Lines Written To And Beneath A Full Moon, 18 March 2022 (1)
“And art thou then that Virgil, that well-spring, from which such copious floods of eloquence have issued? Glory and light of all the tuneful train! May it avail me, that I long with zeal have sought thy volume, and with love immense have combed it over. My master thou, and guide!”
Never, I think, has a guide been so enthusiastically received by a man caught, in his own words, “in the midway of his mortal life” and lost, utterly lost, in the dense and gloomy forest of that age. Those of us inching ever closer to the end of our prime know it well—the thirty-fifth year of life, a life from which the boyish gleam of youth has faded, from which the appeal of maidenhood has been stripped away, and upon which the sun—hot and heedless of our calls to slow its pace and check its acceleration—is quickly setting.
Many years ago, somewhere in the far-receding distance of his youth, our pathless traveler veered from the straight and narrow road. It was a path from which his parents, his church, his country, and, above all, his conscience advised him never to stray. Against their combined wisdom, though, he deviated from that noble course along which the upright and pious are always careful to fix their tread. Now, he finds himself caught somewhere in that impenetrably bleak and fearful wood of middle life, that eerie environment about which the savage beasts—the panthers, the wolves, and the lions—are prone to stalk and prowl.
Our wanderer—Dante is his name—can be excused for having startled at the sight of these three beasts—two felines, one canine, by which his ambling momentum was interrupted, and his faithless heart temporarily stopped. Overwhelmed by fear, he decided quickly to retrace his steps, walking backward until he could retreat no farther. He then found himself alone and trembling at the dreaded doorstep of the Inferno, that terrible gate of Sulphur and steel at which all lingering hope is, perforce, abandoned. The sole remnant in Pandora’s ruptured box has no purchase here. Here, that which springs eternal in the breast of man is dread.
All of a sudden, emerging from the dense foliage of this wooded scene unbidden, is the great pagan poet, Virgil, by whom Dante, exiled, lovelorn, aimless and now at the threshold of hell, will be, henceforth, led.
One cannot but wonder why Virgil—and not some other brilliant pagan, be he Roman or Greek—was selected by Dante for the daunting proposition of assisting him in his journey to the deepest depths of hell, and then, ascending upward, to the cheerful summits by which purgatory is capped? Was no one else so thoroughly acquainted with the Underworld as to be able to accomplish this morbid feat? Was mighty Homer, whose Odysseus successfully navigated the shades, unavailable for the job? Was Socrates, equally learned in such matters, entangled in a debate, or submerged in a night-long symposium of which he couldn’t take leave?
Virgil—not Homer nor Socrates—was chosen for the task. In the opinion of Dante, to which many subsequent religious thinkers have warmly agreed, Virgil was something of a proto-Christian—about as close to a follower of the Nazarene as was possible for a rustic pagan employed by the Roman state. Born in 70 BC, Virgil died nearly two decades prior to the birth of Christ. Granted, the light of his life was extinguished at a rather young age, but even if it were to flicker on into hoarier years, he would’ve been dead long before Jesus’ crucifixion.
Still, his admission into the pantheon of “almost”-Christians is rarely contested. The honor rests, I think, on one book in particular: the “fourth” of his great Eclogues, to whose beguiling contents, we now turn our attention.
Today, you’ll not meet an educated man or woman unfamiliar with Virgil’s most celebrated work, the Aeneid. It’s a sublime piece of literature, a masterful display of poetry, and a national epic of such extraordinary merit and renown, that no country in the West can claim itself to be fully civilized, or properly learned, without having first felt its eloquent touch. Along with few other works (namely, the Bible, and those by Homer, Plato, Dante, and Milton) Virgil’s Aeneid is the vitalizing tale from which the Western world draws its life.
It is a beautifully-stitched composite of Homer, with a palpably Latin thread defining the outline of the tapestry. The first part of the story is, in essence, the Odyssey, with the second being the Iliad. The tale begins in media res, to borrow a phrase from the Roman poet, Horace. As readers, it is into the very midst of things that we’re thrown, as Aeneas endures the relentless lashes of fate, the powerful gales of fortune to which he is, as a dutiful and pious man, imperturbably resigned.
A survivor of the Trojan War, during whose ten long years, many of his countrymen died, Aeneas escaped the city of his birth to found an Italian empire abroad. In the process, he lost his wife, acquired Dido, shouldered his father, visited the Sibyl, gathered the golden bough, plucked its magical fruit, educated Iulus, traversed the Underworld, and vanquished Turnus.
But I tell you nothing of which you weren’t already aware.
It wasn’t for the centrality of the Aeneid in the Western canon that, as an author, Dante chose Virgil to serve as his guide. It was for another one of the Mantuan’s masterpieces: The Eclogues.
The Eclogues, which translates roughly to mean, the “Selections” was the first of Virgil’s published works.
If, in writing his Aeneid, Virgil presented himself as the “Roman Homer”, his Eclogues confirmed his identity as the “Roman Theocritus”. It was an association from which he didn’t shy away. Theocritus, to whom the fertile, Doric outpost of Sicily was home, perfected—if he didn’t completely invent—the pastoral idyll. His poetry was rife with the bucolic imagery of his native island, the georgic grandeur of his Syracusan home, and the sweet, rich music with which its mellifluous air was filled. With every gasp of breath, one tasted the delicious ditties to which the cooing syrinx (an ancient pipe) gave voice, and with every step, one fell into the shade of a leafy bower.
It was from Theocritus, then, that Virgil adopted his technique, as did Spenser and Milton many centuries later.
With the exception of a few tense lines exchanged between men now coerced by the state to vacate their land, Virgil follows Theocritus as would a devoted pupil. The one other exception to his mostly consistent Theocritean tune, is his perplexing fourth Eclogue. Of the ten, it is the only one that has absolutely nothing to do with shepherds, goatherds, farmers, and nature. It sings not of pastures and lovers, foliage and frolic. It reads, rather, as a prophecy of great things to come, a luminous “golden age” toward which the Roman world is heading.
Virgil begins by invoking the “Sicilian Muse”—whom we know to be none other than the esteemed Theocritus. He then admits that he’ll be departing from the great poet’s style, if only to venture a “somewhat grander theme”.
He goes on:
“Ours is the crowning era foretold in prophecy:
born of time, a great new cycle of centuries
It’s right about now that every Christian ear perks up. Was not the Hebrew Bible pregnant with prophetic verses, majestic lines by which the birth of Christ, the coming savior, was foreordained? And we have the deity, for the first time, entering the temporal sphere—as one born not only “of”, but “in time”.
“Justice returns to earth, the Golden Age
returns, and its first-born comes down from heaven above”.
Well, if that isn’t precisely the story of Christ, I’ll have to revisit the Synoptic scribes and reacquaint myself with their inspired Gospels. Is not Christ the very embodiment of truth, goodness, justice, and beauty, by whom these perfect forms are manifested? In accordance to his precept and his law, all are to be judged. The Golden Age, an age of faith, neighborliness, joy, charity, and ethical purity returns to the earth with his lordly descent.
The first-born of God—is this not another name for the vice-regent of heaven, Jesus? In a disquietingly Jovian manner, God, or Yahweh, visited his animating seed upon an unassuming Jewish girl, a modest virgin who was, at most, fifteen years of age. Fixed before her reading stand, from which she quite clearly preferred not to be diverted (as the talented duo of Da Vinci and Verrocchio observe in its shared work, Annunciation), Mary was apprised of the startling news by the angel Gabriel—to whom, many eons ago, the surveillance and protection of Eden was, by and large, unsuccessfully committed.
As she lifted her immaculate eyes from the fine, gossamer page she was reading, and recognized the angelic presence, the heavenly messanger by whom she was now visited, Mary was given the divine announcement, the news upon which all things—both earthly and numinous, of the flesh and of the spirit—would consequently turn: she’d soon carry the weight of the lord in her womb.
Like Danaë in the dungeon, buried by a father convinced of a prophecy and anxious for his life, she’d be impregnated by Jove’s golden shower, and, by her, the first-born would come down from heaven above.
“Look kindly”, Virgil urges chaste Lucina, the goddess of childbirth, “upon this infant’s birth,for with him shall hearts of iron cease, and hearts of gold inherit the whole earth”.
Those who accept Christ, that is, will inherit the earth. The gold-hearted will be those who love their neighbors, and love their God with a sincerity that is at once unaffected, and unbending. Those hearts of gold must refer to the “meek”, for they will, as Matthew tells us, ultimately inherit the earth.
“You, at our head, mankind shall be freed from its age-long
all stains of our past wickedness being cleansed away”.
It’s taught in the church that Christ is the receptacle, if I can use that word, into whom all sins are piled. It is a capaciousness one can hardly imagine. The primal sin of our first parents doomed us—their wretched posterity—to everlasting toil, pain, and death. Because of their antique lapse, their lawless preference for the fruit of knowledge, to that of nescient life, the pangs of childbirth torment the woman, the brow of man is bedewed with sweat. Neither will be permitted re-entry into the garden, that verdant paradise out of whose clay they once sprang. The serpent, for his part, suffers the odium of all mankind and—with his forked and unintelligible tongue—no longer inveigles humans, those stumbling creatures of weak and credulous mind.
It is by the crucifixion of Jesus that we are redeemed—an expiation dependent on the shedding of his blood. This act, the final of his corporeal life, is an answer to the sin committed at our beginning.
And so, with his death, “all stains of our past wickedness are cleansed away”.
Virgil goes on:
“This child shall enter into the life of the gods, behold them walking with antique heroes, and himself be seen of them,
and rule a world made peaceful by his father’s virtuous acts.”
Of course, prior to his remarkable sojourn to Earth, and following his rather gruesome death, Jesus existed, and perhaps exists, in the life of the gods. He doubtless walks with antique heroes, such as Abraham—the Father of Faith, and, in my opinion, the loneliest man in literature—and Moses, the ineloquent prophet. And, now, it is his divine commission, as “King of the Jews”, to rule a world made peaceful by his father’s holy acts.
“Child, your first birthday presents will come from nature’s wild”
Could this not be a prediction of the gold, myrrh, and frankincense with which the newborn god was showered?—the mightily symbolic gifts with which the magi adorned this infant boy?
“In unison with the unshakable intent of Destiny
come soon, dear child of the gods, Jupiter’s great Viceroy!
Come soon—the time is near—to begin your life illustrious!
Look how the round and ponderous globe bows to salute you…”
Jesus, perched in Empyrean at God’s right hand, is the Viceroy of heaven’s hoary King. And the time was nigh, with the ascent of Augustus and the transition to Tiberius, for the Nazarene’s illustrious life to begin. Not only did the globe bow down to his exalted arrival, but—at his birth—it shot a star into the sky, and—at his death—eclipsed the sun and veiled the forenoon in a shroud of unnatural darkness.
What a fantastic Eclogue, or “Selection” with which to welcome the holiday season! A poetic presaging of Christ that the Old Testament’s beauty and power hardly attains to. The glorious tale of Jesus’ nativity, to which the greatest of the Pagans committed his sacred pen.
Of course, stodgy old classicists will try to dampen your Christmas spirit by pointing to the true subject of Virgil’s remarkable song. While the true identity of the “first-born” son from heaven remains veiled in a cloud of mystery, all are in agreement that Virgil did not refer prophetically to Christ. In 40 B.C., a son was born to Virgil’s patron, Asinius Pollio—of whom he makes mention in an earlier Eclogue.
If he referred not to this blessed boy, but to someone else, it was probably the child not yet begotten by the union of Mark Antony and Octavia. Octavia, you see, was the sister of Octavian—later, the deified Augustus—to whom the budding Caesar hoped to bind his imperial rival. The consummation of this strategic union, this political marriage of two great houses on the verge of a bout, would produce, in time, such a “savior child” by whom peace in the realm might be established, ties between families strengthened, and the Golden Age, at long last, returned.
That, at least, was the lofty hope of the Pact of Brundisium, by which the empire was to be lawfully split. Under the terms of the treaty, Octavian would govern Rome’s western half, and Mark Antony, her eastern.
The eastern half, comprising a good part of the near orient, included Egypt, over which the alluring Cleopatra—that swarthy sovereign of Ptolemaic royalty and Macedonian blood—presided. So long as she lived, and her feminine charms had the power to drain the strength and sturdiness of men’s knees, and, more importantly, to excite the juices of their privy organs, Antony’s commitment to Octavia was always going to be a fragile one, at best. It was further enfeebled by the disappointing sex of the child born to them—a girl.
So, there you have it. That is the story of the Fourth Eclogue by Virgil. Perhaps Jesus is not its main subject, and the pagan wasn’t predicting the birth of the Christian Lord, but that does nothing to discount its sublimity and value. And, as we approach Christmas, we—lovers, all, of the Mantuan muse—can do as Dante did, and embrace Virgil into the Christian fold. As we navigate our way through the dizzying rush of the holiday season, with hopes of arriving safely, peacefully, and contemplatively at that divine morn, let us recruit Virgil to be our master—to be our guide.
May he lead us to Christmas, and joyous times to come—to a “Golden Age” of friendship, charity, forbearance, courage, strength, and mirth.
Thank you, and Happy Holidays.