Vergil, Seduced by Imitation

From Samuel Johnson’s, The Rambler No. 121:

Yet, whatever Hope may persuade, or Reason evince, Experience can boast of very few Additions to ancient Fable. The Wars of Troy and the Travels of Ulysses have furnished almost all succeeding Poets with Incidents, Characters, and Sentiments. The Romans are confessed to have attempted little more than to display in their own Tongue the Fictions of the Greeks. There is in all their Writings such a perpetual Recurrence of Allusions to the Tales of the fabulous Age, that they must be confessed often to want that Power of giving Pleasure which Novelty supplies; nor can we wonder that they excelled so much in the Graces of Diction, when we consider how little they were employed in Search of new Thoughts.

The warmest Admirers of the great Mantuan Poet can extol him for little more than the Skill with which he has, by making his Hero both a Traveller and a Warrior, united the Beauties of the Iliad and Odyssey in one Composition; yet his Judgment was perhaps sometimes overborn by his Avarice of the Homeric Treasures, and for fear of suffering a sparkling Ornament to be lost, has inserted it where it cannot shine with its original Splendor. When Ulysses visited the infernal Regions, he found among the Heroes who died at Troy, his Competitor Ajax, who, when the Arms of Achilles were adjudged to Ulysses, died by his own Hand in the Madness of Disappointment. He still appeared to resent, as on Earth, his Loss and Disgrace. Ulysses endeavoured to pacify him with Praises and Submission; but Ajax walked away without Reply. This Passage has always been considered as eminently beautiful, because Ajax the haughty Chief, the unlettered Soldier, of unshaken Courage, of immoveable Constancy, but without the Power of recommending his own Virtues by Eloquence, or enforcing his Assertions by any other Argument than the Sword, had no way of making his Resentment known but by gloomy Sullenness and dumb Ferocity. He therefore naturally showed his Hatred of a Man whom he conceived to have defeated him only by Volubility of Tongue, by Silence more contemptuous and affecting than any Words that so rude an Orator could have found, and which gave his Enemy no Opportunity of exerting the only Power in which he was superior. When Aeneas is sent by Virgil into the Regions below, he meets with Dido the Queen of Carthage, whom his Perfidy had hurried to the Grave; he accosts her with Tenderness and Excuses, but the Lady turns away like Ajax in mute Anger. She turns away like Ajax, but she resembles him in none of those Qualities which give either Dignity or Propriety to Silence. She might, without any Departure from the Tenour of her Conduct, have burst out like other injured Ladies into Clamour, Reproach, and Denunciation; but Virgil had his Imagination full of Ajax, and therefore could not prevail on himself to teach Dido any other Mode of Resentment.

If Virgil could be thus seduced by Imitation there will be little Hope that common Wits should escape; and accordingly we find, that besides the universal and acknowledged Practice of copying the Ancients, there has prevailed in every Age a particular Species of Fiction. At one Time all Truth was conveyed in Allegory; at another nothing was seen but in a Vision; at one Period all the Poets followed Sheep, and every Event produced a Pastoral; at another they busied themselves wholly in giving Directions to a Painter.

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