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


Camden House



A look at the dismissal of Virgil by 18th-century poets, who nevertheless continued to be influenced by his works.
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.


February 2006
332 pages
9x6 in
Studies in German Literature Linguistics and Culture
ISBN: 9781571133069
Format: Hardback
Library eBook
Camden House
BISAC LIT004170, LIT014000
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Virgil: A Pentheus to the Germans in the Eighteenth Century?
Virgil Both Read and Unread
Virgil the Rhapsode
Theorizing Genre: From Pastoral to Idyll
The German Idyll and the Virgilian Muse
Conclusion: Proximity and Estrangement
Works Cited


...(T)his is an admirable, sophisticated, and rewarding study of an important phenomenon. MODERN LANGUAGE REVIEW

Atherton argues convincingly that Virgil's work exerted a continued, albeit unacknowledged creative influence on epic and pastoral literature by German authors of the period.... This book makes a significant contribution to scholarship on the reception of ancient literature in Germany. CHOICE

Since the 18th century Virgil's fortunes have again begun to rise ... in part because of the establishment of Virgilian studies that looked at the elements of Virgil's poetry on its own terms rather than as an imitation of Homer. Symbolic of these changes, Atherton concludes by pointing to the sympathetic portrayal of Anchises and Aeneas in Christa Wolf's novel Cassandra.... Virgil remains very much alive. GOETHE YEARBOOK

This is a remarkable book; vast learning is evident on every page, yet the writing is crisp, lucid, sometimes witty.... In its tracing of "a perceptible, though attenuated, Virgilian strand" in the pastoral world of the German idyll, this book will surely establish itself as a significant work of scholarship. JOURNAL OF EUROPEAN STUDIES

Author Bio

Geoffrey Atherton is assistant professor of German at Connecticut College.

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