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.