Page images
PDF
EPUB

Aeneas, partly because the house of the Caesars, the gens Iulia, traced back its origin to Iulus, son of Aeneas; but principally no doubt because it gave him so convenient an opportunity of bringing before his countrymen, in a national dress, the glorious poems of Homer. The battle pieces, the sea adventures, the councils of the gods, the single combats, the royal feasts and funerals, the splendid scenes and similes—all these things, which charmed the educated Romans so much in the Greek epics, Vergil transplanted and naturalised in his own stately and melodious verse. Moreover, by going back to Aeneas and the tale of Troy, he raised the destinies of Rome to the old heroic level in the imaginations of men. But however inuch of Homer he may give to his readers, he never forgets his main purpose, to impress men with the dignity and greatness of Rome, her significant history, her national unbroken life and growth, and the divine protection which guided her fate.

One aspect of the poem was intimately connected both with the Augustan revival and the poet's own nature: and that was its profoundly religious character. To nothing did Augustus pay more attention than to a revival of the national religion. He rebuilt the temples, restored the worship, paid offerings to the shrines, increased the priestly colleges, and took the office permanently of Pontifex maximus. And the poet himself viewed Rome as a state powerful by the protection of gods, great in its ancient and elaborate ceremonial, and predestined by the divine will to its career of Empire. Hence it is that he is careful to weave into his narrative all manner of religious references, allusions, and associations. Sacred places and customs are mentioned all through; and the background of the poem is the working of the gods themselves, with Fate ordain

ing all.

Nor should we forget the antiquarian interest. The unity of the race and the greatness of its destiny gave a high significance to all old memories. Accordingly Vergil has collected into his poem a mass of local traditions, old Latin customs, explanations of names, and antiquarian lore of all kinds. He feels that nothing can so stimulate the common patriotism, and feeling of unity with a great past, as thus to enrich his National Epic with every ancient association that admits of poetic treatment.

Outline of the Story.

[ocr errors]

According to Homer, Aeneas was son of Anchises and Aphrodite (identified with the Roman Venus, goddess of love), and the nephew of Priam king of Troy. At first he takes no part in the Trojan war; but being attacked by Achilles, afterwards performs many heroic deeds for the Trojans. He escapes by help of the gods when Troy is captured, and Homer clearly conceives him as reigning at Troy after the departure of the Greeks.

The later stories recount his wanderings about Europe after the fall of Troy: and these Vergil adopts, making many alterations and additions of his own. One great episode, his landing at Carthage, and the love and desertion of Dido, we have no means of tracing to any traditional source, and it may be Vergil's own invention.

The Aeneid opens with the exiles leaving Sicily for Italy, their goal almost in sight. A storm comes on and they are cast ashore in Africa at Carthage. Here Dido entertains them, and Aeneas in Books II. and III. tells her of the sack of Troy and how they have wandered since. In Book IV. we have the love, desertion, despair and suicide of the Carthaginian queen, as the Trojan exiles sail away from her harbour.

At this point the fifth book begins. As they sail, a storm threatens, and they resolve to stop at Sicily, where the Trojan Acestes welcomes them. Aeneas institutes a feast and games in honour of his father Anchises. Then follow vivid and detailed descriptions of a boat-race, a foot-race, a boxing-match, and an archery competition. After this Aeneas exhibits a new shew, a cavalry game, or set of evolutions, performed by the boys on horseback, and led by Ascanius. Meanwhile the malignant Juno incites the matrons to burn the ships, a conflagration only stopped by a special rain-storm invoked by Aeneas, in despair, from Jove himself. Finally Aeneas resolves to leave behind the weak and half-hearted, including most of the women, and set sail for Italy. The book ends with the drowning of his steersman Palinurus.

One of the most effective portions of the Aeneid is his descent to Hades by the lake of Avernus near Naples, where he meets his dead father, Anchises, who shews him the souls of the future great men of Rome. He then emerges from the realms below and rejoins his fleet.

Reaching at length the coast of Latium, he discovers by a sign that this is his fated home. He sends to the king Latinus to offer

peace, which is at first agreed to, and Aeneas is betrothed to Lavinia, daughter of the king; but difficulties arise, the gods interfere, and Turnus, king of the Rutules, who is a suitor of Lavinia, induces Latinus to join him in war against the Trojans.

Aeneas meanwhile sails up the Tiber, and makes alliance with the Arcadian Euander, who is king of a small tribe on the site of the future Rome.

Euander advises him to seek aid from the Etruscans of Caere, which he does. The war is begun. After much. bloodshed, in which Pallas son of Euander, and the terrible Tuscan king Mezentius, are slain, it is at last agreed that the issue shall be decided by single combat between Aeneas and Turnus. Juno tries to interfere; but at length the heroes meet, and Aeneas grapples and slays Turnus.

Note on the Similes. The following are the similes in this book :(1) Line 89 a burnished snake, like a rainbow. (2) 144 The boats start in the race as swiftly as chariots

in the games. 213 Mnestheus' boat shoots along like a startled dove

who, after some preliminary flapping, sails through the sky.

[ocr errors]

(3) »

a

Ness,

(4) Line 273 the disabled boat like a disabled snake. (5) 439 the boxer Dares attacks Entellus with as many

futile onslaughts as a besieger a strong fort. (6) 448 Entellus falls like a hollow pine-trunk.

458 Entellus blows rain as thick as pelting hail. (8) 527 a burning arrow like a shooting-star. (9) 588 the evolutions of the boyish troop like the mazy

windings of the Labyrinth in Crete. (10) 593 the boys with their quick bright movements like

dolphins. In studying these similes, we see at once what they add to the poem in the way of ornament and of picturesque suggestive

Thus in (3) the picture of the startled dove fluttering at first, then sailing with unmoved wings through the liquid air, is very beautiful: the description of the disabled snake is extremely, even painfully vivid: the description of the Labyrinth in (9) is harmonious and effective writing : and the others though slighter, still add to the pleasure of the narrative, especially (10) ' delphinum similes' being a happy touch of comparison for the bright flashing nimble boyish troop.

But at the same time the point of the comparison in all these cases—the fourth and last perhaps alone excepted—is more or less obvious:(2) swift boats like swift chariots, (3) a ship sailing like a bird sailing, (5) a strong boxer repelling attack like a strong fortress, (6) a heavy man falling like a heavy tree, (7) blows like hail, (8) a burning arrow like a shooting star, &c.,such similes would occur to any one. The thing compared lies on the surface, it is one prominent feature of the scene; the simile is an ornament rather than a true illustration. The art is shewn not so much in the choice of the comparison, as in the expression and workmanship: in the vividness of the picture, the beauty of the language, and the truth of the details.

And we must also observe that these details, where they are at all fully given, have no bearing on the comparison. In (1), (2), (6), (7) they are not given: such similes are barely more than metaphors. But take for example (3) and (8), which are

6

more characteristic specimens of the Vergilian simile. In (3) the 'dove has her home and sweet brood in the cavern's chink'; very fit and pretty, but what has it do with the boat? Again, when she is startled she begins by loud flapping and fluttering, till she gains the free air, when she sails away. Now this is peculiarly inappropriate to Mnestheus, whose course is unimpeded from the first, whereas it might have suited Sergestus, who got in among the reefs. Again in (8) he gives a good description of the Labyrinth, and ends with describing the confusion of the winding ways, and speaks of a‘maze baffling the seeker, without clue or hope of return': an effective line but quite irrelevant to the Troianus ludus, where all the troops perform the same evolutions, and there is no baffling.

So again even in (4) which is the most original of all these similes, and in some ways the most vivid, the details still are irrelevant: the wounded boat is in many ways admirably likened to a wounded snake, but there is nothing to correspond to 'gleaming eyes', 'hissing neck', nor 'knotted and writhing spires'.

Thus in the Vergilian simile, for the most part the details are worked out independently, and while they relieve and adorn the epic narrative, the comparison usually turns on but one or two points and those commonplace.

This is what we may call the primitive use of the simile, as it is employed in Homer, and imitated in many poets since. There is however a modern use of the simile which is quite different. If we open Shelley we read

The golden gates of Sleep unbar
Where strength and beauty, met together,
Kindle their image like a star
In a sea of glassy weather.

Here there is nothing obvious in the comparison: we should never have thought, without the aid of the poet's superb imagination, of comparing the union of love to a star mirrored in the smooth sea: and yet there is a profound appropriateness, not only in the image, but in all the suggestions of it: the beauty,

« PreviousContinue »