Virgil set out to write a masterpiece; curiously, he succeeded.

I am rereading Troilus and Cressida and, for lack of engagement, my mind keeps wandering to Homer and Virgil. So here, by association, is Borges’ prologue to The Aeneid from his A Personal Library project (translation included in Selected Non-Fictions):

Leibniz has a parable about two libraries: one of a hundred different books of different worth, the other of a hundred books that are all equally perfect. It is significant that the latter consists of a hundred Aeneids. Voltaire wrote that Virgil may be the work of Homer, but he is the greatest of Homer’s works. Virgil’s preeminence lasted for sixteen hundred years in Europe; the Romantic movement denied and almost erased him. Today he is threatened by our custom of reading books as a function of history, not of aesthetics.

The Aeneid is the highest example of what has been called, without discredit, the artificial epic; that is to say, the deliberate work of a single man, not that which human generations, without knowing it, have created. Virgil set out to write a masterpiece; curiously, he succeeded. I say “curiously” because masterpieces tend to be the daughters of chance or of negligence. As though it were a short poem, this epic was polished, line by line, with the felicitous care that Petronius praised-I’ll never know why-in Horace. Let us examine, almost at random, a few examples.

Virgil does not tell us that the Achaeans waited for darkness to enter Troy; he speaks of the friendly silence of the moon. He does not write that Troy was destroyed, but rather, “Troy was.” He does not write that a life was unfortunate, but rather “The gods understood him in another way.” To express what is now called pantheism, he says, “All things are full of Jupiter.” He does not condemn the aggressive madness of men; he calls it “the love of iron.” He does not tell us that Aeneas and the Sybil wandered alone among the shadows in the dark night; he writes, “Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram.” This is not a mere rhetorical figure, a hyperbaton: “alone” and “dark” have not changed places in the phrase; both forms, the usual and the Virgilian, correspond with equal precision to the scene they represent.

The selection of each word and each turn of phrase also makes Virgil the classic of the classics, in some serene way, a Baroque poet. The carefulness of his writing did not impede the fluidity of his narration of Aeneas’ deeds and adventures. There are events that are almost magical: Aeneas, exiled from Troy, disembarks in Carthage and sees on the walls of a temple images of the Trojan War, images of Priam, Achilles, Hector, and even himself. There are tragic events: the Queen of Carthage who watches the Greek boats leaving and knows that her lover has abandoned her. There is a predictable abundance of heroism, such as these words spoken by a warrior: “My son, learn from me strength and genuine valor; and from others, luck.”

Virgil. Of all the poets of the earth, there is none other who has been listened to with such love. Even beyond Augustus, Rome, and the empire that, across other nations and languages, is still the Empire. Virgil is our friend. When Dante made Virgil his guide and the most continual character in the Commedia, he gave an enduring aesthetic form to that which all men feel with gratitude.

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