Thursday 16 May 2024

Vergil and Nature

 Everything that is printed and bound in a book contains some echo at least of the best that is in literature. Indeed, the best books have a use, like sticks and stones, which is above or beside their design, not anticipated in the preface, nor concluded in the appendix. Even Virgil's poetry serves a very different use to me to-day from what it did to his contemporaries. It has often an acquired and accidental value merely, proving that man is still man in the world. It is pleasant to meet with such still lines as,

    “Jam laeto turgent in palmite gemmae;”
     Now the buds swell on the joyful stem.
    “Strata jacent passim sua quaeque sub arbore poma.”
     The apples lie scattered everywhere, each under its tree.

In an ancient and dead language, any recognition of living nature attracts us. These are such sentences as were written while grass grew and water ran. It is no small recommendation when a book will stand the test of mere unobstructed sunshine and daylight.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings (New York: Bantam, 2004), p. 66 [A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849].

Nam tantus philosophus, et Platonis, in quo summa eloquentia summae sapientiae coniuncta est, optimus imitator, P. Vergilii eloquentiam naturae omnium rerum optimae parenti similem esse docet. Nam ut terram hic frugibus arboribusque laetam videmus, ibi pratis floribusque omnia ridere, aliam regionem fontibus irrigari, aliam omnino arescere, esse et loca quae in campos porrigantur, esse et alia quae in montes rupesque consurgant, eosdemque alibi horrendis sylvis vestiri, alibi nudo saxo inhorrescere; sic P. Vergilius stilum suum ad omnes vitae mores integrum traducit, ut nunc brevis nunc copiosus sit, nunc siccum nunc floridum sese ostendat, est praeterea ubi levi fluat agmine, est et cum veluti per confragosa torrens rapidusque praecipitetur.

For that great philosopher [Macrobius], in whom the greatest eloquence is combined with wisdom, is the best imitator of Plato; he teaches that the eloquence of Virgil is akin to the greatest parent of everything of nature. For we see in one place the earth fertile with crops and trees, and in another place, everything rejoices in meadows and flowers. We see another region watered by springs, and another region dried up. We see lands where fields stretch wide, and lands where with rising cliffs and mountains. Elsewhere, we see countries clothed in bristling forests, and countries trembling on barren rock. Though these scenes, Virgil conveys with his vigorous style each manner of life, so that it is now scare, now plentiful; he himself shows what is now desert, and what is now blooming with life, where there is a river flowing in a gentle stream, and where it rushes down over the rough landscape, roaring and rapid.
Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498), Scritti critici e teorici, ed. by Roberto Cardini, 2 vols (Rome: Bulzone, 1974), I, p. 215 [Proemio al commento Virgiliano, 1488]. My translation.