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Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 14945

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

The visitor to Arcadia should perhaps be urged to leave his microscope at home. Happiest, at any rate, is the reader of Vergil's pastorals who can take an unannotated pocket edition to his vacation retreat, forgetting what every inquisitive Donatus has conjectured about the possible hidden meanings that lie in them. But the biographer may not share that pleasure. The Eclogues were soon burdened with comments by critics who sought in them for the secrets of an early career hidden in the obscurity of an unannaled provincial life. In their eager search for data they forced every possible passage to yield some personal allusion, till the poems came to be nothing but a symbolic biography of the author. The modern student must delve into this material if only to clear away a little of the allegory that obscures the text.

It is well to admit honestly at once that modern criticism has no scientific method which can with absolute accuracy sift out all the falsehoods that obscure the truth in this matter, but at least a beginning has been made in demonstrating that the glosses are not themselves consistent. Those early commentators who variously place the confiscation of Vergil's farm after the battle of Mutina (43 B.C.), after Philippi (42) and after Actium (31), who conceive of Mark Antony as a partizan of Brutus, and Alfenus Varus as the governor of a province that did not exist, may state some real facts: they certainly hazard many futile guesses. The safest way is to trust these records only when they harmonize with the data provided by reliable historians, and to interpret the Eclogues primarily as imaginative pastoral poetry, and not, except when they demand it, as a personal record. We shall here treat the Bucolics in what seems to be their order of composition, not the order of their position in the collection.

The eulogy of Messalla, written in 42 B.C., reveals Vergil already at work upon pastoral themes, to which, as he tells us, Messalla's Greek eclogues had called his attention. We may then at once reject the statement of the scholiasts that Vergil wrote the Eclogues for the purpose of thanking Pollio, Alfenus, and Gallus for having saved his estates from confiscation. At least a full half of these poems had been written before there was any material cause for gratitude, and, as we shall see presently, these three men had in any case little to do with the matter. It will serve as a good antidote against the conjectures of the allegorizing school if we remember that these commentators of the Empire were for the most part Greek freedmen, themselves largely occupied in fawning upon their patrons. They apparently assumed that poets as a matter of course wrote what they did in order to please some patron-a questionable enough assumption regarding any Roman poetry composed before the Silver Age.

The second Eclogue is a very early study which, in the theme of the gift-bringing, seems to be reminiscent of Messalla's work.[1] The third and seventh are also generally accepted as early experiments in the more realistic forms of amoebean pastoral. Since the fifth, which should be placed early in 41 B.C., actually cites the second and third, we have a terminus ante quem for these two eclogues. To the early list the tenth should be added if it was addressed to Gallus while he was still doing military service in Greece, and with these we may place the sixth, discussed above.

[Footnote 1: See Chapter VIII.]

The lack of realistic local color in these pastorals has frequently been criticized, on the supposition that Vergil wrote them while at home in Mantua, and ought, therefore, to have given true pictures of Mantuan scenery and characters. His home country was and is a monotonous plain. The jutting crags with their athletic goats, the grottoes inviting melodious shepherds to neglect their flocks, the mountain glades and waterfalls of the Eclogues can of course not be Mantuan. The Po Valley was thickly settled, and its deep black soil intensively cultivated. A few sheep were, of course, kept to provide wool, but these were herded by farmers' boys in the orchards. The lone she-goat, indispensable to every Italian household, was doubtless tethered by a leg on the roadside. There were herds of swine where the old oak forests had not yet been cut, but the swine-herd is usually not reckoned among songsters. Nor was any poetry to be expected from the cowboys who managed the cattle ranches at the foot hills of the Alps and the buffalo herds along the undrained lowlands. Is Vergil's scenery then nothing but literary reminiscence?

In point of fact the pastoral scenery in Vergil is Neapolitan. The eighth Catalepton is proof that Vergil was at Naples when he heard of the dangers to his father's property in the North. It is doubtful whether Vergil ever again saw Mantua after leaving it for Cremona in his early boyhood. The property, of course, belonged not to him but to his father, who, as the brief poem indicates, had remained there with his family. The pastoral scenery seldom, except in the ninth Eclogue, pretends to be Mantuan. Even where, as in the first, the poem is intended to convey a personal expression of gratitude for Vergil's exemption from harsh evictions, the poet is very careful not to obtrude a picture of himself or his own circumstances. Tityrus is an old man, and a slave in a typical shepherd's country, such as could be seen every day in the mountains near Naples. And there were as many evictions near Naples as in the North. Indeed it is the Neapolitan country-as picturesque as any in Italy-that constantly comes to the reader's mind. We are told by Seneca that thousands of sheep fed upon the rough mountains behind Stabiae, and the clothier's hall and numerous fulleries of Pompeii remind us that wool-growing was an important industry of that region. Vergil's excursion to Sorrento was doubtless not the only visit across the bay. Behind Naples along the ridge of Posilipo,[2] below which Vergil was later buried, in the mountains about Camaldoli, and behind Puteoli all the way to Avernus-a country which the poet had roamed with observant eyes-there could have been nothing but shepherd country. Here, then, are the crags and waterfalls and grottoes that Vergil describes in the Eclogues.

[Footnote 2: The picturesque road from Naples to Puteoli clung to the edge of the rocky promontory of Posilipo, finally piercing the outermost rock by means of a tunnel now misnamed the "grotto di Sejano." Most of the road is now under twenty feet of water: See Günther, Pausilypon. To see the splendid ridge as Vergil saw it from the road one must now row the length of it from Naples to Nésida, sketching in an abundance of ilexes and goats in place of the villas that now cover it.]

And here, too, were doubtless as many melodious shepherds as ever Theocritus found in Sicily, for they were of the same race of people as the Sicilians. Why should the slopes of Lactarius be less musical than those of Aetna? Indeed the reasonable reader will find that, except for an occasional transference of actual persons into Arcadian setting-by an allegorical turn invented before Vergil-there is no serious confusion in the scenery or inconsistent treatment in the plots of Vergil's Eclogues. But by failing to make this simple assumption-naturally due any and every poet-readers of Vergil have needlessly marred the effect of some of his finest passages.

The fi

fth Eclogue, written probably in 41 B.C., is a very melodious Daphnis-song that has always been a favorite with poets. It has been and may be read with entire pleasure as an elegy to Daphnis, the patron god of singing shepherds. Those, however, who in Roman times knew Vergil's love of symbolism, suspected that a more personal interest led him to compose this elegy. The death and apotheosis of Julius Caesar is still thought by some to be the real subject of the poem, while a few have accepted another ancient conjecture that Vergil here wrote of his brother. The person mourned must, however, have been of more importance than Vergil's brother. On the other hand, certain details in the poem-the sorrow of the mother, for instance-preclude the conjecture that it was Caesar, unless the poet is here confusing his details more than we need assume in any other eclogue.

It is indeed difficult to escape the very old persuasion that a sorrow so sympathetically expressed must be more than a mere Theocritan reminiscence. If we could find some poet-for Daphnis must be that-near to Vergil himself, who met an unhappy death in those days, a poet, too, who died in such circumstances during the civil strife that general expression of grief had to be hidden behind a symbolic veil, would not the poem thereby gain a theme worthy of its grace? I think we have such a poet in Cornificius, the dear friend of Catullus, to whom in fact Catullus addressed what seem to be his last verses.[3] Like so many of the new poets, Cornificius had espoused Caesar's cause, but at the end was induced by Cicero to support Brutus against the triumvirs. After Philippi Cornificius kept up the hopeless struggle in Africa for several months until finally he was defeated and put to death. If he be Vergil's Daphnis we have an explanation of why his identity escaped the notice of curious scholars. Tactful silence became quite necessary at a time when almost every household at Rome was rent by divided sympathies, and yet brotherhood in art could hardly be entirely stifled. From the point of view of the masters of Rome, Cornificius had met a just doom as a rebel. If his poet friends mourned for him it must have been in some such guise as this.

[Footnote 3: Catullus, 38.]

In this instance the circumstantial evidence is rather strong, for we are told by a commentator that Valgius, an early friend of Vergil's, wrote elegies to the memory of a "Codrus," identified by some as Cornificius:[4]

Codrusque ille canit quali tu voce canebas,

Atque solet numeros dicere Cinna tuos.

[Footnote 4: Scholia Veronensia, Ecl. VII, 22. The evidence is presented in Classical Review, 1920, p. 49.]

That "shepherd" at least is an actual person, a friend of Cinna, and a member of the neoteric group; that indeed it is Cornificius is exceedingly probable. The poet-patriot seems then, not to have been forgotten by his friends.

All too little is known about this friend of Catullus and Cinna, but what is known excites a keen interest. Though he was younger than Cicero by nearly a generation, the great orator[5] did him no little deference as a representative of the Atticistic group. In verse writing he was of Catullus' school, composing at least one epyllion, besides lyric verse. According to Macrobius, Vergil paid him the compliment of imitating him, and he in turn is cited by the scholiasts as authority for an opinion of Vergil's. If the Daphnis-song is an elegy written at his death-and it would be difficult to find a more fitting subject-the poem, undoubtedly one of the most charming of Vergil's Eclogues, was composed in 41 B.C. It were a pity if Vergil's prayer for the poet should after all not come true:

Semper honos, nomenque tuum laudesque manebunt.

[Footnote 5: See Cicero's letter to him: Ad Fam. XII, 17, 2.]

The tenth Eclogue, to Gallus, steeped in all the literary associations of pastoral elegies, from the time of Theocritus' Daphnis to our own "Lycidas" and "Adonais," has perhaps surrounded itself with an atmosphere that should not be disturbed by biographical details. However, we must intrude. Vergil's associations with Gallus, as has been intimated, were those, apparently, of Neapolitan school days and of poetry. The sixth Eclogue delicately implies that the departure of Gallus from the circle had made a very deep impression upon his teacher and fellow students.

What would we not barter of all the sesquipedalian epics of the Empire for a few pages written by Cornelius Gallus, a thousand for each! This brilliant, hot-headed, over-grown boy, whom every one loved, was very nearly Vergil's age. A Celt, as one might conjecture from his career, he had met Octavius in the schoolroom, and won the boy's enduring admiration. Then, like Vergil, he seems to have turned from rhetoric to philosophy, from philosophy to poetry, and to poetry of the Catullan romances, as a matter of course. It was Cytheris, the fickle actress-if the scholiasts are right-who opened his eyes to the fact that there were themes for passionate poetry nearer home than the legendary love-tales; and when she forgot him, finding excitement elsewhere during his months of service with Octavian, he nursed his morbid grief in un-Roman self-pity, this first poet of the poitrinaire school. His subsequent career was meteoric. Octavian, fascinated by a brilliancy that hid a lack of Roman steadiness, placed him in charge of the stupendous task of organizing Egypt, a work that would tax the powers of a Caesar. The romantic poet lost his head. Wine-inspired orations that delighted his guests, portrait busts of himself in every town, grotesque catalogues of campaigns against unheard-of negro tribes inscribed even on the venerable pyramids did not accord with the traditions of Rome. Octavian cut his career short, and in deep chagrin Gallus committed suicide.

The tenth Eclogue[6] gives Vergil's impressions upon reading one of the elegies of Gallus which had apparently been written at some lonely army post in Greece after the news of Cytheris' desertion. In his elegy the poet had, it would seem, bemoaned the lot that had drawn him to the East away from his beloved.

"Would that he might have been a simple shepherd like the Greeks about his tent, for their loves remained true!" And this is of course the very theme which Vergil dramatizes in pastoral form.

[Footnote 6: This is the interpretation of Leo, Hermes, 1902, p. 15.]

We, like Vergil, realize that Gallus invented a new genre in literature. He had daringly brought the grief of wounded love out of the realm of fiction-where classic tradition had insisted upon keeping it-into the immediate and personal song. The hint for this procedure had, of course, come from Catullus, but it was Gallus whom succeeding elegists all accredited with the discovery. Vergil at once felt the compelling force of this adventuresome experiment. He gave it immediate recognition in his Eclogues, and Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid became his followers.

The poems of Gallus, if the Arcadian setting is real, were probably written soon after Philippi. Vergil's Eclogue of recognition may have been composed not much later, for we have a right to assume that Vergil would have had one of the first copies of Gallus' poems. If this be true, the first and last few lines were fitted on later, when the whole book was published, to adapt the poem for its honorable position at the close of the volume.

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