Tag Archives: dante

The Virgilian tradition

The famous 3rd-century mosaic of Virgil from the Bardo Museum, Tunis, Tunisia

Some time ago, back when I was a Master’s student, I wrote a little piece called You Should Read the Iliad, and then another called simply The Odyssey. I finally wrote my third in the series, Why read the Aeneid of Virgil? in July of 2018. Having written about the Age of Augustus, and how we who study later Rome also know earlier Rome, my mind keeps circling back to the Virgilian tradition, a vast literary heritage that begins as soon as Virgil’s work is produced. Virgil is an instant classic, as seen in Propertius 2.34.59-66:

My pleasure to languish with yesterday’s garlands,
Whom the sure-aiming god touched to the bone;
For Virgil the power to tell of Actium’s shores
In Phoebus’ guard and Caesar’s gallant ships,
Who now wakes to life the arms of Troy’s Aeneas
And walls cast down on Lavinian shores.
Surrender, writers of Rome, surrender, Greeks!
Something greater than the Iliad is born.
-Trans. A. J. Boyle, ‘The Canonic Text: Virgil’s Aeneid’, in his own Roman Epic, p. 79

For Late Antiquity, Virgil is the single most important Latin poet. This is true not only for the obvious writers, such as Servius with his commentary on Virgil, or Macrobius’ Saturnalia, nor only for the poets — Virgilian intertexts are inevitable in Claudian — but even for those men dubbed ‘Fathers of the Church’ — Virgilian quotations and allusions abound in Augustine of Hippo. I’ve not read much Jerome yet, but I suspect the same will prove true. This use of Virgil as a source of wisdom is a Latin parallel of how Greeks treated Homer.

The Virgilian tradition, then, is vast . I have beside me The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years by Jan M. Ziolkowski and Michael C. J. Putnam. It is 1024 pages long, not including the endmatter. Here are some highlights …

The Virgilian Middle Ages

The explicit intertext, signalled in its title, of Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus (1182) is the invective of Claudian. Yet here we also find various Virgilian intertexts, not to mention an explicit naming of Virgil.

Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide (1100s), makes use of Dido and Aeneas.

But the most famous medieval reader of Virgil is the Supreme Poet of Italy, Dante Alighieri, whose Inferno has Virgil as guide not only of the character Dante in the poem but of the poet Dante who wrote the poem.

Where else to turn in the 1000-year medieval reception of Virgil? Well, at the very least Petrarch (1304-74), whose works are littered with Virgil, and Chaucer, particularly The House of Fame which draws on Virgil’s own personification of Fama in Aeneid 4.

The Early Modern Virgil

For the early modern era as for the Middle Ages, Virgil was very much a powerful presence, in both Latin and vernacular literature, such as the Portuguese Lusiads by Camões, the Italian Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato, and in English, Milton’s Paradise Lost.

It should come as no great shock that various aspects of the Virgilian tradition are also in Ariosto, Orlando Furioso. Besides his ongoing use of epic similes and set-piece descriptions (ecphrasis in the singular, ecphraseis in the plural), Ariosto has a number of scenes modelled on or inspired by Virgil. Early in the epic, for example, Bradamant is dropped into a cave by a mortal enemy of her family. The cave turns out to be Merlin’s tomb, and a sorceress dwells there, who proceeds to show Bradamant the parade of her descendants — including Ariosto’s patron, whom Ariosto compares to Augustus, saying that he even has his own Virgil! (Quite the boast.)

Virgil Today

Sometimes it may feel like the ancient Classics have fallen on hard times. But new translations of the Aeneid keep appearing, including the potent translation of Book VI by Seamus Heaney. Moreover, epic retellings find their ways onto our shelves, if less often onto our screens — I think particularly of Ursula K. Le Guin’s masterful novel Lavinia.

One potential reception of Virgil that is, in fact, disputed, is Battlestar Galactica, which both Peggy Heller and Charlotte Higgins argue has Virgilian elements. Chris Jones’ arguments against the two are not entirely convincing. Intertextuality is not the same as adaptation; Ronald D. Moore could very well have had some basic Virgilian-Aeneid structures in mind without creating a perfect sci-fi adaptation. I like the idea, that is, of Virgil as intertext, if not as inspiration or source for BSG. It would, in fact, be entirely fitting for the poet whose masterpiece is in many ways the ultimate intertext of both Homeric epics and the Latin epic of Ennius to be used as an intertext for TV shows today.

What I want to see in the Virgilian tradition is a good graphic novel — Roy Thomas gave us The Iliad and Odyssey for Marvel; Gareth Hinds, after a splendid Beowulf, has also given us The Iliad and Odyssey. Could one of them give us the Aeneid as well? Please? (I know nothing about Agrimbau and Sosa’s — is it worthy?)

Medievalism

For Christmas, I received a copy of the interesting and pleasant-to-read C. S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid. When I noted a copy lying about my PhD supervisor’s office, he remarked that he’s not sure it’s how he would translate the Aeneid. Indeed, neither am I.

But the thing I remarked is a very remarkable thing. Lewis’ translation, if you go through the various bits of introductory material provided by the editors, tries to stand in the same tradition as earlier, mediaeval translations of Classical literature. Lewis did not believe in trying to reproduce for the modern reader a similar effect as for the ancients — it was unattainable. He also believed firmly in rhythmic poetry, rhyme-schemes, and traditional English effects — neither foisting upon English a foreign poetry nor foisting upon ancient poetry modernist poetry.

Lewis was a medievalist of a sort that barely exists anymore. I don’t mean simply that he was an academic medievalist who sought to interpret and communicate medieval history, arts, and culture for today’s world, as several persons of my acquaintance are. I mean, rather, that he created new art inspired by and, at times, modelled on the arts and worldview of the medievals.

He was not alone.

Rossetti, 'The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice in Paradise'

Dorothy L. Sayers, one of Lewis’ friends (learn more about her here), translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into rhythmic, rhyming verse, something many modern translators would shudder at. Yet in so doing, she produced for the modern English reader a version of Dante that bears Dante’s content and communicates the beauty and force of the Comedy‘s poetry.

J. R. R. Tolkien, another of Lewis’ friends, created his world-famous The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is a modern novel that, I believe, draws much of its inspiration from the sagas and romances of the western Middle Ages — in a way, it is a mediaeval romance for moderns. One of his posthumous works, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (I’ve blogged about it here and here) takes the disparate bits of mediaeval Norse legend and puts them together in a coherent whole — not as a novel, as perhaps I would go about it, but as two narrative poems written in Old English versification (but in modern English), as well as a third that’s actually in Old English.

Another contemporary of Lewis, Tolkien, and Sayers was (is?) Pauline Baynes, the illustrator of Narnia, who Lewis felt drew too prettily for her own good. Her art is self-consciously mediaeval, modelling itself upon the aesthetic of Anglo-Saxon and Persian manuscripts — a good example of what she can do with a broad canvas is her colourfully-illustrated Nicene Creed, I Believe.

In the years before these Oxbridge scholars were producing their novels and translations, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was creating art consciously in opposition to the trends of much of the high arts of the day, seeking to imitate the style and use of colour predominant in older, Late Medieval art.

Morris & Co Wallpaper

William Morris, a contemporary and friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, was a founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement; his company designed wallpapers, tapestries, objects, furnishings, textiles, and stained glass, much of which was inspired by a more ‘mediaeval’ aesthetic. Not only did he hire ‘mediaevalising’ Pre-Raphaelites as stained-glass designers for his company, he even produced Arthurian and chivalric poetry in old-fashioned English verse.

While much of today’s stained glass feels hopelessly (post)modern, Victorian and early-twentieth-century stained glass feels beautifully mediaeval. I recommended testing this hypothesis in any church old enough.

Beardsley, yet another Victorian, produced his masterful woodcuts for Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, clearly inspired by mediaeval illuminations.

A Beardsley Woodcut

Another example of Victorian mediaevalism was the decision to hold a tournament. But, being Victorians and not real mediaevals, they cancelled it due to rain. I hear that one can find images of them in their mediaeval garb with umbrellas over their heads.

What do we get? Who tries to produce contemporary art that wishes to be imbued by the spirit of a bygone age? Modern stained glass is helplessly modern. Illustration turns to my beloved Quentin Blake, which is fine, but why not have a Pauline Baynes in the ranks alongside him? Where has metrical verse gone? Or the wild rumpus of medieval romance? The true Romance of romance!

Alas, have we seen the last of such artistic practitioners in the ranks of the Inklings?

I hope not.

Since writing this post a couple of months ago, but being unable to post until now, I have read Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur, his modern English version of The Alliterative Morte Arthur, a Middle English alliterative poem. His translation is also in alliterative verse, and it brought joy and hope to my heart.