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The Decline and Fall of Virgil in Eighteenth-Century Germany

The Decline and Fall of Virgil in Eighteenth-Century Germany: The Repressed Muse

Geoffrey Atherton
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Decline and Fall of Virgil in Eighteenth-Century Germany
    Book Description:

    In the early modern period, the culture of Rome, with Virgil as its greatest figure, was the model for emulation. The age of Louis XIV compared itself to the Augustan age, and Dryden hailed Virgil as "my Divine Master." But in 18th-century Europe, a general shift occurred in favor of Greece, a trend that was most pronounced in Germany. Winckelmann, the spokesman for philhellenism, extolled Greek art and dismissed all Roman art as derivative and Virgil as second rate and incapable of understanding true beauty. Yet he nonetheless remained indebted to Virgil for his view of Greek art, although he failed to recognize it. The export of Winckelmann's new view of Virgil and more generally Roman culture -- shared to varying extents by Lessing, Herder, Goethe, and the brothers Schlegel -- to the rest of Europe in the 19th century, particularly to the English-speaking world via Coleridge and Matthew Arnold] soon made it the reigning dogma: indeed it formed the point of departure for Virgil scholarship in the 20th century. This, however, did not prevent German poets from using Virgil, although neither they nor later scholars called attention to it. Virgil became a repressed muse, and has a continued, unexamined presence in the epic and idyll of Klopstock, Wieland, Goethe, and Novalis. Geoffrey Atherton's comparative investigation of the relation of modernity to antiquity through Virgil and his twofold reception represents a new perspective on this issue. Geoffrey Atherton is assistant professor in the Department of German Studies at Connecticut College.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-673-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    G. A.
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xx)
  6. 1: Virgil: A Pentheus to the Germans in the Eighteenth Century?
    (pp. 1-62)

    Pentheus, king of thebes by descent from Cadmus and Harmonia, resisted the encroachment into his dominion of a new god, Dionysus, and his worship but the citizens, led by his mother Agave, were much attracted to this new deity and his cult. They abandoned the city to celebrate the novel rites in the countryside and on the mountains. Pentheus, still resisting but curious, followed the Bacchants and climbed a tree to observe in secret the strange and intrusive rituals. There he was discovered and torn limb from limb by an enraged band of Bacchants led by Agave. Flaunting the head,...

  7. 2: Virgil Both Read and Unread
    (pp. 63-95)

    Winckelmann published the tract Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst to great effect. In it he set down the arguments why the ancient Greeks, through a fortuitous coincidence of nature and culture, were unable to execute a work of art that was not beautiful, and so have remained the school for the cultivation of taste throughout the ages. The great example that he chose for his case was the Laocoon statue. It was in relation to this statue that, when attempting to sum up the essential attributes of Greek beauty, he hit upon the...

  8. 3: Virgil the Rhapsode
    (pp. 96-135)

    Literary tradition stretching back to antiquity ensures that for a national literature of any pretension a great national epic remains imperative. Virgil owes much of his preeminence to his accomplishment of this feat. Yet by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the genre is deeply problematic. The imperative and Virgil’s accomplishment are undiminished, yet precisely how to compose a poem according to the definition that will do more than simply illustrate adherence to the definition remains a standing challenge; and one that many attempt, confident that epic represents the supreme achievement of culture. In this vein Dryden will begin his “Dedication...

  9. 4: Theorizing Genre: From Pastoral to Idyll
    (pp. 136-197)

    The German idyll of the eighteenth century represents the final efflorescence of the European pastoral tradition. In contrast to the enormous vitality pastoral displayed in the previous four centuries, the success of the German idyll with Gessner is much more modest. The list of pastoral writers from the earlier period represents a virtual honor role of figures instrumental to the development of European literary culture.¹ The allegorical tradition, sanctioned by the range and variety of the Virgilian bucolic, allowed the imagination of the humanist scholars and poets and their successors in the seventeenth century ample scope to pursue their own...

  10. 5: The German Idyll and the Virgilian Muse
    (pp. 198-280)

    The gradual transformation of the pastoral, as the cultural criticism of the German Enlightenment coalesces with the new feeling for nature, comes to a head in the wildly popular Idyllen (1756) of Gessner. So successfully does Gessner combine all the various strands into a coherent literary expression that the result is tantamount to “eine neue Gattung.”¹ The astonishing appeal of Gessner to his age is today even less well remembered than that of Haller and his Die Alpen (1732). Yet Gessner was the first German writer to achieve literary renown beyond the borders of the German world and was only...

  11. Conclusion: Proximity and Estrangement
    (pp. 281-288)

    Though the strongest reception of Virgil occurs within German idyllic literature, this is ultimately of little consequence. Virgil’s reputation and the expectation of finding a Virgilian muse in eighteenth-century literature stands and falls on the epic, the Aeneid. Only once Heinze squarely readdresses the issue of the Virgilian epic, reaching the conclusion that it is not a derivative, plagiarized, non-poem, and restores to it the status of an original and creative work of art, albeit non-Homeric, does a new approach to the Latin poet become possible for the Germans. Only then do the consequences of the estrangement from Virgil in...

  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 289-306)
  13. Index
    (pp. 307-312)