Hedonism and the possibility of pleasure

Virgil’s Eclogues are hedonistic poems. Let me not be misunderstood. Though Christian moralism sees in all hedonism mere gluttony, Virgil’s poems do not celebrate intemperance. They simply recognize pleasure as the only good, pain as the only bad. They are beautiful for their celebration of the particular pleasures of the shepherd’s life – and for their recognition of the threats to this pleasure.

In the very first Eclogue, we saw Meliboeus dispossessed of his farm, but we did not see his full pain. It was left, to great poetic effect, in the background of the poem. Not so with the ninth Eclogue. The setting here is a meeting of Lycidas and Moeris on the path into town. A stranger, presumably a veteran, has come to Moeris’ farm and told him, “I own this place; you have to leave this place.” The remainder of the poem presents to us Moeris’ unhappiness.

The ninth Eclogue is heavily conditioned by the poems that came before it. In this poems, we have encountered music as the greatest pleasure of the shepherd’s life. Not the only one, to be sure, but the central one. Whatever hard work it may entail, at least it leaves room for song and singing contests. These have the power even to soften its pains, as the first Eclogue shows.

Yet music is precisely what is lost in the ninth Eclogue. The following exchange hints at what’s to come. Lycidas first:

But I was told Menalcas with his songs
Had saved the land, from where those hills arise
To where they slope down gently to the water,
Near those old beech trees, with their broken tops.

To which Moeris replies:

Yes, that was the story; but what can music do
Against the weapons of soldiers? When eagles come,
Tell me what doves can possibly do about it?

Menalcas, so the story goes, had saved the land with song. We might almost think this story a myth, did we not know from earlier Eclogues that Menalcas is a real shepherd. So we are left to wonder at the origin of this story, the actual nature of the even that inspired it. Regardless, here it is introduced only to be shown inapplicable: “what can music do / against the weapons of soldiers?”

What we see in the rest of the poem is the impossibility of music. After lamenting the loss of the solace brought to them by Menalcas’ songs, Lycidas urges Moeris to sing, for “singing makes the journey easier.” Lycidas would sing himself, but “My songs are honking geese among the swans.” But Moeris cannot sing. He “has been saying the words of a song, / over and over, trying to bring them back,” but while he remembers the words, the song itself does not return. Then Lycidas, too, tries to remember a song he had heard Moeris singing, but this still cannot bring Moeris to song.

Why is song impossible? Because it is associated with another life, a life that has been lost. “Time takes all we have away from us,” Moeris laments. The songs remain in memory, but no longer in life. They are present only as the gaunt shadows of nostalgia. They cannot be brought fully to life, and in the end Moeris must say:

No more of that; let’s just go on our way.
The time for singing will be when Menalcas comes.

The ninth Eclogue is, on the whole, terribly sad. In this regard it is important that it comes near the end of the sequence. Virgil exercised great poetic sensibility placing where he did the two Eclogues dealing with being dispossessed where he did. The first Eclogue establishes such dispossession as a threat, but does not allow the dispossessed fully to lament it. Why not? Because there is always something indecent about open suffering, and the poet must render us open to forgiving this indecency before presenting us with it. The first poem, unable to draw upon the rest of the sequence, lacks the resources for this. We know only abstractly what Meliboeus has lost. We are in no position to empathize with him. For that reason, the poem’s presentation of his suffering as real, but inwardly restrained, is appropriate.

By the time we reach the ninth Eclogue, by contrast, we are fully aware of what Moeris has lost. We have seen the pleasures of his life, and thus we can enter fully into his pain. We are especially able to do so because this pain, though mentioned explicitly, is primarily revealed to us by the way the poem shows how song has become impossible. Because song is the shepherd’s primary joy – we know this from the prior Eclogues – the loss of song presents itself as more than the loss of song alone. It is the loss of the very possibility of joy. And, if we have allowed ourselves to enter fully into the hedonism of these poems, nothing could move us more.

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