(summary of the first essay in Oxford Readings in Vergil’s Aeneid)




The modern era in the criticism of the Aeneid can truly be said to begin with the twentieth century. In 1903 two highly influential books were published in Germany: Richard Heinze's Vergils epische Technik, and Eduard Norden's commentary on Aeneid 6.

In Heinze’s book Aeneas was seen as developing through the poem into the ideal Roman hero of Vergil's age, a Stoic disciple learning to follow the will of destiny, and the poem was a sublime assertion of the might of Rome and Augustus.

Norden's commentary agreed broadly with Heinze's approach.


After 1945

A more ambiguous appreciation of works which appeared to celebrate military imperialism and absolute monarchical power.1950: two well-known examples of the application of contemporary literary ideas to the Aeneid appeared simultaneously on opposite sides of the Atlantic:

Viktor Poschl's Die Dichtkunst Vergils (subtitel Bild und Symbol in der Aeneis, ndk), later translated as The Art of Vergil, and Bernard Knox's article 'The Serpent and the Flame'.

Both explored Vergil's imagery in its symbolic aspects.

Knox showed how the use of snakes and fire in the similes and metaphors of Aeneid 2 cohered with and supported the poet's dark account of the fall of Troy;

Poschl used the symbolic interpretation of imagery to support Eliot's view of the Aeneid as an assertion of the fundamental values of Western civilization, seen as relevant to the post-war reconstruction of German society at the time he wrote: order and purpose overcome the forces of chaos and disintegration, but there is a humane pity for the victims in this battle - Dido and Turnus are tragic figures.

The most interesting consequence of Poschl's work was its use to promote a general view of the Aeneid which was in most respects the opposite of his own. The symbolic approach to the Aeneid was taken up by the so-called 'Harvard School’ of Vergilian critics in the USA, emerging perhaps in the 1950s and coming into their own in the mid-1960s.
These critics lended to hold that the poem presented a pessimistic view alongside the surface glory of Aeneas and Rome, 'a public voice of triumph and aprivate voice of regret'. (underlined by ndk) The dark side of political success and the cost of imperialism, a cost felt by victor as well as victim, was the essential message - the plot of the Aeneid is 'a long history of defeat and loss'.

The doubt of the traditional view of the Aeneid has at least some connection with the 1960s questioning of all institutions, political,religious, and intellectual, and in particular with attitudes towards America's own imperialism.Details such as the initial non-compliance of the Golden Bough or the vague nature of the Gates of Sleep were taken to show that the poet had doubts about Aeneas' mission and the imperial future of Rome.
This ambiguous and pessimistic view of the Aeneid has been highly influential in the last twenty years (the text dates from 1990, ndk), especially (but certainly not exclusively) in its country of origin.

The positive view of the Aeneid taken by Poschl, following Heinze and Norden, did not die out; it was understandably widespread in Germany,


The 1950s and 1960s

In the 1950s and 1960s the middle ground between the positive German view and the pessimistic American view of the Aeneid can be said to have been held by the British, and (to a lesser degree) the French.

The chief scholarly interpreters of the Aeneid were the commentators R.G. Austin and R. O. Williams.

Williams's outlook on the Aeneid was influenced by the Harvard School (he talks of the tension between the ‘public voice' and 'private voice of the poem), but sensibly avoided the views of some of its more extreme advocates on existential pessimism and the removal of the divine element from its essential role in the poem.

Austin’s outlook: though the Aeneid did indeed celebrate as great the victories of Aeneas, Rome, and Augustus, it also expressed a simultaneous sympathy with the sufferings. Of both victor and victims - a sensitive Aeneas, a noble and tragic Dido, a Turnus who is youthfully impetuous and unfortunate. Here we have Vergil the musingly melancholic (underlined by ndk), a picture which has continued to appeal to many British scholars.

The most extensive recapitulation of the traditional/German view of the Aeneid using the methodology of Pöschl was in fact that of the Amercan Brooks Otis. Dido and Tumus arc treated as guilty parties, though not wholly unsympathetically; echoes of Heinze and the German tradition are seen in the characterization of the central concern of the Aeneid as 'the formation and victory of the Augustan hero'.."


The 1960s and early 1970s

In the 1960s and early 1970s Germans continued to produce books which supported the positive view of the Aeneid.
Despite the firm and influential positive views still emanating from Germany, Anglophone scholarship on the Aeneid in the 1960s and 70s largely inclined towards the American pessimism of the 'Harvard School'.

Kenneth Quinn's 'Critical Description' of the Aeneid' (1968) gave a fundamentally pessimistic account of the poem.

The pessimistic line on the poem was promoted more cautiously in  an brief account by W. S. Anderson in 1969.

In this same year there appeared in Britain the judicious and balanced introduction to the Aeneid by W. A. Camps - a tougher and more realistic view than that of Austin or Williams. Stress was laid on the political realities of the historical background, the importance of the role of fate and of the gods, the promotion of Roman values, and the counterbalancing senses of cost and suffering, which did not (as the 'Harvard School' maintained) overshadow or question the achievements of Aeneas, Rome, and Augustus: the fates of individuals, though often tragic and always subordinate to the common objective, are dignified and elevated by the fact they are an integral part of the process which leads to greatness.

An interesting development of the pessimistic view of the Aeneid was seen in W. R. Johnson's Darkness Visible, published in 1976.
Reacting against both the ‘Harvard School’ and the traditional positivists, Johnson laid emphasis on the disturbing aspects of the divine dimension: the destructive and malevolent Juno is elevated into the central figure of the poem, and even Jupiter, so often claimed as the providential dispenser of destiny, is made to be darkly irrational.
This sophisticated and powerful reading of the poem, reintroducing the cosmic and divine aspect of the poem emphasized by the Germans but comparatively neglected by the 'Harvard School' and using it to form a profoundly pessimistic interpretation, constitutes the most extreme opposition to the traditional positive view; it has found a number of admirers in recent years.


Finally (1990)

Finally three current Anglophone interpretations of the Aeneid, all published in the 1980s.

Gordon Williams's ‘Technique and Ideas in the Aeneid with the theory of 'figures of thought' which he had set out in an earlier book, by which 'the poet would say one thing but expect this reader to understand also something else, related to what was said by a process of association that was either metaphoric or metonymic'.
The demythologizing of the Aeneid places its action and meaning entirely on the human level.
Williams asserts that the Aeneid expresses poetic ideas rather than a political ideology, and claims to belong neither to the anti-Augustan pessimists nor to the pro-Augustan imperialists; however, readers of this survey will see that his sympathies lie with the 'Harvard School'.

A counterweight to the renewed pessimism expressed by Williams is the work of Philip Hardie. His Virgil’Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium reasserts the positive view of the poem.

Finally, an ideological contrast to Hardie is provided by R. O. A. M. Line's book ‘Further Voices in Vergil’s Aeneid’ - a reworking of the pessimistic.


Scholarship on the Aeneid has thus made many advances in the present century.
As the different interpretations of the poem in the 1980s show, there is no consensus about its meaning or fundamental ideology. In some areas of scholarly endeavour this might be regarded as undesirable; when dealing with great poetry, however, greater technical knowledge does not necessarily lead to unanimity or certainty on central issues, and the volume and variety of recent criticism is a tribute to the continuing literary interest and stature of the Aeneid.



Edited by S.J.Harrison
Oxford, New York; Oxford University Press, 1990


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