Empire I: the Philosophical Poet

Virgil is a very philosophical poet. In his famous essay on the Aenead[1] Jacob Klein quotes the following note from an early life of Virgil:

Although [Virgil] seems to have put the opinions of diverse philosophers into his writings with most serious intent, he himself was a devotee of the Academy; for he preferred Plato’s views to all the others.

I am going try to show something of Virgil’s political philosophy, and how it responds to Plato, but before doing that I ought to do a post on Virgil as a poet. Let me begin with the famous lines that are supposed to sum up the whole spirit of Virgil:

Constitit, et lacrimans, Quis iam locus inquit Achate,
quae regio in terris nostri non plena laboris?
En Priamus! Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt. (Aeneid I, 460-462)


The melding of sound and sense is as great as anything in poetry, but what is it that makes them so typical of Virgil? The mood is one of deep sadness. Whence comes the depth? Part of it surely comes from the mixture of different emotions: Aeneas is in a strange city, uncertain of what is to come for him, the shock of grief at the recognition of his past woes (en Priamus!) is mixed with the relief of the recognition of the honor given him by this strange people (sunt hic etiam praemia laudi) and wonder at the universal power of the mortal fate of man to touch the heart. Frederick Myers translates the lines:

What realm of earth, he answered, doth not know,
O friend, our sad pre-eminence of woe?
Tears waken tears, and honour honour brings,
And mortal hearts are moved by mortal things.

Myers has struck universality of the lines to perfection – the power of mortal griefs to move all men. There is a sweetness and reserve to Myers that is definitely Virgilian, but he therefore misses the concreteness and the shock of grief, which begins in the recognition and is carried on through the harsh sound-play of the last line (lacrimae (the “ae” is so effective if pronounced as “ai”) rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt). C.S. Lewis (whose unfinished translation of the Aeneid is very much worth reading) translates thus:

He stopped, he wept. ‘What land in all the earth,’ said he,
‘Achates, but resounds with our adversity?
Lo, Priam’s form. Here also praise from worth can spring,
Life has its tears and men’s mortality its sting.’

Lewis gives more of the harshness (sting), but lacks some of the sense of depth that Myers captures.

Virgil is of course a poet of great range and many moods, but it is significant that this passage is considered most typical of him. When I first read the Aeneid I thought it inferior to Homer. Virgil seemed to have as great a command of all that makes poetry great, but he seemed so subdued, like twilight compared to Homer’s noonday sun. Maurice Baring says somewhere that Homer has a more sparkling surface than Virgil, but that Virgil has more depth. Why is it that so many great souls have found in Virgil a mirror of their spiritual journeys? Supremely of course Dante, but also Blessed John Henry Newman, Ronald Knox, C.S. Lewis and many others. C.S. Lewis puts one reason very well:

Vicit inter durum pietas (“piety has conquered this hard road”); with this conception Virgil has added a new dimension to poetry. I have read that his Aeneas, so guided by dreams and omens, is hardly the shadow of a man beside Homer’s Achilles. But a man, an adult, is precisely what he is: Achilles had been little more than a passionate boy. You may, of course, prefer the poetry of spontaneous passion to the poetry of passion at war with vocation, and finally reconciled. Every man to his taste. But we must not blame the second for not being the first. With Virgil European poetry grows up. […] It is the nature of a vocation to appear to men in the double character of a duty and a desire, and Virgil does justice to both.

In a letter to Dorothy Sayers (quoted in the Introduction to the Aeneid trans.) Lewis says:

I’ve just re-read the Aeneid again. The effect is one of the immense costliness of a vocation combined with a complete conviction that it is worth it. The whole story is littered with the cost—Creusa, Dido, Anchises, Palinurus, Pallas, Lausas, Camilla.

Virgil’s unflinching eye for the cost of Aeneas’s destiny – not just the cost to him personally, but the cost that world empire inevitably exacts from humanity – has lead to the fashionable interpretation of the Aenead as a esoterically anti-imperial poem, but I think that John Alvis and Eve Adler have shown the fashionable reading to be wrong. The establishment of Rome is costly, but worth it. Why exactly?

(to be continued)


[1] Well, famous within the American “great books movement” Jacob Klein having been dean of St John’s College, the flagship of that movement. “The Myth of Virgil’s Aenead,” in: Interpretation Vol. 2/1 (1971) 10-20, at 19.

3 thoughts on “Empire I: the Philosophical Poet

  1. Pingback: Empire II: Herodotus, Aristotle and Jokes « Sancrucensis

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