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No. 351 [from The Spectator]
by [?]

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

In te omnis domus inclinata recumbit.


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.