PUBLIUS VERGILIUS MARO, the friend of Augustus and the great representative poet of the first age of the Roman Empire, was a man of humble origin. Born Oct. 15, B. C. 70, the son of a small farmer near Mantua in Northern Italy, he was educated at Cremona, Milan, and Rome. Probably as a result of the turmoil of the Civil Wars, Virgil seems to have returned to his native district, where he was engaged for some time in writing his “Eclogues.” Though he was never a soldier, and though there is no evidence of his having taken any part in politics, he suffered severely from the results of the wars. His father’s farm lay within the territory which was confiscated by the Triumvirs for the purpose of bestowing grants of land upon their soldiers, and Virgil succeeded in having it restored only through the personal intervention of Octavianus, the future emperor. But a change of governors deprived him of protection, and he was forced to desert his heritage in peril of death, escaping only by swimming the river Mincio. The rest of his life was spent farther south, in Rome, Naples, Sicily, and elsewhere. As he gained reputation he became the possessor of a large fortune, bestowed upon him by the generosity of friends and patrons, the most distinguished of whom, apart from Augustus, was Mæcenas, the center of the literary society of the day. The “Eclogues” had been finished in B. C. 37, and in B. C. 30 he published his great poem on farming, the “Georgics.” It is characteristic of his laborious method of composition that this work of little more than 2,000 lines occupied him for seven years
The completion of the “Georgics” established Virgil’s position as the chief poet of his time; and at this momentous date, when, the Civil Wars over, the victorious Augustus was laying the foundations of imperial government, the poem which was to be the supreme expression of the national life was begun. At the end of eleven years Virgil had written the whole of the “Æneid,” and planned to devote three more to its final revision But this revision was never accomplished, for returning from Athens with Augustus in B. C. 19, he was seized with illness and died on September 21. He was buried at Naples, where his tomb was long a place of religious pilgrimage.
The modern appreciation of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” has tended to carry with it a depreciation of the “Æneid,” the spirit of which appeals less forcibly to the taste of our time. But it is foolish to lose sight of the splendor of a poet who, for nearly two thousand years, has been one of the most powerful factors in European culture. “The concurrent testimony of the most refined minds of all times,” says one of the finest of his critics, “marks him out as one of the greatest masters of the language which touches the heart or moves the manlier sensibilities, who has ever lived. A mature and mellow truth of sentiment, a conformity to the deeper experiences of life in every age, a fine humanity as well as a generous elevation of feeling, and some magical charm of music in his words, have enabled them to serve many minds in many ages as a symbol of some swelling thought or overmastering emotion, the force and meaning of which they could scarcely define to themselves”
The subtler elements of the exquisite style of Virgil no translator can ever hope to reproduce, but Dryden was a master of English versification, and the content of Virgil’s epic is here rendered in vigorous and nervous couplets. “Despite many revolutions of public taste,” says Professor Noyes, Dryden’s latest editor, “Dryden’s Virgil still remains practically without a rival as the standard translation of the greatest Roman poet; the only one that, like two or three versions of Homer, has become an English classic”
Dryden’s “Dedication” is an excellent example of his prose style, and gives an interesting view of the method and standpoint of the greatest of English seventeenth century critics.