Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2731
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...
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