Homer is Wild, Vergil is a Garden, Ovid is…Ovid

Joseph Addison, Spectator No. 417:

“And among those of the learned languages who excel in this talent, the most perfect in their several kinds are, perhaps, Homer, Virgil, and Ovid. The first strikes the imagination wonderfully with what is great, the second with what is beautiful, and the last with what is strange. Reading the Iliad is like traveling through a country uninhabited, where the fancy is entertained with a thousand savage prospects of vast deserts, wide uncultivated marshes, huge forests, misshapen rocks, and precipices. On the contrary, the Aeneid is like a well-ordered garden, where it is impossible to find out any part unadorned, or to cast our eyes upon a single spot that does not produce some beautiful plant or flower. But when we are in the Metamorphoses, we are walking on enchanted ground, and see nothing but scenes of magic lying round us.

Homer is in his province when he is describing a battle or a multitude, a hero or a god. Virgil is never better pleased than when he is in his elysium, or copying out an entertaining picture. Homer’s epithets generally mark out what is great, Virgil’s what is agreeable. Nothing can be more magnificent than the figure Jupiter makes in the first Iliad, nor more charming than that of Venus in the first Aeneid:

As he spoke the son of Saturn bowed his dark brows, and the ambrosial locks swayed on his immortal head, till vast Olympus reeled.
[trans. Butler] [Homer, Illiad, I. 528-30]

Dixit, & avertens rosea cervice refulsit:
Ambrosiaeque comae divinum vertice odorem
Spiravere: pedes vestis defluxit ad imos:
Et vera incessu patuit dea . . .

Thus having said, she turn’d, and made appear
Her neck refulgent, and dishevel’d hair,
Which, flowing from her shoulders, reach’d the ground.
And widely spread ambrosial scents around:
In length of train descends her sweeping gown;
And, by her graceful walk, the Queen of Love is known.
[trans. Dryden] [Virgil, Aeneid, I, 402-5]

Homer’s persons are most of them godlike and terrible: Virgil has scarce admitted any into his poem who are not beautiful, and has taken particular care to make his hero so.

. . . Lumenque juventae
Purpureum, & laetos oculis afflarat honores.

And giv’n his rolling eyes a sparkling grace,
And breath’d a youthful vigor on his face.
[trans. Dryden] [Virgil, Aeneid, I. 590-1]

In a word, Homer fills his readers with sublime ideas, and, I believe, has raised the imagination of all the good poets that have come after him. I shall only instance Horace, who immediately takes fire at the first hint of any passage in the Iliad or Odyssey, and always rises above himself when he has Homer in his view. Virgil has drawn together into his Aeneid all the pleasing scenes his subject is capable of admitting, and in his Georgics has given us a collection of the most delightful landscapes that can be made out of fields and woods, herds of cattle, and swarms of bees.

Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, has shown us how the imagination may be affected by what is strange. He describes a miracle in every story, and always gives us the sight of some new creature at the end of it. His art consists chiefly in well-timing his description before the first shape is quite worn off, and the new one perfectly finished; so that he everywhere entertains us with something we never saw before, and shows monster after monster to the end of the Metamorphoses.”

Image result for homer and vergil

3 responses

  1. could not agree more with the following comment:

    “Reading the Iliad is like traveling through a country uninhabited, where the fancy is entertained with a thousand savage prospects of vast deserts, wide uncultivated marshes, huge forests, misshapen rocks, and precipices. On the contrary, the Aeneid is like a well-ordered garden”

    This sense is all about the difference between a collective, organic composition and one ordered by an individual mind…

    • I also think that this is why Homer has so much more *immediate* appeal than Vergil. Only in the past few years have I begun to appreciate Vergil for his artistry, but it must be confessed that Vergil wrote with his books wide open – his genius, like that of Dante following him, consists largely in reception molded into art, and many of the best parts of all of his works are those which display a loving respect toward and deep reading of the works which were already classics in his day. That is, Homer can be enjoyed without so much mediation – Vergil requires that you appreciate him as a *fellow reader* of the Greek classics.

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