The Works of Virgil (Dryden)/Person



A SHORT

ACCOUNT

OF HIS

Person, Manners and Fortune.

HE was of a very swarthy Complexion, which might proceed from the Southern Extraction of his Father, tall and wide-shoulder'd, so that he may be thought to have describ'd himself under the Character of Musæus, whom he calls the best of Poets.

——Medium nam plurima turba
Hunc habet, atque humeris ex tantem suspicit altis.

His Sickliness, Studies, and the Troubles he met with, turn'd his Hair gray before the usual time; he had an hesitation in his Speech, as many other great Men: It being rarely found that a very fluent Elocution, and depth of judgment meet in the same Person. His Aspect and Behaviour rustick, and ungraceful: And this defect was not likely to be rectify'd in the place where he first liv'd, nor afterwards, because the weakness of his Stomach would not permit him to use his Exercises; he was frequently troubled with the Head-ach, and spitting of Blood; spare of Dyet, and hardly drank any Wine. Bashful to a fault; and when People crouded to see him, he would slip into the next Shop, or by-passage, to avoid them. As this Character could not recommend him to the fair Sex; he seems to have as little consideration for them as Euripides himself. There is hardly the Character of one good Woman to be found in his Poems: He uses the Word [Mulier] but once in the whole Æneis, then too by way of Contempt, rendring literally a piece of a Verse out of Homer. In his Pastorals he is full of invectives against Love: In the Georgics he appropriates all the rage of it to the Females. He makes Dido, who never deserv'd that Character, Lustful and Revengeful to the utmost degree; so as to dye devoting her Lover to destruction; so changeable, that the Destinies themselves could not fix the time of her Death. But Iris, the Emblem of Inconstancy, must determine it. Her Sister is something worse. He is so far from passing such a Complement upon Helen, as the grave Old Councellour in Homer does, after nine Years War, when upon the sight of her he breaks out into this Rapture in the presence of King Priam

None can the cause of these long Wars despise;
The Cost bears no proportion to the Prize:
Majestick Charms in every Feature shine;
Her Air, her Port, her Accent is Divine.
However let the fatal Beauty go, &c.

Virgil is so far from this complaisant Humour, that his Heroe falls into an unmanly and ill-tim'd deliberation, whether he should not kill her in a Church; which directly contradicts what Deiphobus says of her, Æneid 6. in that place where every body tells the truth. He transfers the dogged Silence of Ajax his Ghost, to that of Dido; tho' that be no very natural Character to an injur'd Lover, or a Woman. He brings in the Trojan Matrons setting their own Fleet on Fire; and running afterwards, like Witches on their Sabbat, into the Woods. He bestows indeed some Ornaments upon the Character of Camilla; but soon abates his Favour, by calling her aspera & horrenda Virgo: He places her in the Front of the line for an ill Omen of the Battel, as one of the Ancients has observ'd. We may observe, on this occasion, it is an Art peculiar to Virgil, to intimate the Event by some preceding Accident. He hardly ever describes the rising of the Sun, but with some Circumstance which fore-signifies the Fortune of the Day. For instance, when Æneas leaves Africa and Queen Dido, he thus describes the fatal Morning:

Tithoni croceum linguens Aurora cubile.

[And for the Remark, we stand indebted to the curious Pencil of Pollio.] The Mourning Fields (Æneid. 6.) are crowded with Ladies of a lost Reputation: Hardly one Man gets admittance, and that is Cæneus, for a very good Reason. Latinus his Queen is turbulent, and ungovernable, and at last hangs her self: And the fair Lavinia is disobedient to the Oracle, and to the King, and looks a little flickering after Turnus. I wonder at this the more, because Livy represents her as an excellent Person, and who behav'd her self with great Wisdom in her Regency during the minority of her Son: So that the Poet has done her Wrong, and it reflects on her Posterity. His Goddesses make as ill a Figure; Juno is always in a rage, and the Fury of Heaven: Venus grows so unreasonably confident, as to ask her Husband to forge Arms for her Bastard Son; which were enough to provoke one of a more Phlegmatick Temper than Vulcan was. Notwithstanding all this raillery of Virgil's, he was certainly of a very Amorous disposition, and has describ'd all that is most delicate in the Passion of Love; but he Conquer'd his natural Inclinations by the help of Philosophy; and refin'd it into Friendship, to which he was extreamly sensible. The Reader will admit of or reject the following Conjecture, with the free leave of the Writer, who will be equally pleas'd either way. Virgil had too great an Opinion of the Influence of the Heavenly Bodies: And, as an Ancient Writer says, that he was born under the Sign of Virgo, with which Nativity perhaps he pleas'd himself, and would exemplifie her Virtues in his Life. Perhaps it was thence that he took his Name of Virgil and Parthenias, which does not necessarily signifie Base-born. Donatus, and Servius, very good Grammarians, give a quite contrary sense of it. He seems to make allusion to this Original of his Name in that Passage,

Illo Virgilium me tempore dulcis alebat, Parthenope.

And this may serve to illustrate his Complement to Cæsar, in which he invites him into his own Constellation,

Where, in the void of Heaven, a place is free,
Betwixt the
Scorpion, and the Maid for thee.

Thus placing him betwixt Justice and Power, and in a Neighbour Mansion to his own; for Virgil suppos'd Souls to ascend again to their proper Stars. Being therefore of this Humour, it is no wonder that he refus'd the Embraces of the Beautiful Plotia, when his indiscreet Friend almost threw her into his Arms.

But however he stood affected to the Ladies, there is a dreadful Accusation brought against him for the most unnatural of all Vices, which by the Malignity of Humane nature has found more Credit in latter times than it did near his own. This took not its rise so much from the Alexis, in which Pastoral there is not one immodest Word; as from a sort of ill-nature that will not let any one be without the imputation of some Vice; and principally because he was so strict a follower of Socrates and Plato. In order therefore to his Vindication, I shall take the matter a little higher.

The Cretans were anciently much addicted to Navigation, insomuch that it became a Greek Proverb, (tho' omitted, I think, by the Industrious Erasmus,) A Cretan that does not know the Sea. Their Neighbourhood gave them occasion of frequent Commerce with the Phænicians, that accursed People, who infected the Western World with endless Superstitions, and gross Immoralities. From them it is probable, that the Cretans learn'd this infamous Passion, to which they were so much addicted, that Cicero remarks, in his Book de Rep. that it was a disgrace for a young Gentleman to be without Lovers. Socrates, who was a great Admirer of the Cretan Constitutions, set his excellent Wit to find out some good Cause, and Use of this Evil Inclination, and therefore gives an Account, wherefore Beauty is to be lov'd, in the following Passage; for I will not trouble the Reader, weary perhaps already, with a long Greek Quotation. There is but one Eternal, Immutable, Uniform Beauty; in contemplation of which, our Soveraign Happiness does consist: And therefore a true Lover considers Beauty and Proportion as so many Steps and Degrees, by which he may ascend from the particular to the general, from all that is lovely of Feature, or regular in Proportion, or charming in Sound, to the general Fountain of all Perfection. And if you are so much transported with the sight of Beautiful Persons, as to wish neither to eat or drink, but pass your whole Life in their Conversation; to what extasie would it raise you to behold the Orignal Beauty, not fill'd up with Flesh and Blood, or varnish'd with a fading mixture of Colours, and the rest of Mortal Trifles and Fooleries, but separate, unmix'd, uniform, and divine, &c. Thus far Socrates, in a strain, much beyond the Socrate Crētien of Mr. Balsac: And thus that admirable Man lov'd his Phœdon, his Charmides, and Theætetus; and thus Virgil lov'd his Alexander, and Cebes, under the feign'd Name of Alexis: He receiv'd them illiterate, but return'd them to their Masters, the one a good Poet, and the other an excellent Grammarian: And to prevent all possible Misinterpretations, he warily inserted into the liveliest Episode in the whole Æneis, these words,

Nisus amore pio pueri.

And in the Sixth, Quique pii vates. He seems fond of the Words, castus, pius, Virgo, and the Compounds of it; and sometimes stretches the Use of that word further than one would think he reasonably should have done, as when he attributes it to Pasiphaé her self.

Another Vice he is Tax'd with, is Avarice; because he died Rich, and so indeed he did in comparison of modern Wealth; his Estate amounts to near Seventy Five Thousand Pounds of our Mony: But Donatus does not take notice of this as a thing extraordinary; nor was it esteem'd so great a Matter, when the Cash of a great part of the World lay at Rome; Antony himself bestow'd at once Two Thousand Acres of Land in one of the best Provinces of Italy, upon a ridiculous Poet, who is nam'd by Cicero and Virgil. A late Cardinal us'd to purchase ill flattery at the Expence of 100000 Crowns a Year. But besides Virgil's other Benefactors, he was much in favour with Augustus, whose Bounty to him had no limits, but such as the Modesty of Virgil prescrib'd to it. Before he had made his own Fortune, he setled his Estate upon his own Parents and Brothers; sent them Yearly large Sums, so that they liv'd in great Plenty and Respect; and at his Death, divided his Estate betwixt Duty and Gratitude, leaving one half to his Relations, and the other to Mecaenas, to Tucca and Varius, and a considerable Legacy to Augustus, who had introduc'd a politick Fashion of being in every bodies Will; which alone was a fair Revenue for a Prince. Virgil shews his detestation of this Vice, by placing in the front of the Damn'd those who did not relieve their Relations and Friends; for the Romans hardly ever extended their Liberality further; and therefore I do not remember to have met in all the Latin Poets, one Character so noble as that short one in Homer.

——Φίλοι δ᾽ἦν ἀνθζώποισι,
ωάνλας γάζ φιλέεσχε——

On the other hand, he gives a very advanc'd place in Elysium to good Patriots, &c. Observing in all his Poem, that Rule so Sacred amongst the Romans, That there shou'd be no Art allow'd, which did not tend to the improvement of the People in Virtue. And this was the Principle too of our Excellent Mr. Waller, who us'd to say that he would raze any Line out of his Poems, which did not imply some Motive to Virtue; but he was unhappy in the choice of the Subject of his admirable vein in Poetry. The Countess of C. was the Helen of her Country. There is nothing in Pagan Philosophy more true, more just, and regular than Virgil's Ethics; and it is hardly possible to sit down to the serious perusual of his Works, but a Man shall rise more dispos'd to Virtue and Goodness, as well as most agreeably entertain'd. The contrary to which disposition, may happen sometimes upon the reading of Ovid, of Martial, and several other second rate Poets. But of the Craft and Tricking part of Life, with which Homer abounds, there is nothing to be found in Virgil; and therefore Plato, who gives the former so many good Words, Perfumes, Crowns, but at last Complementally Banishes him his Commonwealth, wou'd have intreated Virgil to stay with him, (if they had liv'd in the same Age,) and intrusted him with some important Charge in his Government. Thus was his Life as chast as his Stile, and those who can Critick his Poetry, can never find a blemish in his Manners; and one would rather wish to have that purity of Mind, which the Satyrist himself attributes to him; that friendly disposition, and evenness of temper, and patience, which he was Master of in so eminent a degree, than to have the honour of being Author of the Æneis, or even of the Georgics themselves.

Having therefore so little relish for the usual amusements of the world, he prosecuted his Studies without any considerable interruption, during the whole course of his Life, which one may reasonably conjecture to have been something longer than 52 years; and therefore it is no wonder that he became the most general Scholar that Rome ever bred, unless some one should except Varro. Besides the exact knowledge of Rural Affairs, he understood Medicine, to which Profession he was design'd by his Parents. A Curious Florist, on which Subject one wou'd wish he had writ, as he once intended: So profound a Naturalist, that he has solv'd more Phænomena of Nature upon sound Principles, than Aristotle in his Physics. He studied Geometry, the most opposite of all Sciences to a Poetick Genius, and Beauties of a lively imagination; but this promoted the order of his Narrations, his propriety of Language, and clearness of Expression, for which he was justly call'd the Pillar of the Latin Tongue. This Geometrical Spirit was the cause, that to fill up a Verse he would not insert one superfluous word; and therefore deserves that Character which a Noble and Judicious Writer has given him,[1] That he never says too little nor too much. Nor cou'd any one ever fill up the Verses he left imperfect. There is one supply'd near the beginning of the First Book; Virgil left the Verse thus,

——Hic illius arma,
Hic currus fuit
——

the rest is none of his.

He was so good a Geographer, that he has not only left us the finest description of Italy that ever was; but besides, was one of the few Ancients who knew the true System of the Earth, its being Inhabited round about under the Torrid Zone, and near the Poles. Metrodorus, in his five Books of the Zones, justifies him from some Exceptions made against him by Astronomers. His Rhetorick was in such general esteem, that Lectures were read upon it in the Reign of Tiberius, and the Subject of Declamations taken out of him. Pollio himself, and many other Ancients Commented him. His Esteem degenerated into a kind of Superstition. The known Story of Mr. Cowley is an instance of it. But the sortes Virgilianæ were condemn'd by St. Augustin, and other Casuists. Abienus, by an odd Design, put all Virgil and Livy into Iambick Verse; and the Pictures of those two were hung in the most Honourable place of Publick Libraries, and the Design of taking them down, and destroying Virgil's Works, was look'd upon as one of the most Extravagant amongst the many Brutish Frenzies of Caligula.

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  1. Essay of Poetry by the Marquess of Normanby.