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.

The best thing about Richard Jenkyns’s book is its readiness to shift critical attention away from Virgil’s politics towards his treatment of places and their relation to history. As he shows, place in Virgil is charged with emotion, with complex political affiliations, and with divinity. He wishes us to believe that these features of Virgil’s writing make him a revolutionary – not in a political sense, but because he changed for all time how landscape is perceived and how it relates to history and human feeling. Jenkyns’s emphasis on landscape often makes sense of moments in the poems which are on the face of it awkward or surprising. What would you expect when Aeneas and his Trojan companions first catch sight of Italy? The orthodox critical tradition would suggest that the moment should be accompanied by some sort of trumpeting of Destiny, or a bit of imperiumsinefinism. Not at all:

The Trojan, from the Main beheld a Wood,
Which thick with Shades, and a Brown Horror, stood:
Betwixt the Trees the Tyber took his Course,
With Whirlpools dimpled; and with downward Force
That drove the Sand along, he took his Way,
And rowl’d his yellow Billows to the Sea.

Dryden, whose translation this is from, is good to read beside Virgil, not because he is always exactly right, but because he has always thought about what he is translating. He makes the landscape of Italy frightening and wild. The Tiber is more swirling and violent in his version than in the Latin, but that responds to one strand in Virgil’s responses to the Italian landscape: the earlier references to the Roman river in the poem (this passage is from Book 7) associate it with uncertainty (Aeneas earlier calls it ‘Ausonian Tiber’, whatever that may be), or with war and death – most memorably in the Sibyl’s vision (‘I see the Tiber foaming with much blood’). That sense of fear and awe is a constitutive element of Virgil’s Italy. By focusing on such details Jenkyns goes some way towards redescribing the political complexities of the poem in terms which extend beyond the simple question of whether or not Virgil admires Augustus. He sees him as a poet for whom places are complicated, and for whom national identity is a rich, hybrid thing. Aeneas is a Trojan, not a Roman or an Italian. His terrified departure from Troy is recorded in Book 2, and he is never sure when he will arrive at his new home. The Trojans are trying to improvise a nation out of a wilderness. They are not marching in military formations towards a destiny mapped out for them by Jove. And Virgil’s readers have to follow that fitful and uncertain process, unmapping preconceived futures as they go. They have to imagine a world dominated by the future idea of Rome, but which is still pre-Roman and which is still rooted in an amalgam of peoples and lands, and in which even the homely Tiber could swirl with a fearsome energy. Their nation as a result seems both providentially necessary and the product of a near-miraculous convergence of multiple strands of chance.

A little later in Book 7 the Trojans come to the primitive kingdom of Latinus. Here again Jenkyns shows how Virgil brings his readers to remake their conceptions of Rome and of Italy. The native peoples of Italy have a rude toughness which was thought by Virgil’s contemporaries to be a component of ancient Roman virtue; they are, by the same token, shaggy and unsophisticated – which creates a cultural as well as a chronological distance between them and Augustan readers. The phrase used proudly by Numanus to describe these native people is ‘durum genus’, ‘a hard race’. As Jenkyns observes, this means both that they possess ‘rough simplicity’ and that they are an insensitive lot. Shortly after boasting of the toughness of his people Numanus is killed by the son of Aeneas. It is a sublimely complicated moment. Readers of the Aeneid are continually reminded of the complex origins of the Romano-Italian ideal: it requires a combination of multiple peoples within a geographically various country as well as the conquest of some of these peoples and the hybridisation of many of their distinctive attributes. Aeneas, with his oiled and curled locks (decidedly eastern), is the father of the Roman people, and yet is a stranger in Italy who needs the tough primitivism of the Ausonians in order to transform him into something Roman rather than Trojan. Virgil’s readers construct an idea of Rome by flicking between perspectives and watching a complex process unfold: Latinus’ view of Aeneas (a bit foreign, but with potential as a son-in-law) and Aeneas’ view of Latinus (awe at antique numinousness combined perhaps with a faint metropolitan contempt for the rustic) are both components of the Roman vision which the poem creates.

The complexity of Virgil’s view of Italy and its peoples has much to do with where he was born. He was not a Roman but a ‘transpadane’ Italian (he was born north of the Po near Mantua). As Jenkyns shows, transpadane Italians had a complex set of attitudes to their nation: their country had its emotional centre in Northern Italy and its political and cultural centre in the Capitol; they showed ‘a disdain for the backwoods, and a pride of locality which mingles with an affection for the rustic, rugged life of the mountains and the countryside’. In Virgil’s case this was further complicated by an unusually developed sense of the power of regions and places. For Virgil’s hero as well as his readers, these are a persistent source both of perplexity and of religious authority. In Book 5 Aeneas is in Crete, mistakenly thinking that it is the destined location of his future city. He builds a tomb for his father and sees an ominous serpent emerge from it. Is this, Aeneas wonders, the spirit of his father? Is it the genius of the place welcoming him to a new home? Or is it a sinister portent? These doubts do not entirely vanish even when the Trojans move on to Italy. In Book 7, safely arrived on Italian shores, Aeneas wreathes his brow with leaves and prays to the genius of the place and to the earth; he also prays to ‘nymphs and rivers yet unknown’. Even prayers to a specific place and its spirit extend outwards to include places and rivers beyond his ken. Virgil’s Italo-Roman ideal recedes just beyond the horizon of knowledge, making a mystery of home for his readers and hero alike. As Jenkyns shows, Virgil’s careful reading of Lucretius and Theocritus added to the distinctive complexity of this geographical perspective: for Lucretius the land had a biological intimacy with its inhabitants (in a gorgeous passage he describes the birth of living things from wombs in the ground); for Theocritus the landscape is often shaped by the emotions of the sad or happily resting shepherds who people it. In Virgil’s case a Hellenistic interest in the emotional power of places combines with a sensitivity to their power to accommodate local allegiances and local deities. But arching over all of his landscape is a programmatic attempt to draw together the diversity of Italy under Augustan rule without entirely subordinating the genius of particular localities to a single political idea.

The result is clearly nothing so simple as either ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ Augustan. Virgil is the greatest poet of a civilisation which was trying to be a lot of things at once: Italian, Roman, Imperial, sort of vestigially republican (on a good day), proud of itself as the summation of a civilising process and yet also anxiously aware of the superiority of its Greek cultural origins. If Virgil made entire sense from one viewpoint, or singled out a particular strand from this complexity, he would not have been responding to the diversity of his nation’s history; nor would he be worth rereading. For some of his commentators Virgil’s Rome is the monolith which it was always destined to be; for others it is a deconstructed multiplicity of inconsistent fragments. It is only when you are reading him that Rome and Italy can be all these things at once. Jenkyns teases out this complex picture at great (sometimes excessive) length, but with skill.

He falters, however, in his more general claims about Virgil’s contribution to Western attitudes to place and landscape. His claim that Virgil’s numinous landscapes are a ‘revolution’ or a ‘discovery’ for the Western sensibility is repeated in a variety of ways, all of which fall prey to the retired colonel school of critics: ‘Virgil’s idea, or complex of ideas, adds a new element to the imaginative inheritance of humanity and entitles him to rank among the makers of the modern mind.’ This sounds better than it is. There is surely a paradox in saying that Virgil contributed a new sensibility to the West in a book which shows in such detail how Virgil’s view of land and its national superstructure is only fully explicable in relation to facts which were quite particular to Virgil as a transpadane Roman who read Lucretius and Theocritus and wrote for Augustus. To claim that his vision of landscape was a universal discovery for humankind ignores two crucial facts: first that its origins were in every sense local to Virgil in place and time; and secondly that the vast majority of Virgil’s contemporaries ignored it.

Jenkyns also fails to grapple with what is surely a crucial theoretical question: does Virgil look as though he brought about a revolution in representing landscape because we read him through the eyes of Romantics, through what remains of theories of the Sublime, and through sentimental Edwardian attempts to associate landscape with national identity? Or did he indeed bring about a revolution? And how does one distinguish a revolution in literary history from something that looks to us now like a revolution? It is inadequate and over-confident to say in response to these questions: ‘It is Virgil’s achievement to have discovered a nexus of emotions which now seems a permanent possession of the European sensibility.’ (Is ‘now seems’ a way of saying that Virgil’s treatment of landscape did not seem like a permanent possession of the European sensibility in 1340 or 1513 or 1745? In which case what does ‘permanent’ mean?) Jenkyns is torn between a sensitive reading of Virgil as a poet responding to the forms and pressures of his time, and the wish to present literary history as a process in which great writers discover unchanging truths about the human heart by directly transcribing their intentions and experiences. Literary history is not that simple.

And the reception history of Virgil, about which Jenkyns has disappointingly little to say, shows this. The Virgilian response to landscape was not a permanent new discovery for the Western mind: it was a resource which meant a lot to some people in particular circumstances. Edmund Spenser, for instance, is fascinated in the later books of The Faerie Queene by the residual presence of earlier and apparently wilder forms of conduct within civility; he is fascinated, too, by the numinousness of woods, whose primitive inhabitants offer the prospect, alternately, of de- or regeneration. He owes his fascinations to Virgil’s ‘revolution’ in the representation of landscape, yes; but he saw those features in Virgil because he read him from the perspective of an English colonist in Ireland who was committed to making a new land change its cultural identity, and who daily experienced the resistance of Ireland and the Irish to that endeavour.

In its treatment of place and nationhood Milton’s Lycidas is perhaps the most Virgilian poem in the language, as it mingles Theocritean landscapes of grief with the specific geographies of the English shoreline. But Milton’s interest in tutelary spirits and geniuses of the shore is not a direct response to Virgil’s ‘revolution in sensibility’: it is the result of his own apprehension of a period in which the triple crown of Britain was fragmenting into its constituent parts. As Milton extends his gaze northwards to the Hebrides and southwards to St Michael’s Mount, he is responding to Virgil’s capacity to sweep his eye across a diverse nation and through diverse conceptions of nationhood. But Milton did not follow Virgil because he felt Virgil had hit on a universal truth: he did so because he needed the complexity of Virgil’s vision of land and nation at a time when his country and his church seemed to be splitting apart. Virgil was sometimes read as Jenkyns suggests he ought always to have been read, but only when writers needed to see landscape and nation treated in that way.

And why should Jenkyns himself need Virgil to be a poet so concerned with national diversity and with the genius of particular places? It has much to do with the fact that Jenkyns inhabits a kingdom in which a triple crown is devolving into multiplicity, while a wider European Union threatens to absorb that multiplicity into a larger system of trade and law. As he remarks in one of his more explicitly Eurosceptic footnotes, ‘Virgil would be useful reading in the chancelleries of Europe.’ Jenkyns writes from a period in which there has never been a greater awareness of the ways in which history leaves its print on landscape, and in which ideas of nationhood seem difficult and fragmentary despite the emergence of large juridical bodies which in theory oversee international relations. It is scarcely surprising that he should see Virgil as a poet preoccupied with the interior stresses of nationhood, and with the ways in which history is embedded in landscape. He has not given us a Virgil who transformed the sensibility of the West; nor has he given us a Virgil for our time, because he is too confident in the universality of his own observations to seem quite to belong to the end of the 20th century. But what he has done – and it is no mean achievement – is to lead us towards many of the aspects of Virgil which make him so permanently rereadable.