No. 351 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: Essay

No. 351
Saturday, April 12, 1712. Addison.

In te omnis domus inclinata recumbit.

Virg.

If we look into the three great Heroick Poems which have appeared in the World, we may observe that they are built upon very slight Foundations. Homer lived near 300 Years after the Trojan War; and, as the writing of History was not then in use among the Greeks, we may very well suppose, that the Tradition of Achilles and Ulysses had brought down but very few particulars to his Knowledge; though there is no question but he has wrought into his two Poems such of their remarkable Adventures, as were still talked of among his Contemporaries.

The Story of AEneas, on which Virgil founded his Poem, was likewise very bare of Circumstances, and by that means afforded him an Opportunity of embellishing it with Fiction, and giving a full range to his own Invention. We find, however, that he has interwoven, in the course of his Fable, the principal Particulars, which were generally believed among the Romans, of AEneas his Voyage and Settlement in Italy. The Reader may find an Abridgment of the whole Story as collected out of the ancient Historians, and as it was received among the Romans, in Dionysius Halicarnasseus [1].

Since none of the Criticks have consider’d Virgil’s Fable, with relation to this History of AEneas, it may not, perhaps, be amiss to examine it in this Light, so far as regards my present Purpose. Whoever looks into the Abridgment above mentioned, will find that the Character of AEneas is filled with Piety to the Gods, and a superstitious Observation of Prodigies, Oracles, and Predictions. Virgil has not only preserved this Character in the Person of AEneas, but has given a place in his Poem to those particular Prophecies which he found recorded of him in History and Tradition. The Poet took the matters of Fact as they came down to him, and circumstanced them after his own manner, to make them appear the more natural, agreeable, or surprizing. I believe very many Readers have been shocked at that ludicrous Prophecy, which one of the Harpyes pronounces to the Trojans in the third Book, namely, that before they had built their intended City, they should be reduced by Hunger to eat their very Tables. But, when they hear that this was one of the Circumstances that had been transmitted to the Romans in the History of AEneas, they will think the Poet did very well in taking notice of it. The Historian above mentioned acquaints us, a Prophetess had foretold AEneas, that he should take his Voyage Westward, till his Companions should eat their Tables; and that accordingly, upon his landing in Italy, as they were eating their Flesh upon Cakes of Bread, for want of other Conveniences, they afterwards fed on the Cakes themselves; upon which one of the Company said merrily, We are eating our Tables. They immediately took the Hint, says the Historian, and concluded the Prophecy to be fulfilled. As Virgil did not think it proper to omit so material a particular in the History of AEneas, it may be worth while to consider with how much Judgment he has qualified it, and taken off every thing that might have appeared improper for a Passage in an Heroick Poem. The Prophetess who foretells it, is an Hungry Harpy, as the Person who discovers it is young Ascanius. [2]

Heus etiam mensas consumimus, inquit Inlus!

Such an observation, which is beautiful in the Mouth of a Boy, would have been ridiculous from any other of the Company. I am apt to think that the changing of the Trojan Fleet into Water-Nymphs which is the most violent Machine in the whole AEneid, and has given offence to several Criticks, may be accounted for the same way. Virgil himself, before he begins that Relation, premises, that what he was going to tell appeared incredible, but that it was justified by Tradition. What further confirms me that this Change of the Fleet was a celebrated Circumstance in the History of AEneas, is, that Ovid has given place to the same Metamorphosis in his Account of the heathen Mythology.

None of the Criticks I have met with having considered the Fable of the AEneid in this Light, and taken notice how the Tradition, on which it was founded, authorizes those Parts in it which appear the most exceptionable; I hope the length of this Reflection will not make it unacceptable to the curious Part of my Readers.

The History, which was the Basis of Milton’s Poem, is still shorter than either that of the Iliad or AEneid. The Poet has likewise taken care to insert every Circumstance of it in the Body of his Fable. The ninth Book, which we are here to consider, is raised upon that brief Account in Scripture, wherein we are told that the Serpent was more subtle than any Beast of the Field, that he tempted the Woman to eat of the forbidden Fruit, that she was overcome by this Temptation, and that Adam followed her Example. From these few Particulars, Milton has formed one of the most Entertaining Fables that Invention ever produced. He has disposed of these several Circumstances among so many beautiful and natural Fictions of his own, that his whole Story looks only like a Comment upon sacred Writ, or rather seems to be a full and compleat Relation of what the other is only an Epitome. I have insisted the longer on this Consideration, as I look upon the Disposition and Contrivance of the Fable to be the principal Beauty of the ninth Book, which has more Story in it, and is fuller of Incidents, than any other in the whole Poem. Satan’s traversing the Globe, and still keeping within the Shadow of the Night, as fearing to be discovered by the Angel of the Sun, who had before detected him, is one of those beautiful Imaginations with which he introduces this his second Series of Adventures. Having examined the Nature of every Creature, and found out one which was the most proper for his Purpose, he again returns to Paradise; and, to avoid Discovery, sinks by Night with a River that ran under the Garden, and rises up again through a Fountain that [issued [3]] from it by the Tree of Life. The Poet, who, as we have before taken notice, speaks as little as possible in his own Person, and, after the Example of Homer, fills every Part of his Work with Manners and Characters, introduces a Soliloquy of this infernal Agent, who was thus restless in the Destruction of Man. He is then describ’d as gliding through the Garden, under the resemblance of a Mist, in order to find out that Creature in which he design’d to tempt our first Parents. This Description has something in it very Poetical and Surprizing.

So saying, through each Thicket Dank or Dry,
Like a black Mist, low creeping, he held on
His Midnight Search, where soonest he might find
The Serpent: him fast sleeping soon he found
In Labyrinth of many a Round self-roll’d,
His Head the midst, well stor’d with subtle Wiles.

The Author afterwards gives us a Description of the Morning, which is wonderfully suitable to a Divine Poem, and peculiar to that first Season of Nature: He represents the Earth, before it was curst, as a great Altar, breathing out its Incense from all Parts, and sending up a pleasant Savour to the Nostrils of its Creator; to which he adds a noble Idea of Adam and Eve, as offering their Morning Worship, and filling up the Universal Consort of Praise and Adoration.
Now when as sacred Light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid Flowers, that breathed
Their Morning Incense, when all things that breathe
From th’ Earth’s great Altar send up silent Praise
To the Creator, and his Nostrils fill
With grateful Smell; forth came the human Pair,
And join’d their vocal Worship to the Choir
Of Creatures wanting Voice–

The Dispute which follows between our two first Parents, is represented with great Art: It [proceeds [4]] from a Difference of Judgment, not of Passion, and is managed with Reason, not with Heat: It is such a Dispute as we may suppose might have happened in Paradise, had Man continued Happy and Innocent. There is a great Delicacy in the Moralities which are interspersed in Adams Discourse, and which the most ordinary Reader cannot but take notice of. That Force of Love which the Father of Mankind so finely describes in the eighth Book, and which is inserted in my last Saturdays Paper, shews it self here in many fine Instances: As in those fond Regards he cast towards Eve at her parting from him.

Her long with ardent Look his Eye pursued
Delighted, but desiring more her stay:
Oft he to her his Charge of quick return
Repeated; she to him as oft engaged
To be return’d by noon amid the Bower.

In his Impatience and Amusement during her Absence

–Adam the while,
Waiting desirous her return, had wove
Of choicest Flowers a Garland, to adorn
Her Tresses, and her rural Labours crown:
As Reapers oft are wont their Harvest Queen.
Great Joy he promised to his thoughts, and new
Solace in her return, so long delay’d.

But particularly in that passionate Speech, where seeing her irrecoverably lost, he resolves to perish with her rather than to live without her.

–Some cursed Fraud
Or Enemy hath beguil’d thee, yet unknown,
And me with thee hath ruin’d; for with thee
Certain my Resolution is to die!
How can I live without thee; how forego
Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly join’d,
To live again in these wild Woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another Rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my Heart! no, no! I feel
The Link of Nature draw me: Flesh of Flesh,
Bone of my Bone thou art, and from thy State
Mine never shall be parted, Bliss or Woe!

The Beginning of this Speech, and the Preparation to it, are animated with the same Spirit as the Conclusion, which I have here quoted.

The several Wiles which are put in practice by the Tempter, when he found Eve separated from her Husband, the many pleasing Images of Nature which are intermix’d in this part of the Story, with its gradual and regular Progress to the fatal Catastrophe, are so very remarkable that it would be superfluous to point out their respective Beauties.

I have avoided mentioning any particular Similitudes in my Remarks on this great Work, because I have given a general Account of them in my Paper on the first Book. There is one, however, in this part of the Poem, which I shall here quote as it is not only very beautiful, but the closest of any in the whole Poem. I mean that where the Serpent is describ as rolling forward in all his Pride, animated by the evil Spirit, and conducting Eve to her Destruction, while Adam was at too great a distance from her to give her his Assistance. These several Particulars are all of them wrought into the following Similitude.

–Hope elevates, and Joy
Brightens his Crest; as when a wandering Fire,
Compact of unctuous Vapour, which the Night
Condenses, and the Cold invirons round,
Kindled through Agitation to a Flame,
(Which oft, they say, some evil Spirit attends)
Hovering and blazing with delusive Light,
Misleads th’ amaz’d Night-wanderer from his Way
To Bogs and Mires, and oft through Pond or Pool,
There swallowed up and lost, from succour far.

That secret Intoxication of Pleasure, with all those transient flushings of Guilt and Joy, which the Poet represents in our first Parents upon their eating the forbidden Fruit, to [those [5]] flaggings of Spirits, damps of Sorrow, and mutual Accusations which succeed it, are conceiv’d with a wonderful Imagination, and described in very natural Sentiments.

When Dido in the fourth AEneid yielded to that fatal Temptation which ruined her, Virgil tells us the Earth trembled, the Heavens were filled with Flashes of Lightning, and the Nymphs howled upon the Mountain-Tops. Milton, in the same poetical Spirit, has described all Nature as disturbed upon Eves eating the forbidden Fruit.
So saying, her rash Hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluckt, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her Seat
Sighing, through all her Works gave signs of Woe
That all was lost–

Upon Adams falling into the same Guilt, the whole Creation appears a second time in Convulsions.
–He scrupled not to eat
Against his better knowledge; not deceiv’s,
But fondly overcome with female Charm.
Earth trembled from her Entrails, as again
In Pangs, and Nature gave a second Groan,
Sky lowred, and muttering Thunder, some sad Drops
Wept at compleating of the mortal Sin–

As all Nature suffer’d by the Guilt of our first Parents, these Symptoms of Trouble and Consternation are wonderfully imagined, not only as Prodigies, but as Marks of her Sympathizing in the Fall of Man.

Adams Converse with Eve, after having eaten the forbidden Fruit, is an exact Copy of that between Jupiter and Juno in the fourteenth Iliad. Juno there approaches Jupiter with the Girdle which she had received from Venus; upon which he tells her, that she appeared more charming and desirable than she [6] done before, even when their Loves were at the highest. The Poet afterwards describes them as reposing on a Summet of Mount Ida, which produced under them a Bed of Flowers, the Lotos, the Crocus, and the Hyacinth; and concludes his Description with their falling asleep.

Let the Reader compare this with the following Passage in Milton, which begins with Adams Speech to Eve.

For never did thy Beauty, since the Day
I saw thee first and wedded thee, adorn’d
With all Perfections, so enflame my Sense
With ardor to enjoy thee, fairer now
Than ever, Bounty of this virtuous Tree.
So said he, and forbore not Glance or Toy
Of amorous Intent, well understood
Of Eve, whose Eye darted contagious Fire.
Her hand he seiz’d, and to a shady Bank
Thick over-head with verdant Roof embower’d,
He led her nothing loth: Flowrs were the Couch,
Pansies, and Violets, and Asphodel,
And Hyacinth, Earths freshest softest Lap.
There they their fill of Love, and Loves disport,
Took largely, of their mutual Guilt the Seal,
The Solace of their Sin, till dewy Sleep
Oppress’d them–

As no Poet seems ever to have studied Homer more, or to have more resembled him in the Greatness of Genius than Milton, I think I should have given but a very imperfect Account of his Beauties, if I had not observed the most remarkable Passages which look like Parallels in these two great Authors. I might, in the course of these criticisms, have taken notice of many particular Lines and Expressions which are translated from the Greek Poet; but as I thought this would have appeared too minute and over-curious, I have purposely omitted them. The greater Incidents, however, are not only set off by being shewn in the same Light with several of the same nature in Homer, but by that means may be also guarded against the Cavils of the Tasteless or Ignorant.

[Footnote 1: In the first book of his Roman Antiquities.]

[Footnote 2: Dionysius says that the prophecy was either, as some write, given at Dodous, or, as others say, by a Sybil, and the exclamation was by one of the sons of AEneas, as it is related; or he was some other of his comrades.]

[Footnote 3: [run]]

[Footnote 4: [arises]]

[Footnote 5: [that]]

[Footnote 6: [ever had]]