« PreviousContinue »
AN INTERVIEW EXTRAORDINARY.
I SOMETIMES, of a leisure hour, amuse myself in imagining the social and domestic qualities of some one or other of the distingués of olden time. Indeed, so fond have I become of picturing in my mind how a favorite author, orator, captain or what not, would feel, look, and talk in the society of his family or in every-day intercourse with neighbors and friends, that it has grown almost to a passion with me. A friend of mine, knowing this to be the case, furnished me, not long since, with what purports to be a sketch of an interview between Virgil and Horace. It is attached to an unpretending volume, the preface of which would imply that it was written by a cotemporary. But why it has remained so long unappreciated and unknown, is a query. I pre. sume, however, as my friend is something of a dabbler in the classics, he has thought to impose upon my credulity, even at the expense of my good nature. Be this as it may, I will inflict a translation of it upon my readers, trusting that the conversation of these two persons on casual topics, and the small additional ray of light it may shed upon their social intercourse, will be ample apology.
I may here acknowledge my obligations to better scholars than myself, and especially would I confess my indebtedness to certain lights and illuminations, (phenomena by no means rare in most works of the classical authors of antiquity,) which kept springing up as if by magic at either margin of the pages in the course of my labors and researches.
The author appears to be the hero of the sketch, and the sketch itself is quite as follows:
“ Learning while out on a hunting excursion, with six or eight good fellows from the city, that we were in the immediate neighborhood of the country residence of Horace, or as the poet himself calls it, his • Sabine farm,' I immediately determined to separate myself from my companions for the purpose of examining the premises.
“My curiosity was greatly heightened on learning that the poet was spending a little time at his villa, and also that he was daily expecting the arrival of his friend Virgil, from the delightful villa of the latter in the Campania Felix. I had frequently seen them in the bustle and gayety of the city, and had a tolerable idea of the striking characteristics of each. But I was exceedingly anxious to see them in the country, where they could converse familiarly, and be free from the embarrassing formalities of the Court. Leaving my Satureian in the care of a groom, thither I hastened my steps. Finally, after brushing hedges, (as the rustics say,) leaping streamlets, passing through orchards borne down with fruit, and vineyards literally clothed in purple, I found myself, with a whole head and a light heart, on the private grounds of the poet.
“As I hastened along to the villa, which stands in the central part of the grounds, I caught a glimpse of the poet's steward, whom I
knew of old, and who is, by the way, a most notorious character at Rome, and the one whom Horace addressed in an epistle which appeared in the last correction of his Epistles, published by the Sosii. Not wishing to be seen by the varlet, I dodged behind some latticework, upon which a thrifty vine had been trained, and thus ensconced I was able to see all his maneuverings, and a deal more besides.
“He was just turning away from two persons who were quietly seated on a rustic bench beneath the thick shade of a clump of sturdy old holms. They seemed to be engaged in easy conversation, leaving it off and resuming it at pleasure. These intervals were sometimes thoughtful, but more generally, I observed, their eyes dwelt upon the scenery which spread itself out before them in the form of charming landscapes. I should have said that I recognized, from my sconce, in the individuals spoken of above, Horace himself and his distinguished and worthy guest, the author of the Bucolics, etc. etc. The steward had been the subject of conversation, as nearly as I could gather from a few words, spoken in that voice which the fair Lalage was wont to say was the only one in all Rome in which words distilled as they fell upon the ear. The observation I caught was nearly this : • He is a faithful sellow, for aught I know, but his discontented disposition renders him almost intolerable. When he is at Rome he importunes me to send him into the country, and, now that he is here, as you just saw, he gives me no rest that he may go back to the city. What to do with him I am at a loss to determine.
“. But, my Virgil, we were talking, when he interrupted us, of the propriety of an author's expressing himself as to whether or not his own productions shall stand the test of time.'
“ VIRGIL. We were, most excellent Horace, but just at the time of the interruption, I think, we were conversing more particularly on the exceeding liability of authors to misjudge their own productions. I recollect our views very nearly corresponded, and I was about relating, as he came up, some remarks Mæcenas once made, partly because they referred to a previous subject of conversation, and partly by way of defending me froin the Emperor, who had been rallying me because, forsooth, I had received the day before a volley of compliments from the populace under cover of a truckshop, whither I had betaken my. self on the way to my house on the Esquiline Hill, in order to avoid the vulgar gaze. I mind the time well—we were at the Palace, in the anteroom of the great hall. It was a private sitting, there being only three of us present. They had both been rather taking me to task for my foolish diffidence; but when it was grown late, and after having drunk off our goblets, and being about to separate for the night, Mæcenas, seemingly an observer of my embarrassment, remarked that
nothing was more common than for men of genius to misjudge their own productions. This error of judgment,' he continued, arises partly from the inadequacy of the present means of expression, to convey the ideal, as it exists in the mind of the author. This inadequacy of expression, which arises mostly from the barrenness of language, is a serious inconvenience, which is felt by all writers, and especially by
the poet. To the poet, the ideal, as expressed, can claim no comparison with the ideal itself. The reader, judging of a work exactly as it comes from the hands of an author, without any reference to its being a part and parcel of a more complete one, with such means as his own observation and that of others afford him, pronounces it perfect and inimitable; while the author, keeping all the while in his own mind the original conception, if he does not really think the work an abortion, calls it at least weak and puerile. Thus we are easily enabled to assign as the reason why the author frequently gives his inferior productions the preference over his best, that in the former he has succeeded, from some cause or other, more to his liking in expressing the ideal.'
“ HORACE. Delightful! Virgil, delightful! Were not Mæcenas a statesman, he would be poet and critic combined.
“The conversation here ceased for awhile, when it was resumed by Virgil asking Horace why it was that a mere point in etiquette was almost the only thing in the world on which they disagreed.
“ Horace. Then you are rallying me again on my old failing ?
“ Virgil. Not at all! not at all! But you know we were really discussing, awhile ago, the propriety of an author's prophesying for himself to the world an immortality in his works.
“ Horace. So we were ! Pardon me, my Virgil : I recollect it now. But to your question. I do not know why it is we differ both in theory and practice so much on so simple a point; unless one great reason be that it is my nature to speak out what your modesty, and perhaps better judgment, oftentimes prompt you to keep to yourself. Besides the influence which my peculiar temperament may have exerted in shaping my course of conduct in this respect, I early conceived the idea that the Poet's was a divine commission. And as to the Poet himself, why, I thought and still continue to think, he is the most honored of mortals. Nor is there any one who has been especially favored by the Muses, that does not feel a something within which tells him that his sun shall never set. When such an one has faithfully executed his commission, and awaits the time when he shall be called away by Fate, it appears to me that there can be no grander conception than when it flashes across his mind that he will not be entirely forgotten by his fellow-men, but that his works shall pass down from generation to generation, through all time, read, admired, and doing good to all. What theme more worthy to be sung than immortal fame! Or who more worthy to sing it than he who receives it as a reward for his labors and toils and privations!
“ VIRGIL. I am delighted with you, my Horace, and heartily wish it were in my power to coincide with what you say. Yet I honestly think that where a man has reaped a fame that outvies the stars in constancy and brilliancy, let him even be conscious of the powers of a god, and let him follow your advice, though he be as simple-minded as a child, he would be called an egotist, a trumpeter of his own immortality.
“ Horace. And would you call me an egotist, a trumpeter, my Virgil ?
“ Virgil. Certainly not. But I do say that you run the risk, in after time, when you and I and all your cotemporaries shall have passed away, of being so called. As for myself, I believe no such thing, neither do those who know you most and love you best. Do not think I want to set myself up as a model of perfection, for no one knows better than yourself that I am anxious and solicitous for fame. No one certainly enjoys a liberal reception of his productions by the reading community more than myself. I even take great credit to myself for having first introduced Pastorals among my countrymen. And I have often been flattered in contemplating the good effects that have occurred from my work on Agriculture; but never, however exalted might be my hopes, will I sing of my own immortal fame. There is a step beyond which propriety forbids to go. A man may think many things, and yet not mention them for the world. Besides, however it may be, it is almost presumption for one to say that his works have earned for him an immortality : for Time is a stern critic, and often spares not that which cost much toil and was the object of high hopes. Think you that the great master, whom we both so ardently admire, was not conscious of immortality ? He was, most unquestionably, yet I never heard that he declared it in so many words. But it is that delicacy which prompts one not to speak in too much confidence of himself, for which I contend. And, my friend, am I not really right?
“HORACE. You say many true things, Virgil ; you say what you believe, and what you have practiced uniformly through life. But, what I have written, I cannot recall. Besides, Virgil, I have no concealment. What I know, I tell, and what I feel, I tell—this is what a true poet should do. I should be a poor follower of that philosophy, which is so peculiar to me-I should be odious in the sight of the immortal gods, did I not write all true things, even at the expense of being called an egotist. Tell me not, then, that this is unbecoming—that it is egotistical. It is not myself that I praise—it is the genius which the gods have instilled into me that I extol. My body shall indeed die, and return to dust; its particles shall mingle with those of your body, with those of the great Augustus, with those of our friend and patron, Mæcenas. But I SHALL NOT WHOLLY DIE! My divine productions, like your own, shall be read wherever the Latin tongue is known; they will live as long as the High Priest shall ascend the Capitol with the silent virgin, and as long as yon city shall pierce the blue sky with its towers and turrets."
ONE portion of our countrymen retain so much of the spirit of their Puritan ancestry, as teaches them to frown upon every thing which comes unrecommended by the sanction of priest and church. Another plunge so far into the opposite extreme as to disregard every subject of serious import, and seek, with the greediest zeal, avocations the most frivolous and absurd. It is therefore difficult for these opposite tastes to settle upon any one object which can unite their enthusiasm. Thus, while one part of our people have personated Sisyphus, tugging up the hill with his huge stone, and the other that force which is ever pushing it back, we are no nearer a refined liberality than we were two centuries ago. There is no subject which has excited a more virulent war of these characteristics, than the Theatre. While the older countries of Europe, pervaded by a more informed taste and (may we add ?) morality, have bestowed upon the Stage an ardent patronage, American refinement has been contented to admire the enormities of the low Buffoon, or the lugubrious bombast of the mock Tragedian. The only glance we have got into the enchanted solitude of dramatic poesy, is when some foreign hack has condescended to fill his pockets from our liberality. A partial change seems, however, to have come over our opinions, and recent dramatic revivals authorize us to expect a better era.
May we be allowed, then, a glance at the Drama and its handmaid, the Theatre ? The highest sphere of genius is that of the imagination, the highest region of the imagination is poetry. Science has, it is true, discovered theories for the practical service of mankind, but its ends have been reached by a just comparison and synthesis of facts, while poetry is an analysis of the source of facts. The scientific man deals with real entities, the poet discerns the harmonies in thought and nature. This quick insight into mind and sympathy with nature enable him, if not to “construct things made with hands," to serve in the more precious office of informing our hearts. The first age of a nation's morality is not fashioned by its schools, but by its poetry-Lyric and Epic. Dramatic poetry is the growth of a more polished age, when fashions and follies call for the rod. The Epic is inspired by heroism, either of action or passion, themes more akin to the poet's sympathies than the baser sources which inspire the Drama. The question seems, therefore, to have been settled by general suffrage, that Epic poetry is the highest sphere for genius. A part of this preference is owing, we think, to the impatience of poor human nature under the rod. Even the better portion of our kind object to this general dismasqueing of humanity, from a consciousness that they are of the same flesh and blood, inspired by the same breath, as those whose backs are victims of the lash. The characters also of the Epic and Dramatic poem must be differently chosen and developed. In the former, none but what may be called the heroic passions can be por