The reception of Virgil’s poetry in France is directed and conditioned not only by Virgilian presences in earlier works of art, but also by the work of professional classicists who colour the image of Virgil presented to students at school and university. A quick glance at a standard French Virgilian bibliography immediately reveals the dominant line of scholarship: the predominance of titles such as Virgile l’homme et l’œuvre, Virgile son temps et le nôtre or Virgile, son œuvre et son temps 1 points both to the heavily biographical tendencies of French criticism and to a trend of drawing analogies between Virgil’s Rome and twentieth-century Western Europe. Theodore Ziolkowski argues that this move to establish links with the Virgilian past was connected to the European sense of crisis bequeathed by the First World War and to the social and political upheavals of the 1920s and 30s. 2 In France, however, this re-awakened interest in Virgil has stronger political resonances as it is accompanied by strong anti-German sentiment. Even in 1857 Sainte-Beuve was reacting against the standard nineteenth-century view, most famously promoted by Lessing, of Virgil as a mere imitator of Homer. 3 At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, and most especially after the First World War, French antagonism to German scholarship acquired a particularly embittered edge. 4 In 1920 André Bellessort eagerly stresses 30his hostility to Germany, ‘cette vieille ennemie du génie latin’, 5 in his efforts to re-appropriate Virgil for France:

J’aurais atteint mon but, si ce livre contribuait à répandre et à préciser les raisons que nous avons d’admirer et d’aimer Virgile et de voir en lui non seulement un des plus nobles génies, mais le plus noble inspirateur de notre art, le père de notre poésie moderne, celui dont l’œuvre réfléchit déjà comme le bouclier d’Enée, toute la gloire et l’humanité de la civilisation latine. Lorsque j’ai commencé d’y travailler, nous sortions à peine du plus rude péril qui ait jamais menacé la France, héritière de Rome et de tout ce que représentent dans le passé et dans le présent Rome et la France. Le Germain lâchait pied et allait bientôt être acculé à une juste et honteuse capitulation. Une fois de plus les dieux d’Actium triomphaient du barbare. Comme les vers de Virgile, qui ont des larmes pour toutes les douleurs, savent aussi sonner la joie de la délivrance! J’éprouvais une immense gratitude envers ce poète, le premier que nous avons rencontré sur notre chemin jadis, quand les humanités s’ouvraient devant nous, le premier dont les vers nous remontent aux lèvres dans les grandes crises de la vie. Il y a dix-neuf cents ans, il annonçait aux hommes ‘un nouvel ordre des siècles’. Au lendemain de la guerre, je relisais avec ravissement cet annonciateur des temps nouveaux. 6

[I should have realized my goal if this book were to help clarify and make more available the reasons we have to admire and love Virgil and to see in him not only one of the noblest of geniuses, but the most noble inspiration behind our art, the father of our modern poetry, he whose work, like the shield of Aeneas, already reflects all the glory and humanity of the Latin civilization. When I began work on it we were barely emerging from the harshest peril ever to threaten France, heiress of Rome and of all that Rome and France have represented in the past and the present. The Germans were losing their hold and were soon going to be driven to a just and shameful capitulation. Once again the gods of Actium were triumphing over the barbarian. How rapturously the verses of Virgil, in which tears for all griefs can be found, also ring out the joy of deliverance. I felt an enormous gratitude towards this poet, the first whom we came across on our path in times past, when the humanities were opening up before us, the first whose verses come to our lips at times of great crisis in life. Nineteen hundred years ago he was announcing to mankind ‘a new order of centuries’. In the days following the war I read again in delight this herald of our times.]

31Bellessort’s reference to Aeneas’ shield in this eulogy of Virgil serves to highlight the German insensitivity that had been blind to Virgil’s contribution to this episode. Furthermore his eagerness to appropriate Virgil as a guide for a new era is evidenced by the stress laid upon the primacy of Virgil, ‘le premier que nous avons rencontré’, ‘le premier dont les vers nous remontent aux lèvres’. Not only do these phrases echo Virgil’s anxiety to stress his innovations, but they also point to a reaction against those Germans who, in the First World War, had appropriated the Homeric epics so as to figure themselves as the new Achaeans establishing a new civilization. The adoption of Virgil as ‘le père de notre poésie moderne’ and the connections between Rome and France that Bellessort tries to establish are indicative of a restructured vision of Western civilization, as Ziolkowski indicates:

This sense of cultural crisis was especially acute in Germany which emerged from World War One as the vanquished land. In victorious France, as Ernst Robert Curtius had occasion to observe, most intellectuals—albeit not such leading figures as Paul Valéry and André Gide, whom Curtius took to be exceptions—regarded the defeat of the Germans as a sign of the reestablishment of Western values, of which they considered France the appropriate spiritual center. 7

Bellessort’s construction of Virgil set the pattern for twentieth-century French Virgilian scholarship which has been characterized by its heavily biographical approach as well as by an eagerness to place Virgil at the head of a new cultural tradition. Over forty years later the most eminent French Virgilian of the twentieth century, Jacques Perret, closed one of his books with the words: ‘N’acceptons pas que vis-à-vis de cette tradition, nous qui en sommes issus puissions nous conduire en étrangers. On ne refait pas son passé. On ne renie pas les siens. Virgile, un peu notre père, a droit à notre piété’ [Let us not accept that we who have been born of this tradition can turn our backs on it. One does not refashion one’s past. One does not deny one’s kin. Virgil, who is something of a father to us, can lay claim to our piety]. 8