Home > Articles > Hic inter flumina nota : IN THE STEPS OF THE NEW JERSEY VERGIL

Hic inter flumina nota : IN THE STEPS OF THE NEW JERSEY VERGIL


A view of Crosswicks Creek from the former estate of Joseph Bonaparte, Bordentown.

For centuries, familiarity with Vergil’s poetry was such that the employment of his verses in inscriptions could be habitual, even unconscious. While these traces are far less frequent in the Garden State than in places of greater antiquity, the poet is no stranger to our landscape. Most citations still to be found are conscious and deliberate, and each has a story to tell.

Of leisure and learning

Following the canonical order of his writings, Vergil comes onto the scene largely by coincidence. In 1920 Globe Indemnity, part of the multinational Liverpool and London Insurance Company, moved to a new six-story building at 20 Washington Place in Newark. On its Italian Renaissance façade, the city seal of Liverpool (paired with London’s) incorporates the exultant DEUS NOBIS HÆC OTIA FECIT (Eclogues 1.6). In the original poem, this line celebrated exemption from confiscation of lands earmarked for the settlement of discharged soldiers. In a not unpoetic twist, the Newark building has been occupied since 1946 by offices of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The former Globe Indemnity Insurance Company building, Newark.

The former Globe Indemnity Insurance Company building, Newark.

There is a further echo of the pastoral Vergil at the grave of Joseph Periam in Elizabeth’s First Presbyterian churchyard. Periam impressed his superiors as a college student and tutor in eighteenth-century Princeton, but he was apparently drawn too much to philosophy and eventually lost his ministerial license. During the American Revolution, he served as quartermaster for the First Battalion of the New Jersey Brigade. Wounded in a British raid on Paramus, Periam died in Elizabethtown on October 8, 1780, aged 38.[1]   His epitaph concludes with a wholly secular VALE! LONGUM VALE! – reminiscent of Eclogues 3.79.

Vergil figures in the interiors of at least two buildings in Princeton. The Ivy Club at 43 Prospect Avenue is the oldest of the private eating clubs, fixtures of Princeton student life for over a century. Playing upon the Ivy name, a dining room fireplace carries the effusive INTER VICTRICES HEDERAM TIBI SERPERE LAVRVS (Eclogues 8.13).  Not far away at 20 Washington Road, a mantelpiece in the former Frick Chemical Laboratory extends to the modern study of science the beatitude often linked with Vergil’s fellow poet Lucretius:  FELIX QVI POTVIT RERVM COGNOSCERE CAVSAS (Georgics 2.490).

A refuge found, an inscription lost

Through the most bitter trials, Vergil’s Aeneas clung to his royal destiny. Not so Joseph Bonaparte. In the aftermath of Waterloo, the brother of Napoleon escaped to the safety of America, and lived for nearly two decades at Point Breeze, a large property on the Bordentown bluffs near the Delaware River.

As an ex-monarch residing in a democratic republic, Joseph might have opted for a life of seclusion. Instead, styling himself the Count de Survilliers, he transformed his estate into a pleasure park in the French mode, welcoming distinguished visitors both American and foreign, and inviting the public to delight in its wooded paths, outdoor statuary, striking vistas and even an artificial lake. The land today preserves few visible traces of the Count’s fine buildings and other adornments: among those that were lost is a touching Latin inscription aptly chosen from the words of Queen Dido, an exile offering refuge to exiles: “Non ignara mali, miseris succurrere disco” (Aeneid 1.630).[2]  

New Jersey’s Underworld

Trenton’s Penitentiary House, the first state prison in New Jersey, was progressive by the standards of the 1790s. But its program of reform through labor and solitary reflection, lacking adequate provision for either productive work or separate confinement, was judged a failure. In 1836 the state opened a much larger penitentiary, dwarfing its predecessor. The dedication stone remains above the original entrance at 498 Second Street, its concluding line “Hic Labor hoc opus!” an adaptation of the Sybil’s warning about the difficulty of returning from the Underworld (Aeneid 6.129). One wonders how many inmates took full account of those ominous words!

A detail of the gravestone of Charles Wolcott Parker, who died in 1913 at the age of eighteen. Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Newark.

Vergil’s handling of the untimely death of Marcellus, the nephew and presumptive heir of Augustus, would give consolation almost two thousand years later to the family of Charles Wolcott Parker. The first-born son of a New Jersey Supreme Court justice, the young Parker was killed in an accident in July 1913, and interred in Newark’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery. His stone slab is fringed with lilies and, running along both sides, part of the elegy delivered by the shade of Anchises: MANIBUS DATE LILIA PLENIS / PURPUREOS SPARGAM FLORES (Aeneid 6.883-4).

Bust of a young Vergil by Gaetano Federici, 1898. Courtesy of the Passaic County Historical Society, Paterson, NJ. Funds are being raised to restore this work of a New Jersey sculptor: click here to learn more.

Bust of a young Vergil by Paterson sculptor Gaetano Federici, 1898.  The inscription on the base reads PVB: VERGILIVS.  Courtesy of the Passaic County Historical Society, Paterson, NJ.

Adaptation of these words to different circumstances was nothing new. In homage to their author and his guide, Dante used them (Purgatorio XXX.21) at the threshold of Paradise, beyond which the virtuous but unredeemed Roman could not lead him. There are other sites bearing the imprint of Vergil, but this seems a fitting place to end our wanderings and honor an unexpected New Jersey poet.

Copyright © 2015 by Gregory J. Guderian

This article was originally posted on September 16, 2013.

^ 1]  James McLachlan, Princetonians 1748-1768. A biographical dictionary (Princeton 1976) 399-402. Periam’s tombstone mistakenly gives the year of his death as 1781.

^ 2] The site of this inscription is not known precisely: a contemporary newspaper placed it on the walls of the structure known as “the Count’s observatory” or “belvidere,” described by one early visitor as “a towering & ornamented Edifice, rising far above the precipitous banks.” Other, mainly second-hand accounts located the quotation on an arch by the artificial lake. Writing in the 1880s, Edward Shippen recalled seeing Latin carved in that spot fifty years earlier, but it is not inconceivable that more than one inscription existed at Point Breeze.  New-Jersey State Gazette (Trenton), July 8, 1836, 3:1; John Fanning Watson, manuscript diary, Trip to Pennsbury & to Count Survilliers, 1826, courtesy The Winterthur Library; “Reminiscences of Admiral Edward Shippen: Bordentown in the 1830s,” The Pennsylvania magazine of history and biography 78:2 (1954) (203-230) 216.



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