Metamorphoses

Virgil’s sixth Eclogue is full of metamorphosis. In the middle of the poem, Virgil presents a cosmogony, moving from the first seeds of the four elements to living creatures. It ends with the lines:

And living creatures wandered on the sides
Of mountains unaware of what they were.

This poem insists upon the question of voice, for in this aspect it is heavily layered. It starts with an interaction between Tityrus (the narrator) and Apollo, then proceeds to Tityrus’ song (attributed to the “Pierian maidens”). Within this song, there is a story of Silenus being tricked after he fails to deliver on his promise to sing. This finally prompts him to sing the promised song, and that forms the material of the rest of the poem, until at the very end we are lifted back to Tityrus and Apollo. However, even Silenus’ songs are presented in the voice of the Pierian maidens. We are told about his songs, but do not see them. Thus the majority of the poem is in a mixed voice, Silenus’ original tinctured with Titryus’ divinely inspired retelling.

These lines are in that mixed voice, a part of Silenus’ song. They set the stage for the remainder of the song. We see stones, unaware that they are stones, becoming women. We see Pasiphaë, forgetful of herself, falling in love with a snow-white bull, and the daughters of Proteus lowing. Phaëton’s sisters become Poplars, and Procne becomes a bird. We see these stories from a distance: what matters is not their own, internal action, but their juxtaposition, the fact of their shared unawareness, as if awareness of what we are is the only bond holding us to our true natures.

But the theme of separation from one’s own nature has ramifications beyond Silenus’ song. Here is how the poem opens:

When I began to write, my Muse did not
Disdain to play Sicilian games nor did
She blush to live in the woods, and when I thought
Of singing of kings and battles, the god Apollo
Tweaked my ear and said to me, “A shepherd
Should feed fat sheep and sing a slender song.”

Tityrus, abashed, remembers his place and consents to sing a song that will “win the favor of the country Muse.” Even he has forgotten whom he is, and must be reminded by Apollo.

What could bring about such waves of forgetfulness? The poem offers us a theory. Silenus is caught napping, not out of exhaustion but as a sort of cure:

Veiny and swollen with wine as usual,
Sleeping it off in a cave; on the ground nearby
Were the garlands fallen off his drunken head
And his tankard atilt and hanging from his hand.

It is wine, of course, that makes Silenus forget his promise – wine that seeps throughout this entire song. We may assume Tityrus, too, sang under the influence.

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1 comment

Parry

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