Слике страница
[graphic][merged small][merged small][merged small]

VENTURE to submit to your notice to.

day an attempt at a translation of the $ earlier part of the Sixth Book of the Æneid into the Spenserian metre. I say an attempt, for in a few distracted hours no one can do justice to a poet whose sense of finish was so exacting, that he made it his dying request that his Æneid should be burned as an imperfect and unfinished thing. Before making some remarks upon the book and upon the measure which I have adopted, I shall ask your permission to read, by way of preface, a brief study upon St. Augustine and Virgil.

ST. AUGUSTINE AND VIRGIL. One of the best known passages of Christian antiquity is that in which Augustine reproaches himself with the fascination which Virgil had exercised over him in his boyhood. The student of Augustine lights upon much which leads him to conclude that the Christian bishop never emancipated himself from

the spell. The chain, of which the first link was set in motion in the school of rhetoric at Thagaste, continued to vibrate to the same touch through all the excitement of controversy and the labours of the episcopate. It may be interesting to consider the sides of Virgil's genius which rendered Augustine susceptible to his influence.

It must be confessed that Virgil's consummate taste and sense of form do not serve to answer our question. These are rarely the characteristics of a provincial society like the Roman-African, never of a civilization in decline, and of a language in the agonies of dissolution. Bad taste abounds in Augustine's writings, if perpetual antithesis, tortuous conceit, and grotesque disproportion of arrangement, be bad taste. Indeed, when the Saint exhibits good taste in his compositions, it is a moral quality, a Christian sentiment, not a literary tact. In reviewing a passage of the Confessions, the writer feels that he has been guilty of an extravagant expression. “I felt that my soul and his were one soul in two bodies,” he exclaims, in describing his youthful sorrow for a school-fellow and friend. “Therefore,” he adds, “I conceived a horror of life, because I was unwilling that I should live on a halved existence. And perhaps I was afraid to die for this reason, lest he whom I loved so tenderly should wholly die."* In his Retractations, Augustine condemns this hyperbole severely. “However qualified this impertinence may be by the insertion of the word forte, it seems

* Confess. iv. 6.

to me a purile piece of declamatory conceit rather than a grave confession.”* The condemnation is one which taste must certainly approve. But it is dictated by a sentiment which is moral, not artistic.

The picturesqueness of Virgil must have had peculiar charms for Augustine. It is a picturesqueness in one important respect different from that of the earlier classical poets. By them Nature is described beautifully indeed, but coldly, with no more tenderness or enthusiasm than a piece of armour. We can understand as we read them how a man like Cæsar could have whiled away the tediousness of a passage across the Alps by writing a treatise upon grammatical analogy. Virgil's subjectivity gives to his description of bees, of light and waters, of trees and flowers, a certain modern tone, as of sympathy and fond observation. But this is one important element which Christianity was preparing for modern literature. The tone in which Nature is treated in modern times, though of late years not without Pantheistic intermixture, comes from the dogmas of Christianity. They who believe that Nature is God's creation and witness, that she is fallen and is to be restored, will not fail to survey her lovingly, minutely, and with trembling hope. In one or two passages of the Gospels, in Gregory and Basil among the Christian fathers, we seem to breathe the atmosphere and catch the voice of modern romance and poetry. But the true centre of fascination in Virgil for a

* Retract. ii. 6.

nature like St. Augustine's must have been his infinite tenderness. From the recollection of Terence he recoiled at once with offended pride and wounded delicacy. He had learned to look, almost with indignation and contempt, upon the part of the professional rhetorician which he had so long filled. To be a "word-seller” was a meanness, in an age where there could be no eloquence, because there was no freedom. One of the favourite rhetorical exercises of the time was to give a boy a part of a poem to read off into prose. Few exercises could be better calculated to give copiousness of diction and fluency of expression. Now Terence was especially used to afford ground colours for the rhetorical style, which Augustine had learned to despise. More obvious reasons for his hatred of the writings of Terence are, their occasional obscenity, and their connection with a theatre which it was impossible to separate from the taint of Paganism, the voluptuous fascination of the spectacle, and the sanguinary fascination of the circus. It should be remembered that the poetry of Virgil had acquired, wherever Latin was spoken, a popularity which at first sight is surprising. Such exquisite finish, such chased and chiselled lines, are not, one would think, to be appreciated without culture. Yet verses of Virgil are scrawled on the poorest tombs among the catacombs, and scribbled upon the walls of Pompeii by the hands of the lowest of the people. Much of this may, doubtless, be due to the good fortune as well as genius of the poet who first shapes the legends of a great

« ПретходнаНастави »