Peter Mullen exhorts us to hear the prophecies from pre-Christian Rome
The Roman poet Virgil lived in the first century BC. He was a man of broad sympathies and he is often referred to as the gateway between the classical and the Christian worlds. In about 39BC he published his Fourth Eclogue. Here is part of it:
‘Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden age arise?
Under thy guidance, whatso tracks remain
Of our old wickedness, once done away
Shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear.
He shall receive the life of gods, and see
Heroes with gods commingling, and himself
Be seen of them, and with his Father’s worth
Reign o’er a world at peace.’
Among early Christians, who saw this poem as a prophecy of the Christ-child, were Lactantius, the emperor Constantine and St Augustine. Dante regarded Virgil as a prophet and adopted him as the main character and guide in The Divine Comedy. A word of caution is required: we should understand what prophecy is and what it is not. Prophecy is not prediction in any straightforward sense. The prophet does not have a crystal ball in which he sees images of the future. Prophecy is very largely an unconscious process—as of course is poetry. T.S. Eliot writes:
‘… [T]hat some form of ill-health, debility or anaemia may (if other circumstances are favourable) produce an effect of poetry in a way approaching the condition of automatic writing—though in contrast to the claims sometimes made for the latter, the material has obviously been incubating within the poet… it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say not “inspiration” as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers—which tend to reform very quickly.’
The poet does not sit down and intend to write a poem about, say, a sea voyage. Poetry is not that kind of conscious mechanism. What usually happens is that the poet ‘hears’ a few words in a particular rhythm and, if things work out well—and they do not always work out well, in which case the poem is abandoned—after a while he has something approaching a poem which he can proceed to knock into shape. Where those few words in a particular rhythm come from is something which depends entirely upon the poet’s experience of life, his interests, what he has been reading and whatever habitually goes on in his head. Thus someone who spends most of his life going to football matches, reading match reports in the newspapers and talking about football with his friends might, if he also happens to try his hand at verse, be expected to write a poem about football. A devout person, if he writes anything at all, will most probably produce spiritual imagery in his work.
I leave entirely to one side whether the poet-prophet is in some way inspired, though certainly Christian theologians and teachers believe that the prophecies of Isaiah and other Old Testament writers look forward to the coming of Christ. When I read Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, I cannot help being reminded of the following passage from the prophet Isaiah:
‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.’ [Isa. 9.6–7]
If Isaiah’s words are reckoned in some way to prophesy Christ, on what grounds do we disallow Virgil as being among the prophets? So if you are thinking of visiting Jerusalem, try to make time to stop off at Rome on your way back.