BMCR 1999.10.16

Virgil’s Experience: Nature and History; Times, Names, and Places

, Virgil's experience : nature and history, times, names, and places. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. xiii, 712 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780198140337 $65.00.

When Richard Jenkyns dramatically entered the scene in 1980 with The Victorians and Ancient Greece it was apparent that here was a new voice worth attending to. “Voice” is, I hope, the right word, for as impressive as Jenkyns’ evident learning and culture, wide reading, and sensitive ear for poetry were, what made the book especially remarkable was the (sometimes mordant) wit energizing the whole. Everyone noticed it. And that quality of writing, its play of sensibility, made his arguably the best of the several excellent books in the general area. Virgil’s Experience, published eighteen years later, is a different sort of thing. Perhaps one is not supposed to be mordantly witty with Vergil; or possibly, away from the glancing, refractive interplay of modern and ancient material, where anachronism, misprision, geniuses and cranks, a multitude of arts and genres all conspire to crazy juxtaposition, illuminating perspective, and brilliant observation, a project like “Vergil’s Experience” might seem to call for a graver tone or an Approach Very Traditional.

That is what we have here, at 700 page length: an expert, learned, comprehensive study written in a critical idiom that takes virtually no notice of recent trends in Latin studies. Some will find that last feature heartening, and in fact it is not all bad, for it frees J. to speak utterly independently, beholden to no clique or coterie. Some of the good it yields will be mentioned below, but I begin with a few discontents. There is something simply odd about a book published in 1998 whose prose, especially in its early chapters, is largely indistinguishable from that of a book published in 1930; formal and traditional in manner, it offers no weak-kneed compromises to modernity: pronouns, for instance, are uniformly masculine; “man” and “a man” stand in, in various expressions, for all of us. A man will see no concessions to gender neutrality in this book’s King’s English. There is, further, something almost peculiar in a discourse so hermetically English in its references and character as this one is. English landscapes, writers, and characters, even English archaisms, a bit precious, litter the pages. The culture, when comparanda are sought, is high and European: Mozart, Brahms, Milton, Keats, Wagner, Mahler, Austen, Van Eyck, Goethe…. The voice is mandarin, knowing, pedantic, and quick to correct errant preconceptions. Some of those preconceptions are explicitly tackled, as when he sets the reader right on the issue of Vergil’s purported homosexuality or sorts out complacent assumptions about pastoral poetry. Some are not, and passed over with damning indifference. In fact, J. passes over a great deal. He addresses this issue somewhat obliquely in his preface: “I am conscious that the names of some eminent Virgilians appear seldom in my footnotes, and some not at all; this is not because I am incapable of learning from them, but usually because their work has not been on the immediate concerns of this book…. I have attempted, without complete consistency, to be sparing in the citation of modern scholarship. Some books seem to me too cluttered with secondary references; it is not the function of monographs to provide running bibliographies….” I hope my ellipses have not distorted the spirit of this disclaimer because it is important. And he is in part right. Some books are too cluttered with references, often in a tiresome round of friend-or-ally citation; and polemic (of which there are just occasional touches in this book) can be equally distracting. But there is something disingenuous and expedient in that “because their work has not been on the immediate concerns of this book.” “This book,” after all, as the preface further points out, encompasses “the literary, cultural, and social influences which acted upon [Vergil] … his attitude to nature and landscape; his feeling for Rome, Italy, and small-scale locality; his sense of history, process, and the passing of time…” — a description, ever broadening to include nature in Greek poetry, precedents in Republican Latin, influences on later poetry, (two separate chapters on) Lucretius, as well as coverage of all three Vergilian poems. Throughout all of which, much that does not fall under the local rubrics of “nature” or “landscape” enjoys discussion. This is nothing less than a huge canvas, and to argue, or pretend, that recent work (on Roman politics, panegyric, patronage, theories and practices of intertextuality, religion, time and history, Roman sexuality …) does not impinge is implausible. The unexpressed message is ‘this is not work I find sympathetic or useful and therefore it is not “about” the subject of my book.’ Constantly, in reading this book, one is struck with the recognition that here or there is an issue discussed by someone else in detail; almost never is an answering footnote found. It is entirely indicative that far the most commonly cited contemporary critic is one R. Jenkyns. When he claims to “apply different kinds of thought or argument to the issue at hand: close reading, literary history, cultural history, politics and political thought, philosophy” (vii), he means to say that he brings his view of these matters, not much altered by what others have recently said of them, to the discussion. In any but the most traditional terms, the politics of writing and the politics of reading are conspicuously absent. What, for the most part, J. actually, and ably, does is something out of the formalist’s workshop: “illuminate the meaning of the verse through a close study of the text, an enquiry into the details of language and sense (a good deal that is written about Latin poetry would apply equally if the words were prose) but also into the larger form; for no one understood better than Virgil how structure could express meaning” (vii).

I should be the last to criticize that, for J. redresses an imbalance in current criticism of Latin poetry, bringing sound and form and judgement of diction back into play, and he does so with an exquisitely honed literary awareness abetted with an enviable grasp of a broad range of Roman and Greek literature, ancient history and philosophy. Yet, without further reference to the contemporary current of ideas in Roman studies this amounts, in the end, to seeing these Vergilian poems, but for the lens of J.’s sensibility, as they have long been seen. Even in a book designed for the general reader, as perhaps this is, a project so large, prepossessing, and comprehensive in its claims requires more.

Readers, for instance, encountering J.’s discussion (in his introduction) of Vergil’s sexuality may find it tendentious and, in the end, superficial. J. valuably dismantles Donatus’, Servius’, and others’ conclusions about the poet’s interest in lads as inept biography drawn solely from the poems, but then goes on to ‘show’ how Vergil’s descriptions of love in that same poetry are more persuasive when describing heterosexual love than homosexual love. This is to invoke a healthy and useful skepticism on the one hand and promptly forget it on the other. Do readers really feel that the attachment of Nisus and Euryalus is more about “devotion and loyalty” (10) than homoerotic attachment? Is the “superiority” of Dido’s story testimony to Vergil’s greater affinity for heterosexual love? Is there really “sexual feeling” indicative of Vergil’s own preferences in his portrayal of Camilla? (And here he elides the tradition of Penthesilea in order to make Camilla a free standing addition to the Homeric model.) J.’s treatment is finally superficial in its neglect of a multitude of recent discussions of sexuality in the Roman context (neglect, too, of female sexuality which doesn’t rate a mention in his analysis of “different kinds of homosexuality” (12)). Are the ancient testimonia just wrong as J. contends, or do they, in their descriptions of Vergil’s pederasty, say something rather important about sexuality in literature? And just what role does sexuality play in Vergil’s poetry? Why does the question matter? This J. does not answer fully; for all his subtlety, he is content with a very simple question and labors much to produce a simple answer: most likely het.

But I am dwelling on small and early matters. The comprehensiveness of this long book renders detailed consideration of each of its sections impossible. In what follows I will merely register brief summaries of and reactions to parts of the whole, prefacing with a general summary to suggest the range of coverage. The opening section introduces something of Vergil’s “character” as discernible from the poetry and method, leading into a discussion of uses and conceptions of landscape in Greek poetry prior to Vergil; finally, in this section, an extended treatment of the Transpadane “experience,” the elements of history and geography and ideology that help Vergil create “an amalgam of sentiment which is a fusion of the past and the countryside and Italy, the name and experience of his nation” (125). The second section focuses on the Eclogues, particularly their place in the pastoral tradition and the neoteric revolution. Lucretius is the subject of the two essays in the book’s third section, and these are followed by sections that treat respectively the Georgics and the Aeneid. Finally the last part examines Vergil’s influence on later poets and “A Roman experience: Virgil, Augustus, and the Future.”

I find much in the early chapters on landscape in Greek literature and the Transpadane experience valuable. The first instances numerous passages of Greek poetry describing landscapes, sorts out influence, and suggests ways Vergil’s landscapes, his way of seeing and describing them, indeed become singularly remarkable. The critical touchstone most in evidence is Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy, which suffers from overuse here and later in the book. But there is sharp-eyed and -eared literary sensitivity too, generating fine commentary. The chapter on Vergil’s provincial experience is also worthwhile in many respects. Vergilians will not encounter a great deal of new information here, but the synthesis is a healthy reminder of factors important to the reading of the poems. The critical assumption latent in all this — indeed, throughout the book — is that critical ‘recovery’ is crucial: to read Vergil’s poems one wants, if not needs, some grasp of the real life underpinning them. One gets to that experience via what can be sorted out from historical research, other Roman writing, and, circularly, via the poems themselves. Whether this distillation represents anything more than (in this case) J.’s particular formulation of selected elements, whether it really gets to something near Vergil’s real experience, readers of this book will have to decide. The problem of historicity in reading is a large one; J. doesn’t address it in detail but makes obvious assumptions.

The chapter on the Eclogues narrows focus to literary-aesthetic matters, and deals at some length with the nature of pastoral, entailing larger issues of originality, influence, generic convention. Beginning with what comes to be a customary gambit, he undertakes a critique of commonly held assumptions about Roman dependence on Greek models: elegy, we learn, flourished primarily because it was radically new, “a fitting response to changed circumstances” and “through the accidents of individual genius” (140); many traditional conceptions about dependence on Hellenistic models, Callimachus et al. are substantially discounted. The same dynamic is held to pertain to the Eclogues, which too are startlingly novel creations. J. goes daringly far: not only does Vergil not continue, reinventing in Roman context, the pastoral tradition inherited from Theocritus, but “it is misleading to talk about pastoral at all in relation to ancient literature” (178). The reason is that pastoral as we understand it was not created until Sannazaro did it in 1500. Out of this late renaissance creation came the stock figures and landscapes, the gentle swain, the explicit tension between city and country (Arcadia not in much important evidence in the Eclogues), that pastoral feeling. Vergil, on the other hand, writes a less determined, less generically fixed thing: borrowing figures and certain kinds of settings from Theocritean precedent, Vergil generates a genuinely new corpus of poems whose chief characteristics are “fluidity, elusiveness, and inconsistency” (156). Not Snell’s “spiritual landscape,” but a place where real world and literary imagination come together in a kind of restive and labile middle ground. All this, I think, yields a number of goods, and I find many of his conclusions persuasive and important, though some readers, along with me, may find his treatment of Hellenistic influences too peremptory. In the end, though, the openness of the Eclogues does not give much room to roam — we do not see a great deal of very original interpretation — and he recurs near chapter’s end to a “pastoral conception,” an unstable generic framing, that is, suspiciously, not too far from most people’s understanding of ancient pastoral.1

The next two chapters survey Lucretius. Apart from the fact that Vergil’s Georgics look to Lucretius for inspiration in Latin didactic, it is difficult to see what function these chapters have. They address traditional Lucretian questions, the function of the opening hymn to Venus, kinetic and catastematic pleasure, medium and message, the rhetoric of philosophical persuasion, and they do so in what becomes a kind of standard procedure in this book: quotation of a passage followed by lengthy, detailed close analysis, with particular regard to word arrangement and sound effects. Now these are still valuable formalist tools, but they are given such near exclusive prominence and presented with such finicky pedantry that the effect seems almost a parody of what an old-style formalist might do with a piece of verse. The yield of incidental insight and remark (there is much on the complex sexual symbolism, emblematic in some sense of the whole, represented in Lucretius’ Venus) enriches our sense of how Lucretius constructs, and makes sense with, his verse. But these chapters amount essentially to free-standing set pieces, their connection to the project of adumbrating Vergil’s experience only made in relatively obvious ways in the last few pages of the second Lucretius chapter: the “new centrality” of nature, the creation of a long poem without characters, the use of nature and landscape for moralizing discourse, the observation and use of the particular detail, the petit fait signatif (a repeated formulation that betrays something of J.’s own critical method), the notion of unity in diversity, and a larger generic modeling: “[Vergil] learns from him to use the didactic method, the investigation and presentation of fact, as a means of developing a vision of the world that offers to give sense and coherence to human existence” (291). Students of Lucretius will find these pages interesting reading and grounds for some debate — though again there is little current criticism registered. These chapters might have been more effective in this book if radically pared down.

J. claims in the opening of Ch. 7, the first of two on the Georgics, that the great four-part poem resists summary; so too does J.’s analysis. As elsewhere, his discussion and conclusion are generated out of close attention to the details of selected passages. Nowhere does he outline the principles or course of his argument. There are ideas here, but they lurk. Again, the effect derives in part from J.’s reluctance to directly engage the conclusions of others; we hear of “modern scholarship” suggesting this or that (generally erroneous) notion, but seldom is that notion directly engaged at its source. Behind the eighty-nine pages of discussion of the Georgics, thus, we may discern the ghost of the old debate about whether the poems are optimistic or pessimistic, though names are not named. J. inclines to the former view but refuses to engage in simplistic assertion. Rather we are led through a reading of largely well-known passages (Aristaeus, the bees, the laus Italiae…) whose general effect is to show the open, evolutionary construction of the poem as a whole, its balances of mood, and its technique of generating ‘ideas’ political and otherwise out of the details of physical particulars: Vergil’s attention to nature comes first, ideology second. Some readers will question J.’s confidence that the Aristaeus and Orpheus passage closing the fourth Georgic is modeled in terms of artistic intention and affect on Catullus’ Peleus and Thetis episode (alone — as opposed to a larger tradition of imbedded narratives or epyllia) and has thus, as in Catullus, no decisive symbolic or other import, that Vergil’s bees are primarily just bees, or that the plague hangs a little less broodingly over the whole for being removed far “from Italy, in a Slovenian obscurity” (314). There are good things here too, not least J.’s stubborn unwillingness to abandon the poetry’s ambivalences for the exhilarating ride to a daring, singular conclusion. Of the ‘theodicy’ passage (I.118-59) he summarizes his analysis of the verse: “[t]he opening topic leads to a remark about Jupiter’s severity, which proves to be much more than a remark, as out of it springs a great vision of human progress which rises to a climax, twists, turns, and falls again, back from god to man, from past to present, back too to that familiar tone of wry, dour irony which was never quite absent even when the declamation was at its height” (340). This rightly refuses to let one tenor overshadow complicating detail; we get from Vergil a complex picture of things. But J. does coach this complexity of detail and mixture of tenors toward a surprisingly cheery Vergil (the bads of country life not so bad, the goods very good); or something more subtle: “[t]he very notes of regret or melancholy have something of satisfaction in them…. We meet here the paradox of the human imagination: the passion is the pleasure, the melancholy is the joy” (380). And throughout this mood coloring, landscape plays a decisive patriotic role: “it is through an appreciation of history and man’s achievement that we come to see the landscape fully; it is through seeing the landscape that we appreciate our national history and achievement” (364).

The patriotic and historical optimism becomes yet more explicit in the seven chapters (9-15) on the Aeneid and its Nachleben: “Turnus is sympathetic, but wrong; the making of Rome is costly, but a great adventure none the less (418) … even the apparent obstacles in the path of destiny have proved to have a shaping purpose after all” (441). And on; explicitly in the book’s final chapter, which will receive brief comment below. The first of the Aeneid chapters, “The Wanderings of Aeneas,” is as its title suggests transitional, seeking to describe some of the ways Vergil naturalizes the foreignness of his Trojan hero (whose hair oil receives amusing comment here). Names play a central role in this, names of places, gods, people, all of which compose in Vergil’s hands a kind of maieutic atmosphere that accommodates Aeneas’ transition from Troy into the richly resonant Italian landscape. Change, development, national identity, growth through time are informing ideas. “Beyond Experience: The Underworld” is a brief chapter investigating the significances of Vergil’s landscape painting as it is used in Book 6. “A Trojan in Italy: Latinus’ Kingdom” may perplex the reader. Discussion meanders through episodes of Book 7 selected by a fugitive logic; the effect is argument by accumulation rather than analysis of an idea. Or perhaps the idea is so broad — here the sense of place and history represented by Latinus and the world he inhabits — that it simply cannot progress beyond a piling up of instances. Seen more charitably, J.’s intent may have been to lead his readers into this ancient Italy through the poet’s language, discovering its texture and nuance, its mysteries and hoary antiquity, just as Vergil’s hero has had to. Influences of the Eclogues and Georgics, images of space, penetration, height and depth, the golden age and innocence and soft romance (Silvia’s stag) coming into contact with the harder realities of destiny and progress — all these come under discussion, and sometimes with real profit. “Evander’s Kingdom” carries similar terms of discussion into Book 8. The centerpiece of this chapter is a leisurely but rewarding discussion of the Tiber episode, the river’s symbolic representation of numinous presence, patriotic identity, its multiple connections, via Vergil’s descriptive language, to the poem’s larger themes and preoccupations. J. carries on to the end of the book treating Evander, Pallas, the time-displaced tour of the city, the flowing together of Trojan, Greek, and Roman attributes, and Aeneas’ shield; the restorative and ‘identifying’ Arcadian calm before the storm. By the end of Book 8, J. avers, Vergil has presented “his idea of Italy virtually entire” (564). Loose ends, Camilla, Turnus, elements and deities of the Italian landscape, the further imbedding of Aeneas and his people in that place, and various other elements of the final four books come under relatively brief discussion in “The Later Aeneid.

Two final chapters close the book (but for an appendix on labor improbus). The first “The Latin Experience: Virgil and the Poets,” discusses Vergilian influence in the presentation of nature and meaningful landscape in the cases of Horace and the elegists. Ovid comes in for rough treatment, for in those passages where he seems to lean on Vergilian precedent he fails to muster the complexity and nuance of the maestro. This seems a bit tendentious, simultaneously acknowledging and forgetting Ovid’s very different literary ambitions even when using Vergilian language, but the comparison has interesting moments, and J. is good on Ovid’s powers of close observation. The book’s last chapter, “A Roman Experience: Virgil, Augustus, and the Future,” directly confronts the issue of Augustanism, seen through the lens of J.’s understanding of significant landscape. As entre/e, J. considers Cicero’s and Vergil’s respective conceptions of otium; what was once a feature of political “liberty” becomes latterly a “quietist ideal.” But Vergil is seen here as no timid quietist himself; rather a poet born into a time when the political privileges of the old governing class were effectively moot issues but whose grandeur of vision was able to largely create an image, a political and national identity, Augustus himself would eventually live into. Hence Augustan all right, but in a sense that accommodates duty, labor, loss, pain, optimism, and glory. J.’s reading of the Aeneid is explicitly positive, and he devotes his closing pages to a rebuke of the notion that the poem is fundamentally tragic. Many these days agree with him on the point, for various reasons. But tragedy in the large sense J. considers here (the great tragic dramas are among the comparanda advanced) is seldom espoused by those who find a persistent darkness in the epic. It is always possible to see, as J. does here, any loss as the regrettable price of a greater good. Readers who have found the poem’s most compelling moments those of scruple and resistance — its luminous portrayals of human effort, bound largely to failure before the meat-grinder of historical progress — may be unpersuaded.

This review has dwelt too much on this very ambitious book’s shortcomings. Its strengths are many and real, and far more is discussed between its covers than I have been able to represent here. Jenkyns is an independently minded critic whose sense of style, fine judgement, immersion in literary history, and command of the expressive tools of Latin poetry are these days ever more rare.2 Moreover, he has undertaken themes (reservations about overlooked critical work aside) that have been less thoroughly treated than other Vergilian subjects.3 For its attention to this range of subjects alone, the book is valuable. Ironically, given this study’s size and scope, the general reader rather than the Vergilian is more likely to appreciate its virtues. That reader will not bristle at the critical omissions and sometimes elementary literary history imbedded in its discourse and may enjoy the slow ride through its desultory argument. But everyone, specialists included, can learn something from Jenkyns’ thoughtful meditations on Vergil’s nature, never so consideringly seen.


1. See Jenkyns’ earlier discussion, “Virgil and Arcadia,” JRS 79: 26-39 and his more general treatment of post classical pastoral in R. Jenkyns, ed., The Legacy of Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 151-176.

2. And later chapters see a resurgence of the pliant and witty prose J. is known for. I like this on political leaders and flattery: “Perhaps it was like taking a hot bath: one knows that the warm water entertains no sincere feelings towards one, but the sensation is still pleasant” 649n.

3. But David Ross’ Virgil’s Elements: Physics and Poetry in the Georgics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) and Richard Thomas’ Lands and Peoples in Roman Poetry: the Ethnographic Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge Phil. Soc. Suppl. 7, 1982) need to be mentioned here.