In my comments on Virgil’s first Eclogue, I emphasized the inescapable disconnect between Meliboeus and Tityrus, who, in wholly opposite life situations, could not quite – or simply were not willing to – enter wholly into the situation of the other. This might be considered a high, lofty disconnect. If so, then the third Eclogue portrays its counterpart, a base and ribald disconnect.
At the heart of the poem is a singing contest between Menalcas and Damoetas, both met in the second Eclogue.* After a series of traded insults in which each accuses the other of misdemeanor in a manner that reflects more on the accuser than the accused, they agree to a singing contest that, at least in Ferry’s translation, takes on the character of a schoolyard fight: “I’ll meet you any time and place you say,” Menalcas boasts, and one hears his chest puffing outward.
[*A brief interlude on this fact seems necessary. The Eclogues feature a recurring series of names, which I prefer to think of as indicating a recurring series of characters. Such an interpretation involves accepting literal, though not thematic, inconsistencies between the poems. For instance, Menalcas and Damoetas appear to be the same age – at least, they are equally immature – in Eclogue III, but in Eclogue II Menalcas, as a potential alternate object of Corydon’s affection, is younger than Corydon, while Damoetas, who while dying bequeaths Corydon his reed pipe, is clearly older than Corydon. Yet Eclogue II is enhanced, with hindsight, if we imagine that Menalcas the potential object of affection is the same boorish Menalcas engaged in the petty squabble of Eclogue III. I view the Eclogues as capturing a world through a set of not entirely consistent stories about it, and see this technique as wholly legitimate. (For another example of this technique, this time from film, consider Yasujiro Ozu’s Noriko trilogy.)]
The contest itself is interestingly structured: instead of each singing a complete song as a whole, they trade couplets, leading to the opportunity for direct responses between their songs. Yet while their songs intertwine thematically, these parallels never quite amount to responses. They remain self-centered, not quite commensurable. Small wonder, then, that Palaemon, called in to judge, rather amusingly refuses to declare a winner:
I don’t know how to arbitrate this great
Debate between you two. You both deserve
To win the prize, and so do all who have
Experienced the sweet and bitter of love.
Behind the wry humor of these lines, there is truth: how can we say that one or the other has won the contest when both of their songs hardly acknowledge the existence of a competitor?