My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read this, mistakenly, because of Willa Cather; it wasn’t until I brought it all the way home from the library that I checked again and saw that she was quoting not the Eclogues but the Georgics in My Ántonia. I read it anyway.
The Eclogues (c.39 BC)—also and more descriptively known as the Bucolics—is a set of ten rural vignettes (hence “eclogue,” or selection). This is moreover, according to Wikipedia, among the first collections of what we would call lyric poetry consciously organized by its author as a book; in other words, Virgil here helps to invent the “slim volume” as a unit of poetic composition. Adapted in part from the third-century Greek poet Theocritus’s idylls, this first major work of Virgil may be regarded as a revisionist approach to the pastoral genre.
Virgil innovates by setting his rural tales of poet-shepherds against the chaotic backdrop of Augustus’s land reforms, as David Ferry explains in his translation’s explanatory matter. Having attained victory in the Battle of Philippi (familiar to contemporary American readers as the battle dramatized at the conclusion of that high-school staple, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar), Augustus expropriated land with which to reward his soldiers. The Eclogues thus begins with a duet between Tityrus and Meliboeus; the former is a manumitted slave who has saved enough money to buy a small plot of land and enjoy his old age in the countryside, a happy turn of events he credits to “a god,” whom Ferry glosses as Augustus, while the latter has been expropriated and will be driven with the rest of the dispossessed farmers,
Some to thirsty deserts of Africa,
Some to Scythia, some to the region where
Oaxes rushes over its chalky bed,
Some as far away as the Britons,
Utterly cut off from all the world.
This note of melancholy and fading glory persists throughout the book, but Tityrus’s keen gratitude to Augustus, expressed with the eroticism that also suffuses Virgil’s poetry, strikes a glorious contrast. This bittersweet tone of fading grandeur is probably what anyone who might use the adjective “Virgilian” would mean by it:
Stags will browse in the pastures of the air
And the sea will cast up its fish on the naked shore,
The exiled Parthian drink from the river Saône
And the German drink from the Tigris, before that face,
The way he looked at me, will fade from my heart.
Note the imagery of tumult, change, upheaval, and loss even in this passage of triumph and thanksgiving.
The second eclogue gives us the comic lament of Corydon, longing for the “beautiful boy” Alexis, and the third, like the seventh and eighth, dramatizes a singing contest between two rural poets. There is probably a limit to how much the reader without Latin can really appreciate this verse in translation, since I assume that in the poems of poetic agon between competing shepherds Virgil is stressing his characters’ lyrical virtuosity. Ferry’s much-acclaimed 1999 translation is clear, brisk, and even at times conversational (I might compare him to Robert Fagles among classical translators), but he probably could not have matched what Virgil was trying to do in some of these poems—though I do wonder what a severer approach, such as Sarah Ruden’s beautiful line-for-line rendering of the Aeneid, could accomplish.
Even if some of the poetry is lost in translation, I appreciate the whole atmosphere of these troubled idylls: the sense of languidly erotic poetic camaraderie and rivalry in a paradoxical mood of laid-back crisis, the feeling of myth suffusing and heightening the everyday, even as the everyday brings myth comically to earth. Much of what we take to be defining features of modern literature—as, for instance, in the last novel I read, Valeria Luisella’s elegy to modernism, Faces in the Crowd—is actually classical. Virgil’s urban and imperial yearning for a poetry of nature and freedom, of pansexual desire and unalienated labor—what is it but a presentiment of bohemia?
Other highlights of this book include the sixth eclogue, in which two boys tie up the hungover satyr Silenus (tutor of Bacchus) with his own garlands and make him sing for them; the rest of the poem is a summation in indirect discourse of his songs, which dwell upon some of the more grotesque tales in the mythological repertoire, such as that of Scylla or that of Pasiphaë:
In pity he sings the tale of Pasiphaë—
She would have been lucky if there had never been cattle—
Who hopelessly fell in love with a snow-white bull.
Ah, poor unhappy maiden, what was this madness?
Proteus’ maddened daughters thought they were cows;
Their mooing filled the fields as if they were;
And yet, though in her madness each of them feared
The yoke about her neck and often fingered
Her smooth brow for the signs of bovine horns,
There wasn’t one of them who ever really
Desired vile copulation with a beast.
Ah, poor unhappy maiden, now you wander
Along somewhere in the hills; meanwhile, the bull
Couching his snow-white flank on hyacinth flowers,
Lies in the shade of the ilex, chewing on pale grasses,
Or follows after some heifer in the herd.
“Dictaean Nymphs,” cries out Pasiphaë,
“Surround the upland pastures and close them in.
It may be that I’ll see his hoofprint signs.
It may be that some meadow down below
Will tempt him or the sight of cows in the herd
As they come home will lead him down to our stables.”
Virgil’s “pity” for transgressive desire, his distanced and ironical retelling of an old story crossed with an unmistakable poignance and passion, again shows the reader more used to modern writing that it may not be so modern after all.
Finally, I can’t neglect the fourth eclogue. Ferry explains that Virgil intended it as a panegyric to the son of Augustus’s sister, Octavia, with Marc Antony, prophesying in grand terms the “peace and prosperity” the child’s eventual reign would bring; but as the couple had no son and as political developments went otherwise than toward utopia, Virgil reworked the poem to create a sense of “mystery, or mystification” (Ferry here quotes Wendell Clausen’s judgment). As we have it, the fourth eclogue’s specific politics are muted, and we read not a timely tract but a timeless wish for a redeemed society and even a redeemed nature—a world fit for poetry:
Your cradle will be a cornucopia
Of smiling flowers blossoming around you;
Nowhere will there be serpents anymore,
And nowhere plants in which a poison hides;
And everywhere the Assyrian spice will flourish.
No longer then will merchant ships set forth
Laden with things to trade in foreign places;
Each land will bear of itself what it needs for itself;
The earth will suffer the harrow’s tooth no longer
Nor vines suffer the claw of the pruning-hook;
No longer need cloth learn to imitate colors;
Out in the meadow the fleece of the ram will change
Of its own accord from purple to saffron yellow;
In the meadow the lambs will graze in bright red coats.
Virgil’s depoliticizing redactions of the fourth eclogue famously allowed centuries of Christian commentators to read it as typologically as they read the Hebrew Bible—to see in it, that is, a prophesy of the birth not of Antony’s son but rather of Christ. (This is among the reasons for Virgil’s privileged position in Dante’s Christian corpus.) I see in the poem a different lesson,* however: local politics, no matter how urgent they seem when we are in the midst of them, are very quickly forgotten, while great poetry will be remembered for two thousand years.
* One more possible lesson for the present from Virgil. While I am not a scholar of classical, medieval, or early modern European literature—you will really want to consult a Highet or a Curtius, to say nothing of more recent talents!—it is my dim understanding that Virgil’s career furnished a model of the poetic vocation through the Renaissance and even, by some accounts, into modernism. Virgil wrote two short books, perfectly arranged, in a somewhat modest genre, and then he composed an epic as the summa of his achievement. Some contingency was involved in his choices—he died in middle age, for one thing, and for another he did not even intend for us to read his masterpiece. Nevertheless, his path through poetry was followed by Dante, Spenser, Milton, and even Joyce: all began by perfecting small-scale apprentice work in minor genres (sonnet, ballad, idyll, masque, elegy, short story) before mounting up to such epics as the Divine Comedy and Ulysses. This model of development tends to work best economically in a patronage system; the poet does not have to churn out work on an industrial scale for the market, but is supported in the perfection of his art by a powerful or wealthy sponsor. Our market-based literature disallows such a developmental plan, even though Joyce updated it for the age of the novel; we novelists and poets are obliged to produce, produce, produce. Even today’s literary patronage system—i.e., the university—works on a publish-or-perish model that replicates market demands where it is neither necessary nor appropriate to do so. But I wonder if Virgil’s way is not more natural; it probably allows writers the freedom and time to create better work, while also encouraging them to strive consciously toward a larger end. Obviously there is the question of what to do after writing one’s masterpiece, should one peak young or be long-lived. Lover of Ulysses that I am, I have never read all the way through Finnegans Wake; a writer who voyages so far up his own orifice has no right to ask the rest of us to follow. Perhaps the market’s encouragement of public address, while it can be taken too far toward oversimplification or sensationalism, helps to avoid the opposite extremes of hermeticism or solipsism. But if we could all work in the Virgilian way, wouldn’t the result be wonderful: fewer and better books? Such a system might even be more humane; the Ralph Ellisons of the world would not have to feel guilty for falling silent, and the Emily Brontës need not fear dying young.