correspond with what we were told to think acquire the excitement of adolescent contrariness; moments which seem to vindicate what our teachers have told us are greeted with a slight sinking of the heart. Critical responses to Virgil in the first three-quarters of the 20th century more or less swung between these two poles. From the 1960s onwards critics were radically divided about the nature of Virgil’s politics. For those in what became known as the ‘European School’ he was a more or less unadulterated princeps-pleaser, a poet who wrote for the Emperor Augustus and who praised his Emperor’s attempts to subordinate the forms of republican government to his own authority. Against this orthodox view of him, critics in the ‘Harvard’ school emphasised elements in the Aeneid which voiced regret at the cost of empire. The frequent and pathetic deaths of young men in the poem, the misery of Dido when she is left by Aeneas, the strangely discordant ending of the poem when Aeneas kills his adversary Turnus in anger – all these suggest that the Aeneid is radically uneasy about empire. These critical arguments were about more than what Virgil thought about imperial Rome: they were also arguments about what critics should say. Should they confine themselves to what a poem seems to be wanting them to say, or dwell on what the poem seems reluctantly to be confessing?

Virgil is never quite what his critics, even the more radical critics of the Harvard school, say he is. He is full of little shocks and surprises. The first surprise is the pace of the writing. There are stretches of amazing speed which dance between episodes and places, and passages which seem heavy with slow learning – catalogues of warriors in the Aeneid, stretches in the Georgics on different ways of grafting or different types of soil, the strange description of Gallus pursuing his beloved Lycoris through the snow in the final eclogue. Yet the catalogues of warriors pull you around the globe to all sorts of different places, and even the more cumbersome passages of the Georgics insist on the size and variety and resistance to control of the world they describe. The praise of Italy in Georgics 2, for example, is extraordinary in its metrical and geographical sprightliness. It races through Ethiopian cotton groves and Medean citrus plantations (the fruits from which were supposed to cure asthma and bad breath) to the native varieties of men in Italy – Sabine stock, Ligurians toughened by hardship and, finally, Caesar, the conqueror of the unwarlike Indians. (Why ‘imbellum’? And if they are ‘unwarlike’ or ‘subdued’, how great is the conquest?) The description is directed by an acquisitive but also accommodating imperial eye which extends a commanding gaze over far-flung places. It is frighteningly powerful, but exhilaratingly willing to enjoy variety in landscape and in peoples.

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