« ZurückWeiter »
OUR subject having necessarily engaged us in a large historical account of the Mysteries; yet the form of the discourse not having afforded us an opportunity hitherto to take notice of their Shews and Representations, one of the most important parts of the Mysteries, and the only one remaining unspoken to; Virgil, in affording us a fresh proof of the sentiments of the best and wisest amongst the antients, concerning the service of the doctrine of a future state to society, will give us the opportunity we sought for: so that nothing will now be wanting to a thorough intelligence of this curious and interesting circumstance of antiquity.
We hope, then, to make it very evident, that the masterpiece of the Aeneis, the famous sixth book, is nothing else but a description, and so designed by the author, of his hero's initiation into the Mysteries; and of one part of the SPECTACLES of the ELEUSINIAN: where every thing was done in shew and machinery; and where a representation of the history of Ceres afforded opportunity of bringing in the scenes of Heaven, Hell, Elysium, Purgatory, and all that related to the future state of men and heroes.
But to make this, which hath at first sight so much the air of a paradox, the less shocking, it will not be improper to inquire into the nature of the Aeneis.
Homer's two poems had each a plain simple story, to convey as simple a moral; and in this kind he is justly esteemed excellent. Virgil could make no improvements here: the Greek poet was complete and perfect; so that the patrons of the
Roman, and even Scaliger himself, are confined to seek for his superior advantages in his episodes, descriptions, similes, and in the chastity and correction of his thoughts and diction; while all have overlooked the principal advantage he had over his great predecessor. He found the Epic Poem in possession of the first rank of human compositions; but this did not satisfy his large ambition: he was not content that its subject should be to instruct the world in morals, much less in physics, which was the ridiculous imagination of some antients, though he was fond of those inquiries, but aspired to make it a system of Politics. Accordingly the Aeneis is indeed as much such in verse, by example, as the republics of Plato and Tully were in prose, by precepts. Thus he advanced the Epic to a new state of perfection; and as Paterculus says of Menander,-"inveniebat, neque imitandum relinquebat." For though every one saw that Augustus was shadowed out in the person of Aeneas, yet imagining those political instructions, which were designed for the service of mankind at large, to be for the sole use of his master, they missed of its true nature: and in this ignorance, the succeeding epic writers, following a poem whose genius they did not understand, wrote worse than if they had only taken Homer, and his simple plan for their guides. A great modern Poet, and best judge of their merit, assures us of this fact; and what we have said helps to explain it: "The other epic poets," says this justly admired writer, "have used the same practice (that "of Virgil, of running two fables into one) but generally carried it so far as to superinduce a multiplicity of fables, "destroy the unity of action, and lose their readers in an un"reasonable length of time.""
Such was the revolution Virgil brought about in this noblest region of poetry; an improvement so great, that the subblimest genius had need of all the assistance the best poet could lend him nothing less than the joint aid of the Iliad and Odyssey being able to furnish out the execution of his great idea: for a system of politics delivered in the example of a great prince, must shew him in every public circumstance of life. Hence was Aeneas, of necessity, to be found voyaging with Ulysses, and fighting with Achilles: and I am persuaded, that that great admirer of Virgil, and best imitator of his correctness, last quoted, will be pleased to find this the case, rather than what he assigns for his master's conduct, in the following words: "Virgil, for want of so warm a genius, aided himself by "taking in a more extensive subject, as well as a greater length of time, and contracting the design of both Homer's poems "into one."
Preface to the Iliad of Homer.
See the same Preface.