To Virgil by Tennyson

The commission

The Roman poet Virgil died in 19 BC. One thousand nine hundred years later, in 1881, the inhabitants of Mantua, the Italian city where he was born, approached the British Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, to commission him to write a poem celebrating Virgil’s birth. Since Tennyson was born in 1809, he was 72 at the time, the grand old man of British poetry and known across Europe.

By Tennyson’s standards the poem he wrote for this commission is on the short side (although he wrote brief lyrics throughout his career and some of his famous long poems – ‘Maud’ and especially ‘In Memoriam’ – are made up of lots of short poems on a unified theme), and it’s certainly not among his best poems – but nonetheless it’s a professional piece of work, mellifluous and stately and gracious in its compliments for one of the greatest practitioners of poetry in all European history.

The metre

In the poem Tennyson is trying to replicate the stately measure of the Latin hexameters which Virgil used in his epic poem, the Aeneid. So first and third lines of each stanza are trochaic tetrameters, meaning they have four ‘feet’ or units, and each unit contains 2 syllables, and the beat falls on the first syllable of each pair. This creates a formal tone of address.

Roman Virgil, thou that singest

By contrast, the second and fourth lines of each stanza are trochaic pentameters, meaning they have five feet, made up of two syllables each, with the emphasis on the first of the 2 syllables (which is what trochee means). The last four of the five feet or units consists of just one stressed syllable.

More than he that sang the ‘Works and Days

The contents

The poem recaps the well-known outline of Virgil’s career. First it cites his most famous work, the Aeneid, represented by ‘Ilion’s lofty temples’ being burned down by the triumphant Greeks at the climax of the Trojan war, Ilion or Ilium being the Greek word for Troy.

‘Filial faith’ refers to Aeneas’s famous devotion to his father, Anchises, so devoted he hazards a journey to the underworld to see his shade.

‘Dido’s pyre’ echoes the fire of Troy but mainly refers to the fact that Dido fell in love with Aeneas when he arrived at the new city of Carthage which she ruled over, but the gods told him he had to press on to Italy in order to found Rome, so he abandoned her and she in her misery, killed herself and had her body cremated.

Verse 2 refers to the pastoral poems Virgil wrote early in his career, specifically the Georgics which were modelled on the poem called Works and Days by the archaic Greek poet Hesiod. Verse 2 refers to the subjects Virgil describes in the Georgics, namely the care of crops and livestock, with a nod to the famous section about bees.

Verse 4 goes backwards in his career to refer to the Eclogues, either monologues or dialogues taking place in an idealised landscape between idealised shepherds, one of whom is named Tityrus. Virgil’s real-life Roman contemporary Pollio, a Roman consul, is referred to by name in several of the Eclogues, which explains why his name pops up here.

Having referred to his three key works, Tennyson can now generalise about Virgil’s tone of voice, which is famously gentle and sweetly sad at the turmoil and suffering of poor humanity.

In verse 7, describing Virgil as ‘a golden branch’ amid the shadows is a stylish visualisation of how his work shines out from the Dark Ages into which Europe fell, but also refers to the golden bough, which Aeneas in the epic poem has to find and pluck in order to journey to the underworld – although the line that follows, about kings and realms that pass, sounds as much like Tennyson’s lordly melancholy as Virgil’s. It also echoes the earlier mention of ‘golden phrases’ and ‘gilded’ in the line before, and so, subconsciously, helps create a semi-visual sense of the treasure of Virgil’s verse, glimpses of priceless treasure half-made out through shadows and undergrowth: a gleaming treasure from a buried past.

What Auden called ‘the lachrymae rerum note’ continues into the next verse which makes the deeply traditional reference to the vanished glories of Rome, its forum and emperors, a trope of European poetry since the Dark Ages.

And then, very gracefully, Tennyson turns the penultimate stanza from the past (the ‘Rome of slaves’) to the present (the ‘Rome of freemen’) gracefully referring to the (relatively new) republic of unified Italy (Italy only became a unified nation state in 1871) whose citizens had extended this kind invitation to him and to which he is so graciously replying.

The reference to the ‘northern isle’ is simple enough – it is Britain, where Tennyson was born and raised but which, during Virgil’s time, was only a distant unknown land associated with legends and exaggerations, hence the accurate description, ‘sunder’d once from all the human race’.

And so it’s from here, in rainy England, that Tennyson now sends his poem, and he ends it with beautiful praise for Virgil’s single most key achievement, the majestic rhythm of his rolling lines of verse, the use of ‘I’ to start three lines consciously emphasising the personal depth of the tribute, one great of poetry speaking across nearly two millennia to another.

there are many things to criticise in both Virgil and Tennyson’s poetry and worldviews. But sometimes, in troubled times, it’s healing and calming to enjoy a thing of beauty and be grateful that beautiful things have survived the wanton destructiveness of humanity.

To Virgil, written at the request of the Mantuans for the nineteenth centenary of Virgil’s death

Roman Virgil, thou that singest
Ilion’s lofty temples robed in fire,
Ilion falling, Rome arising,
Wars, and filial faith, and Dido’s pyre;

Landscape-lover, lord of language
More than he that sang the ‘Works and Days’,
All the chosen coin of fancy
Flashing out from many a golden phrase;

Thou that singest wheat and woodland,
Tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd;
All the charm of all the Muses
Often flowering in a lonely word;

Poet of the happy Tityrus
Piping underneath his beechen bowers;
Poet of the poet-satyr
Whom the laughing shepherd bound with flowers;

Chanter of the Pollio, glorying
In the blissful years again to be,
Summers of the snakeless meadow,
Unlaborious earth and oarless sea;

Thou that seëst Universal
Nature moved by Universal Mind;
Thou majestic in thy sadness
At the doubtful doom of human kind;

Light among the vanish’d ages;
Star that gildest yet this phantom shore;
Golden branch amid the shadows,
Kings and realms that pass to rise no more;

Now thy Forum roars no longer,
Fallen every purple Cæsar’s dome—
Tho’ thine ocean-roll of rhythm
Sound forever of Imperial Rome—

Now the Rome of slaves hath perish’d,
And the Rome of freemen holds her place,
I, from out the Northern Island
Sunder’d once from all the human race,

I salute thee, Mantovano,
I that loved thee since my day began,
Wielder of the stateliest measure
Ever moulded by the lips of man.


Roman reviews

Introductions to the Aeneid – 2. Allen Mandelbaum

I own three English translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1970 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin classics prose translation by David West

This is the middle of three blog posts giving detailed analyses of the introductions to each of these translations. This one looks at Allen Mandelbaum’s introduction to his 1970 translation. (The third blog post, about David West’s introduction, includes examples of each of the translators’ actual translations, including Mandelbaum’s.)

1970 introduction by Allen Mandelbaum

Allen Mandelbaum (1926 to 2011) was a Jewish-American professor of literature and the humanities, poet, and translator from Classical Greek, Latin and Italian. After going to live for decades in Italy he returned to the States and taught English and comparative literature at the City University of New York from 1966 to 1986. His translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1980 to 1984) won him Italy’s highest award, the Presidential Cross of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity. Impressive. This translation of the Aeneid won the 1973 National Book Award in the translation category. The preface to it, which am now going to summarise, was published in 1970.

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Before we even get to Mandelbaum’s introduction, the blurb on the inside cover about Virgil is interesting. It says that as part of Octavius’s sweeping land reallocation to retired soldiers after the Battle of Philippi (42 BC), he confiscated Virgil’s parents’ extensive farmlands around Mantua. It says Virgil travelled to Rome to argue for its return, and this certainly chimes with the accounts in several of the Virgil’s eclogues of land confiscation and of the shepherd who has travelled to Rome and seen the young prince i.e. Octavius to try and get his land back.

The blurb goes on to say it was as a result of Virgil’s pleading that he became friends with Octavius and was handed over to be managed by his arts minister, Maecenas. This close relationship between patron and poet leads the blurb writer to say that it was at Augustus’s express command that Virgil’s request to burn the draft of the Aeneid was overruled, and that it was Augustus who handed it to the scholars Varius and Tucca with specific instructions to edit only the obvious errors and repetitions, but to add nothing new to it, and to publish the result, which they did in 16 BC.

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Mandelbaum’s introduction is only 8 pages long but it’s packed. He gets stuck in right away by saying he came to Virgil late because he was put off him by three judgements. First was a quip by the American critic Mark Van Doren (1894 to 1972) that ‘Homer is a world; Virgil, a style’. Mandelbaum associated this comment with Coleridge’s similarly negative judgement that ‘If you take from Virgil his diction and metre, what do you leave him?’ So these two adverse opinion come under the heading of ‘Homer is the Great Original, Virgil is a Poor Copy’.

Mandelbaum goes on to mentions the judgement of the great Marxist critic, György Lukács (whose thoughts on Kafka I’ve reviewed). György boy who wrote in his Theory of the Novel that: ‘The heroes of Virgil live the cool and limited existence of shadows, nourished by the blood of noble zeal, blood that has been sacrificed in order to recall what has forever disappeared.’

Lukács was a swine but I still enjoy this kind of class-based Marxist criticism, ancient though it now feels; after all, we still live in a heavily class-based society where privately educated ministers hand out multi-million pound contracts to their friends and wives while northern proles queue at foodbanks, where gas and energy prices makes billions in profits while old age pensioners freeze to death in their flats.

Anyway, Lukács’s implication is that Virgil’s characters are contemptible because they harbour a utopian hankering for what has irredeemably disappeared, namely a nostalgic memory of a land of small family-owned farms, which had mostly been swept away by vast estates worked by slaves by the time Virgil wrote.

Anyway, Lukács’s criticism, as well as being vague and impressionistic, seems wrong to me. To me the Aeneid reads as a poem very much of the harsh present, reeking with the blood of animals slaughtered at the altar and men being stabbed, eviscerated and burned to ashes in a very perilous present.

(In case you needed to know, the third dismissal came in Concetto Marchesi’s History of Latin Literature which deprecated Virgil in favour of Lucretius.)

It is when Mandelbaum goes on to describe the personal importance to him of the English poet John Milton that the reader begins to realise that this is not going to be a scholarly introduction, but the personal musings of Mandelbaum the poet (for in addition to his prizewinning translations, Mandelbaum also published several volumes of his own poetry, as the preface now proceeds to tell us). This introduction is going to be a description of his own personal odyssey from these boyhood influences who put him off Virgil, to his late-flowering realisation of Virgil’s brilliance.

Central to Mandelbaum’s conversion were the poems of Giusseppe Ungaretti (1888 to 1970). Mandelbaum was deeply involved in translating Ungaretti’s Italian poems into English as he wrote them, and helped get them published in America throughout the 1950s. And many of Ungaretti’s poems invoked characters or themes from Virgil. So Mandelbaum first really discovered Virgilian themes through the lens of Ungaretti. He quotes a florid passage of Ungaretti’s:

Aeneas is beauty, youth, ingenuousness ever in search of a promised land, where, in the contemplated, fleeting beauty, his own beauty smiles and enchants.

Personally I’d have thought nothing could be further from a true picture of Aeneas, the careworn early-middle-aged son of decrepit Anchises and anxious father of young Ascanius, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, stumbling from one disaster to another, his hands red with blood.

As so often with ‘criticism’ by writers or poets, this isn’t objective analysis but a deliberate, and I’d say knowing, teasing, rewriting of Virgil’s character entirely to suit Ungaretti’s own poetic preoccupations. Heavily misleading, in other words. Mandelbaum goes on to quote an even more overripe slice of tripe:

Dido came to represent the experience of one who, in late autumn, is about to pass beyond it; the hour in which living is about to become barren; the hour of one from whom the horrible, tremendous, final tremor of youth is about to depart. Dido is the experience of nature as against the moral experience.

This may be a fine expression of Ungaretti’s (mimsy, impressionist) concerns but strikes me as having nothing whatsoever to do with the Dido who features in the Aeneid. All this is a worrying indication that Mandelbaum’s response to Virgil is going to be hugely contaminated by his embroilment in Ungaretti’s highly ‘poetic’ prose, all ‘tremors of youth’ and ‘the moral experience’ and fuck-all to do with the Dido who calls down the vengeance of the gods on Aeneas and makes her people swear eternal enmity with Rome.

Reminiscing about those happy times in Italy in the 1950s you can almost hear Mandelbaum relaxing the sinews of his mind and slipping into an odoriferous bath of fine feelings, claiming that Ungaretti helped him to see:

the underground denial – by consciousness and longing – of the total claims of the state and history.

I think he means the persistence in the poem of numerous threads which oppose or undermine the overt worship of Rome, of Roman patriotism, of obeisance to the predictions of Rome’s rise to world-dominating empire, which occur throughout it on a surface level.

But like so many other aesthetes what comes over strongly is the way Mandelbaum wants to reject the overt meaning of the text in front of him, preferring to project his own bourgeois fantasies of rebellion and subversion onto Virgil – very much as W.F. Jackson Knight projected his fantasies about spiritualism and universal truth onto the poor Roman in his introduction to his translation.

So much literary criticism from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century consists of this kind of whipping-up meringues made of knowing references and stylish allusions, like a conjuror pulling a string of multi-coloured flags out of his mouth, designed to impress us with the author’s wide reading and fine feelings, but leaving behind no tangible insights or ideas.

Next, Mandelbaum shows off by telling us how he loves a passage by Mark Van Doren, which uses a ‘brilliant suggestion’ by Jacob Klein to use a passage from Plato’s text The Statesman to shed light on the episode in Aeneid book 6 where Anchises is explaining to Aeneas how the souls of the dead are made to forget their past lives before being reincarnated in new bodies back on earth.

It feels like a competition to see how many names he can drop in a single passage.

Van Doren claims this passage is evidence that Virgil believed in the reassuring and ‘lulling myth of cycles’, and the hope that peace would come about by magic. Mandelbaum cites all this in order to disagree with it. He points out that far from finding the creation of new generations ‘lulling’, Virgil had demonstrated in the Georgics the sheer amount of hard physical labour which goes into producing the basics of civilisation.

With this much, I can agree, although Mandelbaum then goes on to equate the hard physical manual labour of maintaining the land depicted in the Georgics with the 11 years of dedicated mental labour involved in writing the Aeneid.

Contrary to all this talk of lulling cycles, Mandelbaum asserts that Virgil believed in power, dominion and the rule of law. As the Sibyl predicts to Aeneas:

yours will be the rulership of nations;
remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer
to spare defeated peoples, spare the proud
(6. 1,134 to 1,137)

But Virgil was aware of the price to be paid in the triumph of positive law over natural law. King Evander explains to Aeneas how his people originally lived at peace and plenty under the rule of exiled Saturn when humans needed no laws or rules. But then an Age of Iron came, violence increased, and laws became vital. All this is an accurate summary of this part of the Aeneid.

But then Mandelbaum is back to Ungaretti, telling us that he was, apparently, ‘a true Petrarchan’. I can’t see any relevance whatsoever of this random observation in a supposed introduction to Virgil. It just feels like another example of Mandelbaum’s compulsive name-dropping and/or personal reminiscence. Develop the idea, man! What are you trying to say?

But the thought isn’t developed or even explained properly. Instead, Mandelbaum switches to tell us that his other route into Virgil was via a long-lasting engagement with Dante, whose Divine Comedy he has also translated. Having lived with the Inferno, in particular, for years, he knew that Dante learned not from the style of Virgil but the styles of Virgil.

Mandelbaum quotes a passage from the English critic Donald Davie who distinguishes poets into two classes (how many critics, over how many centuries, have taken this simple-minded approach of dividing the thing under consideration into just Two Types?)

Davie says the first type of poet revels in words, that Shakespeare would have ended up using every word in the language if he’d enough time. The second type of poet is one who carefully employs a narrower selection of words, consciously excluding ones which don’t fit, in order to create a style, a verbal world.

On this reading Dante is a Shakespearian, with a very wide lexis while Virgil is the second type, with a much more limited vocabulary.

Now Mandelbaum explains what Dante learned from Virgil: he quotes the ancient grammarian Macrobius who says Virgil’s style was ‘now brief, now full, now dry, now rich, now easy, now impetuous’ to suggest that what Dante learned from Virgil was variety of tone.

Also he learned a free approach to the line, the free use of enjambment and runover.

And lastly, the free mixing up of time, the ‘rapid shifts of tenses’ which are, indeed, very noticeable in the Aeneid as Virgil mixes up the past and present, sometimes in the same sentence.

Only as he approaches the end of this brief but packed introduction does Mandelbaum explain his aims as a translator. He has tried to ‘impress’ on his translation ‘the grave tread’ but also ‘the speed and angularity’ of Virgil, ‘the asymmetrical thrust of a mind on the move’. This is fair enough, an interestingly impressionistic description of something which maybe can’t be fully put into words.

But then Mandelbaum goes into full late 60s mystical mode:

The other part of the self brings me to the last way, the unmediated one. The way is the path that opens when the guides, for whom one has been grateful, fall away or say: ‘I crown and mitre you over yourself.’

Mandelbaum doesn’t tell us, because his technique is one of flashy meringue-making, that this last phrase is in fact a quote from Dante’s Paradiso canto 27. I suspected as much though I had to Google it to confirm my hunch.

Veering off in another direction, Mandelbaum then overshares with us the personal fact that he left Italy after many years and embarked on his translation of Virgil ‘at a time of much personal discontent’. He had long thought poetry shouldn’t be used for consolation (why?) but now his experience of ‘personal discontent’ changed his mind.

And now, abruptly and dramatically, he casts a vivid slash across his entire preface when he suddenly starts talking about the Vietnam War!

The Vietnam War has, he claims, as of 1970, made it impossible to talk about American ‘society’ any more – he insists we have to use the harsher word, ‘state’. In Vietnam, the American ‘state’ ‘has wrought the unthinkable, the abominable’.

Wow. With one flash you get the full colour of Mandelbaum’s mindset. In this book, in this translation, in this introduction, it is 1970, America is just starting to withdraw its forces from Vietnam after a shameful military debacle, and Allen Mandelbaum is applying the atmosphere of these times to his thinking about power and dominion as described by a poet from 2,000 years ago.

Unfortunately, instead of drawing any kind of analogy between America’s intervention in Vietnam and Aeneas’s intervention in Italy – which would be unexpected but potentially very illuminating – Mandelbaum’s mind once again veers off into impressionistic mush and hero worship. It is frustrating that he thus raises but fails to address the key political aspect of the Aeneid, which is Virgil’s attitude towards Augustus, his violent conquests and domestic tyranny.

I take the point that the expression of these political themes in the poem is complex and multi-levelled but Mandelbaum’s entire analysis of this huge subject amounts to the following:

Virgil is not free of the taint of the proconsular; but he speaks from time to time of peace achieved, and no man ever felt more deeply the part of the defeated and the lost.

Two points. 1. See how he mentioned Virgil’s complicity in Augustus’s regime in just ten words, ten words expressed in the pompous and evasive phraseology of a nineteenth century politician (‘not free of the taint…’). Mandelbaum avoids the issue; he tries to gloss over it by saying that although Virgil might have been complicit with the crimes of the regime, it’s alright because he was so sensitive to the suffering of ‘the defeated and the lost’ and so that redeems him. But does it?

Second point is the rather offensive hyperbole of claiming that ‘no man ever felt more deeply the part of the defeated and the lost’. Really? No man? Ever? Primo Levi describing the damned in Auschwitz? Solzhenitsyn describing the defeated millions in the gulags? Even if those authors are not directly comparable with Virgil, Mandelbaum’s claim is still wildly hyperbolic, symptomatic of the way hero worship replaces analysis.

At regular moments throughout the poem the text may express what might be Virgil’s feelings about the pity of war, the pity of loss and death and grief. BUT. At the centre of the poem is the brute fact of Aeneas as a huge man-killing machine, raging like Mars across the battlefield, slaughtering hecatombs of men to achieve his God-given destiny. And his last action, the memorable last image of the poem which is left squelching in the mind’s eye – is of Aeneas thrusting his sword right up to the hilt into the chest of a man begging for mercy.

Both Jackson Knight and Mandelbaum have spent years with the Aeneid but, in their respective introductions, repress or ignore the off-the-scale levels of toxic, masculine hyper-violence which runs through it in rivers of blood, preferring to write willowy tripe about universal values and deep feelings.

Instead of analysis, Mandelbaum has namedropping combined with hero worship:

And if the relative weights of the Epicurean, the Stoic, the Pythagorean in him are often hard to assess, his humanity is constant.

Is it, though, Allen? I didn’t find it so. I find the Aeneid very uneven, manufactured from hundreds of strands and themes and tones which often sit very uncomfortably together, and all of it drenched in psychopathic anger and rivers of gore. You can pick out the moment of sad sympathy with suffering humanity, stitch them together and claim this is the ‘real’ Virgil. But what about the far greater number of passages of brutal animal sacrifice? Or passages describing insensate fury? Or the many many passages describing slaughter and massacre? Or the frequent passages expressing slavish sycophancy to the great Augustus. All of these and numerous other topics and tones need to be incorporated into an proper assessment of the ‘real’ Virgil.

Instead of addressing all this, Mandelbaum thanks Virgil for not being ‘shrill’, and then brings in yet another unnecessarily personal angle:

and when, with the goad of public despair, my own poetic voice has had to struggle often with shrillness, the work on this translation has been most welcome.

So, if I read this correctly, we are to be grateful to Virgil for helping Allen Mandelbaum to overcome the tone of shrill invective which his protests against the Vietnam War and the evil American state often led him into. No doubt this is useful if you are a big Allen Mandelbaum fan, but if you’re mainly interested in understanding Virgil, maybe not so much.

Finally, Mandelbaum returns to the notion raised in the comparison with Dante, of Virgil’s limits. In Mandelbaum’s view Virgil does not swarm with the really full variety of a Homer or Dante or Shakespeare. He is not as exhaustive as they are. His is a world, not the world. He is more selective and less objective than the other three greats. At which point, as he reaches the conclusion of his preface, Mandelbaum becomes quite hard to understand:

Virgil is ‘sustained’ and is not ‘of the young’ (though for them, and for the aged, too, of Plato’s Laws); and none of his selection and imagination seems to involve what I think of as premature stripping, where the other world of poetry takes over before this world is known: Virgil selects after his knowing this world. For this he is a name-giver whose letters and syllables seem to imitate not what Lukács called ‘the cool and limited existence of shadows’ but ‘the real nature of each thing’.

After repeated reading I think the second half of this proposition indicates that Virgil is a poet who described the real world, selecting descriptions of the world as experienced and not reaching out to describe the world of shadows beyond this one, which Mandelbaum appears to think the superior approach. But if this is what Mandelbaum means, why doesn’t he say so? Surely a teacher is paid to teach.

Mandelbaum’s short introduction flashes insights like a striptease artist, momentary promises of insights which he never delivers on. One or two of his ideas hove into view, make sense, but then are smothered by his autobiographical reminiscences or detour into namedropping allusions. It’s maybe worth reading for these moments but, on the whole, Mandelbaum’s introduction is not very helpful as any kind of guide to reading the huge, magnificent and appalling epic poem the reader is about to embark on.


Roman reviews

The Aeneid by Virgil – books 1 to 3

I am Aeneas, known for my devotion. (Aeneid book 1, line 378)

I own three translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin Classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1971 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin Classics prose translation by David West

I read most of the Aeneid in the West prose translation. It seemed easy and modern. I dipped into the Mandelbaum but was put off by his tone, too hectically American, maybe because I read it at the height of the heatwave when everything felt a bit hysterical. But I did use Mandelbaum’s comprehensive Glossary of Names and Places. The West edition doesn’t have a glossary or any notes at all. The idea is for you to rely entirely on the information Virgil gives in the poem itself which, it turns out, is all you need, most of the time.

Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to as Virgil (70 to 19 BC) was the great Roman poet who straddled the epochal transition from the Roman Republic to the early Roman Empire. There were other very important figures, such as Catullus from the generation before (b.84), Virgil’s younger contemporary, Horace (b.63 BC), and, a generation younger, the great poet of mythology, Ovid (b.43). But Virgil towers above them all.

Virgil was born near the northern city of Mantua to parents who owned farmland. He was sent to Rome to complete his education where he probably met the young Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD) and his friends, namely his future patron and Augustus’s ‘minister of culture’, Maecenas (68 to 8 BC).

Always a sickly, sensitive young man, Virgil left Rome and settled near Naples where he spent the rest of his life quietly studying and writing poetry.

Virgil left no juvenilia or collections of random poems. He wrote just three works, each of them masterpieces:

  • the ten very short and highly stylised poems of idealised country life featuring lovelorn shepherds, the Eclogues
  • the four longer, tougher-minded, sometimes lyrical, sometimes practical, sometimes sweepingly destructive Georgics, are, on paper, poems of advice to farmers and livestock owners, but in reality a lot more varied and complex than that
  • the long epic poem the Aeneid, which has a claim to being the most important and most influential poem ever written in Europe

Epic poem

An epic poem is a long poem with a historical or legendary setting, which usually tells the adventures of one or more heroes on an epic journey or pitched into a mighty struggle, all with the input of gods and goddesses. Many societies and cultures have produced epic poems.

Sometimes an epic poem has as part of its purpose to explain the origin of cities or races or gods and religions. (The Greeks had a word for such an origin story, an aition.) Always epics are characterised by long narratives with multiple incidents or episodes strung along the central plot.

In the 1940s C.S. Lewis proposed an elemental distinction between primary and secondary epic. Primary epic is produced in illiterate cultures, often by travelling poets or troubadors, often using familiar narratives, well-known characters and using time-honoured, stock descriptions. The process by which they’re written down is obscure but by the time they are recorded they already display very sophisticated techniques of oral storytelling. In our European tradition, the two Greek epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey show these characteristics. They are attributed to a figure called ‘Homer’ but it’s not certain that anyone named Homer ever existed.

By complete contrast, secondary epic is the production of a literate culture. It is the product of known authors, was written at a known time and place. It self-consciously invokes many of the tropes and techniques of primary epic, such as well-known legends and legendary characters, famous episodes or adventures, extended similes, stock descriptive phrases, episodic structure and so on. Virgil’s Aeneid has a good claim to be the greatest secondary epic.

A poem of multiple levels

The Aeneid is a carefully wrought collation of numerous themes on multiple levels.

Adventure story

In terms of storyline or plot it tells the story of Aeneas, a prince of Troy – a story familiar to all educated Romans of Virgil’s day – who escapes the destruction of the city at the climax of the ten-year-long siege by the Greeks, and describes the wanderings of him and 20 shiploads of comrades as they sail west across the Mediterranean looking for a new home.

Foundation story

Why bother with this story? Because the Romans believed that their city ultimately owed its founding to prince Aeneas. The traditional view (which is recapped in book 1) goes that Aeneas underwent numerous florid adventures as he sailed west from Troy before finally making landfall in western Italy. After fighting off the local tribes he establishes a settlement at a place he calls Lavinium.

His son, Ascanius, also known as Iulus, will move their settlement to a place named Alba Longa, where his descendants will live for 300 years. Then Ilia, the royal priestess of Vesta, will be seduced and impregnated by the god Mars and give birth to twins, Romulus and Remus. Romulus will grow up to build a new settlement, named Rome after him, which will go on to rule the world.

Patriotic story

So on one level the poem is an ultra-patriotic dramatisation of the man who founds the settlement which was to form the basis of Rome. Aeneas is shown as an epitome of the Roman virtues, a man who puts duty to family and country before self.

Pleasing Augustus

Throughout the narrative Virgil goes out of his way to suck up to the current ruler of Rome, the princeps Gaius Octavianus who was awarded the title Augustus while he was composing the work. Gaius Octavianus had been adopted by Julius Caesar in his will and so took his name, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar.

Virgil is at pains to demonstrate the extreme antiquity of the family of ‘Julii’ of which Octavianus had become a member, and so goes out of his way to tell us, repeatedly, that Aeneas’s son, Ascanius, had this second name Iulus (this name had been Ilus while Troy, which was also called Ilium, had stood). Ilus – Iulus – Iulius. The aim was to create a direct link from Aeneas via Ilus-Iulius to the house of Julius Caesar, and so to the current emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar aka Augustus.

Those are the public and political aims of the poem. Two additional factors make it a masterpiece.

Adapting Homer

One is the tremendous skill with which Virgil closely models himself on the two outstanding epics of his tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, adopting the tone of voice, the capacious bird’s-eye-view of the narrator, the confident intertwining of the human level with the character of the immortal gods who play a crucial role in the plot, either supporting or scheming against Aeneas. It is a very sophisticated invocation and twining together of the epic tradition up to his time.

Virgil’s sensibility

But more important is Virgil’s sensitivity. Homer’s heroes are killing machines. They may be sad and burst into tears, but only when there is good justification (weeping over the dead) and most of the time they are just angry and keying themselves up for yet another fight.

By contrast, the Aeneid is soulful. The narrator and his hero are sensitive to ‘the tears of things’, to the tragic inevitability of the universe. Aeneas does his duty, but with a heavy heart at the suffering he has seen and the new suffering he causes. It is an epic poem with lyrical feeling.

Book 1 Storm and banquet

In the best tradition, the poem starts in media res meaning ‘in the middle of things’. We find our hero aboard ship, having set sail from Sicily towards the cost of Italy but caught up in a violent storm. His fleet is dispersed and at least one ship sinks.

In fact the read of the poem is informed that this storm has been whipped up by Juno queen of the gods. She hates Aeneas and is his steady foe. She cannot forgive the Trojans for the snub when Paris awarded the apple of beauty to Venus. This long-standing grudge is why we see her visit the home of Aeolus, gods of the winds, and ask him to whip up a storm to shipwreck Aeneas, which he promptly does.

But we also see Venus, Aeneas’s mother, who was impregnated by Aeneas’s father Anchises, rushing to confront Jupiter, king of the gods, and tearfully ask how he can let his wife massacre her son and his colleagues. Jupiter calmly tells her to dry her eyes, he has no intention of letting Aeneas drown, and it is now that he reveals what the fates have in store for the Trojan prince (as I outlined above).

And as he speaks he gets his brother Neptune, king of the seas, to abate the storm, and gently blow the remainder of Aeneas’s fleet towards the coast of north Africa, referred to here as Libya. Here the Trojans gratefully anchor, come ashore, dry off, go hunting, shoot some deer, build fires, eat and drink wine and recover their strength.

And here Aeneas is visited by his mother in the guise of a local woman who assures him all will be well and tells him about the nearby town of Carthage, just now being built by exiles from Tyre. Venus-in-disguise tells the rather complicated backstory of this people. Tyre is a rich city on the coast of Phoenicia (what is now Israel) ruled by king Pygmalion. He has a sister, princess Dido. Dido marries a rich man Sychaeus. But Pygmalion is jealous of Sychaeus’s wealth and murders him while he worships at an altar. For a while no-one knows who committed the crime and Pygmalion hypocritically comforts his sister.

But then the ghost of Sychaeus appears to Dido, reveals the truth, warns her to flee her brother, and shows her the burial place of a huge secret treasure. She gathers her friends and supporters and the many people opposed to the ‘tyrant’ Pygmalion, they dig up the treasure, load it onto some ships and sail away forever.

Now she and her people have arrived at the other end of the Mediterranean, made land, settled and Aeneas and his crew have arrived just as the Tyrians are laying out and building a new ‘city’, a city the narrative refers to as Carthage.

You don’t need to be a literary critic to spot that both Aeneas and Dido are in similar plight, both refugees from distant lands in the eastern Mediterranean, forced by tragic events to flee their home cities, and now trying to build new lives, and new cities, in the west.

All this is explained to him by Aeneas’s mother, Venus who, having intervened to save Aeneas from the storm, now appears to him in the guise of a local maiden. She has wrapped Aeneas in a magic cloud so he and his companion can walk up to the new city walls and watch the Tyrians building Carthage.

Then she disappears the cloud and Aeneas is welcomed by the Tyrians. Their queen, Dido, welcomes Aeneas and his men to a lavish feast. Venus waylays Aeneas’s son as he comes from the beach where they’ve all landed towards the city, makes him fall asleep in a copse of trees. And gets her other son, the god Eros, to take on Ascanius’s form, and be introduced to Queen Dido, and sit on her lap during the feast (!) and deliberately make her fall in love with Aeneas. Because we all know how this love affair will end Virgil describes her as poor Dido and ‘doomed’ Dido.

Homer is always full of a kind of metallic energy. Even when his heroes weep, they do so in a virile, manly way. But in his treatment of Dido Virgil displays a completely different sensibility, sympathetic and sad.

Back at the feast, Dido asks Aeneas to tell them about his adventures. He has already told them he has been wandering for seven years since the fall of Troy. Reluctantly, Aeneas agrees.

Book 2 The fall of Troy

Aeneas’s story. He cuts straight to the final days of the 10-year-long siege as the Greeks cut down mighty trees to make the enormous wooden horse. Then strike camp and sail away leaving it alone on the plain in front of Troy. The Trojans come out to admire it. The priest Laocoön warns them all that it is a Greek scam but at that point a Trojan patrol returns with a Greek captive. He tells them he’s called Sinon and, after incurring the enmity of the mighty Odysseus (here called Ulixes) he was chosen to be the human sacrifice the Greek fleet needed to set sail (just as it had required the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigeneia in order to set sail from Greece, 10 long years ago).

Sinon tells them he managed to escape the night before he was due to be killed and has hidden. Now they can kill him or spare him as they please. But he is a plant left by the Greeks to give a false explanation of the horse. He says it is a peace offering to the gods to let the fleet sail. More precisely, it is atonement for the incident when Ulixes and Diomede stole the Palladium from the temple of Pallas Athene in the citadel of Troy. Since then she has persecuted them and their chief priest, Calchas, ordered them a) to return to Greece to worship the gods, atone for their sins, rearm and return to renew the siege, and b) to build this enormous horse as a peace offering to Athena. Sinon warns that if the Trojans damage it at all it will bring down the wrath of Athena on them. If, on the other hand, they take it into the city and venerate it, then Athena will bless them and, when the Greeks return, allies from all across Asia will rally to their cause and they will defeat the Greeks in a final battle.

The Trojans are still hesitating when an amazing thing happens. The priest of Neptune, Laocoön, is sacrificing to an altar by the shore when two might sea snakes emerge from the waves and envelop his two young sons. Laocoön goes to their rescue and tries to fight them off but the snakes strangle all three to death and then slither into the city and up to the citadel of the goddess Venus.

Well, that decides it for the Trojans who set about dismantling part of their walls (the horse is too big to go through the city gates) in a kind of mad frenzy. Aeneas tells the story with much regret and sorrow at their foolhardiness, but they were whipped on by the scheming gods. The priestess Cassandra warns against letting the horse in but, of course, she was doomed never to be believed.

That night the Trojans hold a mighty feast to celebrate the end of the war then pass out on their beds. In the middle of the night Aeneas is woken by the ghost of Hector, looking grim and broken and bloody as he was after Achilles dragged his corpse round the walls of Troy, tied by the ankles to his chariot.

Hector’s ghost warns Aeneas to flee and sure enough, now he is awake, he hears screams and smells smoke. While they were asleep, Sinon snuck out to the horse, undid the pine bolts which secured its secret trap door, the Greeks inside the horse lowered themselves by a rope to the ground and set about massacring the guards set on the horse, while a contingent went and opened the main gates to the Greeks who had a) silently sailed back from where the fleet had hidden behind the offshore island of Tenedos and b) swarmed across the plain, till they were massed outside the gates.

Now the Greek army is pouring into the city determined to kill every man, woman and child. Hector’s ghost tells Aeneas all his lost, to gather his family and companions and flee, and predicts that, after long wanderings, he will found a new city.

But if you think about it, Virgil can’t depict the legendary founder of Rome as a coward who turns and bolts. Instead Aeneas leaps from his bed, grabs his armour, runs into the street, and rallies other warriors he finds emerging from their homes. They form a troop and roam through the streets taking on Greeks. They massacre one group of Greeks and put on their armour. This allows them to mingle with other Greeks before turning on them and many, the narrative assures us, they sent down to Orcus (hell), many fled back across the plain, and some even scuttled back up inside the horse.

Then a huge fight develops around the figure of the priestess Cassandra who is being dragged bound and gagged by Greeks from her temple. Aeneas and his band rally to save her but a hornet’s nest of Greeks counter attack, and they are even struck down by some Trojan brothers because they are wearing Greek armour.

He doesn’t mention Cassandra again but shifts the focus to the battle round the palace of Priam. Trojans are reduced to tearing down their walls and roofs to throw down on the Greeks climbing siege ladders. Aeneas enters the palace by a secret back passage and makes his way to the top of the tallest tower where he joins Trojans loosening the masonry to send huge blocks of stone falling on the Greek attackers.

Aeneas knows his audience will want to know how King Priam died. He gives a vivid, heart-breaking account of the old man buckling on his armour and heading for the fight, how his wife Hecuba tries to persuade him to desist, how Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, chases and kills Polites, one of Priam’s sons, right in front of him. How Priam defies him, harmlessly throws his spear, reproaches Pyrrhus for being a shame to his noble father. But Pyrrhus doesn’t care, grabs Priam by his long hair, drags him over to the altar and thrusts his sword up to the hilt in Priam’s side. Then his head is hacked from his body which is left to rot on the shore, unknown and unmourned.

Aeneas looks around and realises all his companions are dead i.e. he has done all that honour demanded. Now his thoughts turn to his aged father Anchises, his wife, Creusa, and son, Ascanius.

He spots Helen hiding in a temple, cause of all this death and destruction. Shall she survive and be taken back to Sparta to live in luxury, waited on by Trojan slaves? In a burst of fury Aeneas rushes forward to kill her but suddenly his mother, the goddess Venus appears. She tells him the war is not really Helen or even Paris’s fault. It is the gods. And she strips away the fog which clouds his mortal vision and shows him Neptune shaking the city’s foundations, Juno opening the gates and egging on the Greeks, Pallas Athena taking command of the citadel, and Jupiter himself leading the gods and supporting the Greeks. No mortal can stop this. As the Sibyl says, much later, in book 6:

You must cease to hope that the fates of the gods can be altered by prayer. (6.376)

Venus now orders Aeneas to collect his family and flee. But Anchises refuses to leave the city he has lived in all his life, determined to die in his house. Aeneas remonstrates, the old man refuses, so Aeneas says he’ll buckle back on his armour and die defending him rather than leave him. But Creusa throws herself in front of him and tells him his first duty is to his family.

At this tense moment there are signs from heaven. A heatless flame settles on Ascanius’s head and there was a peal of thunder and a star fell from the sky, a meteorite crashing down into Mount Ida.

This persuades Anchises to leave, so Aeneas puts a lion skin on his shoulders, tells the household slaves to meet them at a hill outside the city, puts his father on his shoulder, takes little Ascanius by the hand and Creusa follows behind as they set off through the dark side streets of the burning city.

It was then that his father heard marching soldiers’ feet and told Aeneas to run and Aeneas was overcome by irrational fear and bolted and somehow his wife Creusa got left behind, He never saw her again.

I stormed and raged and blamed every man and god that ever was. (2.745)

He puts his armour back on and runs back to the city, through the same gate they exited, trying to retrace his steps, going first to his house then to the palace of Priam, finding death, devastation and flames everywhere.

But then Creusa appears in a vision to him, calmly telling him that this is the wish of the gods and destiny. He is to sail far away and come to rest in Hesperia by the river Thybris in a land of warriors and take another bride. It is for the best. Their gods will protect her. She promises she will never be led away a slave for some Greek wife, although what her exact fate is is left unstated. He goes to put his arms around her but she fades like a phantom.

Anyway, this, like the account of Aeneas’s brave fighting, are obviously both designed to show him to best advantage, full of patriotic, familial and husbandly loyalty, but at every step overpowered by fate and destiny and the will of the gods. Now, sadly. Aeneas returns to the mound where his father and son are waiting and is amazed at the sheer number of other survivors who have gathered there. From now on he is to be their leader.

[Maybe worth pointing out the number of ghostly and visionary appearances: Dido’s husband’s ghost appears to her; Hector’s ghost appears to Aeneas; Creusa’s spirit appears to him. Although ostensibly about fighting there is a good deal of this otherworldly, visionary, shimmering quality about much of the story.]

Book 3 The wanderings

Aeneas is still talking, recounting his adventures to Dido and her court. He describes how the survivors built a settlement not far from ruined Troy, in the lee of the Ida mountains and built ships. Then set sail. This is described very briefly, in successive sentences. The lack of detail is very characteristic of Virgil. Unlike the hard-edged detailing of Homer, Virgil’s habit of skipping over details (for example, not telling us the outcome of the battle over Cassandra) creates a kind of shimmering, dreamy quality to the poem.

They sail to Thrace and begin to lay out foundations for a city but when Aeneas pulls up trees to decorate the altar he’s going to sacrifice on, he is horrified when they and spurt blood. Then terrified when a voice speaks and declares himself to be the spirit of Polydorus, sent by Priam to Thrace with a treasure, to be raised there, far from war-torn Troy. Now he tells Aeneas he was murdered by the king of Thrace who simply stole the gold.

Aeneas tells Anchises who responds that this is no place to stay. So they rebury the body of Polydorus with full rites, and set sail, letting the gods decide their final destination. They sail onto the island of Delos, dock in the harbour of Ortygia, and are greeted by King Anius.

Aeneas prays at the temple of Apollo, asking what he should do. A booming voice replies he must seek out the land of his ‘ancient mother’. Father Anchises interprets this to mean Crete, where the founder of Troy, Teucer, first came from.

So they sail and row from Delos via Naxos, Donusa, Olearos, Paros, through the Cyclades to Crete, where they land and begin to build a settlement Aeneas calls Pergamea. Things are just beginning to thrive when the settlement is struck down by a great plague and the crops wither in the fields.

One night the household gods are bathed in sunlight and speak to him, telling him again the prophecy that he will sail the seas, come to a peaceful land, and found a race who rule the world. The Greeks call the land Hesperia but it has been settled by the Oenetrians who have called it Italy after their god, Italus.

When he tells Father Anchises the latter remembers that Troy had two founders. One was Teucer from Crete but the other was Dardanus from Hesperia. They misinterpreted the message from Apollo and mistakenly came to Crete. So now they pack ship and set sail for Hesperia/Italy.

For three days and nights a black storm descends, blotting out the sky. Then it lifts and they sail into the harbour of the Strophades. They see fat cattle and goats and storm ashore, kill some and are feasting when they are attacked by the foul harpies, birds with the faces of girls, bellies oozing filth, talons like birds, which tear the food from their hands.

The harpies’ leader, Celaeno, perches on a pinnacle of rock and announces a prophecy which Jupiter gave Apollo, and Apollo gave her, and she is now giving the Trojans. They will settle a new land but not until they have passed through a famine which makes them gnaw their tables. (The prophesy is fulfilled at 7.116 to 130.)

So the Trojans abandon the feast and the land, take ship and scud over the waves to the island of Leucas. Here they performed rites of purification and then held games. They stayed here till mid-winter, when Aeneas pinned a shield taken from a Greek on the temple doors and they set sail again.

They dock at Chaonia and walk up to the city of Buthrotum. Here they are astounded to come across Andromache, wife of the great hero Hector, making ritual sacrifices for her dead husband. She tells them that she survived the sack of Troy and was taken as wife by Pyrrhus to whom she bore a child. But Pyrrhus dumped her on fellow slave Helenus (one of the sons of Priam) in order to marry Hermione. But Orestes loved Hermione and so murdered Pyrrhus. At his death some of Pyrrhus’s land descended to Helenus. He built a settlement there, a new Pergamum, and here Andromache lives.

At which point Helenus arrives and, amid much weeping by everyone, escorts them to his city which is a miniature copy of Troy in all aspects. They stay for some time. Eventually Aeneas asks the priest Helenus to answer his questions: should he set sail, will he come to the promised land?

So Helenus sacrifices some bullocks and then gives Aeneas the latest in the line of prophecies, first of all warning it won’t be a short voyage, but a long one fraught with adventures. He will recognise the place to build his city because he will find a sow suckling 30 piglets. He must make it a priority to worship Juno and try to win her over. He must make time to visit the prophetess at Cumae. He must avoid sailing through the straits of Messina, which are terrorised by Scylla and Charybdis.

Helenus gives them gifts of gold and ivory and silver, and blesses them as they set sail. They sight Italy and sail into harbour. They sail on past Tarentum in the instep of Italy. They sail past the gulf of Scylla and Charybdis and make shore in the land of the Cyclopes, a peaceful harbour but in the shadow of the fearsome Mount Etna who belching black smoke darkens the sky.

Next morning they are surprised to see a wretched filthy man in rags come running towards them. He announces he is Achaemenides, one of Ulixe’s crew. He describes how they were captured by the Cyclops which ate some of their comrades, drank and fell asleep and how, in the night, they conspired to blind him. But they sailed and left him behind. He has just about survived for three months, since then. But he warns them to flee.

At that moment they see blinded Polyphemus appear with his flocks on the side of the mountain and run down to their ships and set sail, rowing for all they’re worth. Polyphemus hears them and lets out a road which shakes the earth and brings all the other cyclops to the shore to rage at them, but they are clear of harm.

They sail down the east coast of Sicily past Syracuse. Then along the south coast, ticking off all the settlements and sights till they come to Lilybaeum. They put in at Drepanum but here Aeneas ‘lost’ his father Anchises. There is, as so often with Virgil, no detail, no explanation, just a focus on Aeneas’s loss and sadness.

When they set sail from there to head north and east to the Italian coast the great storm described at the start of book 1 was stirred up and so they were blown to the African shore which the Tyrians are settling. And with that, Aeneas’s recital of his story comes to an end.

Epicurean rest

It is noticeable that Virgil/West phrase the very end of Aeneas’s recital with ‘Here he made an end and was at peace.’ When I read Virgil’s Georgics I was struck by how much he told us he was struggling to complete the poem. He had to ask his patron, Maecenas, for help and support, he kept telling himself ‘onwards and upwards!’, he wrote with relief about reaching the end of each of the four books. Then the very opening of book 4 describes how Dido fell in love and ‘love gave her body no rest or peace‘.

It was only when I read the Georgics that I became aware for the first time of Virgil’s adherence to the teachings of Epicurus. In the blurb to the Penguin edition, I learn that Virgil lived most of his adult life in an Epicurean colony near Naples.

Epicurus’s teachings are above all designed to cultivate freedom from stress and anxiety in his followers. Peace of mind and spirit. So these references in the Aeneid to peace of spirit, or lack of it, acquired, for me, two deeper resonances. On one level, Virgil uses the word ‘peace’ to mean an end to the gruelling torment of writing this long, demanding poem, which comes over as being a huge ordeal for him. But the word also means far more than it does to you or me – for the Epicurean Virgil, ‘peace’ represents the nirvana, the blessed state sought for by his philosophy. When he says his characters achieve ‘peace’ or, conversely, are deprived of ‘peace’, it isn’t in the casual way that you or I might use the word, but has this much deeper resonance, referring to a philosophically idealised state of complete detachment from all sources of strife or worry.

Looked at this way, the entire poem represents a kind of vast detour from man’s ideal condition of rest or stasis, into a world of strife and anxiety. It helps to explain Virgil’s sad and doleful tone, lamenting the endless destiny of man to be troubled – by duties, responsibilities, the need to work, to eat, to love, to be a social animal – all of it endlessly distracting from his best, optimum state of complete Buddhist detachment. Hence Virgil’s insistent tone of lamentation over humanity in general, continually remarking on the sadness of their poor mortal existence.

It was the time when sleep, the most grateful gift of the gods, was first beginning to creep over suffering mortals… (2.270)

I guess there’s a third interpretation which is literally to do with rest after physical labour. This harks back to the many images in the Georgics of the sheer amount of physical labour involved in human existence. How many times in that long book did weary shepherds, farmers, goatherds, horticulturalists and livestock herders and outdoor workers greet the end of the day, the westering of the sun, as a welcome sign of the end of their day’s labours. Well, that tone is repeated again and again in the Aeneid. Night and, with it, sleep, represent welcome oblivion for animals and humans exhausted by their labours.

It was night and weary living things were peacefully taking their rest upon the earth. (4.522)

It was night and over the whole earth the weary animals, all manner of birds and all manner of flocks, were already deep in sleep.. (8.28)

Over the whole world the creatures of the earth were relaxed in sleep, all resting from their cares, and their hearts had forgotten their labours… (9.226)

Contrasting with the mellifluous descriptions of restful sleep are the hard descriptions of the scenes of fighting and the days of war (especially in the harsh, second half of the Aeneid, which I’ll be discussing in a later blog post).

Bitter grief was everywhere. Everywhere there was fear and death in many forms. (2.369)

Aurora meanwhile had lifted up her life-giving light for miserable mortals, bringing back their toil and sufferings. (11.184)

As an English poet wrote, 1,600 years later:

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,
Ease after war, death after life does greatly please.


Roman reviews

The Georgics by Virgil (39 to 29 BC)

Time’s flying by, time we’ll never know again,
while we in our delighted state savour our subject bit by bit.
(Eclogue 3, lines 284 to 285)

Publius Vergilius Maro (70 to 19 BC), generally referred to in English simply as Virgil (or Vergil), was the greatest Roman poet. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic poem, the Aeneid.

Poetic background to the Georgics

In about 39 BC Virgil became part of the circle of poets associated with Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (70 to 8 BC), close friend and political advisor to Gaius Octavius, who was to become the first Roman Emperor under the name Augustus. According to the introduction to the Peter Fallon OUP translation of the Georgics, they took Virgil seven years to write, 35 to 28 BC (Fallon p.xxxix).

There are four Georgics. If Virgil took the Greek poet Theocritus as his model for the Eclogues, in the Georgics he bases himself on the much older, ‘archaic’ Greek poet Hesiod, author of Works and Days, a miscellany of moral and religious advice mixed in with practical instruction on agriculture.

Virgil’s four long poems pretend to be giving practical advice to the traditional figure of the Roman smallholder. The word ‘georgic’ comes from the Greek word γεωργικά (geōrgika) which means ‘agricultural (things)’. But in fact the advice, although extensive, manages somehow to be very shallow and is certainly not very practical. An entire book is devoted to the care of bees but nothing about, say, goats or chickens.

Moreover, the nominal addressee, the smallholder, was a vanishing figure in Virgil’s day. Already by 73 BC Spartacus’s gladiators, marching across Italy, were amazed to discover the quaint patchwork of family farms they were expecting to find had been swept away and replaced with vast estates or latifundia worked not by cosy extended families but by armies of badly treated slaves (many of whom they recruited to their cause). The word ‘slave’ occurs nowhere in the Georgics just as the harsh economic and social realities of the Roman countryside are ignored. So what was Virgil’s real motive for writing these long and often very detailed texts?

Political background

In his introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the Georgics translated by Cecil Day Lewis, the classicist R.O.A.M. Lyne pins everything on their historic context. The period 39 to 29 saw ongoing political instability with a barely maintained alliance between Julius Caesar’s adoptive son, Gaius Octavianus (who had renamed himself Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus in honour of his assassinated great-uncle, and is generally referred to by historians as as Octavian) and his colleague in the so-called Second Triumvirate, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony).

In 36 Antony embarked on his ill-fated campaign to invade the Parthian Empire in the East, while Octavian led a campaign to defeat Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus’s surviving son, Sextus Pompeius, who had established a military and naval base in Sicily.

Antony lost badly and retreated to Egypt, while Octavian astutely used the Sicilian War to force the retirement of the third triumvir, Lepidus, thus making himself ruler of the central and western Mediterranean. Throughout 33 and 32 BC he promoted fierce propaganda in the senate and people’s assemblies against Antony, accusing him of going native in Egypt, transgressing all Roman values, abandoning his legal Roman wife (Octavia) and debasing himself in a slavish passion to the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra.

In 32 BC Octavian manipulated the senate into depriving Antony of his executive powers and declaring war on Cleopatra. It was another genuine civil war because, despite decades of anti-Egyptian propaganda, and the record of his own scandalous misbehaviour and defeats in Parthia, a large number of the Roman ruling class still identified with Antony. On the declaration of war, both consuls, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Gaius Sosius, and a third of the senate abandoned Rome to meet Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.

Nonetheless, the decisive naval Battle of Actium in September 32 was a disaster for Antony. When he saw Cleopatra’s contingent leaving his side, he abandoned his own fleet to follow her. Octavian then led his army to Egypt and besieged the capital, Alexandria. After the Egyptian fleet sallied out only to defect to Octavian, both Antony and Cleopatra realised the game was up and committed suicide rather than be captured and dragged through the streets of Rome in a vulgar triumph.

So the Georgics were composed during yet another period of prolonged and bitter civil dispute and then open warfare between Romans. And so, Lyne suggests, their real purpose was not in the slightest to give ‘practical’ advice to that non-existent figure, the Latin smallholding farmer. Their intention was moral and religious.

In reaction to an era of chaos and destruction, Virgil wrote four works hymning the values of hard work, piety and peace.

Lyne’s overview

In his introduction to the Oxford University Press (OUP) edition, R.O.A.M. Lyne gives a précis of each of the four books and then proceeds to an overarching thesis. For him the key books are 1 and 4. Book 1 gives a tough, unsentimental description of farming as demanding unremitting effort and attention. The text is packed with instructions on what to expect and what to do at key moments throughout the year.

However, the final book is a lengthy description of bees and bee-keeping and, in Lyne’s opinion, this represents a significant shift in Virgil’s opinion. When restoring the Republic seemed an option, albeit remote, a society of rugged individuals seemed a desirable prospect. However, sometime during the decade 39 to 29 Virgil appears to have changed his view and come round to the opinion that only the suppression of individualism and the submission of individuals to the needs of the community can benefit or save society as a whole. In other words, the progress of the four books embodies Virgil’s move from Republican to Imperial thinking.

It’s a powerful interpretation but, as Lyne points out, there’s a lot of other stuff going on the Georgics as well. Lyne ends this very political interpretation by saying that it is only one interpretation and others are possible. And also that there are long stretches which are just beautiful poetry, in the same sense that an 18th or 19th century landscape painting may have had umpteen ulterior motives (not least to gratify the landowner who paid for it) but it can also just be…beautiful – just there to be enjoyed as a sensual evocation of country life.

Packed

I don’t have a problem with Lyne’s interpretation, I get it in a flash. The real problem is in fully taking on board, processing and assimilating what are very dense poems. The Georgics are far from easy to read because they are so cluttered. And (it has to be said) badly laid out. I found them confusing. It was only by dint of reading the first one three times, and introductions to it twice, that I began to get a handle on what is going on. When you read a summary saying it describes a calendar year in terms of the many jobs that a smallholding farmer needs to do, it sounds graspable and rational, but it is much more than that.

The passage of the year is difficult to grasp because Virgil doesn’t mark it off by clearly describing the passage of the seasons let alone the months. And when he does do it, he does it via astrology i.e. the coming into dominance of various star signs. For the ancients this counted as knowledge (and is still serving that function in, for example, the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, 1,400 years later) but for us it obscures the dating.

Also, Virgil rarely alights on one subject, announces it clearly and describes it properly. Instead, line after line describe individual sights or features of the season, rivers flooding, leaves falling, lists of crops that need to be sown, lists of weeds that need to be hoed up, and the behaviour of domestic and wild animals.

My view is the poem is designed to be a cornucopia, a horn of plenty. It is designed not to be a clear and rational handbook, but to overflow with images. It’s not so much a depiction of country life as a feast of agricultural lore and traditions and descriptions.

Two translations

I have the Georgics in two translations. I bought the old Day Lewis translation, albeit packed in a shiny new OUP paperback, because it was the only cheap way of getting the Eclogues. However, I found Day Lewis’s verse rhythms a little unwieldy, maybe because he is closely following or ghosting the strict hexameter of Virgil’s original, or maybe it’s his 1940s style, I don’t know. I struggled through his translation of the first Georgic.

But I had also bought the OUP paperback edition of a much more recent translation, by Peter Fallon, from 2004. Oh my God, it is a totally different reading experience. Fallon appears to translate it into something approaching free verse where the length and rhythm of each line appears to vary to suit the meaning and vocabulary of each individual line. It is enormously more appealing and attractive and readable than the Day Lewis.

Georgic 1 (514 lines)

Yes, unremitting labour
And harsh necessity’s hand will master anything.
(Day Lewis, lines 145 to 146)

‘pitiful man’ (Fallon, 238)

Opening prayer to various agricultural deities (Liber/Bacchus, Ceres, Neptune, Pan, Minerva, Triptolemos, Sylvanus) and then to Augustus (‘and I address you, too, O Caesar’), with 15 lines prophesying Augustus’s divinity, his place among the stars, a new sign of the zodiac etc.

At which point Virgil plunges straight into a description of ‘the sweet o’ the year’ which I take to be spring, when streams begin to melt and clods crumble and it’s time to put the bull before ‘the deep-pointed plough’ etc. A litany of agricultural products, including ones from far flung regions of the earth (Arabia), each from its specific place as ordained by nature.

Plough the soil twice (line 48). Rotate crops. Respect the laws Nature has imposed on the soil (60). Fertilise the soil with manure (80) or spread ashes. Set fire to stubble (he speculates why this seems to work). Break the soil with hoe and mattock (95). The countryman should pray for wet summers and mild winters (100).

Then something which none of the summaries I’d read had quite prepared me for: Virgil says Jupiter has made husbandry difficult in order to prevent idleness. Honey used to fall from the trees, the crops sowed themselves, there were never storms. Jupiter overturned all this and deliberately made life hard in order to spur men’s creativity. God overturned the Golden Age in order to make men creative, come up with tools and processes. God instantiated into the world, into the way of things, a fundamental need for work, piety and order:

Hard work prevailed, hard work and pressing poverty. (146)

Because now, since God’s intervention, nature is set towards decline and fall, entropy, things fall apart, unless maintained with unremitting toil:

world forces all things to the bad, to founder and to fall (200)

Like a man paddling a canoe against the current; if you stop for even a second, you are borne backwards and lose all your work.

Back to practicalities, Virgil describes the construction of the ideal plough (160 to 175). It hovers between instructions of a sort, for example, how to build a proper threshing floor (178) – and the history of agriculture i.e. who invented what under the inspiration of which god or goddess.

Work according to the sky / stars / the zodiac, with different tasks appropriate under Arcturus, the Charioteer, Draco (205), Taurus, the Dog, the Seven Sisters. At the equinox sow barley, linseed and poppies (212). But in springtime (see what I mean by the chronology jumping around a bit?) sow alfalfa and millet (215).

An extended passage on the structure of the globe, consisting of freezing zones at each pole, an uninhabitably hot zone in the middle, and two temperate zones inhabitable my ‘pitiful man’ in between. This morphs into a description of the underworld, dark and infernal, inside the earth.

So: the importance of always being aware of the seasons and the stars and the constellations (252). If it rains, there are lots of odd jobs to do indoors, which he proceeds to list (260). Some days are, traditionally, lucky and some very unlucky for different types of work, Beware the fifth!’ (276). ‘The seventeenth’s a lucky day’ (284).

This morphs into consideration of what tasks are appropriate for times of the day, with a sweet description of a countryman staying up all night by winter firelight to edge his tools, while his wife weaving and minding a boiling pot (296).

Winter is a time of rest but there are still chores: gathering up acorns, setting traps for herons (307).

In a confusing passage he says he’s going to describe the trials of autumn (following winter) but then of spring. Since this follows vivid evocations of winter, it shows how the poem is not a neat chronology moving through the seasons of the year at all; it’s a confusing mess.

The book comes to a first climax with the description of a great storm in lines 311 to 350. He describes the sudden devastation of raging storms and rainstorms, Jupiter, ‘squire of the sky’, straddling the skies and sending down deluges and laying human hearts low in panic. For which reason, observe the stars and zodiac and make your offerings to the appropriate gods (338) in particular Ceres, and a passage describing various rituals and observances.

But this is barely done before we’re off describing the meaning of the different phases of the moon. You tell a storm at sea is coming when cormorants fly inland, herons forsake the lake and there are shooting stars (366).

Quite a long passage listing countrymen’s signs to detect the approach of rain (374 to 392). This, like many of these passages, is really beautiful. I loved the crow cawing Rain, rain and the housewife working by lamplight noticing the sputtering of the wick.

Or the signs predicting sunshine and clear weather: stars unblurred, the moon brighter. 12 lines on how ravens croak and caw to celebrate the coming of fine weather (410 to 412).

More reasons for why you need to pay attention to the sun and moon. How to interpret different appearances of the moon (427 to 437). Same for different appearances of the sun, clear, blurred, emerging from clouds, with tinges of other colours, and so on: ‘Who’d dare to question the sun’s word?’ (438 to 464).

And mention of the sun’s signs leads us into the last 40 or so lines, 2 pages of paperback text, in which Virgil lists some of the portents associated with Caesar’s assassination and the coming of the civil war. These are far more lurid and ridiculous than anything in Plutarch. According to Virgil, cattle spoke, the Alps trembled, ghosts walked abroad at night, statues wept, rivers ground to a halt, the Po flooded and devastated farmland, wells spouted blood, wolves howled all night long.

This is all very vivid but, stepping back a bit – it is all twaddle. How much of this nonsense did men like Virgil and Plutarch genuinely believe? If even a fraction, then ‘credulous fools’ would be a polite description of them.

Anyway, Virgil deliberately conflates the universal upheaval triggered by Caesar’s assassination with other signs and portents observed before the Battle of Philippi, where Octavian and Antony defeated the assassins (as depicted in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar). In fact the notes tell me something I would have never noticed, which is that Virgil also conflates it with the Battle of Pharsalus, where Caesar triumphed over Pompey, 6 years earlier in 48 BC.

He clearly does so in order to create a grand sense of wear and ruin in order to finish the book with…a second hymn to Octavian. He begs Romulus and Vesta, patrons of Rome, to stand back and allow the rise of young Octavian:

this young one who comes to save / a world in ruins (500)

In fact, it doesn’t end with the sycophantic words of praise I was expecting but with a vivid ten lines or so depicting a world run completely mad with war (lines 505 to 514), like (in a simile as vivid as the one about the rower borne back by the tide) a charioteer competing in the circus whose horses run out of control, he can’t rein them in, a world hurtling towards ruin.

Little conclusion

Pyne points out that the overall vibe of the book is negative. If we neglect the principles of hard work, fail to follow best practice, are not sufficiently alert to all the signs of nature and the gods – then we will have chaos and destruction. The harshness of Virgil’s tone reflects the very bitter experience of civil wars he has lived through. Pyne takes this to be the meaning of the ‘tumultuous’ consequences of the assassination of Caesar and it’s pretty obvious in the vision of chaos at the very end of the eclogue. Only Octavian/Augustus offers any hope of salvation.

Georgic 2 (542 lines)

Book 2 is less harsh and more attractive. It starts by hymning trees before focusing in on the vine. Its moral is that Nature is fruitful, especially in Italy.

Invocation to Bacchus, god of wine, to be with him and support him. Then a second dedication, to Maecenas, Virgil’s friend and patron.

Lesson one is about trees and how they seed themselves and grow. Many species and many varieties, oak, elm, ash, alder etc etc. Each land has trees specific to it. The medicinal attributes of citron.

A passage of praise of Italy, a passage which came to have its own name, the Laudes Italiae (lines 136 to 176): ‘Hail to thee Italy, holy mother of all that grows, mother of men ‘ (173), mixed with an address to Caesar, ‘first of all mankind’ (170). I keep thinking I must read a biography of Mussolini to see how much of this slavish praise of a dictator was revived 2,000 years later.

Different types of terrain and soil, the wooded fields and open spaces of Tarentum, the rolling plains of Mantua etc.

Black friable soil is best for corn, gravel in a hilly place, chalkland. The best soil for olives. The difference between land for corn and land for vines. Order the rows of vines like troops lined up for battle (279). Dig shallow trenches for vines, but deep holes for trees. Don’t plan a vineyard facing west.

The perils of wildfires. Don’t plough rock solid ground while north winds bare their teeth.

Best to sow vines in the spring for then the almighty father, Air, marries the earth, penetrating her body with showers. This is a beautifully sensuous passage which, apparently, is famous enough to have been given its own name, the Praises of Spring (323 to 345).

After you’ve planted your vines you need to hoe and weed them, then erect canes and supports (358). At first pluck new buds only with your fingers, don’t use metal tools.

Build hedges to keep animals out (371). Their incessant nibbling and destruction of crops, especially vines, is why a goat is sacrificed to the god Bacchus (380). An extended passage on how Virgil associates rural worship of Bacchus with the origins of theatre and the origin of sacrifices and rites they still perform.

More work: break up the clods around vines and clear away leaves (401).

Virgil makes reference to the turning of the year, the procession of the seasons, and yet his poem emphatically does NOT follow the cycle of the seasons at all. It is NOT rational, ordered or structured, but wanders all over the place, one digression after another.

More chores with vines, but he suddenly switches to consideration of olive growing (420). Olives do it by themselves, as do apple trees.

Clover must be cut for fodder. Deep in the woods pines are cut down to provide firewood.

Suddenly we are in the far distant Caucasus, home to various useful trees (440) and what tools are made from them.

Then suddenly back to Bacchus and, with no logic I can discern, into a final hymn in praise of country life (458 to 542). How lucky the lowly countryman who doesn’t live in a mansion crowded with sycophants! He has the quiet, carefree life! Pools of running water, cool grottos, naps in the shade and sweet Justice.

Then he turns to address himself and used to wish that sweet Poetry would open up to him the secrets of the earth (480). But since that appears not to be happening, maybe because of his ‘heart’s lack of feeling’, well, at least let him be satisfied with rural beauty and streams running through glens.

In line 490 he appears to envy one referred to only as ‘that man’ who is lucky enough to understand the workings of the world and escaped fear of hell and death. Even without the note I’d have guess this referred to Epicurus, whose entire materialist philosophy was designed to assuage anxiety, especially when it goes on to confirm that this man is not interested in the bitter competition for high public office which led to the downfall of the Republic.

The different types of bad rich man are enumerated in lines 495 to 512 – then compared with the simple countryman who tills his native soil and increases its wealth, who glories in the harvest, who keeps an ordered homestead with dutiful sons, who organises feasts and games for his hired hands (javelin throwing, wrestling matches). Ah, those were the virtuous activities of the old Sabines. Ah, the good old days, the Golden Age of Saturn before his son, Jupiter, overthrew him and instituted the Iron Age when everything became bloody hard work (as described at the start of Georgic 1).

Georgic 3 (566 lines)

George 3 is in two halves and mainly about animal husbandry. The first half is devoted to the selection of  good breeding stock and the breeding of horses and cattle.

The opening 39 lines are nothing whatever to do with rural life, but a poetic invocation describing his ambition to achieve things never before achieved in verse (much the same as invocations on the same theme by Ennius and Lucretius), and a vivid description of a massive festival, complete with elaborate games, he will hold in honour of Caesar. I hadn’t realised Virgil was such a thorough-going courtier and sycophant.

This segues into a secondary invocation to his patron, Maecenas, asking for his help in his self-appointed task. Revealingly, he tells us the time is not far off when he will have to gird himself to write a full account of Caesar/Octavian’s ‘hard-fought battles’ – the plan to celebrate Octavian which evolved into the Aeneid.

So there’s all this fol-de-rol before we get back to the rural tone and subject of the poem, but we’ve barely had 15 lines about horses and horse breeding before Virgil gives way to some moralising lines commiserating poor humans that we are, the best days of our lives are first to fly etc.

Then he finally gets back to the subject in hand – how to recognise good horses to breed, by their age, their colour and their behaviour – but this barely lasts 20 lines before he digresses off to talk about famous horses from mythology, the horses of Pollux, Mars, Achilles, Jupiter and so on.

There are 8 lines on how you shouldn’t choose a knackered old horse which can’t get an erection to breed from, before he’s off on another digression, this time a thrilling description of the horses in a chariot race at the Circus. And then a few lines on the man who first tamed horses and tied four to a chariot i.e. godfather to the circus chariot races (Erichthoneus).

It feels very much as if Virgil doesn’t want to write this boring manual about animal husbandry and would rather be writing a much more exciting epic poem, invoking gods and figures from history.

Anyway: how to choose and prepare the stallion; how to prepare the mares for insemination namely by lots of exercise so, when they are mounted, they will tuck the seed away deep inside; when they are pregnant don’t use them to pull carts or let them swim in rivers.

Avoid the gadfly which will drive them into a frenzy, as it did when Hera turned Io into a heifer and set it on her. Only release pregnant horses out to pasture at dawn or as evening falls.

When they foal, the best will be selected for sacrifice, some for breeding and some for farmwork. How to train young horses to bear a collar and bridge (170).

How to train a horse for warfare, to become a cavalry mount (179 to 194).

Sex

And it’s at this point that we come to the most striking passage in the poem which concerns sex. From line 209 onwards the narrator counsels horse breeders to keep male horses and cattle away from females. This is the best way of ensuring their strength. This leads into an extended set piece on the futile and destructive lengths to which sexual passion drives animals and, by implication, men. It is a wild fantastical passion, a helter-skelter of images and legends of horses and other animals (lioness, bear, boar, tiger) running completely mad with lust and sexual frenzy.

Man and beast, each and every race of earth,
creatures of the sea, domesticated animals, and birds in all their finery,
all of them rush headlong into its raging fury; love’s the same for one and all.
(242 to 244)

As Pyne puts it, this isn’t a description, it’s a denunciation and Pyne links it to Epicurus’s great denunciation of irrational sexual passion in De rerum natura book 4. Certainly, this makes little or no sense as ‘practical’ advice to any farmer: it is clearly didactic moralising. Virgil is making a general point about The Good Life and asserting that passion must be eliminated in order to enable the peaceful and moral life.

Anyone familiar with the plot of his great epic poem, the Aeneid, knows that this is the thrust of the most famous narrative sequence, where prince Aeneas falls in love with Queen Dido of Carthage and is strongly tempted to settle down and be happy with her but, eventually, acknowledges his destiny, puts duty above love, and abandons her to sail for Italy. Sex, and all forms of emotion, must be renounced in order to lead The Good Life and fulfil one’s duty.

At line 284 he pivots to the second half of the book. This is devoted to the care and protection of sheep and goats and their by-products.

Death

Some very lovely lines about taking out sheep and goats to their summer pasture first thing in the morning when the dew is glistening (322).

For some reason shepherds from Libya occur to him, who are in constant motion because their land is so hot; and this triggers a description of the exact opposite, an extended description of the legendary people who live in the farthest north, near the pole, and endure conditions of ultimate winter (352 to 383). Structurally, a lot of the poem consists of a kind of learnèd free association.

Half a dozen lines about how to choose a breeding ram segue into a legend about Pan disguising himself as a sheep in order to seduce the moon. If you want milk, give your ewes lucerne, clover and salted grass.

Keep dogs, they will help you hunt, protect against rustlers at night or wolves.

In cattle stalls burn juniper to keep snakes at bay. Kills snakes with a big rock or stick (420). Extended description of a particularly fearsome three-tongued serpent.

At line 440 Virgil commences a new subject, the diseases which afflict livestock, with an extended description of how to treat scab. If sheep bleat for pain and have a fever, bleed them from a vein in the feet. If you see a ewe dilly-dallying or sloping off to slump under the shade of a tree, waste no time in killing it to prevent the infection spreading (468).

Just as a great storm wrecks the farmer’s work in the first Georgic, the third Georgic moves towards  an extended description of the havoc and devastation among livestock caused by an actual historical plague  which broke out in Noricum (470 to 566). (To be clear: a plague affecting only of animals, not humans.)

Animals selected for sacrifice died at the altar; entrails refuse to light; a knife slipped under the skin draws no blood; calves dropped in droves; house-trained dogs went mad; pigs’ throats welled up so they couldn’t breathe; horses fell sick; the plough ox collapsed.

Lyne interprets this to mean that the farmer must acknowledge, that even if he follows all the rules laid down in Georgic 1, is pious and hard working and true, a hellish plague may come along and ruin his life’s work. The dying ox is anthropomorphised as if it had human feelings:

All the work he did, all he contributed – and to what end? (525)

It was a universal plague: fish died on the shore; seals tried to escape upriver; vipers died in their dens; birds fell dead out of the skies. There was no cure, all the animals died and their hides and skins were worthless; anyone who tried to wear them broke out in ‘a fester of pustules’. And with that, the book abruptly ends.

In the face of overwhelming external forces of destruction, what is the reasonable man to do?

Georgic 4 (566 lines)

Georgic 4 is about bees and bee keeping. Instructions to the beekeeper. An interlude describing an old gardener, Corycian (116 to 148). Then the bee description develops into an obvious allegory.

Bee society stands for a model of ideal human society: absolute patriotism, complete concord, total subordination of the self to the common good. In line 201 the bees are even referred to as quirites, the Latin word for Roman citizens. And yet all this harmony and submission is based on service to a monarch (lines 210 onwards), an extremely unroman attitude, the precise thing all Romans have railed against for the entire history of the Republic.

His bees are also absolutely passionless (197 onwards):

bees refrain from intercourse, their bodies never
weaken into the ways of love

This is obviously picking up the denunciation of passion from Georgic 3, continuing the Epicurean attack on passion. (Just as obviously, Virgil’s entire account of bee keeping is wildly wrong and shows no understanding of how bees reproduce. Amazingly, Virgil seems to imply that bees populate their hive  by discovering their young on leaves in lovely meadows, 4.201).

The book ends with by recapitulating the end of Georgic 3, but this time with a happy ending. For, whereas human society may be ruined by a cataclysmic plague, devastated bee societies can be restored. The poem describes the method for recreating devastated bee colonies as the invention of one Aristaeus and describes it at length.

The most obvious thing about the relatively short passage giving practical advice on how to create a bee colony is it’s twaddle. Virgil describes at length how to rebuild a bee colony (4.295 to 314). Take a bull calf 2 years old. Build an enclosure with apertures facing the four directions of the wind and a tiled roof. Plug his nostrils and, despite his struggles, beat him to death, though without breaking the skin. Under his ribcage place branches of thyme and newly picked spurge laurel. Do all this before the onset of spring. The dead bull’s bones will start to ferment, and from them insects will appear: at first legless, but then with wings, eventually spilling out like rain.

Do you think that’s how modern beekeepers create a new colony?

The Aristaeus epyllion (lines 317 to 566)

After giving this absurd advice, Virgil shifts to safer ground and cuts and pastes into the end of this book a relatively long mythological poem. All the critics refer to this as an epyllion, being ‘a relatively short narrative poem (or discrete episode in a longer work) that shows formal affinities with epic but whose subject and poetic techniques are not characteristic of epic proper.’

Just to be crystal clear, the entire rationale of the previous three poems, to provide ‘practical’ advice for yeoman farmers, is simply dropped. Instead we enter a completely different imaginative realm, a sustained piece of mythological writing.

Virgil has Aristaeus lament the collapse of his farming efforts to his mother, the nymph Cyrene, living in the river Peneius, sitting spinning wool attended by her handmaidens, who are each lovingly named, leading into another passage which gives a similarly sensuous list of classical rivers.

Cyrene gives permission for Aristaeus to be wafted through the waves to her (much sensual description) and he is amazed at life under a river. Then she explains that he will have to go on a mission to capture the god Proteus in order to extract from him the reason why all his (Aristaeus’s) ventures have failed. This permits a florid description of Proteus’s legendary ability to change shape.

Cut to a lovely description of night falling over the sea and the cave where Proteus lives, surrounded by the race of mermen splashing in the briny sea while seals frolic around them. Aristaeus pounces and holds him tight, whatever shape Proteus assumes. Eventually, tired out, Proteus he admits defeat, at which point Aristaeus asks his question.

As in a chamber of mirrors, Proteus then explains that Aristaeus has undergone the punishment of his labours on the orders of Orpheus who is angry with him for the role he played in the abduction of his beloved Eurydice.

What? Where did all this come from?

It seems that Aristaeus was in love with Eurydice, too, and one day pursued her out of lust so that she stumbled across a seven-headed water snake and was bitten and died. Hence her passage to the underworld, hence Orpheus’s journey thither to reclaim her. Here’s a taste of one aspect of an epyllion’s epic style i.e. stuffing the text with exotic place names:

Then the chorus of her peers, the Dryads, filled the mountaintops with their lament,
the heights of Rhodope cried out, too, in mourning,
as did lofty Pangaea, and the land of the warring Rhesus,
and the Getae, the river Hebrus and the princess Orothyia.
(4.460 to 464)

There follows an extensive description of Orpheus venturing down into the underworld to the amazement of its denizens, his pleading with the god of hell to release his beloved, her release and their slow progress back up towards the light when, of course, in a moment of madness, Orpheus looked behind him, broke his promise and Eurydice disappeared back into the shadows.

Returned to earth, Orpheus spends ages bewailing his fate, seven months singing his lamentations, until the bacchantes, thinking themselves slighted by his obsession, tore him to pieces and distributed the pieces throughout the land. But even in death Orpheus’s head continued to cry out ‘Eurydice’ as it was carried down the river.

At which point Proteus ends his recitation of the Orpheus story and plunges back into the waves, handing the narrative back to Atraeus’s mother, Cyrene. Cyrene summarises: so that’s the reason Orpheus cursed his agricultural work. The only cure is to make an offering, and pay respect to the nymphs, and she gives instructions on how to do this:

Select four bulls and four heifers. Build four altars ‘by the tall temples of the goddesses’. Cut their throats and let the blood pour. Leave the carcasses in a leafy den. After nine days send as offerings to Orpheus soporific poppies and sacrifice a black ewe, then go back to the thicket (presumably where the 8 cattle corpses are) and worship Eurydice with a slaughtered calf.

So Aristaeus does exactly as his mummy told him and lo and behold, when he returned to the thicket nine days later…

And there they met a miracle and looked it in the face –
from those cattle’s decomposing flesh, the hum of bees,
bubbling first, then boiling over and, trailing giant veils into the trees,
they hung like grapes in bunches from the swaying branches.

In other words, this enormous digression has been by way of explaining how Aristaeus discovered that killing cattle and letting them rot, under the right conditions, triggers the creation of a colony of bees! Wow. What a round-the-houses way of doing it. As Seneca said (every commentary I’ve read mentions this opinion of Seneca) Virgil never intended his book for the instruction of anyone, let alone an actual farmer: it is an aristocratic entertainment, pure and simple.

Virgil’s conclusion

Virgil rounds out his book with a 9-line conclusion:

Such was the song that I took on to sing, about the care of crops
and stock, and trees with fruit, while he, our mighty Caesar,
was going hell for leather along the great Euphrates
adding victory to triumph, winning the war for people who appreciate his deeds,
and laying down the law – enough to earn his place in heaven.

And I, Virgil, was lying in the lap of Naples, quite at home
in studies of the arts of peace, I, who once amused myself
with rustic rhymes, and, still a callow youth,
sang of you Tityrus, as I lounged beneath the reach of one great beech.
(4. 458 to 566)

Pyne’s interpretation

Pyne largely ignores the presence of the epyllion to focus on the last piece of practical advice in the book, about how to recreate a bee colony. For Pyne the metaphor is clear: war or revolution may devastate a society, but that society may be recreated and regenerated by a saviour, a man of destiny, particularly if that man has divine parentage like… like Augustus Caesar, adoptive son of the now deified Julius.

Thus, in Pyne’s view, the poem dramatises a problem in political and moral theory: Georgic 3 shows that, no matter how hard working and pious the individual is, all his work may still be ruined by forces beyond his control. Georgic 4 offers the solution, which is to shift the focus away from the individual altogether, and see things from the perspective of the entire society.

If the individual can identify, not with his personal, highly fragile situation, but with society as a whole, in particular with a strong leader, then he can rise above the tribulations of his individual story.

Incompletion

There is another interpretation of the plonking down of this extended epyllion into the fourth Georgic (at 249 lines, it makes up nearly half the book). This is that Virgil really struggled to finish things. I’m saying this with advance knowledge that he, notoriously, failed to complete – to his own satisfaction – his epic poem, the Aeneid, and asked his literary executors to burn it (which the latter, very fortunately, refused to do).

The fourth Georgic, and therefore the book as a whole, doesn’t work its subject through in the same way the previous ones did. Instead it feels like Virgil has abandoned his subject and treatment completely – until the very end where he suddenly brings his long story back to being, rather improbably, about how the first farmer learned to recreate a bee colony.

This thought highlights in retrospect what struck me as odd in the previous books, which is Virgil’s complaints about how hard he was finding it to write the damn thing. When he invokes his patron Maecenas, more often than not it’s because he’s really struggling to write. At the start of book 1 he asks Caesar to ‘grant him an easy course’.

And you, Maecenas, stand behind me now in this, the work I’ve taken on,
you to whom the largest fraction of my fame belongs by right,
have no second thoughts before the great adventure into which I’ve launched myself.
Not that I could ever hope to feature all things in my verses –
not even if I had a hundred mouths, as many ways of speech,
and a voice as strong as iron. Stand by me now – as we proceed along the shoreline…
(2.39 to 40)

Meanwhile we’ll trace the Dryads’ woods and virgin glades,
no little task that you’ve laid out for me, Maecenas,
for without encouragement from you, what could I amount to?
Come on! Help me shake off this lassitude…
(3.40 to 43)

Was it a task laid on him by Maecenas? And then there are the other places where Maecenas isn’t mentioned but Virgil candidly shares with the reader the sheer effort of writing this stuff, like his sigh of relief at getting to the end of book 2:

But we have covered vast tracts of matter and, besides,
it’s high time that we released the sweating horses from their halters.
(2.541 to 542)

And the several times in book 4 that he gets excited about the fact that he’s nearly bloody finished:

Indeed, if I were not already near the limit of my undertaking,
furling my sails and hurrying my prow to shore…
(4.116 to 117)

And his apology that he’s running out of time and space:

The like of this, however, I must forgo – time and space conspiring
to defeat me – and leave for later men to make more of.
(4.147 to 148)

Why? Why couldn’t Virgil have carried on for another year and described these things fully? No doubt it’s a familiar trope or topos to include in an extended poem, but still…it speaks to Virgil’s sense of himself as unable to finish, harassed by time but, deeper down, haunted by inadequacy and incompletion.

The influence of Lucretius

As soon as I learned that Georgic 3 ends with an extended description of a plague I immediately thought of the powerful but odd way that Lucretius’s long didactic poem describing Epicurean belief, De rerum natura, also ends in a devastating plague, of Athens (albeit it’s important to emphasise that Lucretius’s plague afflicts humans whereas Virgil’s one decimates only animals).

Epicurus had already made an appearance in Georgic 2 in the passage towards the end which describes a great man who both understands how the universe works and is divinely detached from the strife-ridden competition for political office which has wrecked Rome.

Pyne emphasises Lucretius’s influence by pointing out the several places where Virgil insists on the absence of passion as being a crucial prerequisite for happiness which, of course, evoke Lucretius’s Good Life of divinely passionless detachment. Pyne doesn’t fully explore the Lucretius connection so I might as well quote Wikipedia on the subject:

The philosophical text with the greatest influence on the Georgics as a whole was Lucretius’ Epicurean epic De rerum natura. G. B. Conte notes that ‘the basic impulse for the Georgics came from a dialogue with Lucretius.’ David West states that Virgil is ‘saturated with the poetry of Lucretius, and its words, phrases, thought and rhythms have merged in his mind, and become transmuted into an original work of poetic art.’

I found this very interesting because, as I know from my reading of Cicero’s De rerum deorum, Cicero strongly criticised Epicureanism, principally because it counselled withdrawal from the public realm, whereas Cicero espoused Stoicism, which was more suitable to his model of the responsible Republican citizen throwing himself into the permanent civil strife which is what Republican politics consisted of.

Stoicism = political involvement = messy Republican democracy = Cicero

Epicureanism = political detachment = submission to the princeps = Virgil

Invocations

Worth reminding myself how many invocations there are in the poem. These are (it seems to me) of three types.

1. Virgil tends to start each book with an extended appeal to one or more gods, chosen to be appropriate to the subject matter, calling on them to assist him in his task or organising the right material and help his eloquence.

2. As mentioned above, he also appeals to his worldly patron, Maecenas, friend and cultural fixer for Augustus.

And you, Maecenas, stand behind me now in this, the work I’ve taken on,
you to whom the largest fraction of my fame belongs by right…
(2.39 to 40)

Lend kind ears to this part, my lord Maecenas (4.2)

3. Lastly, there are the direct addresses to Octavian/Caesar/Augustus himself, or references to his greatness:

and I address you too, O Caesar, although none knows the gathering of gods
in which you soon will be accommodated…
(1.24 to 25)

Long, long ago since heaven’s royal estate
begrudged you first your place among us, Caesar…
(1. 502 to 503)

…and you yourself, Caesar, first of all mankind,
you who, already champion of Asia’s furthest bounds,
rebuffs the craven Indian from the arched portals of the capital…
(2.170 to 173)

These addresses are often very extravagant, witness the 18 lines at the start of book 1 (1.24 to 42) extravagantly wondering whether Caesar will be gathered among the gods, whether the wide world will worship him as begetter of the harvest or master of the seasons, or whether he will become ‘lord of the endless sea’, worshipped by sailors, or becomes a new sign of the zodiac. Whatever the details, his power will reach to the ends of the earth and everyone will bow down to him.

These are quite extravagantly oriental obeisances before a Great Ruler, worthy of the emperors of Babylon or Assyria. In Georgic 3 Virgil dreams of erecting a marble temple in his home town of Mantua, by the banks of the river Mincius and:

At its centre I’ll place Caesar, master of the shrine,
and in his honour – the day being mine – resplendent in my purple robes,
I’ll drive five score of teams-of-four up and down along the bank.
(3.16 to 19)

But the thing is… Virgil was right. Augustus did usher in a new golden age of peace and prosperity and he was worshipped as a god (in the superstitious East, anyway), had a month named after him and any number of other imperial honours.

Fallon fantastic

Spring it is, spring that’s good to the core of the wood, to the leaves of groves,
spring that reawakens soil and coaxes seeds to fruitfulness.
(1.323)

The Peter Fallon translation of the Georgics is absolutely brilliant. Rather than sticking to any defined metre, his lines feel wonderfully free, each line free to have the rhythm and shape its content suggests. That means there is no monotony of rhythm but a continual cascade of surprises. Here’s his translation of Virgil’s (oblique) description of Epicurus:

That man has all the luck who can understand what makes the world
tick, who has crushed underfoot his fears about
what’s laid out in store for him and stilled the roar of Hell’s esurient river.
(2.400 to 402)

The tone is relaxed (‘what makes the world tick’), the rhythm is deliberately playful (holding ‘tick’ over till the second line), there are rhymes but not at each line end, instead dotted artfully within the line (‘about/out’ and ‘store/roar’) and then a surprise at the end where he allows himself the unusual word, the Latinate word ‘esurient’ (meaning hungry or greedy), gently reminding us that this is a translation from another language: the low tone (tick) for us, the high tone (esurient) reminding us of the much more formalised, aristocratic Roman origins of the work.

The free verse allows a free attitude. It allows his lines to be hugely varied and inventive, jewelled with occasional recherché vocabulary (hasky 1.453; smigs 3.311; violaceous 3.372; exscinding 3.468; mastic 4.39, eft 4.242, clabber 4.478, paludal 4.493) and effects subtle or obvious, ever-interesting and accessible. Take the entertaining alliteration, distantly echoing the organising principle of Anglo-Saxon verse:

Now tell me about the tools and tackle unflagging farmers had to have…
(1.160)

I’ll waste none of your time with made-up rhymes,
or riddles, or prolonged preambles.
(2.45 to 46)

It’s high time we released the sweating horses from their halters.
(2.542)

First find a site and station for the bees
far from the ways of the wind…
(4.8 to 9)

a swarming tone that brings to mind the broken blast of a bugle-horn
(4.72)

the Curetes’
songlike sounds, their shields clashing like cymbals.
(4.150 to 151)

on the Nile
whose flowing waters form floodpools
(4.289)

already she was making her stiff way across the Styx
(4.506)

In fact once I started to look for alliteration I found it everywhere: it’s a key component of Fallon’s style. He combines it with internal rhymes for greater effect:

and, though enraptured by such strange delight, they mind
their nestlings and newborn, seed and breed of them.
(4.54 to 56)

the way a troubled sea shrieks and creaks at ebb-tide
(4.262)

He can be intensely lyrical:

Come the sweet o’ the year, when streams begin to melt and tumble down the hoary hills
and clods to crumble underneath the current of west winds…
(1.43 to 44)

Oh for the open countryside
along the Spercheus, or the mountains of Taygetus, its horde of Spartan maidens
ripe for picking! Oh, for the one who’d lay me down to rest
in cool valleys of the Haemus range and mind me in the shade of mighty branches!
(2.486 to 489)

Come night, the youngsters haul themselves back home, exhausted,
leg-baskets loaded down with thyme; they pick randomly on wild strawberry,
the blue-grey willow, spunge laurel (that’s the bee plant), blushing saffron,
and a luxury of limes and lindens and lilies tinted rust.
(4.180 to 184)

Fallon is sometimes demotic i.e. uses everyday turns of phrase:

you might as well get on with it (1.230)

and no let up and no let off, they’re kicking up such a storm (3.110)

The Lapiths, all the way from Pelion, bequeathed us bits and bridles
and – riders astride – the lunging ring, and taught the cavalry
to hit the ground running
(3.115 to 117)

and spare no end of trouble to flesh him out and fatten him up
(3.124)

You see, that’s why they banish horses to the back of beyond
(3.212)

There’s nothing that can snaffle them when they’re in season
(3.269)

at the mercy of the worst those east winds have to offer
(3.383)

…all this
in case an east wind occurred to sprinkle them [bees]
while they were dawdling, or dunked them head first in the drink.
(4.28 to 30)

and on their beaks they hone their stings; they are limbering up
(4.73)

going to no end of bother
(4.265)

And uses short phrases of command in the many places where Virgil tells us to sit up and pay attention, in phrases which are presumably as short and imperative in the original Latin as in this translation:

So pay close attention (1.187)

Keep all this in mind. (2.259)

Listen. Here’s how you’ll tell the sort of soil you’re dealing with. (2.226)

So spare no efforts to shield them from the bite of frosts and icy winds (3.318)

So listen now, while I outline the qualities bestowed on bees by Jupiter…(4.149)

Listen. I’ll tell you all… (4.286)

Mostly, it hovers around a combination of the above with a sort of semi-hieratic, not-too-elevated form of translationese i.e. not language any ordinary English speaker would write, which registers the heightened tone of the original, but without heaviness or portentousness, acknowledging the folk wisdom and maybe proverbial basis of a lot of the content:

For that’s the way it is –
World forces all things to the bad, to founder and to fall
(1.199 to 200)

At moments dipping into Shakespearian phraseology:

And it was he that felt for Rome that time that Caesar fell…
(1.466)

In a slightly different mood I might have complained about this unevenness of tone, except that it’s carried out with such style and charm. You like Fallon for his cheek and tricks and twists and endless invention. It’s a mashup of registers and tones, which matches his mashup of rhythms. There are hundreds of precise and evocative moments. I love his descriptions of birds, especially the crow:

Then a crow, strutting the deserted shore,
proclaims in its mean caw, Rain, rain, and then more rain.
(1.387 to 390)

This is up there with Rolfe Humphrey’s translation of Epicurus as maybe the best two verse translations I’ve ever read.

And that’s a fact

Fallon’s translation has frequent repetition of the phrase ‘that’s a fact’ and ‘it’s a fact and true’ (2.48 and 61), ‘as a matter of true fact’ (4.221).

a) I wonder why Virgil felt the need to keep telling his readers that what he’s telling them is true.

b) It automatically raises the doubt that the opposite is the case. I planted seven trees in my garden this spring, dug over two separate borders, forked in manure and compost, and planted bushes and flowers for bees and insects. I didn’t find a single sentence in all these 2,188 lines of hexameter verse which was remotely useful or even rang a vague bell.

I wonder if any of Virgil’s advice is true. I have no doubt he conscientiously gathered tips and folklore on the widest range of agriculture available to him (and the notes point out his abundant borrowings from all available previous writers on these subjects). I have no doubt that he crammed in as many relevant myths and legends as he could, plus the usual tall tales about remote peoples and their fantastical habits (most memorable is the absolute winter passage in Georgic 3). But I wonder if any of it is true.

What would be interesting to read is an assessment of the book by an agricultural expert, going through line by line, and assessing whether anything he tells us about planting vines or trees (2.290) or nipping buds off new vines (2.366), or how to select the best breeding stallion or ram, or how to ensure a good yield of milk from your sheep – whether any of it is the slightest use.

‘Take my word’ he says (4.279). Should we?


Credit

Georgics by Virgil, translated by Peter Fallon, was first published by The Gallery Press in 2004. I read the 2009 Oxford University Press edition, with an excellent introduction and notes by Elaine Fantham.

Roman reviews

Mantegna and Bellini @ the National Gallery

This is a rich, complex and demanding exhibition in all kinds of ways. For a start it was packed out. I took the ticket lady’s advice to go see the 18-minute long film introduction to the show, off in the auditorium to one side of the Sainsbury Gallery, but this meant I didn’t enter the exhibition proper till 10.30, by which time it was so packed that it was difficult to move around and you had to queue to see many of the paintings.

Secondly, it requires you to listen to a daunting amount of art history and scholarship. The art history is central for this is an exhibition which traces the development of the two painters, pointing out with minute attention to detail their differing interests, styles, areas of expertise and actual careers i.e. the cities they lived in, the courtly patrons they worked for, and so on.

In addition there are quite a few paintings and drawings whose accreditation has until recently, or is still, disputed i.e. you are looking at works which may or may not be by either Mantegna or Bellini, and find yourself listening to learned arguments about who, when and why this or that drawing or painting was made.

Biographies

Giovanni Bellini (1435?–1516) and Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) were two of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance.

In the 1440s the Bellini family ran the most established and successful artistic workshop in Venice. It was overseen by Giovanni’s father, Jacopo Bellini, one of the greatest artistic inventors of his day, pioneering new visual and intellectual ideas in his influential drawing books.

So Giovanni Bellini was born into what was in effect artistic royalty, and given every possibly chance of a good start in his career. By contrast, Andrea Mantegna was born the son of a humble carpenter, and was an entirely self-made man. Born near Padua his prodigious talent brought him into the workshop of Francesco Squarcione – who in fact adopted him as his own son – and inspired in him a lifelong love of the art and architecture of the antique world.

News of the up-and-coming prodigy reached Jacopo Bellini, who made the entirely practical business move of marrying his daughter Nicolosia to the budding genius in 1453. Bellini and Mantegna were now brothers-in-law, and spent the rest of their lives in contact, in artistic rivalry, borrowing ideas, themes and details from each other’s works right to the end of their lives.

For a decade or so they worked in close physical proximity and the exhibition pairs their paintings on the same subjects, showing how they exchanged motifs and techniques – ways of handling figures, animals, elements of landscape – until, in 1460, Mantegna left to spend the rest of his life working for the Gonzaga family which ruled Mantua.

Two styles

Throughout its six rooms the exhibition brings together major works by both artists, from Britain and abroad, paintings as well as rare sketches and drawings and sculptures and friezes – which allow you to trace a) their similarities and differences b) their individual evolutions c) their lasting influence on later art.

You can get a quick understanding of the two approaches by comparing two depictions of Christ’s agony in the garden. Apparently the notion of depicting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane waiting, while the apostles slept, for Judas to come and betray him, probably derived from the inventive drawing books of Jacopo Bellini, but it is fascinating to have the two artists’ treatments of the identical subject hanging side by side and the audio-commentary gives a detailed comparison.

The Agony in the Garden (about 1455–6) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden (about 1455–6) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

In Mantegna’s version you notice:

  • the architectural feel of the composition, with very detailed rocks creating a claustrophobic, full feel to the composition and tightly framing the sleeping apostles
  • the foreshortening of the body of the sleeping apostle – Mantegna was one of the first artists in the West to systematically experiment with painting foreshortened figures in perspective: he was so proud of this that he signed the painting in the rocks directly above the sleepers
  • the tightness of the way the road curves from the sleepers round the rocks to the crowd of soldiers and citizens being led by Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus
  • the architectural details of the city of Jerusalem in the background which, when you look closely, has been done with great precision, including a campanile and a copy of the Roman Colosseum
  • there are some rabbits in the road next to one of the apostle’s feet; there are lots of rabbits in Mantegna’s works

No contrast with Bellini’s treatment of the same subject.

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini (about 1458-60) Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini (about 1458-60) Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

Whereas Mantegna’s is packed and stacked with lines and planes – of the busy terraces of rocks and road and distant buildings – Bellini’s composition is much more open, and the central slope Christ is praying on is surprisingly bland and smooth. The audio-commentary points out that Bellini had a go at a Mantegna-style foreshortened figure in the centre, but hasn’t brought it off as well as the Paduan.

Instead, the audio-commentary points to the clouds. They are a surprisingly realistic depiction of the pinkness of dawn, drawing on contemporary Flemish landscape painting. The clouds are not just part of the background as in the Mantegna, but carefully crafted in order to create an atmosphere. Same with the city on the hill to the left. If you look closely (and the joy of visiting exhibitions is that you can look really closely at all these wonderful paintings) you see that the buildings lack detail (windows or doors) and are soft and hazy – much as you would actually see buildings in the far distance in sunny Italy.

This comparison brings out the way that Mantegna is interested in architectural detail and framing, of not only buildings but of people. His works have great clarity and are often full of learned details – he is an intellectual painter – but can also feel harsh and forbidding.

By comparison all Bellini’s works have a softness about them. Whereas Mantegna is interested in line and content, Bellini is interested in tone and atmosphere.

Mantegna = compositional innovation
Bellini = atmospheric, natural landscapes

Mantegna versus Bellini

By and large, whenever I saw a painting from a distance, before I could read the label, I could tell the two artists apart: Bellini’s always have soft outlines, Mantegna’s always have much more defined, sometimes almost cartoon-clear outlines.

By and large I much preferred the Mantegna. Wherever possible the exhibition places paintings on similar subjects by the pair together, so you can compare and contrast, for example their contemporaneous depictions of Saint Jerome in the Desert. Mantegna’s Jerome is set among characteristically lined, striated, and precise rock and is packed with detail – Bellini’s image is much sparer and softer and the composition is emptier, less busy, more atmospheric.

Really looking at these, again, I think I prefer the Mantegna because it is more medieval: he is interested in the saint’s flat-brimmed red hat, in his wooden sandals, in the wooden rack hanging from nails in his cave, in the owl – presumably signifying wisdom – perching at the top of the cave, and so on. I find these details interesting, diverting, charming – and so find the Bellini empty and bland and so you are left solely to concentrate on the bad draughtsmanship of both man and lion.

Similarly, there are direct comparisons between their treatments of Christ’s descent into hell, and the presentation of the infant Christ at the Temple.

Here’s an early Mantegna which shows his love of classical architecture and the way he uses it to frame his compositions. You can look at this painting for quite a long time, enjoying the use of the pillar and broken arch to support the punctured saint. The detailing of the frieze on the stonework is exquisite, as it is in the rubble at his feet or the faces in the broken frieze behind him. The more you look, the more breath-taking the detail becomes. And that’s before you begin to investigate the background, where you can see the three archers who have just done Sebastian to death, strolling casually along the road to the left on their way back to the city across the river, which is itself painted in tiny finicky detail. But it’s the architectural solidity of the composition which is dominant.

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (about 1459–60) Egg tempera on poplar © Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (about 1459–60) Egg tempera on poplar © Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The future of painting

I preferred Mantegna all the way through until we came to the last few rooms. Here, suddenly, Bellini metamorphosed into the Future of Painting and Mantegna suddenly looked old and wooden. Suddenly Bellini was making paintings of Greek mythical subjects which had a softness and haziness, a kind of sweetness about them, which looks like Titian, which looks forward to the next hundred years.

In my ignorance, when I saw this across a crowded room, I thought the bucolic setting and very bright colours meant it was by Poussin. It is in fact still a Bellini, but worlds away from the stilted drawing of Jerome. That was 1460. Now it is nearly fifty years later and Bellini has made extraordinary strides in the art of composition and colouring. Instead of an empty desert he gives us a lazy relaxed pagan landscape in which a whole host of Greek mythical characters are lounging and flirting.

The Feast of the Gods (1514–29) Giovanni Bellini, with later additions by Dosso Dossi and Titian. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Feast of the Gods (1514–29) Giovanni Bellini, with later additions by Dosso Dossi and Titian. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The commentary tells us that Titian (1488-1576) was much influenced by Bellini whose workshop he trained in from 1507, and that Titian almost certainly ‘refined’ and ‘improved’ this work by Bellini. You can feel one master handing on the baton to Titian, who will have a transformative effect on Western art. Suddenly, in late Bellini, you feel like you are confronting the future of Western art.

On the opposite wall of this, the fourth and largest room in the exhibition, are hanging three enormous, absolutely huge (2.66 x 2.78 m) paintings depicting the Triumph of Caesar. Mantegna originally created nine of these monster paintings between 1484 and 1492 for the Gonzaga Ducal Palace in Mantua. Acknowledged from the time of Mantegna as his greatest masterpiece, they remain the most complete pictorial representation of a Roman triumph ever attempted.

The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-Bearers (mid-1480s – before 1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-Bearers (mid-1480s – before 1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on canvas.  Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The structured nature of the composition is awesome. You can feel the intelligence and care which has gone into positioning every element, and Mantegna’s unparalleled knowledge of every element of classical life, which he had spent a lifetime studying.

Still, placed next to the Bellini gods, it feels stagey, and it feels dated. In them Mantegan reaches a kind of peak of magnificence of the architectural composition which he pioneered, and this kind of grand historical painting will go on to be perfected by artists like Veronese. But a glance at the softer, subtler shapes of the Bellini feast tells you that it is his style which will go on to dominate future art.

To see what I mean compare these portraits from the final room of the exhibition. Here is Mantegna demonstrating, as throughout his career, an interest in line and composition. Note the amazing detail on the fabric of the Madonna, and the gauntly ‘realistic’ expressions of the faces of her parents.

The Holy Family by Andrea Mantegna (about 1490–1500) © bpk / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut

The Holy Family by Andrea Mantegna (about 1490–1500) © bpk / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut

Now compare with a Virgin and child (with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene thrown in for good measure) by Bellini.

The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (about 1490) by Giovanni Bellini © Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo, Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell'Accademia di Venezia

The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (about 1490) by Giovanni Bellini © Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia

This reproduction doesn’t do it any justice. In the flesh this is a quite hauntingly, atmospheric painting. The way the softly painted women emerge from the Stygian background is quite magical.

The commentary emphasises that Mantegna’s portraits were often painted with egg tempera or using glue, a technique which resulted in an often dull matt finish, a finish which brought out the line and composition he considered so important.

By sharp contrast, by his later years, Bellini has mastered the use of oil paint to create works of tremendous atmosphere and depth. Although the figures in this painting are not exactly naturalistic, the use of oil joins them together with a real psychological power. Plus Bellini has become a real master of painting details in oil. I marvelled at the exquisite detailing of the pearls and jewels lining the cloaks of Catherine and the Magdalene. This reproduction doesn’t begin to convey what an intense and powerful painting this is in the flesh.

Bellini wins

If this was a football match I’d have said Mantegna was leading 1-0 until the 89th minute and then Bellini stole up and won it with a late equaliser and a winning goal in extra time.

All the way through I had preferred Mantegna’s statuesque line figures and his use of classical architecture and symbolism to adorn paintings historical and mythological. Then, in the last couple of rooms, in  his full maturity, Bellini seems to soar to an entirely new place in terms of technique.

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini (about 1501-2) Oil on poplar © The National Gallery, London

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini (about 1501-2) Oil on poplar © The National Gallery, London

This reproduction also doesn’t do justice to the original. You could stand for hours just marvelling in Bellini’s use of oil paint in this large portrait, especially in the unbelievable detailing of the Doge’s gown.

The commentary makes the subtle point that the left side of his mouth, in sunlight, is firm and set, whereas the right side, in relative shade, bears the hint of a smile. This can be taken as an allegory of the character required to be leader of a city, a mixture of light (justice) with shade (forgiveness and humour).

In these last few works you can see why the curators claims that without these works imbued with their creativity and innovation, Renaissance art by the likes of Titian, Correggio, and Veronese, would not exist as it does today.

There is much, much more to see at this terrific exhibition, much which repays really intense historical, scholarly, intellectual and aesthetic engagement. It’s an effort, but the rewards are tremendous.

Room by room

One – Beginnings

Introduces the cultural environments of the two cities that shaped Mantegna and Bellini – Padua and Venice. Shows how the tastes of dominant patrons and their working environments (including the family-run workshop) played a role in the development of the artists. Highlight: ‘The Jacopo Bellini album’ on loan from the British Museum (which has lent 18 works to the exhibition). Jacopo’s sketchbook is a key starting point for ‘Mantegna and Bellini.’

Room two – Explorations

Examines the mutual impact of each artist on the other during the years of their closest creative exchange, around the time of the marriage that made them brothers-in-law. A number of juxtapositions compare and contrast their approach to near identical compositions e.g. ‘The Descent into Limbo’ and ‘The Crucifixion’.

Room Three – Pietà

Focuses on the origins and development of a distinctive new type of image in Christian art, the Dead Christ supported by Angels. Works include sculptural reliefs (such as Mantegna’s ‘Grablegung Christ’) as well as works on paper (Mantegna’s Pietà, 1456–9) and Bellini’s tempera on panel ‘Pietà’ from the Uffizi Gallery.

Room Four – Landscape

Explores the enormous importance of Bellini’s particular contribution to the history of art – the depiction of beautifully observed landscape, natural light, and atmosphere as a key element of the composition and meaning of religious works, including Bellini’s ‘Resurrection of Christ’

Highlight: first chance to see the newly restored National Gallery work, ‘The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr’ (about 1507).

A number of pairings will reveal the differences in approach to landscape between the two artists – and also reveal the ways in which Bellini’s exceptional talent had a lasting effect on Mantegna (such as in his astonishingly accurate view of Mantua in his ‘Death of the Virgin’, 1462).

Room five – Devotional Paintings and Portraits

A focused insight into a particular contribution to Italian Renaissance art – the development of the ‘sacra conversazione’ in which the seated Virgin and Child appear in the company of saints (‘in conversation’) as if occupying the same space and breathing the same air.

Mantegna’s ‘Holy Family’ (1495-1500) and ‘Madonna and Child’ (1455–60) will be placed next to Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with two Saints’ and ‘The Virgin and Child’ (about 1475).

Room six – Antiquity

Features some of the largest and most spectacular loans, which showcase Mantegna’s particular brilliance in the use of antique models and subjects to drive innovation in his art.

Highlight: three of his great ‘Triumphs of Caesar’ (The Bearers of Standards and ‘Siege Equipment’, ‘The Vase-Bearers’, and ‘The Elephants’, c.1484–92) , monumental tempera on canvas works measuring almost three metres square, lent by Her Majesty The Queen.

Contrasted with these will be sculptural monochromes by Bellini, including ‘An Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio’ (about 1506) and ‘Two men in antique dress’, along with one of his final paintings, ‘The Drunkenness of Noah’ (about 1515).

In case you need any more persuading, Dr Caroline Campbell, Director of Collections and Research at the National Gallery and curator of ‘Mantegna and Bellini’, says:

Exhibitions focusing on 15th-century art are rare as the works involved are often fragile and so cannot travel very often – therefore ‘Mantegna and Bellini’ really is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore the relationship and work of these two artists who played such a pivotal role in the history of art.

Curator’s introduction


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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