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CAT 71. Engraved by George Cooke. Virgil. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 6. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1810. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Virgil: Roman author, 70-19 B.C. Author of The Aeneid, The Eclogues, and The Georgics; companion of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, and of Mæcenas, his patron; companion of Dante in The Divine Comedy. In volumes 11 and 12 of his Harper’s Classical Library, Melville owned English translations of The Aeneid, The Eclogues, and The Georgics by Dryden, Wrangham, and Sotheby, respectively (Sealts no. 147). For John Flaxman’s illustrations of Virgil as Dante’s companion, see CAT 80-102. In this nearly frontal view of the bust as engraved by George Cooke, Virgil’s hair is suggestive of the laurel that in Flaxman’s contemporaneous depictions of Virgil take the form of a laurel wreath. The poet’s face in Cooke’s rendering is sensitive and sensual, with a touch of sorrow.

Young Melville’s allusions to Virgil begin in Omoo, whose vagabond South Seas narrator is impressed by Doctor Long Ghost because “he quoted Virgil, and talked of Hobbes of Malmsbury” (NN O 12). The narrator of Mardi refers to Virgil as “my minstrel” in imaginative company with such other ancient worthies as Homer, Plato, Democritus, Zeno, St. Paul, and Julian the Apostate (NN M 367-68). In White-Jacket Jack Chase listening to Lemsford’s poems is likened to “Mecænas listening to Virgil, with a book of the Æneid in his hand.” Lemsford is in the habit of hiding his poetry in one of the cannons, which without his knowledge is fired, prompting Chase to console his “after-guard Virgil” with the idea that “that’s the way to publish . . . fire it right into ‘em; every canto a twenty-four-pound shot” (NN WJ 41, 192). 

Beginning with Pierre Melville’s allusion to Virgil become much more introspective, first when Pierre tells Lucy that “we will not open Flaxman’s Dante,” with its depictions of “observant Virgil and the blistered Florentine,” later when Pierre’s vulnerable condition as a writer is compared to that of “conscientious Virgil all eager at death to burn his Æneid for a monstrous heap of inefficient superfluity” (NN P 42, 227). In The Confidence Man the herb doctor makes self-serving use of his counterpart “Iapis in Virgil,” who “with simples healed the wound of Æneas,” claiming “This is no mortal work, no cure of mine, / Nor art’s effect, but done by power divine” (NN CM 83). During his visit to Naples in 1857 Melville examined the “remains of school of Virgil & other remains of villas” in Posilipo; he also visited what was thought to be “Virgil’s tomb—mere ruin—high up.” A day trip from Naples took him to Cumae and Lake Avernus, where Aeneas descended into Virgil’s underworld (NN J 102, 104).

Virgil first appears in Melville’s poetry in the mind of the prisoner “In the Prison Pen” in Battle-Pieces, around whom “swarm the plaining ghosts / Like those on Virgil’s shore” (NN PP 80). In “The Recluse” in Clarel  the character of Vine “gleamed the richer for the shade / About him, as in sombre glade / Of Virgil’s wood the Sibyl’s Golden Bough” (NN C 1.29.56-8). In section 6 of Melville’s unpublished “An Afternoon in Naples in the Time of Bomba,” the narrator “mused on Virgil, here inurned, / On Pausilippo, legend tells” (NN BBO 187). Virgil’s ancient shore is the site of one of the longest poems in Melville’s Timoleon (1891), “Pausilippo (In the time of Bomba).” At its somber close, “In low and languid tone / The tideless ripple lapped the pensive shore” (NN PP 299).

Melville most richly makes Virgil his own in the meditation on the poet “inurned” in “An Afternoon in Naples in the Time of Bomba”:

If here indeed his ashes be—
Rome’s minstrel in Rome’s palmy time;
Nor less whose epic’s undertone
In volumed numbers rolling bland,
Chafing against the metric bound,
Plains like the South Sea ground-swell heaved
Against the palm-isle’s halcyon strand. (NN BBO 187)

In these tide-beating lines the poetic pulse and the oceanic are one and the same.

For other prints relating to Virgil (in addition to Flaxman’s Dante), see Wilson, Mæcenas’ Villa at Tivoli; Kauffman, Venus shewing Æneas the Road to Carthage; and Turner, The Golden Bough (CAT numbers to be assigned).