On striving

Having no Latin, I am unfit to judge the singing contests Virgil gives us in his Eclogues. To be sure, I could judge the English, but what reason do I have to think the English matches the Latin in this respect? Thus far, this has been no handicap, for the one true contest seen thus far, between Menalcas and Damoetas in Eclogue III, was declared a tie.

Not so for Eclogue VII, which records a contest between Corydon and Thyrsis, observed by Daphnis and Meliboeus. Meliboeus remarks:

I remember how the contest went, how Thyrsis,
Striving to win, was the loser, and since that time
It has been Corydon’s, Corydon’s name we cry.

This passage declares Corydon the winner, yet gives no reason for this judgment, beyond the hint that Thyrsis was “striving to win” – which seems, at first glance, not much of a help. So I am left to wonder what made the difference between their songs, both so beautiful even through the blurring gauze of translation.

Well, I have a hypothesis. Each begins his song with an invocation:


Beloved Nymphs of Helicon, grant me
Such power as you have granted Codrus, whose
Music comes closest to Apollo’s music;
If this should not be granted, then will I
Hang up my shepherd’s pipe on this pine-tree bough.


Arcadian shepherds, crown your newborn poet;
Let Codrus burst with envy; or, if he
Should choose to overpraise me, bind my brow
With a foxglove garland to guard me from any harm
That comes toward me from his palavering.

These are nicely parallel: each hopes for great poetic power, and each considers what will happen if he should not possess such power. But after that they come apart. Corydon invokes the Muses, asks them to grant him power that equals that of Codrus. As the music that comes closest to Apollo’s music, it is as good as man can hope to achieve. Corydon wisely does not ask to exceed human limits. Thyrsis, by contrast, does not invoke the Muses, but instead his fellow shepherds, asking that they should crown him, for he will outdo even Codrus. Thyrsis arrogantly expects to have this power without recognizing its divine source. So there is a first difference.

A second difference is even more telling. Corydon promises that, if he should not equal Codrus, he will hang up his pipe, give up singing. He will sing well, or not sing. Thyrsis also makes provisions from failure, but of a different sort: he asks to be protected from the dangers of flattery. Where Corydon in singing takes a great risk, Thyrsis takes no risk at all, indeed asks that the one risk he does face should be eliminated. While Corydon, too, no doubt strove to win, the attitude with which he did so was above reproach. Not so for Thyrsis, for whom striving became a fault obstructive to its own goal.



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