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.
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]