Making love impersonal

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.


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