Virgil’s Place in Letters
Rehearsing the litany of woes that has afflicted modern academia has, to be sure, grown to be an all too repetitive and wearisome task. Nevertheless, when introducing a figure of such significance as Virgil, a bit of hand wringing may be necessary just to put his legacy in proper perspective. The fact is, though almost altogether unread today, Virgil’s influence on the literature of Western Civilization has been immeasurable. His writing—along with the works of Augustine, Aristotle, Plato, and Homer—gave substantial shape to Western ideas about art, music, poetry, prose, rhetoric, drama, narrative, and history.
In the days when, according to Middlebury Emeritus Professor William Harris, a minimum of eight years study of Latin was expected for graduation with a collegiate Batchelor’s degree, it might have been reasonable to assume familiarity with the entire twelve books of Virgil’s literary masterpiece, Aeneid, the ten books of his pastoral poems, known as Eclogues or Bucolics, and his treatise on the four aspects of farm-life, tillage, horticulture, cattle-breeding, and bee-keeping, known as the Georgics—from which all of us farmer-folk Christened “George” inherited our name. Alas, those days are long gone. Now Augustine, Aristotle, Plato, and Homer have been replaced in the standard curriculum by such piffle, drivel, and swill as Norman Mailer, Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut, and Germaine Greer.
Publius Vergilius Maro was born October 15, 70 B.C. at Andes, near Mantua, in Cisalpine Gaul. He died 51 years later on September 21, 19 B.C. at Brundisium, possibly as the result of sunstroke. He was thought to have been sickly, slow of speech, and of a countrified appearance. His writing was sometimes criticized for its rusticity, too—but he was hardly ill-educated. He studied law, medicine, mathematics, and probably some Epicurean philosophy. As a result, his attachment to agrarian ideals, communitarian values, and domestic pleasures were all an outgrowth of his serious attempts to do social criticism with his art.
The Emperor Augustus commissioned Virgil to write the Aeneid to glorify Rome and the Roman people by means of a Homeric epic about the adventures of Aeneas, ancestor of Romulus—the fabled founder of Rome—and ultimately the Julian line—of which Augustus was, of course, the scion. Thus, the real subject of the Aeneid was not Aeneas, rather it was Rome and her imperial dominions. It’s history was not that of the post-bellum world of the Mediterranean, rather it was of that romantic land of imagination.
After working on his magnum opus for more than eleven years, Virgil succumbed to his many ailments, leaving the Aeneid unfinished. Virgil had requested that the manuscript be burned, not published, should he die before it was finished, but Augustus countermanded these instructions—one of the rare instances in history where tyranny proved advantageous to the future of civilization.
As a result, the work lived on to achieve a kind of literary immortality. Augustine believed Virgil was the greatest of all the pagan poets—indeed, he portrayed him as a kind of proto-Christian figure. Dante looked to Virgil as his guide in traversing the dangerous terrain of The Divine Comedy. Petrarch modeled his Africa on Aeneid. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Theseid in the classical form of twelve books and in precisely the same number of lines as Aeneid—indeed, he is said to have started its composition sitting in Virgil's tomb. Geoffrey Chaucer summarized the Aeneid in The House of Fame and The Legend of Dido. It comes as little surprise that critics have found more than twice as many allusions, nods, feints, and references to Virgil in the works of Shakespeare than to any other author. John Keats created a prose translation of the entire Aeneid by age fourteen—saying later it was the single most significant influence in the shaping of his aesthetic sensibilities. Likewise, Victor Hugo translated Virgil at sight at age nine in the entrance exam for his school. Matthew Arnold and Alfred Lord Tennyson were also supremely influenced by Virgil—crediting his verse style with establishing an aesthetic standard against which all the rest of the Western Canon ought to be measured.
Though it might be difficult to raise Virgil so high within the pantheon of literary greatness, nevertheless, the current mood of neglect says far more about our lack of sense and sensibility—to say nothing of our pride and prejudice—than it does about the applicability of his work to the modern world.
Virgil or Vergil?
The academically correct spelling of Publius Vergilius Maro’s name really ought to be Vergil rather than Virgil. According to Gilbert Highet in the misspelling began early, possibly as the result of the poet’s nickname Parthenias which was based on the poet's sexual restraint. In the Medieval age, his name was thought to refer to the poet’s magical powers—as in the virga magic wand. But however mistaken, modern popular usage demands that we refer to him as Virgil—if for no other reason than the fact that it drives the tenured academic lint pickers at the university absolutely crazy.