Happy 2,085th birthday, Virgil! He survived some rotten reviews, too…


Who knew that Virgil and P. G. Wodehouse shared a birthday? Virgil gets first dibs, however; he preceded Wodehouse by a couple millennia. This news comes to us via our learned friend, the Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele:


Tim, not Virgil.

Virgil was born on this day in 70 BCE. The accompanying reproduction of Ingres’ painting of Virgil’s reading to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia depicts that moment when the poet has delivered his lament for Marcellus near the end of Book 6 of The Aeneid. Octavia, Marcellus’s mother and Augustus’s sister, has fainted with emotion. Livia, Augustus’s wife, was rumored to have had a hand in Marcellus’s death, and appears uneasy and annoyed rather than moved. Augustus himself looks deeply affected, either by the poetry or by the prospect of having to deal with an unconscious sister and displeased wife.

Writers everywhere may be solaced by the thought that even Virgil, whose contemporaries recognized him as the greatest poet of the age, received his share of rotten reviews. Suetonius comments on this in his Life of Virgil: “Virgil never lacked detractors, which is not strange; for neither did Homer. . . . Asconius Pedianus, in a book he wrote Against the Detractors of Virgil, sets forth a very few of the charges against him, and those for the most part dealing with history and with the accusation that he borrowed a great deal from Homer; but he says that Virgil used to meet this latter accusation with these words: ‘Why don’t my critics also attempt the same thefts? If they do, they will realize that it is easier to filch his club from Hercules than a line from Homer.’ Yet Asconius says that Virgil had intended to go into retirement, in order to prune down everything to the satisfaction of carping critics.”

bougereau-virgilTim Steele notes that Virgil has steered pretty clear of the social media … so far. Perhaps he can be coaxed out of his shell. Let’s not forget he has made at least one posthumous appearance. He was a special guest star in Dante Alighieri‘s The Divine Comedy, as the younger Italian poet’s sherpa. Here’s William-Adolphe Bouguereau‘s 1850 portrait of Dante and Virgil, and it looks like the Inferno with that U.F.O. in the background, not to mention the looks on their faces.

Tim shines in other ways on this day, Virgil’s birthday. In the “Envoi” section of David Sanders‘s current “Poetry News in Review” in Prairie Schooner (online here), he had this to say: “The only novelty sure to last in poetry is the novelty of talent. Moreover, the alert poet cannot help but be novel: his subjects are the manners and morals and aspects of his world and fellow creatures, and these are always changing. The idea that to be novel, one has to invent a ‘METHOD’ in the Poundian sense is not only wrongheaded: it is unnecessary.” That’s from his Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter.

Comments are closed.