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No. 351. SATURDAY, APRIL 12.
In te omnis domus inclinata recumbit. VIRG.
On thee the fortunes of our house depend.
If we look into the three great heroic poems which have appeared in the world, we may observe that they are built upon very slight foundations. Homer lived near three hundred years after the Trojan war, and as the writing of history was not then in use among the Greeks, we may very well suppose, that the tradition of Achilles and Ulysses had brought down but very few particulars to his knowledge; though there is no question but he has wrought into his two poems such of their remarkable adventures as were still talked of among his contemporaries.
The story of Æneas, on which Virgil founded his poem, was likewise
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 are 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 Halicarnassus.
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 regards my present purpose. Whoever looks into the abridgment abovementioned, 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 that 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 abovementioned acquaints us, that 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 conveniences, 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 fulfilled. 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 a heroic poem. The prophetess who foretelis it is a hungry harpy, as the person who discovers it is young Ascanius. Heus etiam mensas consumimus, inquit Iulus! Ær. See, we devour the plates on which we fed! DRYDEN.
Such an observation, which is beautiful in the mouth of a boy, would have been ridiculous from any other of 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 have 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 most exceptionable. I hope the length of this reflection will not make it unacceptable to the curious part of
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 beautiful 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 heauty 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. The author afterwards gives us a description of the 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 concert of praise and adoration.
Now when as sacred light began to dawn
Of creatures wanting voiceThe dispute which follows between our two first parents is represented with great art: it pro