Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608
The Eclogues is a remarkable achievement of Vergil’s late twenties and shows that the poet, even at this early age, intended to develop a style distinct from those of his Greek and Roman predecessors. The ten-poem collection falls into three major categories. Eclogues 2, 3, 7, and 8 are the most Theocritean; the rustic characters that they present have Greek names (Corydon, Amoebaeus, Damon, Alphesiboeus), and the situations that the poems describe find their counterparts in the works of Theocritus. Eclogues 1, 4, 6, and 9 are specifically non-Theocritean; these poems deal with matters particularly significant to life in Augustan Rome (exile revoked, respect for right of ownership, arrival of a new Golden Age, warnings of the passing of this Golden Age, and doubts for the future). The collection turns on Eclogues 5 and 10, the two Daphnis poems; Daphnis represents Caesar in the first of these, and the poet Gallus becomes Daphnis in the second. The clear result of this arrangement is to introduce Augustan reference into what had been the timeless environment of pastoral. The characters thus acquire a tendency toward introspection and a degree of psychological development unmatched by Theocritus.
Augustan time is always present in Vergil’s pastoral world, yet it remains unobtrusive primarily because of the reciprocal pattern of arrangement that Vergil follows. Eclogue 1, for example, finds its parallel poem in Eclogue 9. In Eclogue 1, the content Tityrus explains his happy state of mind to Meliboeus by noting that a god restored his farm. While never leaving the bucolic environment, one imagines the change of scene that takes Tityrus to Rome and an encounter with the young emperor. Vergil never uses the names Octavian, Caesar, or Augustus, yet the automatically generous response of an emperor concerned for his subjects makes the identity of the iuvenis (young man) whom Tityrus sees at Rome unmistakable. Eclogue 9 answers Eclogue 1; both poems refer obliquely to the land seizures of 41 b.c.e., though the ninth pastoral creates a somewhat discordant note. There, a distraught Moeris tells Lycidas that he is about to undertake a similar journey to petition for restoration of his land. This poem specifically recalls the Tityrus poem and implies that Octavian’s ascension to the throne has not automatically eliminated treachery. It is impossible to say what intervened in Vergil’s life to produce this changed mood, but the realism that this poem introduces adds an element that had never appeared in pre-Vergilian pastoral.
Such reciprocity allows grouping of the collection into two major categories. Eclogues 1 to 5 present essentially conciliatory Augustan situations; Eclogues 6 to 10 qualify comparable situations. Thus, while Eclogue 2 asserts the triumph of reason over essentially unworthy love, Eclogue 8 answers by presenting Daphnis bound in the spell of an unworthy love whose consequence is death. Eclogue 3 describes a crude and abusive singing contest that ends in peaceful nondecision; its answer, in Eclogue 7, presents a similar contest in which the mild Corydon defeats the harsh Thyrsis. Eclogue 4, interpreted during the Middle Ages as the “Messianic Eclogue,” predicts the coming of a new golden age under Octavian (again without use of the emperor’s name); Eclogue 4 notes the passing of these hopes into a series of unnatural loves and changes in form. Like Eclogue 9, it implies the transitory nature of happiness and contentment as part of the human condition. Even Octavian cannot alter this essential fact of life. Eclogue 5 presents the death and transfiguration of Daphnis, a poetic masque for Octavian; its answer is Eclogue 10. There, Gallus wastes away for unrequited love of Lycoris, who has run off with an unnamed soldier. The final effect of these poetic answers is to connect the historical to the timeless situation and the realistic outcome to the ideal.
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