Conflict, please

Sicilian Muses, sing a nobler music,
For orchard trees and humble tamarisks
Do not please everyone; so may your song
Be of a forest worthy of a consul.

So begins Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, and while I cannot plausibly pretend it does not please me, still I wish to quarrel with one aspect of it. In so doing, I accept the risk that this may reveal nothing other than my own lack of a consul’s nobility.

The poem announces the onset of a new golden age that shall bring “freedom from / Earth’s bondage to its own perpetual fear.” The occasion is the coming birth of a child – once upon a time fatuously interpreted as Jesus – who will bring a total peace to the world.

It is with the description of this peace that I take issue. Here is a sample:

Dear child, there will be new little gifts for you,
Springtime valerian, and trailing ivy,
Egyptian beans, and smiling acanthus, all
Poured out profusely from the untilled earth.

The crucial word is ‘untilled’ (‘nullo’, in Latin). This is land that does not need to be disciplined by the farmer to pour forth its gifts. We are here very far away from the land of the Georgics, for which discipline is essential. In the Georgics, farming is portrayed as originating in an age before the age of Jove, the age of war, a remnant of a peaceful world. Yet that world is peaceful only in the sense of lacking human war. There is still conflict: the conflict of the farmer with the soil.

Not so the world envisioned in the fourth Eclogue. That world is one that will meet all of our needs without effort, that eliminates both the conflict of war and the conflict of farming. Even the minimally violent activity of dyeing clothes will be eliminated: “Out in the meadow the fleece of the ram will change / Of its own accord from purple to saffron yellow.”

And now the quarrel: this description leaves me cold. A world without conflict… I can scarcely imagine how I would begin to fill the hours. For neither better nor worse, since it stands behind all ‘better’ and ‘worse’, the human mind evolved in a world full of conflict as an adaptation to that conflict. Without conflict of one kind or another there can only be boredom. It is this necessary fellow traveler of utter peace that Virgil fails to sing. I must confess I find the Virgil of the Georgics wiser, the Virgil who described farmers as “lucky, if they know their happiness.” The Virgil of Eclogue IV has not yet absorbed this lesson.

The necessary instructional material, however, is there. For what does Virgil imagine himself doing in this placid world, should it come, should he live long enough to see it?

Oh, if I have long life and at the end
Have breath enough and spirit enough to be
The teller of the story of your deeds,
Then neither Linus nor Thracian Orpheus could
Defeat me in the singing contest, though
Orpheus’ mother, Callipoe, were there,
And Linus’ father, Apollo the beautiful;
And Pan himself, Arcadia the judge,
Judged by Arcadia, would admit defeat.

Competition – that is, conflict invented for its own sake – that is how Virgil would pass the time. Here is the seed of the mature Virgil, the one who, though he may lament this or that particular conflict, knows better than to lament conflict as such, knows that conflict alone is the soil of all our various happinesses.

Yet perhaps I do not quarrel with Virgil at all. Perhaps he recognizes the impossibility of his vision. For here is how his poem ends:

So, little baby, may your first smile be
When you first recognize your mother, whose
Long ten-months travail brought you into the world.
That child who has not smiled thus for his parents
No gods will welcome at their festive table
Nor any goddess to her amorous bower.

Note: Ferry’s translation, completely inexplicably, makes Virgil’s ‘decem… menses’ into ‘nine-months’. I have fixed this error on his behalf.

Further note: the Latin is so beautiful here, even to my Latinless ear, that I cannot resist providing it:

Incipe, parue puer, risu cognoscere matrem
(matri longa decem tulerunt fastidia menses
incipe, parue puer: qui non risere parenti,
nec deus hunc mensa, dea nec dignata cubili est.

The poem ends with joy, a baby smiling at his mother, but Virgil with clear eyes recognizes the precondition of this joy, the “long ten-months travail” of pregnancy.

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