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  • Circle Games from Pharr to Stahl
  • Richard F. Thomas

Unlike Tennyson—"I who loved thee since my day began"—I came to Virgil relatively late in life. I think we read bits of the Aeneid in school in New Zealand, but frankly don't remember having done so. For better or worse, I did not share the experience of countless U.S. schoolchildren, and generations of their teachers, who read selections from Aeneid 1–6 in the innovative school commentary of Clyde Pharr, first published in 1930, the preface stating that "the author is much pleased to offer this little volume in homage to the spirit of the bard of Mantua at a time when all the world is uniting to pay him tribute" (1998: xii).1 Pharr, a specialist in Roman law, wrote nothing on Virgil beyond a preface, which has been read and absorbed for the past eighty-five years by many schoolteachers of Virgil, and presumably passed on to their charges. This textbook was later used, and in some cases still is, in the teaching of the AP Latin syllabus ("Vergil" until 2012, "Vergil and Caesar" since the 2012–13 school year). Pharr's anachronistic introduction sees all through the eyes of Augustus, reflecting the Servian and Suetonian focus that seems to be the ultimate source (2):

The poem was undertaken at the request of Augustus. . . . Vergil and Augustus were both interested in thus giving divine sanction and the [End Page 115] weight of hoary antiquity to the measures which Augustus had undertaken for establishing the empire. Thus Augustus appears as the restorer of the good old days and good old ways of the fathers. He is the promised ruler of divine descent who is to bring peace and a return of the Golden Age to the whole world.

On Virgil himself the ancient Life of Vergil is even more to the fore in Pharr's opining (3):

As a piece of literature, the Aeneid has both the strengths and weaknesses of its author and subject matter. Vergil was a weakling, usually in poor health, shy to the point of painfulness, a sentimental idealist, and little acquainted with the hard and practical ways of the stern old Roman world. He was never married and seems to have cared little or nothing for feminine society. His one great ideal of life can be summed up in the word pietās, devotion, loyalty, and he equips his hero (pius Aenēās) with a full and overflowing measure of this quality, which finds its best expression in an unquestioned obedience to the will of the gods and to their more or less contradictory commands no matter how much human suffering may be entailed nor how much apparent wrong may result.

Fortunately I missed out on all of this in school, so remained something of a tabula rasa on what the Aeneid was "about." As an undergraduate in New Zealand I took a course with W. R. Barnes on the Georgics, mostly book 4, I think it was, probably. That poem has always for me been the perfect poem; likewise it is a poem that came in my mind to sit easily and well with Harvard School readings of the epic that followed. Both poems deal in shadows as much as in light, and both—like the Eclogues—focus on losers as much as on winners: it is Meliboeus, Moeris, Lycidas, Orpheus and Eurydice, Dido and Turnus who get much of the music and whose fates linger along with the victories and successes of Tityrus, Aristaeus, and Aeneas.

Barnes also introduced me to Steele Commager's 1966 edition, Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays, which contained the articles of Brooks, Clausen, and Parry, with other now-classic offerings such as Bernard Knox's "The Serpent and the Flame." It was one of the few books I brought with me to the U.S., though I seem to have lost it at some point. In graduate school at Michigan (1974-77) I read the Aeneid, or much of it, since it was on the reading list, and I did a Georgics seminar with D. O. Ross, Clausen's student at Harvard and...


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