Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Virgil's Eclogues - A mixed bag of radical Theocritan riffs

Salve! I have read and reread the Eclogues a few times now and looked at the Latin closely too and I can’t help agreeing in essence with Samuel Johnson (more of him later) and his judgement of the whole work as uneven with flashes of brilliant innovation. Virgil’s Beano Album maybe? Or more possibly his Truth Album to continue the early British rock guitarist (Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck respectively) parallels. I feel that Virgil is more Beck than Clapton but that is a purely anachronistic and personal observation! Besides, I am known to be biased towards Lucan as the great(est) unsung prodigy of Roman epic hexameter. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that with the Eclogues we are in the presence of the master, or at the very least a master even it does smack more of a sweaty guitar work out in the garage than the later Aeneidan Rhaspsody of the next few years of Virgil’s career.
 The Eclogues (literally ‘accounts, records or drafts’) thought to have been composed sometime between 44 and 38 BCE must have made quite an impression at the time. To take an Alexandrian favourite of the Roman poets, the Idylls of Theocritus of Sicily (c. 270 BCE) and use it as a framework or background to reflect political issues of the day (Eclogues I and X which seem to doorframe the Arcadian rustic wordplay of the intervening eclogues) was a truly innovative and radical step – no-one but Virgil could have dared to attempt the chops.

 It’s difficult to know whether or not one can say that the experiment was a success since, how are we to judge something so utterly new in the context of its own time? It’s also difficult to ascertain just exactly what Virgil is doing with the Pastoral genre – a highly mythologised and ideal non-existent rustic paradise – as a backdrop for farm evictions and the not so distant rumbling of war and its devastating and disrupting force to the countryside. Do we therefore judge the Eclogues as reinterpretations or homages to Theocritan idyll for a sophisticated Roman readership/audience? How political are or were they? Is the interchange between Tityrus and Meliboeus in Eclogue I meant to underline the inequity of the land confiscations or its unexpected and welcome munificence? Both perhaps…’deus nobis haec otia fecit’ with Octavian/Augustus obliquely referenced here. There are some subtle sub-narratives going in the texts concerning the role of the poet, and fame in posterity as well as the wider meaning of poetry and its purpose which I think fare better as lightly disguised thought experiments but it is a rocky road kind of trip for sure.

The format/style of the eclogues is amoebaean bucolic hexameter (interlinked exchanges of poetry by two or more voices, each taking up the ending line or theme of the preceding singer singing contests between shepherds singing of thwarted love, the golden age to come, or just singing matches in front of a judge for the best rustic poetaster – all in a landscape positively groaning under the weight of honey dripping bees hives and piles of sweating wool stained with creamy milk. Phew!

 There is not much in terms of technical theatrics that is not present in Theocritus – the difference being Virgil’s polish and flashy word play. There is more emphasis on Eros as love as opposed to the lust, wild abandon and slapstick buggery of the idylls and has been replaced by something more elevated and possibly blander in comparison. And this is where I return to Samuel Johnson (1709-84) who penned a lit crit review of sorts of the Eclogues for issue 92 of the Adventurer issue dated September 22, 1753 – who had it appears similar misgivings to my own about the unevenness of the work despite its flashes of brilliance.

He has this to say in his preamble of Virgil’s use of the Theocritan model:-

 ‘Virgil, however, taking advantage of another language, ventured to copy or to rival the ‘Sicilian bard’: he has written with greater splendour of diction, and elevation of sentiment: but as the magnificence of his performances was more, the simplicity was less; and, perhaps, where he excels Theocritus, he sometimes obtains his superiority by deviating from the pastoral character, and performing what Theocritus never attempted.’

He goes on to express his concerns:-

 ‘But though his general merit has been universally acknowledged, I am far from thinking all the productions of his rural Thalia equally excellent; there is, indeed, in all his pastorals a strain of versification which it is vain to seek in any other poet; but if we except the first and the tenth, they seem liable either wholly or in part to considerable objections.’

He likes the first Eclogue principally on the grounds of its innovation ‘by deviating from the pastoral character, and performing what Theocritus never attempted.’ but here are his comments (in periphrasis with apologies) of the others in brief.

Eclogue II: Corydon and Alexis and their unmentionable if forgivable love…but for Mr. Johnson, soggy lettuce leaves rather than the verdant shoots of desire.

III: The singing contest between two shepherds. Basically not much cop and he considered the invective a bit below the dignity of pastoral. The thought immediately springs to mind; had he actually read the Idylls (in particular see: Idylls V, Comatas [41], [43])?

IV: Poem to Pollio. It is filled with ‘images at once splendid and pleasing, and is elevated with grandeur of language worthy of the first of Roman poets. ’Johnson however finds ridiculous the idea for the return of the golden age to be predicated upon the birth of his son  and is convinced that ‘so wild a fiction’ had another purpose, probably involving Emperors hind quarters and tongue (editors irreverent notes).

V: Daphnis. Thumbs up as pastoral elegies go although he can’t resist having a side swipe with this ‘yet whoever shall read it with impartiality, will find that most of the images are of the mythological kind, and therefore easily invented; and that there few sentiments of rational praise or natural lamentation.’ He seems a tad demanding here since what more could you expect from an artificial paradise such as pastoral pretends to? Perhaps like me he feels that the genre just cannot carry the politics too easily. Perhaps even Virgil realised that after penning Eclogues I and X (possibly composed first) and decided to riff closer to the Theocritan model for the other sections.

VI: Tityrus addresses Varus, a soldier (?) and after starting off with war as a potential theme admits it to be too heavy for the pastoral mode and opts for a drunken and charming tale of a drunken Silenus tangoed while sleeping off the booze by a couple of Arcadian ne’er do wells called Chromis and Mnasyllos. Johnson’s reaction to this eclogue can be summarised as a wtf moment, ‘the fiction of Silenus seems injudicious: nor has any sufficient reason yet been found, to justify his choice of those fables that make the subject of the song.’ It would be like having a death metal band Cradle of Filth for example or Slipknot suddenly change gear into a soulful mandolin rendition of Summer Holiday by Cliff Richard. Wtf indeed.

VIII: Johnson doesn’t even consider this an original piece of work being lifted from Theocritus practically with no changes except to render it bland and pointless, ‘Of the eighth pastoral, so little is properly the work of Virgil, that he has no claim to other praise or blame, than that of a translator.’ The tried and trusted stock pastoral themes of the cruelty of love…the track on this rustic goat path must be well worn.

IX: Samuel is confused again with this one, ‘...it is scarce possible to discover design or tendency; it is said, I know not upon what authority, to have been composed from fragments of other poems…..there is nothing that seems appropriated to any time or place, or of which any other use can be discovered than to fill up the poem. In short, Arcadian puffery.

X: See I. ‘the first and tenth pastorals, whatever be determined of the rest, are sufficient to place their author above the reach of rivalry. The complaint of Gallus disappointed in his love, is full of such sentiments a disappointed love naturally produces; his wishes are wild, his resentment is tender, and his purposes are inconstant. In the genuine language of despair, he soothes himself awhile with the pity that shall be paid him after his death.’

Johnson reserves his warmest praise for the first Eclogue, one which he views as the most successful and convincing in tone, ‘I cannot forbear to give preference to the first, which is equally natural and more diversified. The complaint of the shepherd, who saw his old companion at ease in the shade, while himself was driving his flock he knew not whither, is such as, with variation of circumstances, misery always utters at the sight of prosperity;

Nos patriae fines, et dulcia linquimus arra;
Nos patrium fugimus: Tu Tityre, lentus in umbra
Formosam resonare doces Amaryllida sylvas. Ec.i.3.

‘Lentus in umbra’…this summer’s motto!


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