Portrait of Henry Nettleship

in Literature, Reception, Scholarship

Defending Vergil

It’s difficult to imagine a time when a scholar might feel the need to defend Vergil against the notion that he was derivative, artificial, or less than a classic, but that’s what Henry Nettleship felt compelled to do in his Suggestions Introductory to a Study of the Aeneid (1875):
Portrait of Henry Nettleship

The following remarks are offered as a contribution to the interpretation of a poem to which a great deal of recent criticism has, I venture to think, been unjust. Much has been said of the artificial and borrowed element in the Aeneid, very little of the original element; and yet it is clear that a poet who won the ear of his nation so soon as Vergil, and became at once one of the most popular poets and the most classical poet of Rome, could not have gained this position without great original power. Because Vergil chose a vast and multitudinous material to work upon some critics have supposed that he showed no creative power in handling it; as if he had not created a new kind of epic and a new poetical language; as if any other Roman poet before him had attempted so vast and so difficult a problem, and as if any epic poet of his nation after him had succeeded in anything like the same way in holding the attention of mankind. Mere rhetorical skill has never made and can never make a work immortal.

The same criticisms have been leveled against poets like Apollonius of Rhodes and Nicander of Colophon, but only Vergil has on his side a defense like that outlined by Nettsleship.

Nettleship’s little book is relatively short and should still be read by both teachers and students of Vergil.

His conclusion:

The sum of what has been said is that the main thread of ideas running through the Aeneid is Roman, but that its form is that of the Greek epic, and much of the spirit of its action is that of the Greek tragedy: that the Aeneid reflects in a poetical form the multitude of beliefs which thronged the literary atmosphere of Rome at the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, and is in this way the most complete and classical monument of its age.

This work is available for online viewing or downloading from Google Books.