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Virgil has always been, for one reason or other, the most popular of all the old classical writers. His poems were a favourite study with his own countrymen, even in his own generation; within fifty years of his death they were admitted to the very questionable honour, which they have retained ever since, of serving as a text-book for schoolboys. The little Romans studied their Æneid, from their master’s dictation, as regularly, and probably with quite as much appreciation of its beauties, as the fourth form of an English public school, and wrote “declamations” of some kind upon its heroes. In the middle ages, when Greek literature had become almost a deserted field, and Homer in the original was a sealed book even to those who considered themselves and were considered scholars, Virgil was still the favourite with young and old. The monks in their chronicles, philosophers in their secular studies, enlivened their pages with quotations from the one author with whom no man of letters would venture to confess himself wholly unacquainted. The
works of Virgil had passed through above forty editions in Europe before the first printed edition of Homer appeared from the Florence press in 1448. He has been translated, imitated, and parodied in all the chief European languages. The fate of Dido, of Pallas, and of Euryalus, has drawn tears from successive generations of which the poet never dreamed.
In the middle ages his fame underwent a singular transformation. From the magic power of song the transition seems incongruous to the coarser material agency of the wizard. But so it was; Virgilius the poet became, in mediæval legends, Virgilius the magician. One of his Eclogues (the Eighth), in which are introduced the magical charms by which it is sought to reclaim a wandering lover, is supposed to have given the first impulse to this superstitious belief. All kinds of marvels were attributed to his agency. It was said that he built at Rome, for the Emperor Augustus, a wondrous tower, in which were set up emblematic figures of all the subject nations which acknowledged the imperial rule, each with a bell in its hand, which rang out whenever war or revolt broke out in that particular province, so that Rome knew at once in what direction to march her legions. In the same building—so the legend ran—he contrived a magic mirror, in which the enemies of the Empire could be seen when they appeared in arms; and another—surely the most terrible agency that was ever imagined in the way of domestic police—in which the guilt of any Roman citizen could be at once seen and detected. A fount of perpetual fire, and salt-springs of medicinal
virtue, were said to have been the gifts of the great enchanter to the Roman populace. At Naples the marvels which were attributed to his agency were scarcely less; and even now there is scarcely any useful or ornamental public work of early date, in the neighbourhood of that city, which is not in some way connected by vulgar tradition with the name of Virgil. The wondrous powers thus ascribed to him were, according to some legends, conferred upon him by Chiron the learned centaur—by whom the great Achilles, and the poet’s own hero, Æneas, were said to have been educated; by others, with that blending of pagan belief with Christian which is so commonly found in mediæval writers, they were referred to direct communication with the Evil One.
French scholars have always had the highest appreciation of the Augustan poet, and his popularity
in England is to this day as great as ever. Even a practical House of Commons, not always very patient of argument, and notoriously impatient of some prosaic speakers, will listen to a quotation from Virgil—especially when pointed against a political opponent. Those to whom his rolling measure is familiar still quote him and cheer him so enthusiastically, that others listen with more or less appreciation. To the many who have almost forgotten what they once knew of him, his lines awake reminiscences of their youth—which are always pleasant: while even those to whom he is a sound and nothing more, listen as with a kind of sacred awe. The debates of our reformed Parliament will certainly be duller, if ever Virgil comes to be proscribed as an unknown tongue.
English translators of Virgil have abounded. But the earliest and by no means the least able of those who presented the Roman poet to our northern islanders in their own vernacular was a Scotsman, Bishop Gawain Douglas of Dunkeld, that clerkly son of old Archibald “Bell-the-Cat” whom Scott names in his ‘Marmion.’ Few modern readers of Virgil are likely to be proficients in the ancient northern dialect which the bishop used; but those who can appreciate him maintain that there is considerable vigour as well as faithfulness in his version. Thomas Phaer, a Welsh physician, was the next who made the attempt, in the long verses known as Alexandrine, in 1558. A few years later came forth what might fairly be called the comic English version, though undertaken in the most serious earnest by the
translator. This was Richard Stanyhurst, an Irishman, a graduate of Oxford and student of Lincoln’s Inn. He seems to have been the original prophet of that “pestilent heresy,” as Lord Derby calls it, the making of English hexameters; for that was the metre which he chose, and he congratulates himself in his preface upon “having no English writer before him in this kind of poetry.” Without going so far as to endorse Lord Derby’s severe judgment, it may be confessed that Stanyhurst did his best to justify it. His translation, which he ushered into public with the most profound self-satisfaction, is quite curious enough to account for its reprint by the “Edinburgh Printing Society” in 1836. One of the points upon which he prides himself is the suiting the sound to the sense, which Virgil himself has done happily enough in some rare passages. So when he has to translate the line,
“Exoritur clamorque virum clangorque tubarum,”
he does it as follows:—
“The townsmen roared, the trump tara-tantara rattled.”
When he has to express the Cyclops forging the thunderbolts, it is
“With peale meale ramping, with thick thwack sturdily thund’ring;”
and very much more of the same kind.
The Earl of Surrey and James Harrington tried their hand at detached portions, and although the quaint conceits which were admired in their day have little charm for the modern reader, there is not want
ing, especially in the former, a spirit and vigour in which, some of those who came before and after them lamentably failed. The translations by Vicars and Ogilby, about the middle of the seventeenth century, have little claim to be remembered except as the first presentations of the whole Æneid in an English poetical dress. In dull mediocrity they are about equal.
In 1697, Dryden, at the age of sixty-six, finished and published his translation; written, as he pathetically says, “in his declining years, struggling with want, and oppressed with sickness;” yet, whatever be its shortcomings, a confessedly great work, and showing few traces of these unfavourable circumstances. His great renown, and the unquestionable vigour and ability of the versification, insured its popularity at once; and it was considered, by the critics of his own and some succeeding generations, as pre-eminently the English Virgil. Dr Johnson said of it that “it satisfied his friends and silenced his enemies.” It may still be read with pleasure, but it has grave faults. Independently of its general looseness and diffuseness, in many passages amounting to the vaguest paraphrase, there are too many instances in which, not content with making his author say a good many things which he never did say, he palpably misinterprets him. There are many passages of much vigour and beauty; but even of these it has been said, and not unfairly, by a later translator, Dr Trapp, that “where you most admire Dryden, you see the least of Virgil.” Dryden had the advantage of consulting in manuscript a translation by the Earl of Lauderdale
(afterwards published), which has considerable merit, and to which in his preface he confesses obligations “not inconsiderable.” They were, in fact, so considerable as this, that besides other hints in the matter of words and phrases, he borrowed nearly four hundred lines in different places, with scarcely an attempt at change.
Dryden was followed by various other translators more or less successful. Pitt and Symmons, the latter especially, might have earned a greater reputation had they preceded instead of followed the great poet whose laurels they plainly challenged by adopting his metre. But the recent admirable translation of the Æneid into the metre of Scott by Mr Conington will undoubtedly take its place henceforward as by far the most poetical, as it is also the most faithful and scholarly, rendering of the original.