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Latin poetry is one of the great incarnations of this endless world-movement; and Virgil as the greatest of Latin poets holds a conspicuous place in the line of its torch-bearers. Before entering on a study of Virgil, before attempting to portray and appreciate his work and its meaning to us, it will be well to point out, in brief summary, the importance of Latin poetry for an age separated from it so far as ours is, its relation to the actual life of the present day, and its relevance to the structure of modern civilization as well as to our artistic or literary sense. If this is once established, the claim which Virgil has on our attention will be seen as larger and higher than we had realized; though it would be sufficient ground for such a claim that he is, by general and indeed universal consent, one of the five or six chief poets of the world. For the place of these poets is secure and indefeasible. Supreme works of art, while the product of a particular age and country and the flower of a civilization which is itself transitory, are the inheritance of the human race. They are immortal in so far as immortality can be ascribed to anything created by man.
But the importance for the present age of
the masterpieces of Latin literature rests also on special grounds. It is not only that Virgil and Horace, Cicero and Livy, are "classics " in the proper and authentic sense of that word; that their writings are of an excellence unsurpassed and in some respects unequalled by anything that we have to set beside them whether from the product of our own day or from that of the intervening centuries; that they present to us at once a standard, a model, and a stimulus for our own highest efforts; and that they embody ideals which are as living and as fertile now as they were two thousand years ago. This might conceivably be true of works produced by a race and a civilization quite alien from our own. But the Latin classics are in the direct line of our own ancestry. Rome is our mother, Latin our second mother-tongue. Not only is the civilization of Europe and America based on Roman foundations; not only have our machinery of government, our municipal institutions, our jurisprudence and our theology, their roots in Rome; but the language which we use daily as the instrument of thought and the vehicle of expression has been moulded by Latin influence. While this is more obvious among the Latin races, for the name there
sufficiently emphasizes the fact-yet it is hardly less true of the English-speaking world. Latin is not, in the strict sense, a foreign language to us; it is a vital constructive element of the first importance in our own.
This is true of our whole literature, both prose and poetry, but of poetry very particularly. There are of course collateral sources, as well as our own native springs. The early Scandinavian and Teutonic poetry owed nothing to Latin; nor did that of the Arabs and the kindred Semitic races. We have in modern times become acquainted with another foreign world in the poetry of the Far East, which seems likely to have a marked influence on the development of Western thought and art. But it remains substantially accurate to say, as was said by Gray in the eighteenth century, that "the descent," or movement, "of poetry has been from Greece to Italy, and from Italy to England." In that single sentence he laid the foundation, and gave the guiding line, for an historical and scientific study of English poetry. Greece reached us in the first instance through Rome, and as interpreted one might almost say, as Europeanized by the Latin mind. But the Latin mind
itself was not only interpretative, it was creative. Virgil is not merely a prince of poets; he is one of the makers and founders of English poetry. He has exercised, and continues to exercise, this influence both directly and by indirect transmission. The influence has been continuous, from Bede and Cynewulf in the eighth century down to poets who are writing now. Virgil is one of the few Latin classics who were never lost sight of even in the Dark Ages. He has always been a schoolbook for youth, a treasure-house for mature appreciation, a model for artists. He is a "lord of language," as Tennyson truly says of him, who stands out as having shewn what perfect expression is, as having achieved the utmost beauty, melody, and significance, of which human words seem to be capable. He has given expression, once for all, to many of our highest thoughts and most profound emotions. Nor has he, like others who in their day have been great germinal forces, become absorbed in or been replaced by his successors. For he is a consummate artist; and a work of art is substantive and permanent in its value. It is not a means to an end, but an end attained. Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare remain alive after hundreds or thousands of years.
They retain their uplifting and enlarging influence; they speak directly to us and interpret actual life to us as much as ever. They have not a mere historical value or a mere antiquarian interest. To each generation, to each individual reader, they come afresh as revelations of the beauty of the world and the wonder of the human soul. "Creations" in the full sense of that word, they are "lordly as at the first day." Indeed it may be said of the masterpieces of poetry that they actually grow in vitality and significance with the process of time, as they absorb and incorporate into themselves an added volume of intermediate imagination and experience. For they come to us now not only with their original and imperishable virtue, but with the accumulated associations of all the ages through which they have passed. They are at once set in perspective by distance and enriched by history; they are something new and something different. They are not wholly new, even when we come on them for the first time, because much of their content has been unconsciously inherited by us, or has reached us indirectly through intermediate channels. When we make acquaintance with them, it is a recognition as well as a dis