Tag Archives: Eclogues

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.

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.

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.

In my comments on Virgil’s first Eclogue, I emphasized the inescapable disconnect between Meliboeus and Tityrus, who, in wholly opposite life situations, could not quite – or simply were not willing to – enter wholly into the situation of the other. This might be considered a high, lofty disconnect. If so, then the third Eclogue portrays its counterpart, a base and ribald disconnect.

At the heart of the poem is a singing contest between Menalcas and Damoetas, both met in the second Eclogue.* After a series of traded insults in which each accuses the other of misdemeanor in a manner that reflects more on the accuser than the accused, they agree to a singing contest that, at least in Ferry’s translation, takes on the character of a schoolyard fight: “I’ll meet you any time and place you say,” Menalcas boasts, and one hears his chest puffing outward.

[*A brief interlude on this fact seems necessary. The Eclogues feature a recurring series of names, which I prefer to think of as indicating a recurring series of characters. Such an interpretation involves accepting literal, though not thematic, inconsistencies between the poems. For instance, Menalcas and Damoetas appear to be the same age – at least, they are equally immature – in Eclogue III, but in Eclogue II Menalcas, as a potential alternate object of Corydon’s affection, is younger than Corydon, while Damoetas, who while dying bequeaths Corydon his reed pipe, is clearly older than Corydon. Yet Eclogue II is enhanced, with hindsight, if we imagine that Menalcas the potential object of affection is the same boorish Menalcas engaged in the petty squabble of Eclogue III. I view the Eclogues as capturing a world through a set of not entirely consistent stories about it, and see this technique as wholly legitimate. (For another example of this technique, this time from film, consider Yasujiro Ozu’s Noriko trilogy.)]

The contest itself is interestingly structured: instead of each singing a complete song as a whole, they trade couplets, leading to the opportunity for direct responses between their songs. Yet while their songs intertwine thematically, these parallels never quite amount to responses. They remain self-centered, not quite commensurable. Small wonder, then, that Palaemon, called in to judge, rather amusingly refuses to declare a winner:

I don’t know how to arbitrate this great
Debate between you two. You both deserve
To win the prize, and so do all who have
Experienced the sweet and bitter of love.

Behind the wry humor of these lines, there is truth: how can we say that one or the other has won the contest when both of their songs hardly acknowledge the existence of a competitor?

Virgil’s second Eclogue tells of Corydon’s love for Alexis – the love of an older man for a younger. Besides a brief introduction that places Corydon in “the dense and gloomy shade of a beech-tree grove,” the entire poem consists of Corydon “[flinging] out his hopeless ardor in artless verses.” These verses hover between two purposes: Corydon attempts to win Alexis’ favor, and Corydon attempts (however seriously) to talk himself out of his love for Alexis. If we are to judge Corydon, we must share the narrator’s judgment: there is something artless about these verses, and something pathetic about Corydon. But if we are to judge Virgil, we must see the poetic logic underlying this surface artlessness (much as I tried to do with Shakespeare here). It is that logic, or at least one strand of it, that I hope to illuminate here.

The strand on which I wish to focus concerns the relation between human and animal desire, where desire in humans becomes something personal, but is rooted in an impersonal animal desire. Love, that great outgrowth of desire, is inherently personal: one loves this person, who as the object of one’s love is irreplaceable. I may love now one person, now another, but not with the same love. But the desires that underlie this personal love (desires for sex, for companionship, etc.) are not so inherently personal. This interplay of personal love and its basis in impersonal desire seems to me the fundamental organizing principle of the poem.

Corydon’s song very early suggests that Alexis is replaceable, whether by a female (“wouldn’t I have done better to put up with / The anger and haughty disdain of Amaryllis?”) or a male (“Or with Menalcas, swarthy though he is?”). But this early flirtation with abandoning Alexis for another does not go far, for Corydon’s love is, after all, personal, is love for Alexis. Indeed, the very consideration of replacing Alexis is hypothetical from the start (“wouldn’t I have done better” if I had loved another). Let us then leave it aside for the time being.

Resigned to wooing Alexis, Corydon attempts to convince him with promises of material goods:

Perhaps you do not know, Alexis, who
It is you scorn: how many cows I have,
With all the milk they yield, summer and winter;
A thousand lambs, my lambs, pasture upon
These hills around; my voice is like the voice
Of Amphion on the slopes of Aracynthus,
Calling his herds.

But Corydon is led by this appeal to an inevitable self-realization: such promises appeal to impersonal, animal desires. Corydon does not matter for himself, but for his cows and lambs, and anyone who can offer better is more worthy of such love as cows can buy. Corydon has made himself replaceable: “And as for gifts, would Iollas offer less?”

Having undermined his own attempt at persuasion, yet no less in love for it, Corydon returns to his first strategy, attempting to talk himself out of love for Alexis by making Alexis replaceable. (It is worth noting here that, per the notes on my translation, Alexis is a “traditional name for a catamite,” and thus already bears a hint of the impersonal about it.) The first step in this self-persuasion appears accidental. Corydon likens himself to animals:

The fierce lioness follows after the wolf,
The wolf pursues the goat, the wanton goat
Seeks out the flowering clover in the field,
And Corydon, Alexis, follows you.
Each creature is led by that which it most longs for.

While Corydon does not draw the conclusion explicitly, in context it is nearly inescapable. Corydon chases after Alexis, this particular Alexis, and in this he is unlike the other animals. For the lioness wants to eat the wolf, but what does it matter whether it is this wolf or another. Nor does the wolf play favorites with the goats, nor the goats with the clovers. Only Corydon with Alexis. By likening his love to these impersonal animal desires, Corydon thus suggests that what he really wants is something more basic and impersonal, something that Alexis certainly could provide, but which can equally well be obtained from others.

Corydon ends his song by carrying this thought to its conclusion:

Ah, Corydon, what madness has hold of you?
The vine on the leafy elm is only half-pruned—
Why not at least go about some needful task,
Binding the twigs together with pliant rushes.
There’ll be another Alexis, if this one rejects you.

We are given no explicit indication whether this second attempt is any more successful than the first. If we are to trust our own experience of love, we must say that Time alone, and not Reason, has the power to persuade one in such cases. But if we are to trust the logic of the poem, we must at the very least grant that in this case Corydon has placed the depersonalization of his love on a sound theoretical basis, having reduced it to the animal’s impersonal hunger.