04 January 2010

'A New Begetting Now Descends from Heaven's Height'—Virgil's Messianic Eclogue

In this time of looking forward to the Feast of Christ’s Nativity, the Church is of course continually reminding us of those who looked forward to His Nativity of old, by which I mean chiefly the holy Prophets of the Old Testament. As we chanted in the Theotokion at Ode 7 of the Matins for the Sunday before the Nativity, the ‘Virgin who will give birth’ is the ‘strange wonder spoken of openly of old by prophets and by fathers’. [1]

But a few readers may recall that in two posts last year (here and here) I investigated the presence in a mediæval Christmas drama—sometimes called the Processio Prophetarum—of the pagan seeress known as ‘the Sibyl’. Well, not many will be surprised to learn that one of the other dramatis personae in that ‘Procession of Prophets’ is the great Roman poet, Virgil, who appears ‘with an ink-horn and a candlestick, crowned with ivy, holding a quill pen’. [2] He only has one line in the ProcessioEcce polo dimissa sola nova progenies est, ‘Behold, from the heavens has been sent down a single new offspring’. [3] The line as spoken is not actually found in Virgil’s writings, but it is an echo of l. 7 of his Fourth Eclogue, on which his status as a prophet of Christ famously rests.

Picking up on the messianic tone of the Eclogue, however, can be affected by one’s choice of translation. I was first led to the poem by Frank Kermode’s untranslated quotation of ll. 5-7, where the word Virgo really stood out and stuck with me:

magnus ab integro saeculorum nascitur ordo.
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto . . . [4]

But in the translation to which I turned subsequently, that of James Rhoades in the Britannica Great Books series, these lines are rendered:

. . . and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven. [5]

Fortunately, Arthur Guy Lee’s translation is a bit more faithful and less ‘interpreted’:

The great succession of centuries is born afresh.
Now too returns the Virgin; Saturn’s rule returns;
A new begetting now descends from heaven’s height. [6]

Dame Frances Yates has traced the history of the Christian reading of this Eclogue in her article, ‘Queen Elizabeth I as Astraea’. [7] She observes that ‘the first person to make a detailed and public claim for the Fourth Eclogue as a Messianic prophecy was the Emperor Constantine’, that is, St Constantine the Great, Equal-to-the-Apostles.

‘Who is that virgin who returns?’ enquires the Emperor [in Oratio ad Sanctorum Coetum XIX], and answers his own question; she is the Virgin Mother of Christ. The Emperor associates his Christian interpretation of the Eclogue with his exposition of the Sibylline prophecies as also relating to the advent of Christ. [8]

Peter Hawkins notes that for St Constantine, ‘Virgil had full knowledge of all these allegorical meanings, but given the pagan world he lived in chose to express himself only covertly.’ [9] But while the idea is developed by Lactantius in Divinarum institutorum in some detail, [10] in Civ. dei X.27 St Augustine is of the opinion that Virgil ‘did not himself understand what he was saying’. [11] He quotes ll. 13-4—‘With you to guide, if traces of our sin remain, / They, nullified, will free the lands from lasting fear’—commenting, that it is of Christ ‘that the most famous poet speaks, poetically indeed, since he applies it to the person of another, yet truly, if you refer it to Christ’. [12] Yates finds the tradition continued in the poetry of the Carolingian bishop, Theodulf of Orleans, [13] but the Christian reading of Virgil becomes especially poignant in Dante’s Purgatorio (XXII.64-81). According to W.S. Merwin’s translation, when Virgil asks the poet Statius how he became a Christian, the latter replies:

. . . ‘You first showed me the way
to Parnassus to drink from its grottoes,
and it was you, after God, who first enlightened me.

You did what someone does walking at night
holding the lantern behind him so that
it does him no good but makes wise those who follow

when you said, “The age is growing new again.
Justice returns, and the first human time, [14]
and a new progeny descends from Heaven.’

Because of you I was a poet, because of you
a Christian, . . . [15]

Obviously, Dante’s is ‘the correct Augustinian reading of the Eclogue as a true Messianic prophecy made by the poet without a full understanding of what he was saying’. [16] But Hawkins’s perception that because Virgil ‘could only read the pagan words he actually wrote and not the Christian meaning “uncovered” later’ [17] seems to me unwarranted from an Orthodox perspective, in light of the Eastern Fathers’ emphasis on the despoiling of Hades (see this article).

Frank Kermode and Fr Andrew Louth alike take up T.S. Eliot’s discussion (to which I unfortunately do not have access here at home!) of this tradition of Messianic reading of Virgil, the former in the course of his discussion of the idea of ‘the classic’, the latter in his discussion of the allegorical tradition. Eliot follows the Augustinian view that Virgil was saying more than he knew, which, in Kermode’s words, is ‘precisely what is meant by being inspired’ anyway. [18] Fr Louth quotes him at length:

That Virgil was himself consciously concerned only with domestic affairs or with Roman politics I feel sure: I think that he would have been very much astonished by the career which his fourth Eclogue was to have. If a prophet were by definition a man who understood the full meaning of what he was saying, this would be for me the end of the matter. But if the word ‘inspiration’ is to have any meaning, it must mean just this, that the speaker or writer is uttering something which he does not wholly understand—or which he may even misinterpret when the inspiration has departed from him. This is certainly true of poetic inspiration: and there is more obvious reason for admiring Isaiah as a poet than for claiming Virgil as a prophet. A poet may believe that he is expressing only his private experience; his lines may be for him only a means of talking about himself without giving himself away; yet for his readers what he has written may come to be the expression both of their own secret feelings and of the exultation and despair of a generation. He need not know what his poetry will come to mean to others; and a prophet need not understand the meaning of his prophetic utterance. [19]

Of course, while Eliot’s point is well taken in the general sense that a prophet may not understand entirely his own prophecy, and particularly in the specific case of a pagan who may be used by God to some purpose to which he is not consciously or voluntarily attuned, it is important to emphasise that as Orthodox Christians we do believe that the Old Testament Prophets had some inkling of what they were about. After all, we chanted in Matins for the Sunday before Nativity that ‘Avvakum foresaw you, Jesu, incarnate of a shaded mountain, the Virgin’ [20]—that is, the Prophet Habbakuk was not simply writing down some incomprehensible words or speaking of some this-worldly event, but recording the content of a mystical experience he himself had undergone.

More unambiguously valuable, I believe, are Fr Louth’s own conclusions about the rôle of faith and tradition in hermeneutics, a rôle well illustrated by the history of Virgil interpretation. Although he does not specifically mention the Fourth Eclogue in this passage, Fr Louth earlier cites the words of Theodor Haecker:

. . . [T]hat I should leave out in my analysis of Vergil and Vergilian man ‘the’ faith, the greatest concern of the West, the emergence, so close to Vergil, of Christendom, that I should determine it only from the past and what was immediately contemporary with it and not from the future, which now lies in the past and still lies in the present, . . . is improper and absurd. [21]

As Fr Louth puts it, ‘we must be aware not just of the past and contemporary influences on Vergil, but also of Vergil’s influence on history, the tradition, that has made him accessible to us.’ [22]

I will continue to look at other aspects of the Fourth Eclogue from this perspective in at least one other post—this week, I hope!

[1] From this page at the website of Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash).

[2] Joseph Quincy Adams, ed., Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924), p. 41.

[3] Ibid., p. 46.

[4] Frank Kermode, The Classic: Literary Images of Permanence & Change (NY: Viking, 1975), p. 24.

[5] James Rhoades, trans., The Poems of Virgil, Vol. 13 in Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1980), p. 14.

[6] Virgil, The Eclogues, trans. Arthur Guy Lee (London: Penguin, 1988), p. 57.

[7] Dame Frances A. Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London: Ark, 1975), pp. 29-87.

[8] Ibid., pp. 34-5.

[9] Peter S. Hawkins, Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination (Stanford, CA: Stanford U, 1999), p. 105.

[10] Yates, pp. 35-6.

[11] Ibid., p. 36.

[12] St Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (NY: Modern Library, 1950), p. 333.

[13] Yates, p. 36.

[14] Lest my reference to the similar line in Rhoades’s Virgil translation cast some suspicion on Merwin at this point, the Italian at l. 71 does indeed say torna giustizia e primo tempo umano.

[15] Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, trans. W.S. Merwin (NY: Knopf, 2001), p. 217.

[16] Yates, p. 36.

[17] Hawkins, p. 120.

[18] Kermode, p. 25.

[19] Fr Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007.

[20] From the Theotokion at Ode 4 of the Canon for the Sunday before Nativity, Fr Ephrem’s translation (here).

[21] Fr Louth, p. 36.

[22] Ibid., p. 36.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...


It should read "caelo" in the Latin, though, not "caeo". You were typing too excitedly.

What a fun subject!

aaronandbrighid said...

You're right, thanks!

I'm glad someone appreciates this!