Emotions and feelings in Virgil

Virgil, a rather complex personality, described by both his contemporaries and scholars as a quiet, silent and absorbed soul, not interested in any present glory or actual success. His poetry is absolutely uplifting as he could transform into beautiful verses anything he could rhyme about and enrich his poems with incredibly deep and detailed analysis of psychological aspects of both characters and situations. He could thus achieve the minutia of each portrayal of events and personages with such an elegance and style very difficult to find in Latin literature and perhaps even in modern times.


None of his characters is definitely positive or negative: he was able to depict the inner side of each of them and could find and describe even contradictory aspects of a personality, which is what normally constitutes and characterises the multi-facets nature of human beings. Like king Mezentius, a rather shady character of Aeneid, who shows feelings like paternal love and sympathy and remorse when he finds out that his son Lausus has been slain by Aeneas, and also already foresees his own end:

At Lausum socii exanimem super arma ferebant
flentes, ingentem atque ingenti volnere victum.
Agnovit longe gemitum praesaga mali mens:
canitiem multo deformat pulvere et ambas
ad caelum tendit palmas et corpore inhaeret.
`Tantane me tenuit vivendi, nate, voluptas,
ut pro me hostili paterer succedere dextrae,
quem genui? Tuane haec genitor per volnera servor,
morte tua vivens? Heu, nunc misero mihi demum
exitium infelix, nunc alte volnus adactum!
Idem ego, nate, tuum maculavi crimine nomen,
pulsus ob invidiam solio sceptrisque paternis.
Debueram patriae poenas odiisque meorum:
omnis per mortis animam sontem ipse dedissem!
Nunc vivo neque adhuc homines lucemque relinquo.
Sed linquam.’

O’er his broad shield still gush’d the yawning wound,
And drew a bloody trail along the ground.
Far off he heard their cries, far off divin’d
The dire event, with a foreboding mind.
With dust he sprinkled first his hoary head;
Then both his lifted hands to heav’n he spread;
Last, the dear corpse embracing, thus he said:
“What joys, alas! could this frail being give,
That I have been so covetous to live?
To see my son, and such a son, resign
His life, a ransom for preserving mine!
And am I then preserv’d, and art thou lost?
How much too dear has that redemption cost!
‘T is now my bitter banishment I feel:
This is a wound too deep for time to heal.
My guilt thy growing virtues did defame;
My blackness blotted thy unblemish’d name.
Chas’d from a throne, abandon’d, and exil’d
For foul misdeeds, were punishments too mild:
I ow’d my people these, and, from their hate,
With less resentment could have borne my fate.
And yet I live, and yet sustain the sight
Of hated men, and of more hated light:
But will not long.

The king’s spirit is now abated by the pain of his wounds and the grief of his recent loss as he speaks tender words of wisdom even to Rhaebus, his horse, before charging his final assault:

Simul hoc dicens attollit in aegrum
se femur et, quamvis dolor alto volnere tardet,
haud deiectus equum duci iubet. Hoc decus illi,
hoc solamen erat; bellis hoc victor abibat
omnibus. Adloquitur maerentem et talibus infit:
`Rhaebe, diu, res siqua diu mortalibus ulla est,
viximus. Aut hodie victor spolia illa cruenti
et caput Aeneae referes Lausique dolorum
ultor eris mecum aut, aperit si nulla viam vis,
occumbes pariter; neque enim, fortissime, credo,
iussa aliena pati et dominos dignabere Teucros.’
Dixit et exceptus tergo consueta locavit
membra manusque ambas iaculis oneravit acutis,
aere caput fulgens cristaque hirsutus equina.
Sic cursum in medios rapidus dedit: aestuat ingens
uno in corde pudor mixtoque insania luctu,
et furiis agitatus amor et conscia virtus.

With that he rais’d from ground
His fainting limbs, that stagger’d with his wound;
Yet, with a mind resolv’d, and unappall’d
With pains or perils, for his courser call’d
Well-mouth’d, well-manag’d, whom himself did dress
With daily care, and mounted with success;
His aid in arms, his ornament in peace.
Soothing his courage with a gentle stroke,
The steed seem’d sensible, while thus he spoke:
“O Rhoebus, we have liv’d too long for me-
If life and long were terms that could agree!
This day thou either shalt bring back the head
And bloody trophies of the Trojan dead;
This day thou either shalt revenge my woe,
For murther’d Lausus, on his cruel foe;
Or, if inexorable fate deny
Our conquest, with thy conquer’d master die:
For, after such a lord, rest secure,
Thou wilt no foreign reins, or Trojan load endure.”
He said; and straight th’ officious courser kneels,
To take his wonted weight. His hands he fills
With pointed jav’lins; on his head he lac’d
His glitt’ring helm, which terribly was grac’d
With waving horsehair, nodding from afar;
Then spurr’d his thund’ring steed amidst the war.

Virgil is mainly known for his epic poem Aeneid that emulates both Iliad and Odyssey: Aeneas running away from Troy travels as Odysseus looking for a new place to settle down and to found a new country (Rome) by defeating the Latin indigenous leaded by Turnus King of the Rutuli – a typical Homeric Iliad character. Therefore by chanting the Roman origins and representing the highest example of Latin Epos the poem gained him fame and a tranquil life during Augustus Empire within Mecenate intellectual and literary circle. Naturally somehow he had to recognise this “gift” by using – fortunately with some discretion – also apologetic themes and encomiastic tones towards the Empire within his opus that soon was considered and became a regime poem. As when Aeneas meets his father in the otherworld and the old king explains to him his extraordinary mission: to found Rome which will be renowned for its warfare ability and its political expansion, leaving to the old Greek civilisation the heights of fine arts and sciences:

excudent alii spirantia mollius aera
credo equidem, uiuos ducent de marmore uultus,
orabunt causas melius, caelique meatus
describent radio et surgentia sidera dicent:
tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
hae tibi erunt artes, pacisque imponere morem,
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

Let others better mold the running mass
Of metals, and inform the breathing brass,
And soften into flesh a marble face;
Plead better at the bar; describe the skies,
And when the stars descend, and when they rise.
But, Rome, ‘t is thine alone, with awful sway,
To rule mankind, and make the world obey,
Disposing peace and war by thy own majestic way;
To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free:
These are imperial arts, and worthy thee.

However, within and beside his epic production, there are personages and lines that I personally find particularly meaningful and rich of insightful messages like the words pronounced by Dido, the Queen of Carthage, showing her sublime sweetness and kind-heart for Aeneas and his people – in just one line:

Non ignara mali, miseris succurrere disco.

[I’m not unwonted to bad times and occurrences, thus I’ve learnt to aid those in distress.]

I truly think that Virgil was able to find as Hugo von Hofmannstal’s Lord Philipp Chandos was as well trying to:

“…unter all den ärmlichen und plumpen Gegeständen einer bäurishen Lebensweise nach jenem einem sucht, dessen unscheibare Form, dessen von niemand beachtetes Daliegen oder –lehnen, dessen stumme Wesenheit zur Quelle jenes rätselhaften, wortlosen, schrankenlosen Entzückens warden kann”.

[…among all those poor and clumsy objects of country life, only the one that with his non evident shape, whose unwilling tossing or placing, whose mute essence is able to spring that mysterious, silent, boundless exaltation]

As I think few others can be more suggestive and romantic than these lines from Virgil’s first ecloga, which sound so modern, so Lakist or Leopardian:

Hic tamen hanc mecum poteras requiescere noctem
fronde super viridi. sunt nobis mitia poma,
castaneae molles et pressi copia lactis,
et iam summa procul villarum culmina fumant
maioresque cadunt altis de montibus umbrae.

[Please stay and rest with me tonight
on the green leaves, I’ve got ripe apples
sweet chestnuts and plenty of cheese,
See already in the distance the smoky cottages’ chimneys,
and taller the shadows are coming down from the mounts.]


I am today more than ever certain that it takes very little to a true poet to create an atmosphere. Maybe a true artist’s secret is, as Hugo von Hofmannstal brilliantly pointed out:

“Oder als könnten wir in ein neues, ahnungsvolles Verhältnis zum ganzen Dasein treten, wenn wir anfingen, mit dem Herzen zu denken

[We could get into a new, meaningful relationship with the entire universe if we started thinking with our heart]

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13 comments on “Emotions and feelings in Virgil

  1. Emily says:

    Welcome back! I wish I was there as well!
    Very interesting post, as usual very carefully written.
    I remind you that Virgil with the matter presented in the first Eclogue is influenced by his family land confiscation after the battle of Philippi. I’ve read that some modern scholars (Clausen W.V. or Rudd N.) think that Tityrus is in reality Vergil protesting against land confiscations; some others (O’Hara J. or Vestal U.K.) instead mean that this is a eulogy to Octavian. The problem raised of whether Vergil wrote to tell his own story or just to give information on the age in which he lived can be solved by assuming that Vergil made attempted at them both. They were both inspiration anyway, right?
    As to his novelty, I frankly think that Vergil uses too many models, especially Hellenistic sources like Theocritus, Callimachus, and Aratus, but also Roman sources like Lucretius or Plautus.
    Very smart connection with the Lakists, personally as you remember I love both Wordsworth and Coleridge.
    I really love the intelligent and original bridge you have formed (I really wonder how it popped into your mind…!) between Vergil and Hofmannsthal’s “Ein Brief”.
    It’s good to have you back, Emily.

  2. stoa says:

    Thank you Emily for your rich notes and your kind comment.
    I deem that Virgil, contrarily to Horace, was a more charismatic personality, something that allowed him to be easily admired and respected – therefore I doubt he was actually writing about his resentment; although no doubt his family farm and land in the outskirts of Mantua were confiscated.
    Nevertheless I do love to think instead – but you know how I am… – that he was more of a secluded and reserved person who really loved to find refuge in the countryside.
    Of course Theocritus in primis and then the others you quoted had a strong influence on his poetry, but I still find some vein of originality within the simplicity of his composition and above all in his evocative tone.
    As to the reference to the Lakists I truly think there is something… and as you know I am definitely fond of P.B. Shelley and then Keats and Byron.
    I also see some Leopardi flashes, especially when it comes to the “paesaggio” which is also in Virgil’s case both a framework for the “poem-portrait” and at the same time a mirror into which feelings and emotions are reflected.
    To “calm down” your curiosity the bridge with von Hofmannsthal came out naturally because I’ve started reading this author just only a few days ago under the bright guide and advice of a brilliant scholar whose opinion I hold in the utmost consideration.
    It is always a pleasure to read from you.

  3. Hellen Haan says:

    Just accidentally found your blog, distinguished, interesting. By the by, Lord Chandos and Vergil…… what an interesting matching, never thought about that. Clever, written with passion. Good job, absolutely: Hellen Haan

  4. Karen says:

    I didn’t know Vergil was such a romantic poet, my school flashbacks are more on the epic side… remember how I love the countryside too? And how I try to find my bolt-hole there… Great post, as usual… Karen

  5. Ana de La Robla says:

    Qué gran texto, como siempre… pleno de sugerencias, de meandros inteligentes que alumbran los rincones más privados.
    ¿Quién podría preferir pensar con la cabeza pudiendo pensar con el corazón? Algo similar a aquello que expresara Virginia Woolf a través de la ficticia Lady Rosseter en su Mrs. Dalloway… aunque Hofmannsthal sabe llegar tan lejos que nos deja estremecidos.
    Homero y Virgilio son a la literatura y, sobre todo, a las emociones de Occidente (me gustaría enfatizar lo de las emociones), lo que la filosofía griega, el derecho romano y la religión judía (la famosa trilogía de Dilthey). Dryden lo dijo taxativamente: “Son ellos dos”.
    La fascinación que ejerce Virgilio en nosotros sólo puede entenderse desde su corazón de exilio. (El exilio no es un suceso, es un estado que a veces comienza en el cuerpo y acaba siempre en lo más recóndito corazón). Y es tal la magnitud del sentimiento que éste lo impregna todo, y también a sus lectores, dejándonos emocionalmente indefensos ante el arte que así surge. Cuando Virgilio lamía sus versos como una osa con sus crías (según la Vita de Suetonio-Donato) en realidad se lamía el corazón y nos lo lame a nosotros, un poco náufragos tal vez…
    Yo también prefiero pensar en un Virgilio menos pragmático, menos obsesionado por sus pérdidas que por sus búsquedas, enfervorecido por sus convicciones (algo que toma de Lucrecio), sumido en las circunvoluciones del hecho de crear. Por ello, quizá, es tan espléndida esa recreación de La muerte de Virgilio que nos legara Hermann Broch.
    Besos siempre admirados.

  6. Jacqueline says:

    Très bien! Pour la première fois je pouvais voir un peu plus de toi……. Jacqueline

  7. Duncan says:

    I must say I don’t know Virgil that good, but I kind of like him, though. I will try to get some more about him. Thanks for the suggestion. D.

  8. stoa says:

    Thank you Hellen and welcome to my little workshop. I hope you will keep passing by and enjoy my forthcoming issues. Frankly I am surprised myself about the connection I found between this early ‘900 Austrian writer’s letter and Virgil, maybe I was particularly inspired that morning…

  9. stoa says:

    Hello Karen,
    I guess that sometimes you find that people have many different sides and show them when least you expect; this when it comes to artists is even amplified.
    Of course I do remember your passion for the fields and the river, I truly hope you did find what you were looking for.

  10. stoa says:

    Dear Ana,
    thank you for your very kind compliment and for your comment, always detailed and knowledgeable.
    I do agree that after Homer and Virgil, no one else can keep their pace: they have harvested any possible feeling, emotion, reaction that a human being (either man or woman) can possibly feel – since then it has been very hard to be original…
    I personally find the “literature of exile” an incredible source for inspiration and a rich “catalogue” very useful for analysing the multifaceted human nature.
    I think that only when by yourself and away from the rest of the world, you have time, tools and can find the courage to dig into yourself and search for what you really are, what you really want.
    Virgil, figuratively – and perhaps not only – represents, to a certain extent, a highly refined example of what can actually be reached by a naturally endowed human soul when properly solicited.

  11. stoa says:

    Dear Jacqueline,
    yes, it comes more natural and it is way much easier to write on something that you feel closer to you.
    This time everything came out so fast and simple, that I guess a little part of me escaped from my fingers and fell on the keyboard…

  12. stoa says:

    Hello Duncan,
    I confess I still do not know all about his production: he was so prolific! However it is only a question of never feeling overwhelmed and of starting and then following your instinct and taste – at least this is what I do.
    Besides don’t you ever forget it is supposed to be a nice moment for yourself and not a rush or competition!

  13. […] fellow who really belongs in the shadow of this tree, writes in the pages of his Stoa Poikile about Dido and Aeneas and Odysseus and his women. No Comments Leave a Commenttrackback addressThere was an error […]

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