Virgil: Eclogues

March 25, 2019

Eclogues
Publius Virgilius Maro
Translated from the Latin by John Dryden
[c.40 BC] Second reading.

When I first read Virgil’s Eclogues, more than a decade ago, I confess that I was disappointed by them. I had expected more from the great poet of the Latin golden age than these, apparently, slight and inconsequential poems about shepherds and rustics. Now, revisiting them, it would be fair to say that I appreciate them more, but still an exaggeration to say they stir enthusiasm in my breast. It would be fair to say that I am still having trouble hearing the music in this Muse.

*

There are ten Eclogues, none very long, and, as advertised, they are mostly about shepherds and rustics. Half are dialogues (I, III, V, VII, IX); in a few, the characters play games of poetic one-upmanship, composing songs on cue. Others relate the joys or woes, often romantic, of their characters.

I am told that there are political subtexts to some of the poems; all were written during the reign of Octavian/Augustus, one of whose initiatives was the confiscation of lands in order that he could bestow them on the many soldiers he wished to retire from service. In many of the poems this ill treatment — from the shepherds’ perspective — is discernible in the background. This is the case, for instance, in the first eclogue. However, the overall impression is not a political one, at least if the poems are taken at face value.

Virgil was to become most famous for the Aeneid, and though it would be tendentious to argue without firmer grounds that that great epic was already gestating in his imagination, he does at one point himself suggest that his first instincts as a poet were not for the pastoral:

I first transferred to Rome Sicilian strains;
Nor blushed the Doric Muse to dwell on Mantuan plains.
But when I tried her tender voice, too young,
And fighting kings and bloody battles sung,
Apollo checked my pride, and bade me feed
My fattening flocks, nor dare beyond the reed.
(VI, 1-6)

Whether this, in itself, tells us anything about the quality of this bucolic poetry is doubtful, but I found it interesting.

The most famous of the Eclogues is the fourth, which celebrates the birth of a boy who brings a miraculous peace to a world in conflict:

The jarring nations he in peace shall bind,
And with paternal virtues rule mankind.
Unbidden earth shall wreathing ivy bring,
And fragrant herbs, (the promises of spring,)
As her first offerings to her infant king.

These marvels Virgil partly adapted from a Sibylline prophecy, and they were widely interpreted by Christian readers as making reference to the birth of Christ (though I know of none who thought that Virgil so intended them). The frequently beautiful imagery of this poem reminds a Christian reader of Isaiah’s prophecies:

The goats with strutting dugs shall homeward speed,
And lowing herds secure from lions feed.
His cradle shall with rising flowers be crowned:
The serpent’s brood shall die; the sacred ground
Shall weeds and poisonous plants refuse to bear;
Each common bush shall Syrian roses wear.

*

My better experience on this reading of the Eclogues is at least partly attributable to my choosing the Dryden translation, rather than (as before) the Guy Lee translation (from Penguin Classics). True, Virgil wrote in dactylic hexameter, whereas Dryden wrote in iambic pentameter, but if the goal was to match one high poetic style with another, Dryden succeeded. Lee’s Alexandrine verse (basically iambic hexameter) lacks the punch. Let’s compare a randomly chosen passage in the two translations. Here are the opening lines of the Eclogue VIII as rendered by Dryden:

The mournful muse of two despairing swains,
The love rejected, and the lovers’ pains;
To which the savage lynxes listening stood,
The rivers stood on heaps, and stopped the running flood;
The hungry herd the needful food refuse—
Of two despairing swains, I sing the mournful muse.

And here is Lee:

Muse of the shepherds Damon and Alphesiboeus,
Rivals, at whom the heifer marvelling forgot
Her pasture, by whose singing lynxes were enthralled
And running rivers, altering their courses, stilled,
We’ll tell of Damon’s and Alphesiboeus’ Muse.

To give Lee his due: he is much more careful to follow Virgil’s lead, taking fewer liberties. His five lines match Virgil’s five, whereas Dryden takes six, and still neglects to tell us the names of the two swains. But I still prefer Dryden’s stout eloquence over Lee’s sprawling lines.

*

Virgil inherited the tradition of pastoral poetry principally from the Greek Theocritus, even to the point of basing several of these poems on Theocritic originals. He cannot, therefore, be said, with complete accuracy, to be the “fount” of pastoral poetry in the West, but his reputation in the West so far outstrips that of his predecessor that we may, de facto, take these Eclogues as the spring from which sprang, in time, the Forest of Arden, the passionate Marlovian shepherd, and Beethoven’s sixth symphony. It is a rich heritage indeed, in which

Our woods, with juniper and chestnuts crowned,
With falling fruits and berries paint the ground;
And lavish Nature laughs, and strows her stores around.

4 Responses to “Virgil: Eclogues”

  1. rereverser Says:

    You might want to take a look at my version (U of Penn Press). It’s iambic hexameter, with rhymes dropping in as welcome guests at odd moments.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I will take a look; thank you for the suggestion. I think I would also benefit from reading your book’s introduction. I look forward to doing so.

  3. Rob G Says:

    I recently bought David Ferry’s translation of The Georgics but haven’t started it yet. I was going to move on to The Eclogues afterwards.

  4. cburrell Says:

    I just finished Ferry’s “Georgics”; I’ll post something about it in the next few weeks. I enjoyed them more than these Eclogues.


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