The Eclogues of Virgil

by Virgil
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2004

Publius Vergilius Maro, the talented young Mantuan best known to the modern world as Virgil, the poet of the Aeneid (c. 29- 19 b.c.e.), began his career by writing ten pastorals in the style of the third century Greek poet Theocritus. His achievement extended the range of the Latin language into the rarefied literary territory of his Greek predecessor even as he portrayed Augustus’s Italy as a neo-Roman Arcadia. This harmonized well with the aims of the emperor. Augustus had, after all, stabilized Rome following the chaos of the civil war and the Gracchan land reforms. Then, having defeated Marcus Antonius, Augustus set about creating a popular myth of Rome and Italy as he would have liked them always to be seen.

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Augustus commissioned and supervised the building of the Ara Pacis, the “Altar of Peace,” which contemporary tourists in Rome can see fully reassembled within a glass pavilion commissioned by Benito Mussolini. This monument to Augustan peace pairs the mythic harmony of a powerful senate (which was, in fact, virtually powerless after the accession of Augustus) with the bounty of the goddess Italia and the chubby infants Romulus and Remus. Deeply carved marble could not, however, disguise the reality that on Augustus’s accession to the throne, Rome was a city of mud-brick, not marble; discontented veterans of various vintages had pillaged its countryside after being promised, but not given, homestead farms. Grain riots in the city itself were common, primarily because uncertainty and war had made plantings irregular and harvests meager.

Virgil (or, more properly, Vergil), a country boy fresh from the village of Andes near Mantua, entered Rome against this chaotic background. He joined the circle of Gaius Maecenas, who was also the patron of the distinguished poets Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace) and Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid). Vergil’s affection for the Italian countryside was genuine, and he set about writing the collection called Eclogues, then the Georgics, a farmer’s calendar based on Erga kai Emerai (c. 700 b.c.e.; Works and Days, 1618) by the Greek poet Hesiod. Vergil’s use of such sources was homage to distinguished literary predecessors, but it was also a test of Vergil as a Latin poet. His challenge was to adapt and refashion Greek verse to Roman sensibility, and to do this in the most exalted vocabulary and meter. Vergil gave Greek titles to his pastoral collections, but both the Eclogues and the Georgics are thoroughly Roman in spirit despite their Greek inspirations.

Much goes on beneath the surface in the ten poems known as the Eclogues, and David Ferry’s translation frequently captures the tension just beneath the placid surface. For example, the first eclogue contrasts the situations of two shepherd farmers with the Theocritean names Tityrus and Meliboeus. Tityrus plays his rustic pipe, at ease amid the abundance of his land, declaring that deus nobis haec otia fecit, “a god [presumably Augustus] gave me this peace,” as Ferry renders it, though otium also carries the implication of an indolent rest. Meliboeus, quick to assert that he does not maliciously envy Tityrus, describes his own situation in contrast. His livestock fail to produce and he has to leave his farm, as do others in his circumstance. These unfortunates go to the four corners of the earth.

. . . ibimus Afros,

pars Scythiam et rapidum cretae ueniemus Oaxen

et penitus toto diuisos orbe Britannos.

. . . we . . . go . . .

. . . to. . . Africa,

Some to Scythia, some to the region where

Oaxes rushes over its chalky bed,

Some as far away as among the Britons, . . .

The first eclogue could hardly be a better masque for Augustus’s Italy. After he had defeated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 b.c.e., Augustus needed land to provide the homesteads he had promised to his veterans. The most fortunate ones got farms in Italy, often by forced removal of the previous tenants, who were frequently those who had supported Brutus or Cassius. A select few (like Tityrus) could remain because of the emperor’s personal intervention. Still, the man who gave Tityrus otium to play his pipe also caused the displacement of Meliboeus. While placidity prevails, unhappiness is also present. Both men are aware that the day the poem celebrates is the last of a historical period. They have a dislocating awareness, all too frequently recognizable to modern readers, that something once very agreeable will never again be as it had been. There is the promise represented by Tityrus, who is happy with his new love Amaryllis, but there is also the poignant sadness of Meliboeus going forward into an unknown future.

This is merely one example of the paradoxical tension in Vergil’s vision of Arcadia. The Eclogues may also have autobiographical implications in the sense that Vergil’s own little farm near Mantua had been allotted to a soldier returning from the civil war, but was restored to him through direct intercession by the emperor.

Imperial subventions made Vergil’s life easier in that he was given time to pursue his art. Even so, he could hardly have believed that the Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace” under which Augustus governed nearly the whole of what Romans considered the civilized world, was free of negative elements. Ferry’s translation retains something of the tension between Vergil’s appreciation of Augustan Italy and his recognition of its darker elements, and to some degree this tension appears in each of the poems. This is not to say that each of Vergil’s Eclogues has a political subtext, only that each shows an awareness that the world of Theocritus, which furnished literary inspiration and conceits for Vergil’s poems, is not the real world of the Roman poet. The tensions in Vergil’s poems may be political, social, or merely literary or aesthetic, but they are always there. In one sense, they are as poignant as the epochal awareness of Tityrus and Meliboeus: a present time not disagreeable but definitely uncertain, a past possibly not as happy as one might think but in any case unrecoverable.

A substantially different example of this tension appears in the second eclogue, a poem generally based on Theocritus’s Idyll 11, Polyphemus’s courtship of Galatea. The second eclogue is a homosexual love poem, Corydon’s lament for Alexis. The confused, ridiculous song Corydon sings seems all the madder for its reference to the noonday summer heat, thus tying the location of fauns and satyrs to the unquenchable passion of Corydon. Vergil’s poem seems a thoroughly Italian country landscape, and the bathetic replaces the grotesque just as Corydon appears in the role Theocritus had assigned to the cyclops Polyphemus. What is especially curious in Vergil’s treatment is that Vergil assigns the lament to a human being rather than a monster, but the stock name for a catamite, Alexis, to the unresponsive beloved.

As Corydon becomes increasingly angry at Alexis’s refusals, he grows more bathetic but also more pathetic as he realizes that a boy prostitute is, after all, the one who judges him inadequate. How a reader responds to Corydon as substitute for Polyphemus becomes essentially a question of aesthetics. Even so, one might argue that knowing little beyond the superficial appearance of Corydon makes his rejection affecting and poignant.

Doubtless the most famous of all the Eclogues is the fourth, in part because it was so often seen during the Middle Ages as Vergil’s prophecy of the birth of Christ. There is no evidence, despite what even some medieval scholars believed, that Vergil had read Isaiah or other messianic prophecy. Still, among the uneducated, the poet’s name was erroneously linked etymologically with virga, the magician’s wand, resulting in the corruption that accounts for the spelling (Virgil for Vergil) that one often sees in modern texts, including Ferry’s.

The truth is more likely that the fourth eclogue celebrates a pact Antony and Octavian (the future Augustus) signed at Brundisium (Brindisi, at the tip of modern Italy) that included the marriage of Antony to Octavia, Octavian’s sister. The poem prophesies a golden age that will attend the birth of a child:

At tibi prima, puer, nullo munuscula cultu

errantis hederas passim cum baccare tellus

mixtaque ridenti colocasia fundet acantho.

Dear child, there will be new little gifts for you,

Springtime valerian, and trailing ivy,

Egyptian beans, and smiling acanthus, all

Poured out profusely from the untilled earth.

This would, if one accepts the usual modern reading of the poem, have been the child of Antony and Octavia, a child never born at all because of Antony’s dalliance with Cleopatra and his consequent split with Augustus. (English translations from Latin are necessarily more wordy than the original, and Ferry keeps verbosity to a minimum even as he rises nicely to the challenge of this most Vergilian of all pastorals.)

There is a wonderful variety of rhetorical textures and themes in the Eclogues, and Ferry’s translation captures much of this spirit. There is the elaborate courtesy of Mopsus and Menalcas singing in turn of the death and apotheosis of Daphnis in the fifth eclogue. The negative tension here concerns the bad consequences Daphnis’s death will have for the crops and the fields. In the sixth eclogue there is a song by two boys, Chromis and Mnasyllos, about the drunken satyr Silenus (the mentor of the wine god Bacchus), who, while sleeping off a binge, is playfully tied up with garlands until he sings the songs that he had promised the boys. The songs provide the darker element here: Pasiphae’s love for the Cretan bull, the murderous story of Procne, and Scylla’s drowning of the Ithacan sailors of Ulysses. In this poem there is also homage to Cornelius Gallus, a poet Vergil greatly admired. Gallus was an important official under both Julius Caesar and Augustus, and some have conjectured that Vergil imitated Gallus’s sophisticated style in the tenth eclogue, where Gallus is cast as the lovelorn singer.

There are several suggested schemas for reading the Eclogues. The first and ninth poems concern loss and recovery of a homestead, the second and eighth are love narratives, and the third and seventh are love dialogues, while the fourth and sixth correspond by explicit cross-reference. This leaves the fifth and tenth to spotlight Daphnis and Caesar, Gallus and Daphnis; still, Ferry is content not to search for patterns of meaning in Vergil’s Eclogues. He refers the reader to Wendell Clausen’s A Commentary on Virgil, Eclogues (1994) to settle questions of meaning and matters beyond the poetry itself. What commentary there is in Ferry’s book is limited to essential notes and some references to parallel texts. This means that some of the most tantalizing questions regarding the Eclogues go unanswered, and some of these are key to understanding the tone in which one should interpret the poems. Are they merely a collection that idealizes the imperial prospects of the emperor? Are they darker, and are the themes ofindignus amor (“unworthy love”) which recur so often in the collection Vergil’s own way of implying that such behavior was inconsistent with the ancient Roman Arcadia he portrays?

It is noteworthy that the English poets, when they write pastoral poetry, choose to evoke Vergil’s rather than Theocritus’s Arcadia. Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579), parts of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610- 1611) and The Tempest(pr. 1611), John Milton’s Lycidas (1637), William Wordsworth’s The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind, Book VIII (1850), Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821), and no doubt many other classics owe much to Vergil’s Eclogues. Perhaps this is because the Eclogues deal on their surface with mundane things, even as they rejoice in the ordinary and make one aware that the persistent threat of losing what is familiar is paradoxically much more frightening than losing the grand but lesser-known thing.

Sources for Further Study

The New Republic 221 (August 30, 1999): 36.

Publishers Weekly 246 (June 28, 1999): 73.

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