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The story of Æneas, on which Virgil founded his poem, was likewise very bare of circumstances, and by that means afforded him an opportunity of embellishing it with fiction, and giving a full range to his own invention. We find, however, that he has interwoven, in the course of his fable, the principal particulars, which were generally believed among the Romans, of Æneas's voyage and settlement in Italy.
The reader may find an abridgment of the whole story, as collected out of the ancient historians, and as it was received among the Romans, in Dionysius Halicarnasseus.
Since none of the critics have considered Virgil's fable with relation to this history of Æneas, it may not, perhaps, be amiss to examine it in this light, so far as it regards my present purpose. Whoever looks into the abridgment above-mentioned, will find that the character of Æneas is filled with piety to the gods, and a superstitious observation of prodigies, oracles, and predictions. Virgil has not only preserved this character in the person of Æneas, but has given a place in his poem to those particular prophecies which he found recorded of him in history and tradition. The poet took the matters of fact as they came down to him, and circumstanced them after his own manner, to make them appear the more natural, agreeable, or surprising. I believe very many readers have been shocked at that ludicrous prophecy, which one of the harpies pronounces to the Trojans in the third book, namely, that before they had built their intended city, they should be reduced by hunger to eat their very tables. But, when they hear this was one of the circumstances that had been transmitted to the Romans in the history of Æneas, they will think the poet did very well in taking notice of it. The historian above-mentioned acquaints us, a prophetess had foretold Æneas, that he should take his voyage westward, till his companions should eat their tables; and that accordingly, upon his.landing in Italy, as they were eating their flesh upon cakes of bread, for want of other conveniencies, they afterwards
fed on the cakes themselves; upon which one of the company said merrily, “ We are eating our tables.' They immediately took the hint, says the historian, and concluded the prophecy to be fulfiled. As Virgil did not think it proper to omit so material a particular in the history of Æneas, it may be worth while to consider with how much judgment he has qualified it, and taken off every thing that might have appeared improper for a passage in an heroic poem. The prophetess who foretels it is an hungry harpy, as the person who discovers it is young Ascanius.
Heus etiam mensas consumimus, inquit Iulus. Such an observation, which is beautiful in the mouth of a boy, would have been ridiculous from any other in the company. I am apt to think, that the changing of the Trojan fleet into water-nymphs, which is the most violent machine in the whole Æneid, and has given offence to several critics, may be accounted for the same way. Virgil himself, before he begins that relation, premises, that what he was going to tell appeared incredible, but that it was justified by tradition. What further confirms me that this change of the fleet was a celebrated circumstance in the history of Æneas is, that Ovid has given a place to the same metamorphosis in his account of the heathen mythology:
None of the critics I have met with having considered the fable of the Æneid in this light, and taken notice how the tradition, on which it was founded, authorizes those parts in it which appear the most exceptionable, I hope the length of this reflection will not make it unacceptable to the curious part of my readers.
The history, which was the basis of Milton's poem, is still shorter than either that of the Iliad or Æneid. The poet has likewise taken care to insert every circumstance of it in the body of his fable. The ninth book, which we are here to consider, is raised upon that brief account in scripture, wherein we are told that the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field, that he tempted the woman to eat of the forbidden fruit, that
she was overcome by this temptation, and that Adam followed her example. From these few particulars Milton has formed one of the most entertaining fables that invention ever produced. He has disposed of these several circumstances among so many agreeable and natural fictions of his own, that his whole story looks only like a comment upon sacred writ, or rather seems to be a full and complete relation of what the other is only an epitome. I have insisted the longer on this consideration, as I look upon the disposition and contrivance of the fable to be the principal beauty of the ninth book, which has more story in it, and is fuller of incidents, than any other in the whole poem. Satan's traversing the globe, and still keeping within the shadow of the night, as fearing to be discovered by the angel of the sun, who had before detected him, is one of those beautiful imaginations with which he introduces this his second series of adventures. Having examined the nature of every creature, and found out one which was the most proper for his purpose, he again returns to Paradise ; and, to avoid discovery, sinks by night with a river that ran under the garden, and rises up again through a fountain that issued from it by the tree of life. The poet, who, as we have before taken notice, speaks as little as possible in his own person, and, after the example of Homer, fills every part of his work with manners and characters, introduces a soliloquy of this infernal agent, who was thus restless in the destruction of man. He is then described as gliding through the garden under the resemblance of a mist, in order to find out that creature in which he designed to tempt our first parents. This description has something in it very poetical and surprising.
So saying, through each thicket dank or dry,
His head the midst, well stor'd with subtle wiles.
morning, which is wonderfully suitable to a divine poem, and peculiar to that first season of nature: he represents the earth, before it was curst, as a great altar, breathing out its incense from all parts, and sending up a pleasant savour to the nostrils of its Creator ; to which he adds a noble idea of Adam and Eve, as offering their morning worship, and filling up the universal consort of praise and adoration.
Now when as sacred light began to dawn
Of creatures wanting voice.The dispute which follows between our two first parents is represented with great art: it proceeds from a difference of judgment, not of passion, and is managed with reason, not with heat: it iş such a dispute as we may suppose might have happened in Paradise, had man continued happy and innocent. There is great delicacy in the moralities which are interspersed in Adam's discourse, and which the most ordinary reader cannot but take notice of. The force of love which the father of mankind so finely describes in the eighth book, and which is inserted in the foregoing paper, shews itself here in many fine instances; as in those fond regards he cast towards Eve at her parting from him :
Her long with ardent look his eye pursu'd
To be return'd by noon amid the bow'r. In his impatience and amusement during her absence:
Adam the while
As reapers oft are wont their harvest queen:
Solace in her return, so long delay'd.
Some cursed fraud
The beginning of this speech, and the preparation to it, are animated with the same spirit as the conclusion, which I have here quoted.
The several wiles which are put in practice by the tempter, when he found Eve separated from her husband, the many pleasing images of nature which are intermixed in this part of the story, with its gradual and regular progress to the fatal catastrophe, are so very remarkable, that it would be superfluous to point out their respective beauties.
I have avoided mentioning any particular similitudes in my remarks on this great work, because I have given a general account of them in my paper on the first book. There is one, however, in this part of the poem which I shall here quote, as it is not only very beautiful, but the closest of any in the whole poem ;
I mean that where the serpent is described as rolling forward in all his pride, animated by the evil spirit, and conducting Eve to her destruction, while Adam was at too great a distance from her to give her his assistance. These several particulars are all of them wrought into the following similitude: