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The Virgile français in the Napoleonic Era: Delille's Commented Edition of the Aeneid

Marco Mistretta Romani

Delille's four-volume edition of the Aeneid, with French poetic version, notes, and illustrations, appeared in 1804 as the result of a remarkable teamwork project (also involving L. Fontanes, J.F. Michaud, and J.M. Moreau). The translation, still widely read and eulogized among the early twentieth-century littérateurs (see Ziolkowski 1993, 66), contributed to make the French Alexandrine more flexible by trying to reproduce Latin rhythm (Downs 1940, 531). 

Epic poetry, according to Delille, ought not be reproached for expressing a national sentiment. On the contrary, the poet's freedom allows him to become the herald of his nation's pride without being caught in the snares of court intrigues (see Tissot 1832, 13 ff.). Now, even if the Aeneid celebrates the power of such a dispotic and autocratic monarch as Augustus, the behavior of the protagonist of the poem is by no means allegorically modelled on that of the princeps: the most prominent traits of Aeneas's personality are grandeur and generosity (moreover, despite being a pagan, he is truly a «prince religieux»). This paper explores the political implications of such an approach. Interpretations of the Aeneid as a speculum of virtues for good governors were widespread at least since the Renaissance, but in Delille's days French politics incurred rapid and radical changes. 

The dedicatory letter to Alexander I of Russia is, in a political perspective, quite revealing. Vergil's Aeneas envisaged an empire based on pietas, but his hopes were betrayed by the ferociousness of Augustus, who banished Ovid and bestowed the imperial dignity on the infamous Tiberius; Alexander will, on the contrary, prove to be a righteous and equanimous king. At a time when the Franco-Russian peace is still solid, should the Tsar be regarded as an example for Napoleon, or even a Doppelgänger? Delille calls him a «joyful model for potentates» (see Tissot 1832, 1). Furthermore, the commentator emphasizes that Aeneas's leadership enjoys the gods' favour: according to him, the reign of an optimus princeps is to be distinguished from a tyranny in that only the former is granted divine legitimacy. The Aeneid, in Delille's view, is therefore much less a religious than an acutely political poem: this paper argues that Delille's commentary suggests a political agenda, which can lead a new princeps towards a wise and pius exercise of the power.

Delille's notes, as this paper will show, are often focussed on the moral values that can be extracted from Vergil's poetry. In particular, the influence of an intellectual climate dominated by late-Enlightenment sentimentalism (and of Rousseau's philosophy) is clear in the prominent role assigned to the dynamics ofparental and filial love, as well as in the treatment of emotions. The essay on Aen. 2 is a typical example: soon after underlining the role of Cybele, i.e. the Magna Mater, as the protectress of the Trojans, Delille shifts the focus to the pathetic separation of Creusa, wife and mother, from her husband and her son, stressing the importance of her relationship with the goddess Cybele herself (Delille 1804, I 379; emotional conflicts involving familial relations are correspondingly stressed by Moreau's engravings). The commentator's attention to emotionally intense moments of Vergil's poem is also evident in the frequent references to the visual arts (e.g. on Laocoon's death: ibid., 345). Delille, however, subordinates the characters' emotional outbursts to their sense of responsibility and dignitas. The good ruler, as embodied in Aeneas, is capable of controlling his passions, in order to fulfil the objectives of a superior - and divine - law. That this law transcends historical contingency is proved, according to the commentator, by the comparison of Vergil's poetry with Homer, Tasso, and indeed Milton. This paper will thus argue that Delille's ambitious literary and political project aims at demonstrating how every epic production, with all its national character, contributes to shape a universal world of moral values. 

Session/Panel Title

Virgil Commentaries La Cerda to Horsfall

Session/Paper Number

19.2

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