Further metamorphoses

Love is a strange power, capable of making one forget oneself, become other than one is. It can make a mother, beside herself with rotted love, kill her children. It can make wolves flee from sheep, and apples grow from oaks. So we learn in Virgil’s eighth Eclogue, which, like the sixth, pictures an unstable nature.

Once again, there is a singing contest between two unhappy lovers – this time, Damon and Alphesiboeus. Damon has been spurned by Nysa – she has chosen Mopsus (of the fifth Eclogue) over Damon and his “shaggy beard and eyebrows.” Damon can understand that she has spurned him, for her nature is that of a spurner. Indeed, this is her divinity, for the gods too have spurned Damon:

Although no help has come for me from them,
I call on the gods to witness as I die.

What Damon cannot understand is that she should forget herself, forget her divine contempt, and choose Mopsus:

That she, who scorned all men, and scorned my goats,
My shepherd’s flute, my shaggy bear and eyebrows,
And though the gods cared nothing for anything human,
That she should be the bride of such as him!

Where Damon is a victim of nature’s capriciousness, Alphesiboeus seeks to harness it with magic. With charms he would recover Daphnis, his love. Bring Daphnis home, bring Daphnis home, my charms, runs the refrain of his song.* “I will with / such magic strive to change my lover’s mind.” The remainder of the song alternates between descriptions of his particular magic and examples of magic’s power: “Charms can entice the moon down out of the sky; / Ulysses’ men were changed by Circe’s charms; / Charms can cause the snake in the field to burst.”

Note. While I cannot stress enough that I do not know Latin, this seems to me to be a very impoverished translation of the line (“ducite ab urbe domum, mea carmina, ducite Daphnin”). It loses the current location of Daphnis, who it seems has gone to the city – a very important detail given that these are shepherd’s songs! – and it translates ‘carmina’ very awkwardly (based on a few online Latin-English dictionaries) as ‘charms’, when its actual meaning is closer to ‘songs’ or ‘poetry’. A more literal translation might look like this: Draw from the city, my songs, draw Daphnis home.

Does Alphesiboeus’ magic succeed? It is hard to say:

O see! before they’re carried out the ashes
Suddenly, of their own accord, burst forth,
And the altar burns once more with quivering flames.
Let this be good. —I think it may be good.
The dog is barking down by the front gate.
Can I believe it, or is it that lovers dream?
Cease now, my charms, my Daphnis has come home!

This magic has wrought changes, but on whom? Daphnis? Or Alphesiboeus? It is left unresolved. In an unstable world, we lose our grip on reality.

Not even the poet can escape this incessant mutability. He, too, forgets his own nature. In the fourth Eclogue, we saw his wish to outmatch even Orpheus in singing. This comes back to haunt him here:

Let wolves run away from sheep, let golden apples
Suddenly be the fruit of mighty oaks,
Narcissus bloom on the boughs of alder trees,
And amber ooze from the bark of tamarisks;
Let owls compete with swans, and Tityrus
Compete with Orpheus—an Orpheus of the woods,
Let Tityrus be Arion among the dolphins.

Lest it seem strange that I identify Tityrus with Virgil himself, consider that a similar identification occurs (implicitly, at least) in the sixth Eclogue. (Recall also that, in that poem, the poet once again forgets himself.) We thus have here a bit of self-deprecation: Virgil knows the thought that he should compete with Orpheus is a laugh. Yet such is the power of love, and of song: each makes us forget who we are.

 

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