The writers whom we have enumerated formed part of the broad foundation of literary lore on which Apollonius reared the structure of his poem. We have next to consider the nature of this poem itself, and how our poet employed the mass of materials which he had accumulated.
Apollonius chose for his theme the legend of the Argonauts, the quest of the golden fleece. For the purposes of an epic poem such a theme was well adapted. The voyage of the Argo, the first vessel which ploughed the lonely deep, was placed in a remote past antecedent to the poems of Homer, to the siege of Troy, and the wanderings of Odysseus.58 The origin of the legend is wrapped in the mist of antiquity. Whether there is any historical basis for it or not we cannot say.59 It may have arisen from traders sailing to the eastern boundary of the world, as Colchis was then regarded, and bringing back wondrous tales of the countries they had visited, [p. 27]and the adventures they had encountered on their perilous voyage. Strabo60 held that the myth of the golden fleece was connected with the wealth of gold dust washed down by Colchian rivers rich as the Lydian Pactolus. But, whatever the origin may have been, we know that the legend was one ever dear to the Greeks as a seafaring people, so that in choosing it as his subject Apollonius was assured of the sympathetic interest of his public. The conquest of Alexander and the spread of commerce had turned men's minds to far-off lands, and tales of romantic adventure were becoming an established literary type.
The character of the poetry of the Alexandrian school was to a large extent determined by the character of the age in which they wrote. Whatever the talents of the poet might be, his work must be replete with historical and legendary lore if it was to meet with approval from the literary circles in the days of the Ptolemies. Apollonius, like Catullus, well deserved the title doctus. As Couat61 expresses it, "La vritable difficult pour Apollonius ne fut pas d'inventer, mais de choisir." To have assimilated materials of such a heterogeneous nature required ability of no mean order. His vast industry would, [p. 28]however, have resulted merely in a rudis indigestaque moles, had it not been for the true poetic genius with which he was endowed.
How far our poet possessed the gift of originality we cannot determine. We are mainly dependent on the evidence of the scholia, and, to judge from them, Apollonius might have truly said with Callimachus62 ἀμᾴρτυρον οὐδὲν ἀείδω. But most of the works to which they refer as agreeing or differing have not come down to us, so that we are unable to decide for ourselves the precise nature of our poet's obligations. However much he may have been indebted to his predecessors for the matter, the form of the poem is his own, and everywhere we find traces of that sense of proportion which ensures the symmetry of the whole.
His work fulfils many of the requirements of epic poetry. Great are the achievements of his heroes--great and wonderful. The mind of the reader is filled with amaze at the recital of their deeds. The understanding is enriched with the tales of diverse lands and diverse peoples. The imagination is stirred by the fabulous and the mystical, by the intercourse of gods with men. The aesthetic sense is awed with the feeling of the sublime, the contrast between divine omnipotence and mortal frailty. Every emotion of the human soul is faithfully reflected in the poem, love and hatred, joy and sorrow, hope and fear. So cunningly are the various episodes woven into the web of the story that our attention seldom flags, [p. 29]our expectation is whetted with the eagerness of anticipation.
With the features of the older epic poetry are blended the graces of the elegy in the romantic loves of Jason and Medea. At times we seem to have a statue or picture reproduced in verse, as in the description of the youthful Eros and Ganymede playing at dice together in the gardens of Olympus63 --an exquisite passage which shows in all its fullness our poet's skill in simple word-painting.
One of the most prominent characteristics of the poem is the beauty of the similes, a feature which seems above all others to have attracted Virgil. Apart from their intrinsic charm, they set forth in a brighter light and with a relevancy of detail the incidents to which they refer. There is a special appositeness in their use which at times is not to be found in the similes of Homer. Few who have studied the poem carefully will agree with Dr. Mahaffy's criticism that "the poet's similes are rather introduced for their prettiness than for their aptness." To take but one example from the wealth the poem affords,64 the simile of the bees,65 to which the women of Lemnos are likened as they throng about the departing heroes, is peculiarly happy in every circumstance and every detail. In it Apollonius may be said to have surpassed [p. 30]both Homer and Virgil who employ the same imagery in a different connexion. Beautiful in its freshness is the comparison of the throbbing of Medea's heart to the dancing beams of sunlight reflected from the eddying water:--
πυκνὰ δέ οἱ κραδίη στηθέων ἔντοσθεν ἔθυιεν
ἠελίου ὥς τίς τε δόμοις ἐνιπάλλεται αἴγλη
ὕδατος ἐξανιοῦσα, τὸ δὴ νέον ἠὲ λέβητι
ἠέ που ἐν γαυλῷ κέχυται: ἡ δ' ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα
ὠκείῃ στροφάλιγγι τινάσσεται ἀίσσουσα:
ὧς δὲ καὶ ἐν στήθεσσι κέαρ ἐλελίζετο κούρης. -- iii 755 sqq.
Virgil (Aen. 8. 22 sqq.) was not slow to adopt this as his own.
Another charm of the Argonautica lies in the grace and vividness of the descriptive passages. Be it the glorious majesty of Apollo or the sufferings of Phineus, the beauty of Jason or the deformity of Polyxo, the o'erweening pride of Aeetes or the love-pangs of Medea, the might of the hero going forth to battle or the weariness of the husbandman returning home at even, the resistless fury of the raging sea or the dreary waste of the Libyan sands, all are set before us with the same realistic power. As the scenes of action unfold themselves, we are no longer readers, we are witnesses. We see, as if we were present, that the rude boxing of Amycus can be of no avail against the skill of Polydeuces. The brazen-hoofed bulls with fiery nostrils, the warriors springing from the furrow, the sleepless dragon which guards the fleece are quickened into life by the poet's pen. Again, in scenes of repose, the spirit of restful calm steals over [p. 31]us as we read the lines depicting the unbroken peacefulness of a stilly night:--
Νὺξ μὲν ἔπειτ' ἐπὶ γαῖαν ἄγεν κνέφας: οἱ δ' ἐνὶ πόντῳ
ναῦται εἰς Ἑλίκην τε καὶ ἀστέρας Ὠρίωνος
ἔδρακον ἐκ νηῶν: ὕπνοιο δὲ καί τις ὁδίτης
ἤδη καὶ πυλαωρὸς ἐέλδετο: καί τινα παίδων
μητέρα τεθνεώτων ἀδινὸν περὶ κῶμ' ἐκάλυπτεν:
οὐδὲ κυνῶν ὑλακὴ ἔτ' ἀνὰ πτόλιν, οὐ θρόος ἦεν
ἠχήεις: σιγὴ δὲ μελαινομένην ἔχεν ὄρφνην. -- iii 744 sqq.
A large part is played by the gods in all epic poetry, and the Argonautica is no exception, though in it their intervention is strangely fitful, and their characterization at times quite un-Homeric.66 Apollonius exercised a certain restraint in introducing them. He seems to have followed the rule which Horace prescribes for the writers of tragedy, "nec deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus." Thus it is to Athene that the building of the Argo is ascribed.67 The mortal skill of Argus could never unaided have fashioned a vessel to face the perils of the unknown sea. It is Athene who brings the heroes safely through the clashing of the Cyanean rocks.68 So too it is Hera who stays with her thunderstorms the pursuing forces of the Colchians, and rescues the Argonauts from impending doom as they thread the tortuous channel of the Rhone.69
Zeus, though often mentioned with his various attributes as Ξείνιος, Ἱκέσιος, Ἐπόψιος, and Φύξιος, appears but seldom in the working out of the main [p. 32]theme. We are told of his wrath against the sons of Aeolus, which can only be appeased by the propitiation of Phrixus and the recovery of the fleece.70 His anger is manifested against the heroes after the murder of Absyrtus, and he ordains that Jason and Medea must be purified by Circe.71
Phoebus Apollo is the divinity who inspires the whole adventure. At the opening of the poem we have the oracle which alarms Pelias and makes him send forth Jason on an apparently hopeless quest. Jason comforts his weeping mother by telling her that Phoebus has vouchsafed a prosperous voyage.72 Before entering on the expedition Jason had gone to consult the god at Delphi, and the god had given him two tripods, to be dedicated in places to which they would come on their journey. One of these tripods, Apollonius tells us, was dedicated in the land of the Hyllaeans,73 the other in Libya at Lake Tritonis.74 To Apollo, under the titles of Ἄκτιος and Ἐμβάσιος, they sacrifice ere setting out.75 Altars are raised to him at many places where they land.76 On the isle of Thynias the god appears to them at morn as he is returning from the Lycians to the Hyperboreans, and again they sacrifice and make vows to him as Ἐῶος,77 the god of the dawning day. When they are nearing home again, a dense darkness envelops them on leaving Crete, but Phoebus with his flashing bow illumines for them the island which they name the [p. 33]Isle of the Appearance (Ἀνάφη), and they dedicate an altar to him as Αἰγλήτης.78
The building of the Argo by Athene is not described by Apollonius; only incidentally is it mentioned as her handiwork. Valerius Flaccus has given us a vivid narrative thereof. With Hera Athene watches over the passage of the Argo near Scylla and Charybdis.79 With Hera too she goes to Aphrodite to implore her aid and that of her son Eros in moving Medea's heart to succour Jason.80
The goddess who takes the principal and most direct part in the story is Hera. It is strange that she is not mentioned when our poet is describing the first assembling of the heroes. We are not told how they were brought together. Far more striking is the opening of the poem of Valerius Flaccus, where Jason, hearing the ordeal imposed on him by Pelias, prays to Hera and Athene for their help. The goddesses hear his prayer, and, while Athene builds for him the vessel, Hera goes through Argolis and Macedonia summoning the heroes to take part in the adventure. In the first two books of our poem Hera is passed over almost in silence in the description of the outward voyage, but from the beginning of the third book to the end of the poem her powers are exercised actively and frequently. Two causes are assigned by her for her watchful care of Jason.81 One is her wrath against Pelias for neglecting her in sacrifice; the other is her fondness for Jason from the day when he had borne her over the swollen torrent Anaurus as she [p. 34]roamed the earth making trial of the righteousness of men. Throughout the sojourn in the land of Colchis and on the homeward voyage she shows in manifold ways her lovingkindness towards the hero. Widely different is her rle in the Aeneid, where, as the vengeful jealous wife of Jove, she thwarts and baffles the stormtossed Aeneas.
The fondness of the Greeks for representing the gods as endowed with like forms and like passions with themselves is strikingly illustrated in the famous passage at the beginning of the third book where Cypris is surprised at her toilet by Hera and Athene;82 and the interview which follows between the goddesses is characterized by a polished diplomacy and duplicity, which, as Couat83 well says, is worthy of the court of the Ptolemies, and is far removed from the tumultuous councils of the gods in the Iliad.
We hear but little of the other gods and goddesses. Glaucus rises up from the sea to declare that it is the will of heaven that Heracles and Polyphemus should not journey further with the Argonauts.84 Iris comes down from Olympus to stay the sons of Boreas in their pursuit of the harpies.85 The sea-god Triton shows the toil-worn mariners the outlet from Lake Tritonis to the sea.86
The Argonautica cannot be described as a religious poem in the sense in which the Iliad and Odyssey are religious poems. In the Iliad and the Odyssey there is a continuous working out of a divine purpose, and [p. 35]every step in the action is determined thereby. In the Argonautica, on the other hand, the religious motive is present, but this motive is rather in the poem than of it; it fills the mind neither of the poet nor his readers, and Jason, though nominally the instrument chosen to fulfil a divine mission, in reality plays the part of a leader of adventurers.
At times we find a tinge of scepticism when the poet is recounting some wondrous legend concerning the gods. "Withhold not your favour, O goddesses of song," he cries, "unwillingly I tell the tale our fathers told."87 Such wavering faith in venerable tradition is characteristic of the Alexandrian school.
Throughout the whole poem we detect an undercurrent of sadness, of that pessimism which was peculiarly Greek, the realization of the inevitableness of doom,88 the feeling that the cup of happiness must ever be embittered with an admixture of sorrow.89
In estimating the worth of a narrative poem a question of paramount importance is the poet's power of delineating character (ἠθοποιία). Judged from this standpoint we can only attribute to Apollonius a very partial success. Of the multitude of figures which fill the canvas one, and one only, stands out in bold relief; the others are sketched in vague and shadowy outline. The poet lavished all his colours on the portraiture [p. 36]of the wonder-working Medea. Her varying moods enthral us from the moment when first she beholds the godlike Jason as he enters her father's court90 until their nuptials are consummated on the isle of the Phaeacians.91 Her inmost feelings are laid bare to us with a psychological subtlety strangely modern and unknown to Homer. Impulsive, passionate with the passionateness of the East, torn at first by the conflict betwixt love and duty, gradually she yields to the overmastering sway of Eros. Duty and honour are flung to the winds. She steals forth at night from her father's home. For Jason alone she lives. The ties of kin no longer bind her. Cunningly and remorselessly she plots her brother's death. Woe unto Jason if he should prove false to her! Fickle and faithless he proved himself in after years, and Euripides has shown us that "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." In his wondrous drama the intensity of Medea's hate is only equalled by the intensity of her love as depicted in our poem. The third book, in which the love interest is introduced, is incomparably superior to the other three.92 The passage93 where Medea would end the turmoil of her soul by self-destruction, but shrinks from death as she reflects that life is sweet and that she is still in the morning of life, is one of the great things in Greek literature, and has been compared with the splendid scene near the opening of Goethe's Faust.94 As we [p. 37]read of this hapless maiden, daughter of a savage sire, priestess of the weird goddess Hecate in her lonely temple on the plain, and see her suddenly called by fate to a new and strange destiny, made the instrument for the fulfilment of the purposes of gods and men, smitten by a love which her young heart cannot understand, though it obeys its impulses, we are moved in a way in which the widowed Dido with her mad infatuation, amid the hum and bustle of rising Carthage, moves us not.
Compared with Medea the character of Jason is tame and insipid. Endowed with the radiant beauty of Apollo95 he is brave and gallant as heroes are wont to be, and steadfastly fulfils his task of recovering the golden fleece. He is tactful, lovable, and urbane in his dealings with his comrades, and is slow to wrath even when provoked by the taunting words of the Colchian king. He is prone to exhibit a soft sentimentality, seen also in the character of Aeneas which is largely modelled on that of Jason.96 In his intercourse with Medea he displays a calculating and deliberate selfishness which reappears as the dominant note in his character in the play of Euripides. We cannot discern in him the qualities of a leader of men. We feel that he is but one of the four-and-fifty heroes, many of them riper in years and more famous for their doughty deeds than he. Upon the shore at Pagasae Jason bids them choose out a leader from among their number, and with one accord they acclaim Heracles.97 Heracles will not take [p. 38]command, and persuades the others to acknowledge Jason as their chief. Such is the position of Jason, a leader chosen by his comrades against their own better judgment. Nominally he is first and foremost, in reality he is but primus inter pares. So it is throughout the poem. On the outward voyage the only prominent part he plays is in the love-adventures with Hypsipyle on the island of Lemnos.98 At the opening of the second book it is Polydeuces who flings back the haughty challenge of Amycus, while Jason takes but little part even in the slaughter of the Bebrycians which follows the downfall of their champion. Again and again when a crisis arises we find him sorely perplexed. When Idmon and Tiphys are stricken by death, Jason, like the rest, throws himself down with muffled head on the seashore in the anguish of despair, until Ancaeus, ignoring him, declares to Peleus his willingness to take the helmsman's post.99 It is Amphidamas, not Jason, who bethinks himself how to ward off the birds of the brazen plumes on the isle of Ares.100 On that same isle the shipwrecked sons of Phrixus reveal to the heroes the implacable nature of the Colchian king and the dangers which lie before them. It is Peleus, not Jason, who revives their drooping spirits when dismayed at this recital.101 At last they reach the realms of Aeetes. Jason bears the petulant insults of the incensed monarch102 with a forbearance, wise, perhaps, but with the wisdom of a later age. The ordeal of yoking the fire-breathing bulls and [p. 39]sowing the dragon's teeth is appointed. How does Jason meet it? Gladly he has recourse to the magic drugs of Medea, and his achievements are shorn of half their greatness. To Medea, not to his own right hand, he owes the winning of the golden fleece. Now begins the flight from Colchis with the Colchians in close pursuit. When the Argonauts are sorely pressed, Jason makes a treacherous truce,103 and, with Medea's aid, compasses the murder of the Colchian chief, Medea's brother, Absyrtus. Purified from this foul deed by Circe, anon they reach Phaeacia.104 Thither come the Colchian forces demanding the surrender of Medea. Now at length it seems as if a deadly contest must ensue, in which the heroes may prove their prowess in the face of fearful odds, but Jason avoids the struggle by putting himself and Medea under the protection of the Phaeacian king, Alcinous, and fulfilling the conditions which he prescribes. From this to the end of the poem we hear little of Jason save when the Libyan goddesses appear to him to deliver him and his comrades from death,105 and when he sacrifices thank-offerings to Triton at Lake Tritonis and to Apollo at the Isle of the Appearance.106 It is in his delineation of Jason that Valerius Flaccus far surpasses our poet. In reading the poem of the Roman writer we feel that Jason has a part assigned to him worthy of a leader, and that he stands out unmistakably in the forefront of his comrades.
Among the other Argonauts only two can be said to have any distinctive personality, Orpheus [p. 40]and Peleus. Orpheus, with his wondrous lyre, whose music charmed rocks, streams, and trees, is the first to be mentioned in the catalogue of heroes. His minstrelsy holds as with a spell the rowers of the Argo. Their oars dip rhythmically to his melodious strains.107 When angry feelings would rage tumultuously he soothes them with a lay whose burden is that Earth's fair harmony arose from discord at the first.108 He cheers his comrades when downhearted, and brings them safely past the temptings of the Sirens with a chant surpassing in sweetness even their alluring notes.109 Peleus, the noble father of a nobler son, acts the part of the wise counsellor to his fellow-Argonauts.110 To him, rather than to Jason, they turn for guidance in times of doubt and difficulty. His confidence gives confidence to them. Fatherly love dwells strong within him. One of the most touching passages in the poem is the description of the wife of Chiron holding up the babe Achilles in her arms in fond farewell to Peleus as the Argo passes along the coast of Thessaly.111
Heracles is left behind in Mysia early in the voyage, a version of the legend which must have been well-pleasing to our poet, avoiding, as it does, the difficulty of subordinating his dominant individuality to the weakness of Jason throughout the adventure. During the brief period for which he journeyed with the other heroes we see him as the man of mighty physical strength and restless energy. The bench in the centre of the vessel, which required the rowers with the [p. 41]stoutest thews, is given without lot to him and Ancaeus.112 He will have no part in the revellings in Lemnos, and in tones of bitter irony he utters his contempt for Jason's dalliance with Hypsipyle.113 His club deals out destruction to the giants in the island of Cyzicus.114 The breaking of his oar115 beneath the strain of his sinewy arms leads to his going on shore to replace it and to the loss of Hylas. Terrible in its intensity is his grief for the well-beloved youth,116 and roaming distractedly in search of him he passes from our view.
Of the minor characters little need be said. The brutal Amycus,117 the hot-headed arrogant Idas118 are well depicted. In Telamon we recognize some of the traits of his son Ajax. He is a blunt outspoken warrior, staunch to his friends, quick to quarrel, but generous in admitting his faults.119
Two famous criticisms on Apollonius have come down to us from ancient times, the one by a Greek, the other by a Latin writer, and both when examined are found to express practically the same view. [Longinus], in his treatise περὶ ὕψους (33, 4), says ἐπείτοιγε καὶ ἄπτωτος ὁ Ἀπολλώνιος ἐν τοῖς Ἀργοναύταις ποιητὴς ἆρ' οὖν Ὄμηρος ἂν μᾶλλον ἢ Ἀπολλώνιος ἐθέλοις γενέσθαι; The writer is contrasting two classes of poets, the brilliant genius whose very brilliancy makes him at times careless and negligent in detail, and the author possessed of less natural talent who, [p. 42]by that genius which consists in the infinite capacity for taking pains, avoids the slips to which the other is prone. Homer, who, as Horace says, sometimes nods, is the type of the former, Apollonius of the latter. The question which Longinus asks carries, of course, its own answer with it. It is true that Apollonius was the greatest Greek writer of epic poetry after Homer--proximus sed longo intervallo, but to compare him with Homer is to apply to him a test which no ancient poet will stand, not even Virgil himself. We should bear in mind the words of Cicero, "in poetis non Homero soli locus est, aut Archilocho, aut Sophocli, aut Pindaro, sed horum vel secundis vel etiam infra secundos."120
Quintilian's estimate harmonizes with that of the Greek critic. His words are: "Apollonius in ordinem a grammaticis datum non venit, quia Aristarchus atque Aristophanes poetarum iudices neminem sui temporis in numerum redigerunt; non tamen contemnendum reddidit ['produced'] opus aequali quadam mediocritate."121 Peterson, in his note ad loc., says justly: "No disparagement is implied: the meaning is that Apollonius keeps pretty uniformly to the genus medium, neither rising on the one hand to the genus grande nor on the other descending to the genus subtile. So in the περὶ ὕψους he receives the epithet ἄπτωτος." Mediocritas thus expresses what Cicero calls the modicum or temperatum dicendi genus, and it is to be observed that this mediocritas was according to Varro the characteristic of Terence. [p. 43]Weichert122 argues, though I think it is possibly straining the words of Quintilian, that in accordance with the ancient use of litotes we are justified in translating 'non contemnendum opus' not merely as 'ein schtzbares' but even as 'ein sehr schtzbares Werk.' In spite of the obvious meaning of Quintilian's judgment many critics perversely hold that he is sneering at Apollonius as a poet of respectable mediocrity. A sufficient answer to this is furnished by his explaining why Apollonius was not admitted to the canon of Greek poets by the Alexandrian critics, and also by his own words in introducing the list of authors whom he discusses, 'paucos qui sunt eminentissimi excerpere in animo est.'
The one testimony to the poetic worth of Apollonius which outweighs all others is that of Virgil. With the exception of Homer there is no Greek writer from whom Virgil drew so largely. The fourth book of the Aeneid owes much of its ineffable charm to the romantic loves of Jason and Medea. Conington, though he consistently disparages Apollonius in order to exalt Virgil, has summed up some of the principal obligations of the Latin poet to his Alexandrian predecessor:--"Not only is the passion of Medea confessedly the counterpart of the passion of Dido, but the instances are far from few where Virgil has conveyed an incident from his Alexandrian predecessor, altering and adapting, but not wholly disguising it. The departure of Jason from his father and mother resembles the departure of Pallas from Evander; the [p. 44]song of Orpheus is contracted into the song of Iopas, as it had already been expanded into the song of Silenus; the reception of the Argonauts by Hypsipyle is like the reception of the Trojans by Dido, and the parting of Jason from the Lemnian princess reappears, though in very different colours, in the parting of Aeneas from the queen of Carthage; the mythical representations in Jason's scarf answer to the historical representations which distinguish the shield of Aeneas from that of Achilles; the combat of Pollux with Amycus is reproduced in the combat of Entellus with Dares; the harpies of Virgil are the harpies of Apollonius, while the deliverance of Phineus by the Argonauts may have furnished a hint for the deliverance of Achemenides by the Trojans, an act of mercy which has another parallel in the deliverance of the sons of Phrixus; Phineus' predictions are like the predictions of Helenus; the cave of Acheron in Asia Minor suggests the cave of Avernus in Italy; Evander and Pallas appear once more in Lycus and Dascylus; Hera addresses Thetis as Juno addresses Juturna; Triton gives the same vigorous aid in launching the Argo that he gives to the stranded vessels of Aeneas, or that Portunus gives to the ship of Cloanthus in the Sicilian race."123
These are but a few of the resemblances which strike us again and again in reading the Aeneid. To many at the present day the work of Apollonius is only known by the references of the commentators on Virgil. When discussing the unfair treatment which [p. 45]our poet has received at the hands of the moderns, Preston124 says: Even when Apollonius is remembered among the learned, he is usually introduced in the degrading attitude of a captive, bound to the chariot and following the triumphal pomp of Virgil, who has literally fulfilled in the person of the poet his own prediction in the third Georgic, Aonio rediens deducam vertice Musas. Thus is the name of Apollonius lost and absorbed in that of his conqueror. His poetical beauties are all hung up as trophies to decorate the shrine of Virgil. His primary and original claims on our attention, in his own right, are forgotten; and he is honoured only with the derivative and subordinate praise of having supplied to the Mantuan bard the crude materials and unformed elements from whence some of his beauties have been wrought and fashioned."
The influence of Apollonius at Rome was by no means confined to Virgil. The Argonautica was translated with some freedom into Latin by Varro, a native of Atax in Insubrian Gaul (82-37 b.c.). This version was highly esteemed by the ancients,125 and some fragments of it are still extant. Catullus, Propertius, and especially Ovid126 afford evidence in their poetry of their familiarity with the work of Apollonius. Lucan imitates him in his description [p. 46]of Africa and the deadly serpents which infest it.127 In the days of Vespasian and Domitian Valerius Flaccus wrote an epic poem on the Argonauts which has come down to us. It is largely borrowed from the work of Apollonius, though there are many differences from the Greek original.128 As Apollonius imitated Homer's style and language, so Valerius Flaccus imitated Virgil. The work is incomplete, the story of the return voyage being left untold, but the merit of the eight completed books was recognized by Quintilian, who says of him, "multum in Valerio Flacco nuper amisimus."129 How favourite a theme the legend of the Argonauts had become at Rome amongst rhetorical poets of this age is shown by Juvenal's well-known lines in the first Satire.130
The chief cause of the neglect with which the work of Apollonius has been treated in modern times is to be found in its form. Apollonius chose the historical form for his poem, a choice which was largely determined by his theme, and we cannot help feeling how vastly superior is Homer's method of plunging the reader in medias res non secus ac notas. The catalogue of the heroes with which the work opens, after a brief preface, is apt to repel us before our sympathies are elicited, though catalogues of this kind form a traditional part of all great epics, as Homer, Virgil, and Milton show. The geographical minuteness with which [p. 47]the outward voyage is described contrasts unfavourably with the delightfully vague and imaginary geography of the Homeric poems, and when in narrating the return of the heroes from the land of Colchis all geographical probability, or even possibility, is ignored, the resulting compound is unpalatable. When we read the fourth book we wish in vain that our poet had shaken himself loose from the coils of legendary tradition and given free play to his inventive talent. But, in whatever way the poet might best have treated the return voyage, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to remove the impression of anti-climax which the greater portion of the last book produces on us. The second part of the story, all that follows after the taking of the fleece, the fresh dangers faced, the fresh privations endured, does not heighten the effect but rather diminishes it.
Another cause of the unpopularity of the Argonautica is that it is a learned work, and those who love the direct simplicity of the earlier epic are prone to turn aloof from such. This learning, as we have seen, was demanded from the poet by the age in which he lived, but, with few exceptions, he makes no ostentatious display of his learning in the way Callimachus or Propertius would have done if treating of the same theme. In the description of men and places, in the various incidents of the poem, there is a studied moderation. Apollonius knew how essential to a poet is the precept μηδὲν ἄγαν. Rarely does the language of extravagant hyperbole strike a jarring note.131 The [p. 48]versification of the poem is remarkably smooth and harmonious, and the diction, as a rule, simple and unaffected, rare and obsolete words occurring but seldom. The most noticeable affectation is in the use or abuse of the pronouns.
One misses naturally the freshness and charm of the language of Homer, the living appreciation of earlier ages being replaced by a merely literary and imitative interest. The old order had changed. The minds of men had developed far beyond the stage when speech is the artless childlike overflow of feeling. A literary atmosphere had come into being. Little wonder that Apollonius, strive as he might to relive the past, could not "set his soul to the same key Of the remembered melody."
Such are some of the characteristics of a poem at once so Homeric and so un-Homeric. Taken as a whole it may be justly said to be deficient in epic unity and inspiration. The unity which it possesses is mainly that of chronological sequence. It is a mosaic, but a mosaic fashioned and put together with artistic skill. The tempering of the stricter epic with the charm of elegy and romance constitutes the strength and weakness of the work. It would be manifestly unjust to apply to Apollonius Ovid's criticism on Callimachus "quamvis ingenio non valet, arte valet";132 rather would I adopt Cicero's judgment of the work of Lucretius and say of the Argonautica "multis luminibus ingenii, multae tamen artis."133