The trio of masterpieces that Virgil composed during the prolonged sunset of the Roman Republic begins with the collection of ten poems that we have come to know by the conventional title, Eclogues ("Selections"). Though these exquisite short poems inaugurate the sequence that continues with the Georgics and culminates in the Aeneid, they are neither less elegant in style nor less profound in philosophical insight than the latter, more extensive, works.
The book of Eclogues appeared on the scene approximately seven years before the decisive naval battle of Actium in 30 BCE. Octavian's triumph over Antony and Cleopatra in that contest brought the protracted Civil Wars to a close—an era scarred by radical social and political upheavals. The violent disintegration of the political fabric of the Republic had occasioned widespread anxiety among all sectors of society and the establishment of a stable peace—the pax Augusta—was yet to materialize. An acute awareness of the disruption of the sociopolitical order is refracted through the artistic prism of the Eclogues. Their youthful author, who was to breathe new life into the Hellenistic genre of Bucolic poetry, had very recently emerged from philosophical studies in an Epicurean "school" centered in the bay of Naples, where Greek teachers such as Philodemus and Siro, counted the Roman poets Horace and Varius among their associates and pupils.
Virgil is a poet of ideas. Like his close friend, Horace, he thought deeply about the philosophical prerequisites for attaining inner tranquility, and about the limits on the human capacity to cope with extremes of adversity. He consistently explored these issues through the medium of poetry in all three of the major genres in which he worked: bucolic, didactic, and epic. While the traces of a deep philosophical Bildung are manifest throughout his poetic œuvre, these need to be extrapolated, in the case of the bucolic poems, from the conversations among his poet-herdsmen. At the same time, such extrapolations should not be guided by a desire to confine the various and sometimes competing world-views expressed obliquely in the poems to the dogmas of any particular school.
When Virgil eventually composed the prologue to his magisterial epic, the Aeneid, he famously foregrounded the question of the nature of the Olympian gods in his idiosyncratic variation on the epic invocation of the muse: "Can anger so intense possess the minds of gods?" ("tantaene animis caelestibus irae?" Aeneid 1.11). The rhetorical interrogation represents a startling new note in the discourse of epic prologues, but it would be a mistake to suppose that Virgil's interest in such ethical paradoxes made its first appearance in the opening lines of the Aeneid. It is a regrettable aspect of the reception of the Eclogues that the prevailing orthodoxy tends to treat the collection as lightweight and charming verse, while its philosophical underpinnings have by and large retreated to the margins of critical exegesis. The Eclogues are in desperate need of rescue from centuries of trivialization of its intellectual content.
The Eclogues have been conventionally assigned to the genre of the "pastoral." As a few perceptive critics have noted, however, the label is misleading on several non-trivial counts, for the complex of traits that came to define the pastoral tradition in later European literature is only superficially connected with Virgilian bucolic. It would be no exaggeration to state that the post-Virgilian pastoral genre (if we set aside the later Latin practitioners of the imperial period, such as Calpurnius Siculus and Nemesianus), which properly begins in the Italian Renaissance, is tangential in many important respects to the Roman poet's transmutation of Hellenistic bucolic poetry. A less anachronistic nomenclature for the genre would be the older term, "bucolic," which connects the Virgilian generic inflection with a dominant subgroup of poems in the corpus of the Greek Hellenistic poet, Theocritus. Virgil's book of Eclogues harks back to, and transforms, Theocritean bucolic verse, but in opening up a new space within the earlier Greek genre it does not, as is still commonly repeated in the standard commentaries, sponsor an idealized, utopian "Arcadia" that is the stuff of later European poets and critics alike.
Let us engage in a round of timely iconoclasm about the nature of Vergil's Arcadia. In blatant contradistinction to a world of utopian fantasy and escapist bliss, the world of the Eclogues is permeated through and through with portrayals of human infelicity, catastrophic loss and emotional turbulence. The defining tenor of these poetic sketches is a profound anxiety about the human capacity to cope with misfortune. A cursory review of the dominant themes of the ten poems in the cycle makes it ineluctably clear that Virgil's primary concern is with the world of human misery rather than with frivolous escapist constructions of an alternative universe purified of anguish and angst. A brief poem by poem synopsis of the predominant themes of Virgilian bucolic will be an instructive exercise.
The opening programmatic Eclogue juxtaposes a herdsman who is currently experiencing good fortune (Tityrus) with one who is a recent victim of misfortune (Meliboeus). The latter is in deep distress after having been dispossessed of his farm, while the former has had his plot restored following a presumed dispossession. At the conclusion of their exchange, the fortunate herdsman offers consolation to his despondent interlocutor in the form of an invitation to share a meal in his humble abode. Tityrus carefully contextualizes his present felicity at more than one juncture in the course of the dialogue: he explains to Meliboeus that it is contingent on the disposition of a divine benefactor and, more importantly, that his life has in the past been subject to vicissitude. E.2 is an anguished monologue chanted by a herdsman whose love is unreciprocated and who eventually manages to place a limit (modus) on his torment by recognizing his pathological condition (dementia) through the exercise of singing ("O Corydon, O Corydon! What is this madness?"). The third poem in the series exposes the emotional underbelly of the herdsmens' interpersonal relations. In the succinct formulation of Guy Lee, the author of the Penguin bilingual edition of the Eclogues: "Two shepherds meet and taunt each other with accusations of theft, sexual perversion, malicious damage to property, jealousy and musical incompetence." This accurate précis hardly amounts to a portrayal of utopian bliss.
The fourth Eclogue, which has earned the sobriquet "Messianic" because of its reference to a miraculous child (puer) and a virgin (famously misread in the Medieval period as a prophecy of the birth of Christ), heralds the dawn of a renewed Golden Age, but its account of the Four Ages draws on a fundamental model of cyclicality. Virgil's language is unambiguous about the non-linear nature of the sequence of the cosmic ages bearing the iconic metal tropes of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron. The parade of ages may, with no loss of precision, be characterized as "vicissitude writ large." What is more, there is no clean break between the recycled ages: traces (vestigia) of the crime-ridden Iron Age, for instance, overlap with the commencement of the Golden, which is destined in the grand scheme of things to give way in its turn to Silver. The notion that the Golden Age prognosticated by the speaker of E.4 is to be conceived as a stable paradisiacal order is an importation from later Christian belief in a unilinear diachronic progression towards an eternal divine kingdom—a conception deeply incongruent with the ancient Indo-European myth of a recurrent cosmic cycle of ages.
To continue our catalogue of themes: the poem that occupies the midpoint in the sequence (E.5) contains two complementary encomia of the legendary founder of Bucolic poetry, the figure of Daphnis; but the first opens with an agonized lament for "the cruel death Daphnis died." His subsequent apotheosis, the reward for his musical reputation, is enunciated by the second singer, Mopsus, as consolation for his catastrophic decline into disfavor after his semidivine lover, a nymph, brutally avenges her sexual betrayal. Such eternal felicity as is eventually experienced by this prototype of the bucolic poet-herdsman takes place in his post-terrestrial afterlife as a constellation.
The sixth Eclogue opens with a proem that is appropriately programmatic with respect to both style and theme, since it inaugurates the second half of the collection. In regard to theme, which is the subject of this synopsis, the role of the embedded poet-philosopher is played by the Dionysian figure of Silenus, who unfolds a panoramic history that is predominantly (though not exclusively) a catalogue of disastrous events, several of them featuring the destructive effects of erotic passion. On the positive side, he mentions the renewal of the human race after Jupiter's wrathful punishment in the form of the flood, as well as a previous iteration of the Golden Age during the mythical reign of Saturn. Conspicuous among the lugubrious tales he outlines (which receive greater elaboration than the semi-felicitous ones) are the fates of the hapless Pasiphae, who mated with a bull; Hylas, the favorite of Heracles, who was accidentally left behind in the course of the Argonautic expedition; Scylla, daughter of Nisus, turned into a hideous monster after a disastrous love experience; and Philomela, victim of rape on the part of the sadistic Tereus, who came to a macabre and gruesome end. According to the account of Silenus, the journey of humankind from creation to the present can scarcely be described as a master narrative with a happy ending.
The next Eclogue in the series takes the form of a bucolic singing-match between two '"Arcadian" master-musicians, Corydon and Thyrsis. The contest is a strenuously performed "amoebean" exchange that is a far cry in tone from the amicable swap of eulogies that we heard in E.5 (devoted, as we have noted, to the theme of the death and apotheosis of Daphnis). Thyrsis, in particular, often strikes a distinctly invidious note in his quatrains, resorting in several instances to gratuitous detraction rather than celebration. His much-debated failure in the contest (the judge awards the palm to Corydon at the end of the poem) is probably attributable to his jaundiced world-view, as opposed to some identifiable inferiority of technique. In the eighth Eclogue we are treated to yet another variant on the bucolic agon in which two rival singers vie in less than friendly terms in the arena of (un)success in love. The portrayal of erotic relationships that emerges in the course of poem is in tune with the norms of Greco-Roman love poetry, where reciprocity of affection is seldom assured and celebration of felicitous outcomes is relatively rare. Thus the first singer, Damon, commences the exchange with a moribund cri de coeur:
Lucifer, rise. You bring the world its living light,
While I, deceived in faithless love by Nysa, my
Betrothed, complain. And though the gods have never helped,
I call on them, as in my final hour, I die. (17-20)
He goes on to utter invidious sentiments, such as the following:-
Now Nysa marries Mopsus? Lovers, what to think!
We'll soon see griffins mate with mares; in days to come,
The timid deer will join with hunting dogs to drink. (26-8)
When the second singer, Alphesiboeus, takes up the challenge, we are treated to a prolonged account of magic ritual (words and actions) intended to bind the beloved to the will of the lover. Reciprocity is here a desperate wish on the part of the singer, and the outcome of the magic spells and rites turns out to be ambiguous, for at the conclusion of the poem Virgil raises the question of whether the favorable result of magical practices in an erotic context is a wish-fulfillment fantasy:
Look there! All by themselves, while I was dawdling,
Have blown; the shrine is licked by flame. A sign, from sparks!
Surely there's something. Hylax in the doorway barks.
Could it be true? Or are such dreams all lovers' own?
The penultimate Eclogue explores the issue of the efficacy of poetry as consolation for misfortune. The subject is broached in the opening lines, in which we are told that the singer, Moeris, has lost his small farm in the land redistributions in the aftermath of the Civil Wars. Clearly we are meant to recall the analogous fate of Meliboeus in the first Eclogue, but in this iteration what is foregrounded is the mitigating role of poetry in the face of catastrophic loss. In the Virgilian dialogue, Lycidas asks Moeris to verify the rumor that the lands in question had been preserved through the power of Menalcas' song. To this naïve and wistful inquiry, Moeris replies:
You did; that's how the rumor ran. But Lycidas,
In Mars's weaponed world, our songs prevail the way
Chaonian doves do with the eagle in a fray.
Moeris's position on the limits of art corresponds with the view of W.H. Auden as articulated in the poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats":
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
would never want to tamper
Confronted with the brutal confiscation of their lands, Virgil's singers have recourse to the task of memory in preserving the transmitted poetic tradition. Verbal art itself escapes the destruction that is inherent in the material order through the continual recall and reperformance of bucolic poetry—including examples of Virgil's own compositions, which are cited in this poem by their first lines. The function of recollection via poetic performance, however, is not to indulge in nostalgia for a utopian fantasy, but rather to preserve art as an antidote to the vagaries of fortune.
The tenth and final Eclogue features the unhappy love-life of Virgil's close friend and fellow-poet, Cornelius Gallus, the founder of the genre of Latin elegiac poetry. In the persona of the poet enslaved to love for a capricious mistress, Gallus reenters the rural stage with the forlorn hope of sharing in the imagined felicity of the bucolic world. In the process he learns that neither reciprocal love nor consolation for his plight are forthcoming as a result of this excursion into another generic terrain. On the contrary, he comes to the disillusioned realization that Amor is a divinity whose dominion in not subject to human manipulation or control. He is eventually obliged to relinquish his fantasy-projection of bucolic salvation and resign himself to the rigors of erotic experience:
Love conquers all. Let Love then smile at our defeat. (69)
In light of this thematic (and, I hope, revisionist) overview, it is legitimate to ask, "Does the myth of Virgil's rose-tinted Arcadia find justification in the text?" As far as internal evidence from the poems themselves is concerned, it can most certainly be traced to a common misinterpretation of the programmatic first Eclogue. As we have noted fleetingly above, it is the hapless Meliboeus who projects onto Tityrus the view that the latter's present felicity is destined to be irreversible. Meliboeus continues to project this rosy picture of Tityrus' future even though the fortunate herdsman had carefully qualified his situation by describing his past infelicity and by making it clear that his own continued good fortune is contingent on the good graces of a beneficent god. Despite these corrections to his fantasy, Meliboeus persists in projecting a future of unalloyed bliss for his interlocutor:
Old man, you're lucky. Here amidst familiar brooks
and sacred springs, you'll search out shade that's cool and blue.
And near your neighbor's boundary, as it always did,
The hedge that keeps the bees of Hybla willow-fed
Will often lull you to your sleep with soft susurrus.
Below the bluff, a pruner tunes the air with airs,
While all along, the doves who are your special care
Coo with the moaning doves in immemorial elms. (51-58)
Against this picture of unchanging future bliss in a locus amoenus, Tityrus had earlier emphasized his own past vicissitudes both in regard to his love-affairs and in his sociopolitical status. In short, the overconfident assertion of an ideal future existence for Tityrus is pronounced by the disillusioned persona in the dialogue, who sees his own current misfortune as irreversible as he heads off into exile at the ends of the civilized world. The subjectivity of Meliboeus' position—the presumption that both his own infelicity and Tityrus's felicity are irreversible—is a very flimsy platform on which to erect the widespread misconception that the Eclogues as a whole reflect an idyllic existence removed from deep human problems and anxieties."
Bucolic poetry relies on a conventional scaffolding of singer-herdsmen in dialogue. I have deliberately used the term "singer-herdsmen" rather than "herdsmen-singers," for the priority of poetry-making over tending flocks that is mirrored in my preferred hyphenation cannot be too prominently marked. This priority is critical to the poetics of the genre as practiced both by its founder, the Hellenistic Greek poet, Theocritus, and its superlative Roman exponent, Virgil. Although the adjective "bucolic" is derived from a Greek word denoting "cowherd", the protagonists who populate the bucolic landscape comprise herdsmen of varied stripe (goatherds and shepherds as well as cowherds). Already in the Theocritean corpus the synecdochic status of the cowherd as an over-arching trope for a certain type of singer becomes transparent. In a salient metaphor he employs in the final lines of Idyll 11, which recounts the unhappy love of the Cyclops, Theocritus encapsulates the primacy of singing over herding in the universe of bucolic:
Thus did Polyphemus shepherd his love with minstrelsy
I have glanced in summary fashion at major aspects of the ideational content of bucolic discourse. By way of conclusion, a few remarks about Virgilian style are in order—particularly so in the context of this introduction to an English translation of the Eclogues. In seeking a literary-historical frame for understanding the stylistic register of bucolic poetry, we can do no better that to follow the cues inserted in the prologue to E.6:
She never blushed at woodland living—not my Muse—
For Thalia first approved of verse from Syracuse.
But when I sang of royal broils, the Cynthian tugged
My ear and counseled: "Tityrus, a shepherd ought
To feed sheep fat, but sing a song that's spun out thin." (3-5)
The name Tityrus here stands for the aspiring bucolic poet, and the staged intervention by the god Apollo is a standard motif in conventional disclaimers of high style on the part of Alexandrian poets and their Latin imitators. Ancient poets themselves, no less that their contemporary theorists, adhered by and large to the principle of "stylistic decorum"— the fundamental premise of which is that registers of style should correlate with levels of subject matter. Leading Latin poets of the late Republic (the amatory elegists, Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid, as well as the practitioners of other lyric genres, such as Horace) frequently incorporated their choice of generic register into the fabric of their verse. Such performed choices involved disavowal of other genres (the so-called recusatio). The rhetorical function of such formal disavowals is to carve out a stylistic "space" for the poem at hand. In the prologue to E.6, which, as is well known, is beholden to the Alexandrian aesthetics of the short poem, Virgil is at pains to prepare the reader to apprehend the intermediary register he is about to adopt - an idiosyncratic space between the grandiloquent speech of epic and tragedy and the lowly conversational tone of comedy.
Though the diction of Virgilian bucolic eschews the grand manner, it hardly ever descends to the level of the colloquial. As the late Wendell Clausen remarks in the introduction to his commentary: "Ancient pastoral poetry, the poetry of Theocritus and Virgil, is never simple, though it affects to be; and in this affectation of simplicity, the disparity between the meanness of its subject and the refinement of the poet's art, lies the essence of pastoral." The refined style to which Clausen here alludes resonates, at the acoustic level, with musical performance. Vowel notes that are mimetic of reed pipes are heard in the very first overture of the Eclogues. Len Krisak's rendition of this iconic prelude seeks to imitate the melodic virtuosity of the original:
Titure tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena;
nos patriae finis et dulcia linquimus arva.
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.
Under a beech's stretching branches, there you lie,
Tityrus, trying, on the slimmest reed, to court
The forest muse, while I must leave, saying goodbye
To home and farm and country. You in shady ease,
Make "Lovely Amaryllis" echo through the trees.
The translations in this volume succeed in achieving the all-important musicality of effect, while sustaining a delicate balance between the pedestrian and the formal, the mundane and the sublime - the style that his fellow-poet Horace famously characterized as "molle atque facetum" ("refined and witty"). The reader who is attuned to the unparalleled tonalities of Virgilian melos will find many felicitous renditions of the Latin maestro in this fresh new translation of a lyric masterpiece.
Title: Virgil's Eclogues
Author: Virgil; Len Krisak; Gregson Davis