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Mantua lies islanded on the Mincio, with swamps beyond. The region is unhealthy, and Virgil's health was not robust. This Eclogue confuses the imagined incident of a slave going to Rome to get his freedom with that of Virgil's own going to Rome to recover his farm. As Dryden translates, Tityrus (who is Virgil) refers thus to his visit to Rome :
“ There first the youth of heavenly birth I viewed,
For whom our monthly victims are renewed.
My grounds to be restored, my former flocks to feed."
It was Mæcenas who suggested to Virgil the writing of his Georgics. As the Eclogues were based on Theocritus, so Virgil based his Georgics, perhaps in part on the last Georgics of Nicander, certainly in part on the Prognostics of Aratus, and on the Works and Days of Hesiod, with their good lesson of the work men live to do. There is influence also upon Virgil of the philosophic poem of Lucretius, who is said to have died on the day when Virgil at the age of sixteen assumed the “toga virilis,” manly dress. It is to inspiration drawn from the poem of Lucretius on the Nature of Things, and to Lucretius himself, that Virgil refers in a famous passage of the second Georgic, which has been thus translated by Dryden :
“Ye sacred Muses, with whose beauty fired,
My soul is ravished, and my brain inspired :
What shakes the solid earth, what cause delays
Fearless of fortune, and resigned to fate." Virgil's interest in Lucretius was the greater because he himself was student of medicine, agriculture, mathematics, as well as of poetry. Made rich in worldly goods by the friendship of Augustus and Mæcenas, he was liberal of his own ; in all things kindly; tall, sunbrowned, and with a quiet rustic air.
Virgil was at work upon the “ Æneid” when he was about forty years old. When he was forty-seven, in the year B.C. 23, the young Marcellus died, son of Octavia, the sister of Augustus. Virgil introduced into the sixth book of the “ Æneid” a lament for his death, and celebration of his virtues. A passage in the seventh book appears to refer to an event that occurred three years later, B.C. 20, but Virgil left the twelve books of his “ Æneid” complete, and died B.C. 19, at the age of fifty-one. His "Æneid” was complete ; but he is said to have asked for its destruction because he died before it had received his finishing touches. His body was removed to Naples-soft Parthenope-his favourite dwelling-place, and buried by the Via Puteolana, a mile or two outside the town.
Virgil aimed always at the utmost finish in his work, and is said to have been disappointed by death of three years' labour in the perfecting of his “ Æneid” which, during many centuries after his death, has received almost divine honour as a perfect epic. The“ Æneid,” based on Homer's “Iliad,” is great in action, since it represents the mythical story of the founding of the Roman power ; great in its consequences, the future of the Roman world ; and as great as Virgil knew how to make it in its persons. The poet's bias is Latin throughout. He upholds the honour of the Trojans as firmly as he supposed Homer to have maintained that of the Greeks. At Carthage, with Dido, he has in mind the future relations between Carthage and Rome ; and the escape of Æneas from inactive pleasure, would suggest to the Court of Augustus how Marc Antony lost all through slavery to his delight in Cleopatra. A wide world of intervening thought separates Virgil from Homer. Virgil's women have their characters often developed with an emphasis caught, in part, from the Greek dramatists. In Homer there is an art wholly creative, shaped out of the rising energies of Greece. In Virgil there is an art chiefly imitative, refined by a master poet after Rome had touched the highest point of all her greatness.
John Dryden, at the age of sixty-six, published his translation, not of the “ Æneid” only, but of the whole works of Virgil, in July, 1697, having planned the enterprise in, or before, 1694. He died in the year 1700. Dryden's bias to authority in Church and State, when it had once overcome the influences of education in an opposite direction, made it impossible for him at the Revolution to take the oaths that would be required if he retained office as Poet Laureate. His fortunes were broken by the political change. Translations by him from the Latin poets had been received with high favour. Criticism of that day saw ideal excellence in Latin poets of the Augustan age, and Virgil was the, idol of the critics. Dryden himself was, in spite of his politics, acknowledged to be the one great poet then living in England. Then, also, there was no good English translation of Virgil. Gavin Douglas's Scottish translation of the “Æneid” was unread, and by that age unreadable. In modern form there was only John Ogilby's very poor translation of the works of Virgil, which had been first published in 1649, and reproduced in 1654 as a handsome folio, adorned with plates by Hollar, Faithorne, and Lombart. Jacob Tonson, Dryden's publisher, used for his edition Ogilby's plates touched up, and published Dryden's Virgil by subscription, engraving under successive plates the arms of one hundred and one subscribers of five guineas, who contributed towards the adornment of the work with engravings; besides these, there were two hundred and fifty subscribers of two guineas, who did not receive heraldic honours in part payment. The profit from the work to Dryden himself seems to have been about twelve hundred pounds. A generation later Pope earned very much more by translating Homer. As Dryden would not make friendly advance to King William, by dedicating the translation to him, Jacob Tonson, as publisher, did his loyal best by directing that, in retouching the plates, the Roman nose of the pious “Æneas' should be made to conform to that of William III.
And so Tõnson hoped that His
Majesty might be caught by the nose. The first edition of Dryden's Virgil was sold in a few months. As Samuel Johnson said: “It satisfied his friends and, for the most part, silenced his enemies." Pope spoke of it as the most noble and spirited translation of Virgil that he knew in any language. But it is better to read and enjoy good books for what they themselves say, than for what others may have said of them. In Dryden's Virgil this, at least, is clear, that we have one ripe poet translated by another; so that we must needs find pleasure in the reading.
The Trojans, after a seven years' voyage, set sail for Italy, but are
overtaken by a dreadful storm, which Æolus raises at Juno's request. The tempest sinks one and scatters the rest : Neptune drives off the winds and calms the sea. Æneas, with his own ship and six more, arrives safe at an African port. Venus complains to Jupiter of her son's misfortunes. Jupiter comforts her, and sends Mercury to procure him a kind reception among the Carthaginians. Æneas going out to discover the country, meets his mother in the shape of a huntress, who conveys him in a cloud to Carthage, where he sees his friends, whom he thought lost, and receives a kind entertainment from the Queen. Dido, by a device of Venus, begins to have a passion for him, and, after some discourse with him, desires the history of his adventures since the siege of Troy, which is the subject of the two following books.
ARMS and the man I sing, who, forced by fate
O Muse, the causes and the crimes relate,
Against the Tiber's mouth, but far away,
Now scarce the Trojan fleet with sails and oars,
“ Then am I vanquished, must I yield ?" said she,