Essays on European Literature

Essays on European Literature

by Ernst Robert Curtius

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Although the reputation of the great German scholar Ernst Robert Curtius was firmly established for English and American readers by the translation of European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, much of his work is still unknown to them. These twenty-four essays, written over a period of nearly thirty years, range widely in time and scope and consider


Although the reputation of the great German scholar Ernst Robert Curtius was firmly established for English and American readers by the translation of European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, much of his work is still unknown to them. These twenty-four essays, written over a period of nearly thirty years, range widely in time and scope and consider some of the greatest figures in European literature, among them Virgil, Goethe, Balzac, Joyce, Eliot, Ortega y Gasset, and Hesse. The essays show the qualities that made Curtius one of the great critics of our age: his lucid, penetrating mind, his comprehensive erudition, his cosmopolitan outlook, and above all his passionate concern for European culture.

Like T. S. Eliot, the subject of one of his finest essays, Curtius believed in an ideal order, a cultural unity of the West. The unifying element in all these essays is a concern to insure the conservation and continuance of European humanistic culture. For him this culture consisted of the literary heritage of Greece and Rome, developed and enriched by the Christian civilization of the Middle Ages. Consequently he selected for discussion those poets and writers who have been conscious of the unity of these two European currents and who have striven to maintain it in our time. As he ranged freely through the languages and literatures of all Western cultures, Curtius himself did much to preserve this tradition, to demonstrate its relevance, and insure its continuity.

Originally published in 1973.

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Essays on European Literature

Kritische Essays zur europäischen Literatur

By Ernst Robert Curtius, Michael Kowal


Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-10010-4



Hac casti maneant in religione nepotes.

The tomb of Virgil and that of the first emperor lie buried beneath the bricks and mortar of populous Italian cities, surrounded by the bustle of our modern life. Virgil is known to us through historical records even to the date of his birth. To be able to celebrate its two-thousandth recurrence must inspire every lover of Rome with a shudder of pious joy. This is no scholarly reminiscence; it is a day of living remembrance, a reverent solemnization.

It would often seem as if our present, hurried generation had lost time through tempo, the past through lust for contemporaneity. We divagate into the far reaches of space — only to pay for our truancies with an undignified, ignoble contraction or a chimerical, flimsy expansion of our sense of time. It is well, therefore, that anniversaries that move to the rhythm of millennia should exhort us to reflection: the six hundred years since the death of Dante, the fifteen hundred years since the death of Augustine, the two thousand years since the death of Virgil. The one hundred years since Goethe only make plainer the meaning and value of millennial dates.

Virgil's anniversary is not popular, and for that reason doubly significant. Rightly understood it could be a landmark in the great mysterious movement of Western self-consciousness: in the dim unfolding of a process that would be memorable even if its struggle to be born occurred only as the dream of our highest, as the ineffable word of our best spirits — a process of integration and restoration of the Occident such as was envisaged by the profound and intuitive mind of a Hofmannsthal, whose meditations spanned centuries.

That the Virgil Festival impinges upon such connections, that it evokes or can evoke such reverberations should be enough to declare the uniqueness of the name in whose honor it is being held. And how inexhaustible is that uniqueness! We shall never be able to fathom what the Fourth Eclogue meant to its author. It enjoys the mystic privilege of inexpressibility of substance as does that Eastern book of erotic mysticism which has entered our Holy Scriptures as the Song of Songs. And nevertheless it may be permitted us to confirm the mediaeval legend in our own sense; to believe that in the synchronicity of the divinely human revelation and the poet of the Roman Empire a European mystery lies concealed and waiting to be rediscovered. For this belief we possess the time-honored testimony of Dante. And we may account it one of the happy auguries of our history that an indissoluble bond unites Virgil with Dante, the great Roman paganus, the singer of flocks and fields, and the great Roman Christian, the pilgrim of the next world and the institutor of order in this one.

No one who clings, consciously or unconsciously, to the outmoded aesthetics of original genius will ever understand Virgil. Virgil's greatness and importance, his irreplaceable and unreplaced mission through all our ages, does not, or does not solely, derive from what he was personally. It can only be grasped if we are aware of what the kairos is able to impart to the individual.

That Virgil could be taken up and enhanced, after thirteen hundred years, by a Dante, that his message could find a response in the Florentine of the Trecento as it found a sanction in the last poet of the collapsing temporal Empire — that is part of the very element and definition of Virgil's greatness. To appreciate this one has to break with all modern criteria and practice counting in long intervals of time. It is a way to which we are not accustomed. But might it not be wholesome and necessary for that very reason? What has lasted two thousand years will last another two thousand. That much at least we can know precisely — and should we really refuse to correct our current perspective in the light of this knowledge?

For previous ages the exempla maiorum were a confirmation; for us they are a confrontation, and tradition is reversed into a corrective. We are so far removed from tradition that it appears new to us. Periods like these are perhaps the dawn of all renaissances. Thus our present German estrangement from Virgil might be reinterpreted as a preparation and a guarantee. A deeper understanding of Romanitas seems to be awakening among us — and can it have a representative more valid and more binding, mightier and milder, sweeter and more sonorous, than Virgil?

He is the most official of poets, for it was his poetic task to trace the eternity of Rome from its primitive origins even as Augustus, with the founding of the Principate, elevated it to the highest realization of its power. Here, on the plane of world-history, is demonstrated that realism, that irrefutable solidity rooted in and bound to the soil, that is part of the Roman Genius, like the Travertine marble, hardened by time, of which the tomb of Cecilia Metella and the dome of St. Peter's alike are constructed.

There is scarcely a building material so resistant to the erosion of time as this stone of the golden patina. It has its intellectual equivalent in the material of which Virgil's work is constructed: in that Latin speech the source of which is the swamps of Mantua and whose stone flags support a universal poem and a universal empire. The passionate self-abnegating will to permanence has hardened this substance. It is deeply significant that an early poem of Virgil's contains a renunciation of rhetoric. Cicero's Atticist prose could still appeal to our forefathers; today its formal ostentation pales beside the cadences of the patient craftsman, who began with jesting, satirical poems and, in unparalleled fashion, worked his way free to ever stricter, ever greater tasks (paulo maiora canamus). However controversial the Appendix Virgiliana may be, one thing is certain: Virgil's poetic and emotional beginnings approach a frivolity of soul and sense that combines, in a fashion we can scarcely conceive, the faunic with the sentimental. We shall never know what event in his life raised the imitator of Catullus and Priapic poet to the vates of Orphism, to the laureled servant of the will of the State and prophetic annunciator of the turning-point in history. Was it resignation? Was it initiation? Was it both at once as well as an early, pre-Christian form of sanctification? It must be left in that twilight, which the poet himself desired and loved.

It is the strange twilight that gleams so often in Virgil, and that Victor Hugo, in a spirit of emulation and artistic fellowship, graciously acknowledges:

... dans Virgile parfois Le vers porte à sa cime une lueur étrange,

[... sometimes in Virgil the verse at its summit bears a strange gleam,]

a reflection as it were of that numinous radiance which, full of future promise, shone in Troy's darkest night upon the head of Ascanius.

So through all the ages of Rome and the Romania, through all those historical realms still touched by the Roman will to order, Virgil's silent flame shines as a guarantee and a promise. For fundamental to Virgil is the strength and the will to preserve the permanent through all change. Repetition as restoration, invention as rediscovery, renovation as confirmation and sublimation of what is already possessed — this was Virgil's most cherished concern.

So Dido (IV, 327ff.) seeks for herself a childish copy of Aeneas:

... si quis mihi parvulus aula Luderet Aeneas, qui te tamen ore referret.

[... if in my hall a little Aeneas were playing, whose face would recall yours.]

So for Virgil's herdsmen, heroes, and rulers, the law of life is identity (the flumina nota of the First Eclogue) and stability, or, lacking these (for exile as sociological necessity and constraint is the fatum of both Meliboeus and Aeneas), renewal and palingenesis, repristination and instauration in one. To take the lost and past and rebuild it out of new substance on foreign soil, this is the will and the way of Virgilian wisdom.

The individual character of Virgil's art, which it is so difficult for our vulgar aesthetics to grasp — the much discussed imitatio — perhaps also has its roots in this emotional disposition, which we are probably correct in perceiving as an essential trait of Virgil's personality: a need for security, born of elegiac sorrow and longing, that has been ennobled by piety and transmuted by lofty historical relations into constructive will. This personal quality is linked to one that lies beyond the personal: to the Roman function of continuity, and perhaps, indeed, to the fundamental law of life that applied throughout Antiquity; the law, according to which the sanction for all new creations was in the traditional works from which they derived and to which they had to refer: as the colony to the mother city, the statute to the founder, the song to the Muses, the copy to the original, and the work of art to the model.

We can have no idea what Virgil would have become had he not met Augustus, but he would certainly not have become the poet of the Aeneid. His personal contact with the Emperor made him into the poet of Rome:

Scilicet et rerum facta est pulcherrima Roma.

[Indeed Rome became the most beautiful city in the world.]

And yet we shall fail to understand Virgil if we see in him only or primarily the poet of the State. Underneath, at a deeper level, lives a contemplative, artistic person who is not moved by affairs of state: "non res Romanae perituraque regna." He is aware of his detachment from the sphere of mere politics and history which, being essentially impure and infelicitous, is subject to the vicissitudes and the inscrutable wrath of the Gods:

Ferus omnia Juppiter Argos transtulit ...
Excessere omnes adytis arisque relictis
Di quibus imperium hoc steterat....

[Savage Jupiter transferred all our possessions to Argos. ... All the gods have left their sanctuaries and abandoned the altars, the gods on whom this empire had depended.]

The authentic ancient and Romanic philosophy of history as vicissitudines speaks in these lines. Dante and Vico hold it too. It contains an element of resignation, but only dialectically, as a moment of transition. Far from enjoining a negation of history, it leads rather to a cyclical conception of it. The prophecy of the Fourth Eclogue, the soteriological hope of both Virgil and Dante, the pious expectation of a restitutio in integrum ["restitution to wholeness"], of a return of the Golden Age, is possible and makes sense only if the ruere in peius ["collapse into the worse"] is also accepted as true. It goes without saying that to our historical realism, our poverty-stricken sense of historical reality, this dimension of experience is as lost as eschatology to our religion. But it is the only dimension capable of resolving the contradiction between Virgil's two statements about Rome: "peritura regna" and "imperium sine fine dedi" ["I have given (Rome) unlimited dominion"]. The ethos of the Roman Odes gives us a palpable sense of how completely different could be the moral and political experience awakened by the Augustan age in two of its representative poets. The comparison with Horace brings out Virgil's uniqueness all the more clearly.

Virgil's most secret longing is quite simply the Golden Age and its sensuous representation in rustic surroundings. Its content is blessed idleness, conferred by divine favor. Otium is one of the key words of Virgil's poetry.

The God Augustus bestows this happiness:

O Meliboee, deus nobis haec otia fecit.

[Meliboeus, a god gives us this leisure.]

The God of the shepherds approves too:

... amat bonus otia Daphnis.

[... the good Daphnis loves leisure.]

It is the felicity of rural life:

... secura quies et nescia fallere vita Dives opum variarum, et latis otia fundis.

[... tranquil quiet and a life which knows not how to deceive, rich in various resources, and leisure amidst broad estates.]

And this image of earthly leisure also serves Virgil as the model for the bliss of Elysium. Of course we agree with Fenelon when he measures this description against the glories of the Christian Paradise.

"Ce poète," he writes, "ne promet point d'autre récompense dans l'autre vie à la vertu la plus pure et la plus héroique que le plaisir de jouer sur l'herbe, ou de combattre sur le sable, ou de danser, ou de chanter des vers, ou d'avoir des chevaux, ou de mener des chariots et d'avoir des armes. ... Voilà ce que l'antiquité proposoit de plus consolant au genre humain" ["This poet promises no other reward in the next life to the purest and most heroic virtue than the pleasure of playing on the grass, or fighting on the sand, or dancing, or singing verses, or having horses, or driving chariots and possessing arms. Such is the greatest consolation that antiquity proposed to the human race"].

Of course Dante was the first who was able to create out of the plenitude of the grace of Revelation the vision of the hereafter to which not even the most pious paganism could attain. But as grace is said not to supersede but to fulfill nature, so in the region of Virgil's soul to which otium is the password it is possible to discern a bit of eternal human nature, with its eligibility for grace. I am certain that much of the deathless charm that continues to attach new generations to Virgil comes from this region. For despite the wretched efficiency-ethic of our modern age, does there not live in all of us something of that elemental longing for a pastoral world, for the earthly paradise, for the divinely-blessed gardens of Eden and Elysium?

The bucolic idyll cannot be explained away as simply the wish-projection of Hellenistic urban culture. It is an innate archetypal image of our species that moves us with a melancholy joy, like a song we had long thought to be forgotten. It is the dulce refrigerium of Christian-Asiatic mythology, the refreshing coolness of brook and meadow, "muscosi fontes et somno mollior herba" ["mossy springs and grass softer than sleep"]. Otium is only the time-honored name for a type of idleness rooted in the social conditions of Antiquity, but belonging to the images of a golden life, and reminding us that we can fully realize our human destiny only where the compulsion of labor has been lifted from us. Our ethic of work lacks the balance of an ideal of leisure. It could, of course, be derived from Goethe's Westöstlicher Divan [West-Eastern Divan], were we ever to liberate ourselves from the pedagogical scheme that grants the German nation its greatest poet only on condition that he admonishes it to tireless effort.

Actually, the "cultural poet" Virgil is a singer who has the most original and immediate tones for all the fundamental moods of human nature. What has been said about otium is only one example. All the elements of man's nature, insofar as they coincide with his humanity, have been represented by Virgil in exemplary fashion. His rich, autocthonous, yet delicate soul created a canon of affects that was as authoritative as the one created in a later period by the cartoons of Raphael. He had the power to sound the natural notes of the soul. This naturalness is classical and ancient. But such is the emotional intensity of Virgil's language that it is understood by modern ages too. This combination of simple nature and feeling intensified by passion is the distinguishing mark of Virgil's finest verses. They carry their own conviction as surely as that "sunt lacrimae rerum," which eludes grammatical analysis; as that "per amica silentia lunae" or "nunc scio quid sit amor": each an example of the highest concentration, in which the conciseness of the Latin seems bathed in an aura of infinity. Virgil is not only the herald of the State, of the Penates, of pietas, of the meadows and fields. He has also been the poet of love for nearly two thousand years, and neither Laura nor Juliet has kindled the hearts of so many young men as Dido, "cette figure d'immortelle ardeur qui, de son bois de myrthes virgiliens, enchante à travers les âges l'élite des adolescents:

Hic quos durus amor crudeli tabe peredit...."


Excerpted from Essays on European Literature by Ernst Robert Curtius, Michael Kowal. Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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