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  • The Other Virgil: "Pessimistic" Readings of the "Aeneid" in Early Modern Culture
  • Margaret W. Ferguson (bio)
The Other Virgil: "Pessimistic" Readings of the "Aeneid" in Early Modern Culture. By Craig Kallendorf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 265 pp. Cloth $72.00.

In this learned, ambitious, enlightening but sometimes dogmatic book, Craig Kallendorf explores a discursive territory he himself describes as shaded in [End Page 124] gray. This territory is broad in linguistic, geographical, and temporal scope; in ideological terms, however, it is quite narrow. The book analyzes Latin, Italian, French, English, and Spanish texts to demonstrate the existence and cultural importance of a "pessimistic" line on Virgil's epic. Kallendorf explores a contrast (developed by anglophone scholars mainly based at Harvard and Oxford) between an "optimistic" hermeneutic tendency that takes Virgil's hero as embodying an ethical and political ideal, on the one hand, and, on the other, a "pessimistic" (but, for many modern scholars, more politically palatable) tendency that finds in Virgil's poem traces of a critical assessment of the hero—and a corresponding admiration and sympathy for figures like Dido and Turnus, the "losers" in the story of an empire's foundation and legitimation. Though the "optimistic" tradition is perhaps misnamed—Kallendorf himself associates it with a moralizing and simplistic educational construct (214)—this book's chief concern is to refute the charge that the "pessimistic" reading is an ahistorical and sentimental construction, an imposition on the past by modern liberal readers who can't bear to see Virgil's poem judged as a document written to serve and flatter an emperor.

Such a judgment appears in the introduction to the second version of Joel Barlow's epic on the American Revolution, the Columbiad, published in 1807. Barlow deems Virgil's moral tendency "pernicious" because he "wrote and felt like a subject, not like a citizen," with the "design" of increasing "the veneration of the people for a master" and Rome's "great system of military depredation" (191–92). Kallendorf's handling of this negative judgment suggests two other important if unstated goals: first, to refute critics such as David Quint and Heather James, who see Virgil (in contrast to Lucan or Ovid or Milton) as among those writers who present history from "the viewpoint of the victors" (144), and second, more broadly, to protect the Aeneid from being deemed irrelevant to life in America, a country in which many intellectuals from the eighteenth century to the present have doubted the value of a "classical" education.

Kallendorf's study provides interesting and often compelling evidence, some from well-known texts, some from ones seldom read today, for the thesis that educated readers have seen and imaginatively exploited ethical flaws in Aeneas—and, by implication, in Virgil's relation to his imperial patron, Augustus—for a very long time and in many early modern sites. Kallendorf's first extended illustration of his argument—one of his most original and persuasive—focuses on Francesco Filelfo's never-printed epic, the Sphortias, which relates how Francesco Sforza won control of Milan in 1447. The centerpiece of a chapter entitled "Marginalization," Filelfo's epic is set in fruitful relation to numerous other early Renaissance works, [End Page 125] including Petrarch's Africa, that obliquely criticize Aeneas, especially in the famous episodes when he succumbs to lust for Dido and to vengeful anger in finally stabbing Turnus.

A chapter on colonization takes us to Caliban's—or Prospero's—imaginary island and also across the Atlantic, via a fine discussion of Alonso de Ercilla's depictions, in La Araucana, of Spaniards and indigenous Americans fighting in sixteenth-century Chile. In the next chapter, on revolution, Kallendorf reconsiders the many ways that Virgil's account of Aeneas's journey from Troy to Rome shaped Milton's Paradise Lost; this chapter also includes a section on Barlow's epic renditions of Columbus's visions. Kallendorf's final major piece of evidence (there are brief comments on other writers throughout) is Alexandre Chrétien Le Plat du Temple's fascinating and little-known Virgile en France (1807–8). This work recasts the first six books of the Aeneid as an allegorical "travesty" of...