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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?

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Virgil’s second Eclogue tells of Corydon’s love for Alexis – the love of an older man for a younger. Besides a brief introduction that places Corydon in “the dense and gloomy shade of a beech-tree grove,” the entire poem consists of Corydon “[flinging] out his hopeless ardor in artless verses.” These verses hover between two purposes: Corydon attempts to win Alexis’ favor, and Corydon attempts (however seriously) to talk himself out of his love for Alexis. If we are to judge Corydon, we must share the narrator’s judgment: there is something artless about these verses, and something pathetic about Corydon. But if we are to judge Virgil, we must see the poetic logic underlying this surface artlessness (much as I tried to do with Shakespeare here). It is that logic, or at least one strand of it, that I hope to illuminate here.

The strand on which I wish to focus concerns the relation between human and animal desire, where desire in humans becomes something personal, but is rooted in an impersonal animal desire. Love, that great outgrowth of desire, is inherently personal: one loves this person, who as the object of one’s love is irreplaceable. I may love now one person, now another, but not with the same love. But the desires that underlie this personal love (desires for sex, for companionship, etc.) are not so inherently personal. This interplay of personal love and its basis in impersonal desire seems to me the fundamental organizing principle of the poem.

Corydon’s song very early suggests that Alexis is replaceable, whether by a female (“wouldn’t I have done better to put up with / The anger and haughty disdain of Amaryllis?”) or a male (“Or with Menalcas, swarthy though he is?”). But this early flirtation with abandoning Alexis for another does not go far, for Corydon’s love is, after all, personal, is love for Alexis. Indeed, the very consideration of replacing Alexis is hypothetical from the start (“wouldn’t I have done better” if I had loved another). Let us then leave it aside for the time being.

Resigned to wooing Alexis, Corydon attempts to convince him with promises of material goods:

Perhaps you do not know, Alexis, who
It is you scorn: how many cows I have,
With all the milk they yield, summer and winter;
A thousand lambs, my lambs, pasture upon
These hills around; my voice is like the voice
Of Amphion on the slopes of Aracynthus,
Calling his herds.

But Corydon is led by this appeal to an inevitable self-realization: such promises appeal to impersonal, animal desires. Corydon does not matter for himself, but for his cows and lambs, and anyone who can offer better is more worthy of such love as cows can buy. Corydon has made himself replaceable: “And as for gifts, would Iollas offer less?”

Having undermined his own attempt at persuasion, yet no less in love for it, Corydon returns to his first strategy, attempting to talk himself out of love for Alexis by making Alexis replaceable. (It is worth noting here that, per the notes on my translation, Alexis is a “traditional name for a catamite,” and thus already bears a hint of the impersonal about it.) The first step in this self-persuasion appears accidental. Corydon likens himself to animals:

The fierce lioness follows after the wolf,
The wolf pursues the goat, the wanton goat
Seeks out the flowering clover in the field,
And Corydon, Alexis, follows you.
Each creature is led by that which it most longs for.

While Corydon does not draw the conclusion explicitly, in context it is nearly inescapable. Corydon chases after Alexis, this particular Alexis, and in this he is unlike the other animals. For the lioness wants to eat the wolf, but what does it matter whether it is this wolf or another. Nor does the wolf play favorites with the goats, nor the goats with the clovers. Only Corydon with Alexis. By likening his love to these impersonal animal desires, Corydon thus suggests that what he really wants is something more basic and impersonal, something that Alexis certainly could provide, but which can equally well be obtained from others.

Corydon ends his song by carrying this thought to its conclusion:

Ah, Corydon, what madness has hold of you?
The vine on the leafy elm is only half-pruned—
Why not at least go about some needful task,
Binding the twigs together with pliant rushes.
There’ll be another Alexis, if this one rejects you.

We are given no explicit indication whether this second attempt is any more successful than the first. If we are to trust our own experience of love, we must say that Time alone, and not Reason, has the power to persuade one in such cases. But if we are to trust the logic of the poem, we must at the very least grant that in this case Corydon has placed the depersonalization of his love on a sound theoretical basis, having reduced it to the animal’s impersonal hunger.

In ways that I am only beginning to piece together, Virgil’s corpus comprises a true unity. Here I intend to adduce only a single piece of evidence in support of this. Virgil’s Aeneid is a poem of exile – nearly every major character is an exile of some sort. It is thus fitting that exile should be a dominant theme in Virgil’s very first poem, Eclogue I. Here Tityrus and Meliboeus cross paths. Tityrus has recently come into possession of farmland; Meliboeus has recently been dispossessed of the same.

The poem is beautiful for the way Virgil deftly manages the disconnect between the speakers, allows them each their point of view and shows the failure of communication between them, yet forbids the intrusion of any petty self-centeredness. The poem opens with Meliboeus acknowledging their divergent situations, to which Tityrus replies by thanking the “god” (the emperor) for his good fortune, not even acknowledging Meliboeus’ situation. And Meliboeus himself quickly insists that he is not envious, only struck with wonder at the trouble in the world, almost as if he views his situation from a distance.

Already there is a disconnect brought on by their divergent futures: Tityrus is occupied by his happiness, Meliboeus by his unhappiness, and they can only partially disentangle themselves from this in their conversation. Though Meliboeus blesses Tityrus, telling him of the happiness he can expect to enjoy, there is a bitter strain to it, not of resentment directed at Tityrus himself, but simply a weary sadness. And when Tityrus eventually invites Meliboeus to stay the night before going into exile, it seems almost incidental, just another expression of his own satisfaction at his prospects.

There is, throughout the poem, a sort of self-centeredness on the part of both speakers, an inability to escape from their own concerns sufficiently to enable a genuine conversation. Tityrus occasions Meliboeus’ words, and vice versa, but they do not exactly respond to one another. They merely say what is antecedently on their minds. Yet there is no resentment: Meliboeus does not begrudge Tityrus his happiness. The issue of fairness never arises – and it is good that it does not, for it would belittle both Meliboeus and the poem.

This perfectly rendered disconnect is so touching and so realistic, it moves me more than any of Aeneas’ myriad misfortunes.

Throughout Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare is doing two things at once, and therein lies the poem’s genius. He must, with the very same turns of phrase, annoy Adonis and enthrall the reader. For, as Venus pursues Adonis, attempts to persuade him to love her, she goes again and again over the same ground, succeeding merely in wearying her unwilling target. As Adonis puts it:

“Nay, then,” quoth Adon, “you will fall again
Into your idle overhandled theme;
The kiss I gave you is bestowed in vain,
And all in vain you strive against the stream;
For by this black-faced night, desire’s foul nurse,
Your treatise makes me like you worse and worse.” (769-74)

And indeed, Venus is overhandling her theme. The trick that Shakespeare must manage is to represent this without himself overhandling his theme. That he succeeds in this makes for the success of the poem. Venus’ unending outpouring is indeed wearying, but beautifully so, peppered with turns of phrase befitting her divinity.

Thus Shakespeare multi-tasks at a global level. So also more locally. I shall highlight only a single instance. After the boar has killed Adonis, and as Venus first sees his dead body,

No flower was nigh, no grass, herb, leaf or weed,
But stole his blood and seemed with him to bleed. (1055-56)

Just earlier, Venus herself has attempted to exculpate herself (for having libeled Death) by pointing out that “Grief hath two tongues” (1007). She might equally have said, “Grief hath two eyes,” for here Shakespeare brilliantly captures her double sight. Simultaneously she accuses the world (“no flower was nigh… / but stole his blood”), finding it complicit in Adonis’ death, and sees it as full of sympathy for her love and her grief (“seemed with him to bleed”). In this moment of silent double vision, Venus – until now not exactly a sympathetic figure – most earns my charity.