VIRGIL by Peter Levi


His Life and Times
Email this review


More encomium than biography, Levi’s work traces the great Roman poet’s inspirations and influences backward and forward through time, via close readings of classical and modern texts. Though not an introduction, this rich analysis offers bountiful insights to anyone already familiar with the Aeneid and the poet’s early works. Granted, personal information about Publius Vergilius Maro is difficult to come by—only two ancient biographies exist, both just a few pages long. Thus, Levi, the biographer of Tennyson, Horace, and Edward Lear, weaves together historical analysis, gossip, and close readings of the poet’s oeuvre to infer a portrait of the poet. Springing from the Greek Homeric tradition of the Odyssey, Virgil created a new kind of hero in Aeneas: mythic, but also bound by human dilemmas. Levi does an excellent job of teasing out Virgil’s struggles with Homeric traditions of mythology and composition, and melding them with contemporary Roman experience under the rule of Augustus, who commissioned the Aeneid (Virgil also had another wealthy patron to thank for a comfortable living). Levi traces the poet’s relationships with authors such as Horace, whom he knew personally, and others he had most certainly read, such as Lucretius and Cicero. Though most classical linguists would argue with this biographer’s preference for the Dryden translation, Levi’s poetical analysis is instrumental as he guides us through each episode of the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, illuminating his favorite passages and dismissing others. Like Virgil, Levi packs some paragraphs so densely that in parts he will lose any but the most attentive readers. Such care is rewarded, however. What shines through is Levi’s love of Virgil and a lifetime of rumination and analysis. The biography label may be ill-fitting, but Levi’s textual explications are the next best thing to his course at Oxford.

Pub Date: Feb. 8th, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-19352-1
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1998


NonfictionHOMER by Barbara Graziosi
by Barbara Graziosi