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A still undecided controversy subsists on the original subject of this noble Eclogue. The dedication to Pollio has led the majority of commentators to conceive, that it was written in honor of the birth of his son, a mere genethliacon ; but the grandeur and force of the allusions seem to characterise a higher topic. The later theories, by Tyrwhitt, Henley, and others, refer it to the expected birth of a son or grandson to the emperor Augustus; the actual birth being one of the Julias, so unfortunately celebrated in the history of Roman manners.
The dedication is naturally accounted for by the poet's gratitude to Pollio, a man of the highest rank, who had held the consulship, been governor of Spain, commanded armies, obtained a triumph, and, as perhaps the most envied and important distinction of all, been successively the intimate friend of the great Julius, of Antony, and of Augustus. While in Cisalpine Gaul, this eminent person had become acquainted with the ruin which threatened Virgil, from the seizure of his property by the division of the Mantuan territory among the legionary veterans. By him the poet was made known to Mæcenas, and by Mæcenas he was introduced to the emperor. A service of this order justified a high acknowlegement: Virgil repaid it by immortality.
The Sibylline verses, to which both Virgil and Pope refer, have been the ground of a similar controversy. It is evident that they were once largely indebted to the prophetic books of the Hebrews ; but the original verses are either totally lost, or so deeply mingled with the additions and alterations of poets subsequent to the christian era, and borrowing directly from the Scriptures, that all authenticity on the subject is at an end.
This poem was first published in the 'Spectator,' about 1712: it was received with universal and deserved admiration.
In reading several passages of the prophet Isaiah, which foretell the coming of Christ and the felicities attending it, I could not but observe a remarkable parity between many of the thoughts, and those in the Pollio of Virgil : this will not seem surprising, when we reflect, that the Eclogue was taken from a Sibylline prophecy on the same subject. One may judge that Virgil did not copy it line by line, but selected such ideas as best agreed with the nature of pastoral poetry, and disposed them in that manner which served most to beautify his piece: I have endeavored the same in this imitation of him, though without admitting any thing of my own; since it was written with this particular view ; that the reader, by comparing the several thoughts, might see how far the images and descriptions of the prophet are superior to those of the poet. But as I fear I have prejudiced them by my management, I shall subjoin the passages of Isaiah and those of Virgil, under the same disadvantage of a literal translation.—Pope.
A SACRED ECLOGUE.
Ye nymphs of Solyma! begin the song:
Rapt into future times, the bard begun:-
8 A virgin shall conceive-All crimes shall cease, &c. Virg. Ecl. iv. ver. 6.
Jam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
Pacatumque reget patriis virtutibus orbem. • Now the Virgin returns, now the kingdom of Saturn returns, now a new progeny is sent down from high Heaven. By means of thee, wbatever relics of our crimes remain shall be wiped away, and free the world from perpetual fears. He shall govern the earth in peace, with the virtues of his father.'
Isaiah, ch. vii. ver. 14.—Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son.'-ch.ix. ver. 6,7. ·Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; the Prince of Peace : of the increase of his government, and of his peace, there shall be no end ; upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order and to establish it, with judgment, and with justice, for ever and ever.'-P.
From Jesse's root1 behold a branch arise,
25 See nodding forests on the mountains dance: 23 See, Nature hastes, &c. Virg. Ecl. iv. ver. 18.
At tibi prima, puer, nullo munuscula cultu,
Ipsa tibi blandos fundent cunabula flores. For thee, O child, shall the earth, without being tilled, produce her early offerings; winding ivy, mixed with baccar, and colocasia with smiling acanthus. Thy cradle shall pour forth pleasing flowers about thee.'
Isaiah, ch. XXXV. ver. 1.-The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.'—ch. lx. ver. 13. “The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir-tree, the pine-tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary.'-P. i Isaiah, ch. xi. ver. 1.
2 ch. xlv, ver. 8. 3 ch. xxv. ver. 4.
+ ch.ix. ver. 7. XXXV. ver. 2.