The Other Virgil: 'Pessimistic' Readings of the Aeneid in Early Modern Culture

The Other Virgil: 'Pessimistic' Readings of the Aeneid in Early Modern Culture

The Other Virgil: 'Pessimistic' Readings of the Aeneid in Early Modern Culture

The Other Virgil: 'Pessimistic' Readings of the Aeneid in Early Modern Culture

Synopsis

The Other Virgil tells the story of how a classic like the Aeneid can say different things to different people. As a school text it was generally taught to support the values and ideals of a succession of postclassical societies, but between 1500 and 1800 a number of unusually sensitive readers responded to cues in the text that call into question what the poem appears to be supporting. This book focuses on the literary works written by these readers, to show how they used the Aeneid as a model for poems that probed and challenged the dominant values of their society, just as Virgil had done centuries before. Some of these poems are not as well known today as they should be, but others, like Milton's Paradise Lost and Shakespeare's The Tempest, are; in the latter case, the poems can be understood in new ways once their relationship to the 'other Virgil' is made clear.

Excerpt

This book, like all other scholarly projects, is a participant in a larger conversation, and I think it would be helpful to place what I have written into the particular dialogue that generated it right away. the focus of the book is Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic poem about the establishment of Rome that served as a foundation for Roman civilization and for the succession of cultures that defined themselves in relation to their classical origins. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas leads a group of survivors across the Mediterranean to Italy, where he founds the city that will eventually rule the world. Along the way he overcomes a series of obstacles and in the process learns a good deal about what it means to be a leader. As Aeneas lands in Italy and conquers its indigenous inhabitants, he articulates more and more successfully the values that would come to be associated with imperial Rome, until in the final scene of the poem he slays Turnus, the enemy leader, and removes the last obstacle to Roman power and glory. By this point he has overcome the forces of furor (‘rage’) and ira (‘anger’), both within himself and as represented by the people who oppose him, so that he successfully embodies pietas, that particularly Roman virtue that embraces one’s duties to God, country, and family. This approach is fundamentally optimistic, with Aeneas serving as the ideal hero of ancient Rome, the Aeneid celebrating the achievements of Augustus and his age, and the poem enduring as a monument to the values of order and civilization.

This is the basic interpretation of the poem that predominated through the middle of the last century, as it was set forth by Heinze, nuanced by Pöschl, and disseminated in the English-speaking world by Eliot. But after the Second World War, a group of Anglophone

R. Heinze, Vergils epische Technik (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1903), tr. Virgil’s Epic
Technique, tr. Hazel and David Harvey and Fred Robertson (Berkeley-Los Angeles:
Univ. of California Press, 1993); T. S. Eliot, What Is a Classic? (London: Faber & Faber,
1945); V. Pöschl, Die Dichtkunst Vergils: Bild und Symbol in der Aeneis (Innsbruck:
Margareta Friedrich Rohrer, 1950); The Art of Vergil, tr. G. Seligson (Ann Arbor: Univ.
of Michigan Press, 1962); see also A. Wlosok, ‘Vergil in der neueren Forschung’,
Gymnasium, 80 (1973), 129–51; and S. J. Harrison, ‘Some Views of the Aeneid in the . . .

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