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On the different taste of Virgil and Horace with re
spect to rural scenery.
It has been observed long since, that no man can be a poet without being sensible of the charms of the country. “ Scriptorum chorus omnis amat nemus, et fugit urbes;” that is, in theory: for in fact it is not absolutely the case. And the reason of this supposed preference is not so much on account of the undisturbed quiet of rural retirement, (for that may be had, as to all the purposes of writing and reflection, in Fleet Street as well as in Johnny Grote's house) but because the sublime and beautiful of nature so much assists, invigorates, and inspires a poetic imagination. To the moral and didactic muse indeed “ crowded cities" and “the busy hum of men" may be useful in furpishing materials; and for that reason, perhaps, among others, Johnson, Goldsmith, and many more, have preferred London to any retirement, however beautiful; but in the higher walks of poetry the tumult of a crowded city can only serve to confuse and derange the ideas. Amidst the “fumum et opes strepitumque Romæ," on what objects can the “fine frenzy' of a "poet's eye” delight to glance; with what views of nature can he assist his fancy !*
Hence we find, that however poets may in other respects differ from each other, they all agsee in cele
# 6 Hac rabiosa ruit canis, hac lutulenta ruit sus.
brating brating the praises of the country. Even those who as men could hardly exist out of the atmosphere of Rome or London, as poets have not dared to avow a predilection so disgraceful and almost unnatural - almost impious indeed, if the strong and nervous expression of Cowper in his truly original style,
“God made the country, but man made the town,"* could be understood in its literal sense.
But however poets may agree in this general principle, they vary greatly in the application of it, and in their preference of particular scenery are by no means guided by the same taste.
A remarkable instance of this (which as far as I know has not been noticed before) appears in the two most celebrated poets of the Augustan age, Virgil and Horace. Though born in different parts of Italy, Rome was their common centre, and though both of them speak in raptures of rural scenery and the magnificence of nature, they place the greatest perfection of it in countries very different from each other as well as distant. It is worthy of notice also, that each of them had travelled through the same parts, that is, all over Italy, Greece, and the intervening country, and neither of them fixes on his own natal soil. Virgil indeed was so partial to bis, that he wishes there to enjoy his fame, and end his days. He was born near Mantua, and he promises to build a temple on the lake through which the slow and reedy Mincius takes its wandering course. † He praises the fertility of the soil,
• This however is the remark, and I believe the language, of Cowley. Şee Georg. II. v. 136, &c. and Georg. III. 13. The exactness of the
and asserts that Italy is superior to the richest parts of Asia. But this assertion is made, not with regard to the beauties of its scenery, but the usefulness of its productions, and its freedom from noxious animals.
Not however that the elegant poet was insensible to the charms of Nature; for, in perhaps the most highly finished and admirable passage which all antiquity can furnish, he has given the reins to his fancy in the praise of the country and of a country life. But in this delicious and glowing description, it is observable that no part of the scenery which he apostrophizes by name belongs to his own country. It is all Grecian;* his fields, his mountains, his rivers, and his woods are all found in Thessaly, Laconia, and Thrace.
Horace is so far like Virgil, that neither does lie derive his ideas of rural beauty from the country of which he was a native; but, unlike him in other respects, gives the palm to some parts of Italy over all the rest of the world. In particular, he prefers it to the most admired scenery of Greece, even by name, in the strongest terms. In his ode to Plancus (Lib. I. Ode 7), he tells him that he shall leave to others the office of celebrating the beauties both of art and nature to be found in Greece; for that neither Laconia itselft
(whi h poet's description is admirable. The Mincius slowly winding through a flat rich country forms a lake at Mantua; there he promises to build his temple, proptcr aquam, which ought to be rendered near tbe lake; a nicety passed over, I believe, by his commentators and translators. * Georg. II. v. 486, et seq.
O ubi Campi
Sistat, et ingenti ramorum protegat umbra! + T. 97 parions Lacedæmon cannot refer to the city, because that could be
(which country was expressly included in Virgil's praises) nor even the boasted vale of Tempe was equal in his estimation to the scenery round Tibur; in which neighbourhood his own villa was seated. Upon the same principle we find the poet earnestly wishing at another time (Lib. II. Ode 6) that he may pass the evening of his days at Tibur, and that if this prayer be denied him, he may be allowed to settle in the soft and genial climate of Terentum, in the south-east of Italy.
This difference of opinion, or taste, in two poets, contemporaries and friends, is very striking. To which the Emperor gave his suffrage, who loved them both, and (I am sorry to add) was flattered by both, it would now be useless to inquire; but it is curious to observe in how different a light the same objects appear to minds of perhaps equal powers, of equally cultivated understandings, and having an equal taste for the enchanting scenery which abounds in both those countries.
Admirable indeed is the variety of the powers of Nature, and their influence on the minds of men; and the different manner in which they affect different dispositions, so that what is to one a beauty, to another appears a deformity, is not one of the least instances of the bounty of Providence towards us. Extensive as their variety seems in combination, the works of Nature (like every thing that is truly great) are simple. Water, hill, plain, and wood, form all her materials;
no object of comparison with the groves and rivers of Tiber. Larissa was seated on the river Peneus, which also ran through the vale of Tempe; and, no doubt, is to be understood as referring to that valley which might well be compared to Tiber, though the fertile Larissa in the strict and literal sense could not.
out these are subdivided, modelled, classed, and mixed together, in so many forms of beauty, as to prove to a well regulated mind one of the purest as well as highest sources of innocent and intellectual pleasure.