Vergil’s ten eclogues made their young author a renowned figure when they were first made public in approximately 39 b.c.e. Although these poems do not reach the heights of the Georgics (c. 37-29 b.c.e.) or the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), they are the work of a master, not the hesitant stumblings of an apprentice writer. Vergil made the pastoral form, first popularized by Theocritus, his own and paved the way for many English poets who imitated him, among them Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Matthew Arnold.
Vergil’s pastoral world is not populated by Dresden-china shepherdesses in a never-never landscape; while his shepherds have their lighthearted moments, they inhabit real Italian hills and farms from which they can be evicted by unjust landlords. Exile, loneliness, and poverty threaten many of the characters in the poems. Even the traditional lovelorn shepherds are tied to Vergil’s world by the naturalness of the landscape in which they lament; the heat of the Italian summer, the shade of the willow tree, the rocky hillsides where sheep pasture—all are part of the total effect of the eclogues.
Much scholarly effort has been directed toward proving that these poems are allegories that deal with contemporary events. It seems more fruitful and more realistic to accept the fact that Vergil is commenting on conditions of his age. One need not search for disguised poets and government officials. There is no certainty that any shepherd represents the poet’s own view, although he has often been identified with Tityrus in the first eclogue.
This poem is one of the most realistic of the group; it reflects the days after Julius Caesar’s assassination when residents of northern Italy were dispossessed to provide land for discharged soldiers. Maliboeus, one of the speakers, is among the exiles. He has left his newborn goats on the rocky road as he makes his way toward a new home in Africa, Scythia, or Britain. He laments the fact that the land he has labored to cultivate must fall into the hands of some barbarous veteran, and he inquires how his friend Tityrus has managed to escape the general desolation. Tityrus explains that he went to Rome to plead for his land and that a youth, whom some have identified with Augustus, granted his request, leaving him free to enjoy the humming of the bees on his neighbor’s land. He offers his sympathy and his simple hospitality to the unfortunate Maliboeus.
The second eclogue is the disjointed lament of the Sicilian shepherd, Corydon, for his disdainful beloved, Alexis. Vergil conveys the character of Corydon brilliantly in his passionate, illogical outbursts, uttered as the boy wanders in the hot midday sun, when even lizards have sought shelter, recognizing the futility of his love, yet unable to forget the scornful youth and settle down to care properly for his vines.
Among the most vividly conceived personages of the eclogues are the two brash young shepherds who amicably insult each other in the third poem. Damoetas and Menalcas taunt each other with misdeeds they have witnessed; Damoetas has seen his friend slashing at a farmer’s grapevines, while Menalcas suspects Damoetas of trying to steal a goat from Damon’s flock. Damoetas spiritedly defends himself; he had won the goat legitimately in a singing match, but Damon refused to pay the prize. Menalcas scoffs at the notion of Damoetas’s possessing such skill, and he is immediately challenged to a contest. The ensuing song follows the traditional pattern; the challenger sings one verse, then his opponent adds a second in keeping with the first, and the song moves from invocations to Jove and Apollo to tributes to the sweethearts of each singer to realistic comments on the scene. Each singer concludes with a riddle, and Palaemon, who has been brought in as judge, decides that both deserve prizes, as do all who know the joy or bitterness of love.
The most famous of these poems is the fourth, or Messianic, eclogue, in which Vergil prophesies the birth of a child who will usher in a new golden age when peace will prevail, humanity and nature will become self-sufficient, commerce will cease, and the land will need no further plowing and pruning. The poet laments that he will not survive to see this new age come to fruition, but he rejoices at being able to bid the infant to smile at his mother.
The identity of the expected child has been cause for extensive speculation; both Antony and Augustus became fathers about this time, and Vergil may have refused out of political expediency to single out one or the other. Throughout the Middle Ages, however, Vergil was thought to have foreseen the birth of Christ; for this reason, he became for later ages a kind of pagan saint.
The pastoral elegy, the form of the fifth eclogue, has been imitated more often than any of the other types of poetry in this collection. Readers of English poetry may find many echoes of Mopsus’s lament for Daphnis, who is mourned by nymphs, by lions, and by the men whom he taught to celebrate Bacchic rites. Since his death, crops have failed, as if the flowers also lamented; only thorns and thistles grow where the violet and narcissus were planted. Mopsus’s elegy concludes with a request for shepherds to build a mound for Daphnis and to carve an epitaph commending his fame and loveliness.
Menalcas rhapsodizes over his friend’s verse, then begins his own elegy, in which he places Daphnis, now deified, at the gate of heaven, bringing peace to all the countryside. The mountains and rocks rejoice and the shepherds worship their new god in joyous rites. The contrasting moods of grief and exaltation remained a part of the pastoral tradition throughout succeeding ages, in poems such as Milton’s Lycidas (1637; published 1638) and Shelley’s Adonais (1821).
The prologue to the sixth eclogue gives interesting insight into Vergil’s poetic ambitions. The speaker, Tityrus, comments that his earliest poetry was in the Sicilian vein, pastoral, but that he had turned to kings and battles for a time, until Apollo cautioned him that a shepherd poet should sing of the countryside. Therefore, he depends on others to celebrate the great deeds of his friend Varus, while he must be content to dedicate to him his rustic song about the old satyr, Silenus, who tells young satyrs and naiads old tales about the creation, the Golden Age, the fate of Prometheus, and many other mythological legends. The reference within the poem to a scene in which the Muses bestow a reed pipe upon Gallus, one of the best-known writers of...
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