But thou, O Roman, must the peoples rule.
Thine arts shall be to teach the ways of peace, To spare the humbled, and throw down the proud.
Nor does Virgil resent the death of the Republic; he knows that class war, not Caesar, killed it; at every stage of his poem he foreshadows the restorative rule of Augustus, hails it as Saturn’s reign returned, and promises him, as reward, admission to the company of the gods. No man ever fulfilled a literary commission more perfectly.
Why do we retain a warm affection for this pietistic, moralistic, chauvinistic, imperialistic propagandist? Partly because the gentleness of his spirit is on every page; because we feel that his sympathies have spread from his own fair Italy to all men, even to all life. He knows the sufferings of the lowly and the great, the obscene ghastliness of war, the brief mortality that stalks the noblest men, the griefs and pains, the lacrimae rerum, or “tears in things,” that mar and accentuate the sunshine of our days. He is not merely imitating Lucretius when he writes of “the nightingale mourning beneath the poplar’s shade the loss of her young ones, whom some hard plowman has seen and torn unfledged from their nest; all night long she cries, and perched on a spray, renews her pitiful song, filling the woods with her sad lament.” But what draws us back to Virgil again and again is the persistent loveliness of his speech. It is not in vain that he pored over every line, “licking it into shape as the she-bear does her cubs”; and only the reader who has tried to write can guess the toil that made this narrative so smooth and adorned it with so many passages of sonorous melody that every second page cries out for quotation, and tempts the tongue. Perhaps the poem is too uniformly beautiful; even beauty palls upon us if its eloquence is prolonged. There is a delicate feminine charm in Virgil, but seldom the masculine power and thought of Lucretius or the surging tide of that “many-billowed sea” called Homer. We begin to understand the melancholy ascribed to Virgil when we picture him preaching beliefs that he could never recapture, writing for ten years an epic whose every episode and line required the effort of artificial art, then dying with the haunting thought that he had failed, that no spark of spontaneity had set his imagination on fire or spurred his figures into life. But over his medium, if not over his subject, the poet won a complete victory. Artifice has seldom achieved a brighter miracle.
Two years after his death his executors gave the poem to the world. There were some detractors: one critic published an anthology of his defects, another listed his pilferings, another printed eight volumes of Resemblances between lines in Virgil and in earlier poetry. But Rome soon forgave this literary communism. Horace ranked Virgil fondly with Homer, and schools inaugurated nineteen hundred years of memorizing the Aeneid. Plebeian and aristocrat mouthed him; artisans and shopkeepers, tombstones and scribbled walls, quoted him; temple oracles gave responses through ambiguous verses of his epic; the custom began- and lasted till the Renaissance- of opening Virgil at random and finding some counsel or prophecy in the first passage that struck the eye. His fame grew until in the Middle Ages he was considered a magician and a saint. Had he not, in the Fourth Eclogue, predicted the coming of the Saviour and, in the Aeneid, described Rome as the Holy City, from which the power of religion would uplift the world? Had he not in that terrible Book VI pictured the Last Judgment, the sufferings of the wicked, the cleansing fire of purgatory, the happiness of the blessed in paradise? Virgil too, like Plato, was anima naturaliter Christiana, despite his pagan gods. Dante loved the elegance of his verse, and took him as guide not only through hell and purgatory, but also in the art of flowing narrative and beautiful speech. Milton thought of him when writing Paradise Lost and the pompous orations of devils and men. And Voltaire, of whom we should have expected a harsher judgment, ranked the Aeneid as the finest literary monument left us by antiquity.