The following entry contains criticism on Vergil's Eclogues. For additional information on Vergil's life and works, see CMLC, Vol. 4.
Vergil's Eclogues is a collection of ten pastoral poems inspired in part by Theocritus's Idylls. While the order of composition of the poems is sometimes the subject of critical debate, the collection has been dated to the 30s and 40s b.c.; the poems thus represent Vergil's earliest works. The relation between Vergil's poems and their earlier Greek counterparts, the Idylls, is of major interest to critics, as is the Arcadian setting of the Eclogues. Other scholars are more interested in the individual poems, or in the relation of individual poems to the collection as a whole.
The Eclogues constitute the first extant collection of such poetry. Early readers, including Ovid and Probus, indicate that Vergil selected the poems for the book of Eclogues himself. Textual references also show that the Eclogues were published by Vergil in the order in which they appear in modern editions.
Plot and Major Characters
In general, the heroes of the Eclogues are shepherds who live in the land of Arcadia and sing of their loves, their flocks, and the beauty of the countryside. Many of the Eclogues reproduce such features of the Idylls of Theocritus as the banter between shepherds and the contests between shepherds in the form of song. Such songs, incorporated within the Eclogues, often play a large role in the collection. In many of the poems, the plot focuses on competition between shepherds, or on love and loss experienced by a particular shepherd. The plots and characters of Eclogues One and Nine are of special interest to many students and critics of Vergil because biographers have drawn parallels between these poems and Vergil's own life—especially the threat of eviction from the family farm that Vergil and his family faced. In both Eclogues One and Nine, one shepherd faces exile, while another remains in the pastoral world. In Eclogue One, Meliboeus's exile is contrasted with the pastoral bliss enjoyed by Tityrus, and the two shepherds engage in a dialogue which highlights this tension. Most critics agree, however, that the biographical parallels within these poems should not be viewed as straight allegory.
Critics have identified surprisingly complicated themes within the simple pastoral setting of the Eclogues. Vergil uses the pastoral as representative of the life of imagination and of the individual's struggle to identify his or her place within society and nature. Similar themes are expanded upon in Vergil's later works, such as the Aeneid. Love is also a central theme in many of the Eclogues, especially EcloguesTwo, Eight, and Ten, and is often discussed in terms of lamentation and wooing, although Vergil also incorporated some humor into these often somber poems. Other themes explored by the Eclogues include piety and the pleasures of the countryside, and, especially in Eclogue Six, passion and violence.
Many critics have studied the way in which Vergil adapts his source material, the Idylls of Theocritus. W. Y. Sellar, for instance, observes that in both form and content, many of the Eclogues imitate the work of Theocritus in that they make use of dialogue to reproduce the banter of shepherds and their singing contests. Sellar maintains that although the earlier Eclogues are highly imitative, the later Eclogues demonstrate Vergil's command over the form, as well as of the rhythm and diction, of pastoral. Furthermore, Sellar notes that while Vergil's work is inferior to the Greek Idylls in terms of dramatic power, the strength of Vergil's poems lies in their “truth of feeling” and in Vergil's mastery over the pastoral form. Like Sellar, Robert Coleman notes both the conventional and the praiseworthy in Vergil's poems. Coleman states that while Vergil's range of themes is not unique, his details are original and his technique is more mature than that of Theocritus. Vergil's use of quatrains over couplets, Coleman asserts, allows his themes to be more fully explored. R. W. Garson maintains that many analyses of Vergil's poetry in which the Eclogues are compared with Theocritus's Idylls are flawed in that such studies only list parallel passages, and often label the Eclogues “pastiche.” Taking a different approach, Garson reviews the mechanics of Vergil's composition, particularly in Eclogues Two, Three, Five, Seven, and Eight, in which the Theocritean elements are of primary importance.
While Theocritus used the same Arcadian setting for his poems, Vergil's depiction of it is less realistic and more fantastic than Theocritus's treatment. The role of Arcadia in Vergil's poems is a major focus of modern criticism. Bruno Snell argues that the “air of unreality” captured in Vergil's poems can be explained by the fact that Vergil attempts to approximate Theocritus's Arcadia and the world of myth. In doing so, Snell explains, Vergil manipulates the mythology surrounding Arcadia to a greater degree than a Greek poet would have been able to do. Like Snell, John B. Van Sickle highlights the importance of the Arcadian setting to Vergil's poems. Van Sickle describes Vergil's Arcadia as the key to understanding the unity of the Eclogues in that it operates as a poetic symbol of both hope and remembrance, and at the same time establishes a framework for the Eclogues as a whole.
The Bucolics and Georgics of Vergil Rendered in English Hexameters (edited by A. F. Murison) 1932
The Eclogues of Vergil (edited by A. S. Way) 1933
The Pastoral Poems (edited by E. V. Rieu) 1949
The Eclogues of Virgil (edited by A. J. Boyle) 1976
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SOURCE: “The Eclogues” in The Roman Poets of the Augustan Age: Virgil, Clarendon Press, 1908, pp. 130-73.
[In the essay below, Sellar discusses the order of composition of Vergil's Eclogues and maintains that Vergil's earlier poems are imitative of Theocritian poetry. After Vergil mastered the form, rhythm, and diction of the pastoral, Sellar notes, he increasingly demonstrated originality in his choice of subject and in the truthful manner in which he treated his subject.]
The name by which the earliest of Virgil's recognised works is known tells us nothing of the subject of which it treats. The word ‘Eclogae’ simply means selections. As applied to the poems of Virgil, it designates a collection of short unconnected poems. The other name by which these poems were known in antiquity, ‘bucolica,’ indicates the form of Greek art in which they were cast and the pastoral nature of their subjects. Neither word is used by Virgil himself; but the expressions by which he characterises his art, such as ‘Sicelides Musae,’ ‘versus Syracosius,’ ‘Musa agrestis’ and ‘silvestris,’ show that he writes in a pastoral strain, and that he considered the pastoral poetry of Greece as his model. He invokes not only the ‘Sicilian Muses,’ but the ‘fountain of Arethusa.’ He speaks too of Pan, and Arcadia, and the ‘Song of Maenalus.’ His...
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SOURCE: “Molle atque facetum” in The “Eclogues” of Vergil, University of California Press, 1942, pp. 24-44.
[In the following essay, Rose reviews contemporary issues surrounding Vergil's Eclogues, commenting in particular on the criticism of Horace and on political and economic factors that may have influenced Vergil's poetry.]
In trying to appreciate an ancient work, or any work not of our own age and country, it is often useful to discover what the critics said about it when it was new. It is our good fortune to have a contemporary mention of the Eclogues by no less a connoisseur than Horace, who says, in a passage mentioned at the end of the last chapter, that the Muses who delight in the country-side have granted to Vergil molle atque facetum. Since, in the comparatively small Latin vocabulary, a word is apt to have a confusing variety of meanings, or at least shades of meaning, we may begin by asking exactly what Horace meant by the epithets he applied to his friend's compositions. Certainly he did not mean that they were, or that their style was, soft and comical. Mollis can indeed mean “soft,” that is to say, it can be used of sundry things which are so described in English, with reference to that quality to which our adjective refers. Vergil himself uses the word of grass, for instance; it is commonly enough used of a man who is what we call a...
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SOURCE: “Arcadia: The Discovery of a Spiritual Landscape” in Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Steele Commager, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1966, pp. 14-27.
[In the essay below, originally published in 1953, Snell investigates Vergil's manipulation of the pastoral Arcadian setting in the Eclogues, contending that Vergil synthesized Theocritus' s Arcadia with the mythological world.]
Arcadia was discovered in the year 42 or 41 b.c. Not, of course, the Arcadia of which the encyclopedia says: ‘The central alpine region of the Peloponnesus, limited off on all sides from the other areas of the peninsula by mountains, some of them very high. In the interior, numerous ridges divide the secetion into a number of small cantons.’ This humdrum Arcadia had always been known; in fact it was regarded as the home of Pelasgus, the earliest man. But the Arcadia which the name suggests to the minds of most of us to-day is a different one; it is the land of shepherds and shepherdesses, the land of poetry and love, and its discoverer is Virgil. How he found it, we are able to tell in some detail, thanks to the researches of Ernst Kapp.1 The historian Polybius who came from the humdrum Arcadia cherished a great affection for his country. Although there was not much of interest to be related of this land behind the hills, he could at least report (4.20) that the Arcadians were, from the...
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SOURCE: “Tamen Catabitis, Arcades—Exile and Arcadia in Eclogues One and Nine,” Arion, Vol. IV, No. 2, Summer, 1965 pp. 237-66.
[In the following essay, Segal studies the literary relationship between Eclogues One and Nine, emphasizing that Vergil's treatment of political issues in these poems is that of a poet rather than of a historian.]
One of the difficulties hampering students of Vergil's Eclogues has been a certain loss of perspective about the relations between poetry and biography. While no one would deny that Vergil's writing of the Eclogues has some definite relation to certain political circumstances, that relation is one of a poet and not an historian. It is the ability to transform personal experience into larger, more intensely significant terms wherein lies the distinguishing quality of the poet's genius. The poet's experience of the “actuality” around him is, as other men's, rooted in the succession of historical events; but, if he chooses—or feels compelled—to make poetry of these events, it is because they supply him with profound insights into issues which often far transcend their historical source and may be (in fact, usually are) of a totally nonhistorical character.1 The poet, then, transforms historical reality into poetic reality; and it is with this transformed reality that the study of poetry is properly concerned,...
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SOURCE: “Virgil and the Evictions,” Hermes: Zeitschrift Für Klassiche Philologie, Vol. 94, No. 3, July, 1966, pp. 320-24.
[In the essay below, Wilkinson examines the relationship between the subject of Eclogues One and Nine and political events in Vergil's life. Wilkinson stresses that despite the influence of Vergil's personal situation (such as the threat of eviction of his family) on his writing, these Ecloguesshould not be read as straight allegories.]
An apology is needed for returning to the question of the Ninth and First Eclogues. But it does seem that an intelligible story emerges if we interpret the poems in the light of pastoral convention and with the aid only of a few pieces of what seem really reliable external evidence, disregarding anything that may be based on conjecture by later commentators and biographers.
After Philippi, at the end of 42, it was agreed that Antony should go and pacify the East while Caesar Octavian remained in Italy to settle the veterans on confiscated land. In 41 trouble broke out between the Antonians and Caesarians leading to the Perusine War, which the Antonians lost early in 40. Antony's man Pollio, hitherto in charge of Cisalpine Gaul, then withdrew to Venetia, and the task of assigning the lands was handed over by Octavian to Alfenus Varus1. The duty of taxing such Transpadane townships as were exempted...
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SOURCE: “The Unity of the Eclogues: Arcadian Forest, Theocritiean Trees,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 1967, Vol. 90, pp. 491-508.
[In the essay that follows, Van Sickle analyzes the significance of Arcadia in Vergil's Eclogues and argues that it serves as a poetic symbol used to emphasize the unity of the work as a whole.]
The idea of a Liber Bucolicorum, the principle of artistic unity by which the Eclogues form a book, is a kind of philosopher's stone of classical scholarship.1 Accounts are legion and contradictory.2 The book itself, however, closes with a representation of the unities of its making: to sit, to weave, and to love a poet (10.70-74). From the Arcadian vantage point of the tenth poem, the poet sees his own work as a whole and gives expression to his own recollective, assiduous, passionate self-consciousness in the symbol of Arcadia. The Arcadian is a key, offered by the poet, to the unity of the book.
The origin of the poetic symbol, Arcadia, is another philosopher's stone. Arcadian poetry has been sought in sources outside the Eclogues and also has been considered the invention of Virgil in them.3 Prudently taking a middle course, Karl Büchner has suggested that Virgil made Arcadia the land of poetry because of the well established tradition that it was...
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SOURCE: “The Unity of Eclogue 6,” Latomus, 1968, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, January-March, pp. 13-32.
[In the essay below, Leach studies the Song of Silenus in the Sixth Eclogue and explores the principles of unity in its thematic elements and mythological language. Furthermore, Leach demonstrates how these uniting principles may be applied to the poem as a whole.]
Principles of unity in Eclogue 6 have been sought on many different bases, but chiefly by investigation of the rationale governing the selection and arrangement of myths in the Song of Silenus1. Scholars have generally agreed that both the myths and Vergil's stylistic treatment of them recall aspects of Alexandrian poetic convention, and also that the use of such a series of myths goes beyond the limits of decorum in the pastoral form. Among recent explicators, Otto Skutsch considers the poem composed of legends popular in Alexandrian literature2; Zeph Stewart sees definite suggestions for a range of popular Alexandrian genres: didactic, theological, epyllion, tragedy and metamorphic poems3, and J. P. Elder finds a compendium of bucolic themes supporting an introduction that has to do with Vergil's inspiration as a pastoral poet4.
Although genre study can provide important insights into the poem, it does not seem to me to give a complete interpretation. The several...
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SOURCE: “Vergil's Sixth Eclogue and the Problem of Evil,” Proceedings: American Philological Association, Vol. 100, 1969, pp. 407-35.
[In the essay that follows, Segal analyzes the moral outlook of the poem and asserts that in the Sixth EclogueVergil uses the pastoral mode to point out a correlation between disorder in the universe and man's evil nature.]
Eclogue 6 is one of Vergil's most ambitious and most difficult short poems.1 Grand themes are its concern: passion, violence, cosmic and poetic creation, the relation between man and nature. No one formulation of the many subtle and complex relationships between these themes is likely to prove definitive, just as no one principle of unity for its bewildering exuberance of narrative material has emerged as entirely satisfactory. “No one can feel confident of exhausting all the possibilities of this poem or of understanding all that Virgil intended: it is the original creation of a fertile poetic imagination.”2
There has been a growing dissatisfaction with attempts to interpret the Eclogue in terms of external criteria: the work of Gallus, Vergil's relations to Callimachean poetics or to Alexandrian themes or to contemporary literary genres or works.3 Recent interpreters like Otis, Klingner, and Mrs. Leach have concentrated more fully upon the...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Virgil's Pastoral Art: Studies in the“Eclogues,” Princeton University Press, 1970, pp. 3-19.
[In the essay below, Putnam discusses some of the major critical issues surrounding Vergil's Eclogues,arguing that one of the most appealing and pertinent aspects of the collection is Vergil's effort to identify the role of the individual within a restrictive society.]
The notion of Virgil as gentle poet of simple charm has been slow to die.1 We accept melancholy as the poet's dominant characteristic, yet we assume its incorporation in a stance which is poised, reserved, aloof—“classical,” in a word. Though evil continues to scheme and life remains charged with passions, though man be forced into a not always kindly dialogue with nature, his fellow creatures, and himself, Virgil somehow manages (we are assured) to bathe all suffering in a magic glow which reconciles opposites and leaves a sense of virtue and justice triumphant. The ten poems which comprise Virgil's first major work, the Eclogues, have been most subjected to this devitalizing approach. Since the publication of Horace's first book of Satires a few years after the Eclogues were completed, readers have been schooled to characterize Virgil's work—in the words of his great contemporary—as molle atque facetum, smooth and elegant.2 We presume the judgment...
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SOURCE: “Theocritean Elements in Virgil's Eclogues,” The Classical Quarterly, 1971, New Series, Vol. XXI, No. 1, May, pp. 188-203.
[In the following essay, Garson focuses on Eclogues 2, 3, 5, 7, and 8, examining their poetics as well as their Theocritean elements.]
Much of the early scholarship on Virgilian borrowings from Theocritus offered mere lists of parallel passages and, where criticism was attempted at all, the Eclogues often attracted such uncomplimentary labels as ‘cento’ or ‘pastiche’. In more recent scholarship the tendency to concentrate on insoluble problems and arithmetical correspondences lingers and, while some critical works of the sixties are characterized by a welcome upsurge in sensitivity, one occasionally suspects that Virgil has had attributed to him concepts which are two millennia ahead of his time. To redress the balance, the following pages adhere to the text of Virgil and aim at being fairly conservative. Despite the volume of literature on the Eclogues, ample scope remains for differing interpretations, for the filling in of details and for a more methodical approach to the specific subject of borrowings from Theocritus. These are the lines along which it is hoped now to contribute, but it will sometimes be necessary briefly to re-state points already made by others in order to present a reasonably comprehensive picture. The accent in...
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SOURCE: “A Version of Pastoral: Virgil, Eclogue 4” in Quality and Pleasure in Latin Poetry, edited by Tony Woodman and David West, Cambridge University Press, 1974, pp. 31-47.
[In the essay below, Williams offers a line-by-line analysis of Eclogue 4, contending that the poem's meaning is linked to its historical significance: it is concerned primarily with the establishment of peace in the Roman world, the end of civil war, and the onset of a new era.]
Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus: non omnis arbusta iuuant humilesque myricae— si canimus siluas, siluae sint consule dignae.
Vltima Cumaei uenit iam carminis aetas: magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo. iam redit et uirgo, redeunt Saturnia regna: iam noua progenies caelo demittitur alto. tu modo nascenti puero, quo ferrea primum desinet ac toto surget gens aurea mundo, casta faue Lucina: tuus iam regnat Apollo.
(teque adeo decus hoc aeui, te consule, inibit, Pollio, et incipient magni procedere menses; te duce, si qua manent sceleris uestigia nostri, inrita perpetua soluent formidine terras.)
ille deum uitam accipiet diuisque uidebit permixtos heroas et ipse uidebitur illis, pacatumque reget patriis uirtutibus orbem.
at tibi prima, puer, nullo munuscula cultu errantis hederas passim cum baccare tellus mixtaque ridenti colocasia fundet acantho. ipsae lacte domum...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Vergil: “Eclogues”, Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp. 1-40.
[In the following essay, Coleman identifies elements of Theocritus's pastoral poetry that would later influence Vergil and discusses the chronology and arrangement of the Eclogues. Coleman concludes his overview of the Ecloguesby observing that although Vergil's range of themes is somewhat conventional, his details are almost entirely original, and his poetic technique is mature.]
1. THE PASTORAL BEFORE VERGIL
The pastoral myth is the creation of a highly civilized urban sensibility. It is a reaction against certain aspects of the culture and material environment of the city: Musa illa rustica et pastoralis non forum modo uerum ipsam etiam urbem reformidat (Quint. 10.1.55). In his longing for a simple innocence and carefree spontaneity that he has lost urban man looks to the country and its way of life, which he knows only as an outsider and from a distance, and creates out of it a myth embodying the ideals that he seeks. This idealization of the rustic life is well portrayed by Shakespeare in the Duke's speech in As You Like It 2.1 and the King's soliloquy in Henry the Sixth, pt 3 2.5. The tendency of the upper classes to idealize certain aspects of urban proletarian life, which in modern times has occasionally taken over a similar role, was not...
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SOURCE: “Eclogue 1: An Introduction to Virgilian Pastoral” in The Singer of the “Eclogues”: A Study of Virgilian Pastoral, University of California Press, 1979, pp. 65-95.
[In the essay below, Alpers presents a detailed analysis of Vergil's Eclogue One and maintains that the poem suspends potential conflicts, thereby achieving a certain harmony.]
Virgil's first eclogue is a problematic poem, yet it has always been felt to be a representative pastoral. It is perhaps too neat to say that it is representative because problematic, and yet no less an authority than Sidney feels something of the sort: “Is it then the Pastoral poem which is misliked? … Is the poor pipe disdained, which sometime out of Meliboeus' mouth can show the misery of people under hard lords or ravening soldiers? And again, by Tityrus, what blessedness is derived to them that lie lowest from the goodness of them that sit highest.”1 Sidney assumes both that the poem is an exemplary pastoral and that it somehow takes care of the potential contradiction in attitude between Meliboeus and Tityrus. Sidney makes it easy for himself by not remarking that the “hard” and “good” lords in this case are one and the same. Even so, I think his sense of the poem is right—that it holds potential conflicts in suspension and that its particular kind of harmony is of the...
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Briggs, Jr., W. W. “A Bibliography of Virgil's Eclogues (1927-1977).” Principat, edited by Wolfgang Haase, pp. 1267-1357. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1981.
Extensive bibliography listing published text and commentaries; translations in seventeen languages; indices; manuscripts; general studies; sources; individual Eclogues; contemporary and later ancient authors; Medieval, Renaissance, and modern authors; and textual criticism.
Berg, William. Early Virgil. London: The Athlone Press, 1974, 222 p.
Includes the text and translation of Vergil's Eclogues, as well as interpretation and criticism of the individual poems.
Currie, H. MacL. “The Third Eclogue and the Roman Comic Spirit.” Mnemosyne XXIX, No. 4 (1976): 411-20.
Analyzes the use of the conundrum, or riddle, within the poem, observing that the use of such devices was common in the Italian comic tradition.
Galinskiy, G. Karl. “Vergil's Second Eclogue: Its Theme and Relation to the Eclogue Book.” Classica et Mediaevalia: Revue Danoise De Philologie et D’Histoire XXVI, No. 1-2 (1965): 161-91.
Maintains that none of the Ecloguesis “typical,” and examines the theme, structure, and relation of...
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