Friday, July 27, 2012

Roman Arcadia

The Eclogues of Virgil: A Translation
The Eclogues of Virgil: 
A Translation

by Virgil

"Sicilian Muses, sing a nobler music,
For orchard trees and humble tamarisks
Do not please everyone; so may your song
Be a forest worthy of a consul."

- Eclogue IV, (p 29)

These poems provide the foundation for a definition of pastoral. Virgil's book contains ten pieces, each called not an idyll but an eclogue, populated by and large with herdsmen imagined conversing and singing in largely rural settings, whether suffering or embracing revolutionary change or happy or unhappy love. They are inviting and easy to like, both attractive and intelligent. This was from early in Virgil's career and he is already an accomplished poet. The eclogues, written under the patronage of Maecenas, are called the Bucolics or country poems even though they are really highly civilized set pieces. Like much of Roman literature they look back to Greek examples, in this case that of Theocritus, the Greek poet of the third century B.C.
They highlight individual characters like Meliboeus and Tityrus in Eclogue 1. Here Virgil uses the two herdsmen to convey issues of power and its opposite. In Eclogue 2 Corydon and Alexis demonstrate the power of passion. Corydon coaxes Alexis saying, "O come and live with me in the countryside among the humble farms." (p 13)   Virgil is able to consider the result of erotic passion with some detachment through his use of homosexual passion in this country setting.  Perhaps the best known of the Eclogues is number four which foretells of a son to be born to Antony and Octavia.  Alas this event was not fated to happen and the birth prophesied would later be interpreted as one of a completely different boy, one who would have a career that outlived both the poet Virgil and Rome's empire if not her culture.
Through the eclogues as a whole there is the exploration of the idea of the nature of the pastoral, its innocence and seeming edenic being in comparison with the urban life of Virgil and most of his audience. In David Ferry's beautiful translation these verses come alive in a contemporary idiom. As Michael Dirda has said, this is a "volume to buy, read , and treasure."

The Eclogues of Virgil, A translation by David Ferry. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1999


Stephen Boydstun said...

". . . and flees towards the willow,
hoping to be seen before she disappears."

James said...