Is conversation possible?

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.



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