The Eclogues of Virgil

by Virgil
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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.

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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.

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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 Vergil’s time, has led to the suggestion that, in this eclogue, allusions are made to Gallus’s work. The range of subject matter is wide, and there seems to be little connection between the various episodes in Silenus’s narrative.

In the seventh eclogue, another singing match is described. The song of Corydon and Thyrsis reflects Vergil’s deep love for the countryside and for the simplicity of the life of the shepherds. The reader can almost see the mossy springs, the budding vines of the early spring, and the chestnuts.

The eighth poem is addressed to a Roman hero, variously identified as the consul, Pollio, who is mentioned within the body of the poem, or as Augustus. Vergil will attempt to please this nobleman with the pastoral song he requests, while he waits for a chance to record his heroic exploits. In the lyric itself, Damon and Alphesiboeus recite songs for each other. The first is a lament for the infidelity of Nysa, Damon’s beloved, who has married Mopsus. The deserted shepherd is both scornful and sentimental—at one moment, recalling his first childhood meeting with the girl, at another, bitterly berating the bridegroom or mourning the cold cruelty of the god of love. All nature should be upturned, with the wolf fleeing from the lamb and apples growing on oak trees, when such a love does not take its natural course. The singer sees no final recourse but death; he will plunge from the mountaintop into the waves below.

Alphesiboeus’s song is a curious one. He speaks as a young girl who is trying to lure her lover home from town by witchcraft, and the song begins with a number of spells. The ashes on the girl’s altar flame spontaneously in the last stanza, and she expresses her hope that the absent shepherd is, indeed, coming.

The mood of the first poem is re-created in the ninth as Moeris tells his friend Lycidas that he has been evicted from his property by a new owner. Lycidas expresses surprise; he had heard that Menalcas’s poetry had preserved that land. Moeris, made wise in the world’s ways by misfortune, replies that there is such a rumor, but that poetry has no force against the soldiers who are taking over the land. He and Menalcas barely escape with their lives. The thought that they might have lost the best of their shepherd poets recalls some of his lines to Lycidas and Moeris, and they quote them as they talk. One passage, referring to the new, beneficent star of “Olympian Caesar,” has aroused special interest, since it obviously refers to the recently deceased Julius Caesar. This eclogue ends with an appealing scene, as Lycidas urges Moeris to stop and rest beside the calm lake they are passing and to sing as they watch countrymen pruning their vines.

The final poem is another tribute to Gallus, who was a highly competent military leader as well as a fine poet; he was viceroy of Egypt after the defeat of Marc Antony at the battle of Actium. Unfortunately, his pride led to his political downfall and probably also to the loss of his poetry; readers must rely on Vergil’s praise for an estimate of his talents.

Gallus’s mistress, Lycoris, to whom most of his love poetry has been addressed, runs away to the north of Italy with another soldier. In Vergil’s poem, her betrayed lover laments her loss, followed by sympathetic shepherds. He resolves to seek what comfort he can in writing pastoral verse and hunting the wild boar, yet he cannot restrain a poignant hope that the sharp glaciers of the Alps will not cut the feet of his lost lady. He realizes, finally, that even poetry and hunting are powerless to mollify the god of love; he can only yield and accept his misery. The Eclogues present a theme constant throughout Vergil’s writings: a longing for a return to a Golden Age. In these verses, he hints at what will become apparent in his magnum opus, the Aeneid: the establishment of the Roman Empire as it was to exist under Augustus after the Pax Romana was declared and Roman rule preserved peace throughout the Mediterranean region for more than a century. As early as 39 b.c.e., Vergil saw in the rise of his friend Octavian (the future Augustus) the fulfillment of a form of manifest destiny for the Roman people. The coming age, celebrated in the fourth eclogue, was to be one much like that Arcadian era celebrated in the poems of the Greek writer Theocritus, Vergil’s model for his first sustained poetic endeavor.

Vergil borrows heavily from Greek predecessors, especially the poet Theocritus, whose short poems celebrating the pastoral life were models for a number of Roman writers. Like Theocritus, Vergil speaks wistfully of the simple country life where political cares rarely intrude and where love, not war, serves as the primary agent of both discord and harmony. Even in these early compositions, Vergil expresses the sentiment for which he has become famous for two millennia: The lachrymae rerum, the “tears in things,” a sensitive, melancholy realization that even the most idyllic scenes and experiences possess within themselves the power to move one to sadness when one realizes the transitory nature of existence.

After reading these highly ornate poems, it is easy to find oneself agreeing with critics who complain about the artificiality of their composition and about the forced union of mythology and philosophy. Readers caught up in the beauty and sentiment of individual eclogues may miss an important element that gives further significance to Vergil’s composition. The arrangement of the ten poems exhibits a careful pattern, deliberately chosen by the author to provide an implicit contrast between the pastoral world of his shepherds and the political situation in his own country. The references to contemporary events highlight the contrasts between the world of political and military strife of the decades immediately preceding the composition of the Eclogues, and the Arcadian world of perpetual peace that Vergil celebrates in these ten poems.

The Eclogues are carefully divided into two sets of five poems each: The first five are forward-looking, peaceful, and patriotic; the second five are ambiguous, concerned with the past, and dominated by discussions of unworthy love. Individual eclogues from the first group seem to be paired with complementary (or contrasting) ones in the second. The neat structure gives the work a unity of purpose that transcends the focus of any single eclogue; this pattern is one repeated infrequently in literature until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the assemblage of fragments to create a unified impression becomes an acceptable method for reflecting the concerns of the modern world; Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859-1885) and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) are inheritors of this Vergilian method of composition.

Vergil’s Eclogues brought a new note of personal feeling and a fresh appreciation of nature into the highly artificial and rhetorical poetic tradition of his time. It is in large part this element of humanity that has sustained the appeal of his pastorals.

Further Reading

Griffin, Jasper. Virgil. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Basic introduction to Vergil’s poetry. The second chapter exclusively addresses the Eclogues and provides a rewarding discussion of the themes of Arcadia and the tension between nature and the urban life in Rome. Includes index and bibliography.

Leach, Eleanor Winsor. Vergil’s Eclogues: Landscapes of Experience. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974. Detailed introduction and analysis of the work. Includes a sophisticated reading of poetic symbolism in the Eclogues and in Vergil’s poetry in general, as well as interpretation of Roman views on nature and the world. Copious illustrations and photographs enhance the text.

Lee, Guy, trans. Virgil: The Eclogues, by Vergil. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1984. The introduction provides a general but thorough discussion of pastoral poetry, Vergil’s contribution to the tradition, and a historical overview of the poet’s life and the Ecologues’ composition. Includes a useful bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Putnam, Michael C. J. Virgil’s Pastoral Art: Studies in the Eclogues. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970. Detailed, scholarly analysis of all important aspects of the Eclogues, including themes and their historical context.

Saunders, Timothy. Bucolic Ecology: Virgil’s “Eclogues” and the Environmental Literary Tradition. London: Duckworth, 2008. Analyzes the importance of nature in defining the ten poems by analyzing their relation to astronomy, geography, topography, landscape, and ecology.

Slavitt, David R. Virgil. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. A solid source. Chapter 1 focuses on the Eclogues and provides a straightforward explanation of its relation to ancient poetry and its influence on subsequent and modern literature. Includes a bibliography of primary and secondary sources and an index.

Van Sickle, John. The Design of Virgil’s Bucolics. 2d ed. London: Bristol Classical, 2004. Argues that the ten Eclogues were conceived as a concerted whole, which Van Sickle calls the Book of Bucolics. Analyzes recurring motifs in the Eclogues, including the return of a golden age and a new mythology. Describes how Eclogues laid the groundwork for Vergil’s later works, Aeneid and Georgics. The second edition contains an updated introduction by the author.

Volk, Katharina, ed. Vergil’s “Eclogues.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Collection of essays about the work, including discussions of their poetic technique, a review of scholarly approaches to the work since the 1970’s, and analyses of some of the individual ecologues. An article by Noble Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney examines the “staying power” of this pastoral.

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