- Virgil and the Moderns
Theodore Ziolkowski’s Virgil and the Moderns is a wonderful book. Everyone interested in modern literature and the western cultural heritage should read it. Ziolkowski does much more than tell us about Virgil and his influence on modern authors and readers; he traces the Latin poet’s appeal from the nineteenth century forward, focusing on different national trends and responses to the Roman past. His book is a veritable education in modern literature and cultural history.
In the introductory chapter Ziolkowski situates Virgil in the twentieth century, with references to the Virgilian epigraph on the title page of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and the Virgilian motto to the first volume of Toynbee’s A Study of History (1934). Ziolkowski concentrates attention, in fact, on the appeal to Roman history in many early twentieth-century historians, and he explores the various European and American reactions to the bimillennial celebrations in 1930 of Virgil’s birth. Like the Bible, the Roman past seems to speak directly to a great variety of points of view: “Roman history, properly comprehended in its broad outlines, is and remains the best teacher not only for today, but indeed for all times”; thus opined the author of Mein Kampf.
Ziolkowski’s second chapter, “The Ideological Lives,” begins by observing that “every biography is ideological” and quoting Duane Reed Stuart’s comment that “Every age has tended to fashion a Virgil after its own image.” Ziolkowski tests this proposition against the many “modern” biographies of Virgil that appeared in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially during the bimillennial celebrations. In Italy he finds Virgil described as “a Latin nationalist with conservative messages for the present on government and agriculture”; in France he discovers “a protofascist emerging from the bohemian life of the rive gauche of ancient Rome”; in Germany he encounters “an agrarian anima naturaliter christiana destined to become Father of the West in opposition to the rise of Nazism”; and in Latin America he sees that Virgil has become “an apostle of peace among the pagans with the providential mission to serve the generations as a pedagogue for Christ.”
In the five chapters that follow, Ziolkowski shows that these various versions of Virgil’s life and influence resulted in a similar diversity of literary manifestations. In Europe, each country found a Virgil suited to its own preoccupations and prejudices. A rich and indeed overwhelming curriculum in modern literature could be constructed from the authors and texts Ziolkowski discusses in these brief surveys of works influenced by Virgil’s poetry. But although he is a deft literary critic, Ziolkowski goes further, to trace biographical and cultural influences. We discover, for example, that Gide was obsessed with the Eclogues, that it was the Georgics that Mr. Carmichael “liked to lie awake a little reading” in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and that Joe Paterno’s first and most enduring hero [End Page 175] was Virgil’s Aeneas, “to whom he was introduced by his high school Latin teacher at Brooklyn Prep.”
I confess that my favorite parts of the book were the chapters on Virgil in Britain and the “New World.” I thought I was a pretty good student of the classics and of British and American literature, but I am ashamed to admit how much I learned from Ziolkowski’s discussions of Virgil’s influence on Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and Cyril Connolly, on Willa Cather and Robert Frost, on Archibald MacLeish, Allen Tate, and Robert Lowell. Ziolkowski is a treasure, and he has given us a rare treat in this very thoughtful study of the way our cultural inheritance is passed on and reaffirmed. As he himself remarks in the book’s final sentences on the ties that bind us to Virgil and our common past: “This reaffirmation, attained at the cost of great spiritual engagement by our intellectual predecessors, we neglect today at our peril.”