The reading of ancient literature is filled with complications. In most cases, if a modern reader wants access to a work from the Classical world, they must do so via one of the – sometimes numerous – translations, unless they have the good fortune to read Latin, Greek, Coptic, Aramaic, or whatever other language is required. The modern reader is limited by the number of available translations of a given work, so reading Zosimus’s Historia Nova is not as clear-cut a task as reading Cicero’s essays, to give just one example.
In the case of the writing of Publius Vergilius Maro, whose name is most commonly rendered in English as Virgil, a lack of translations is scarcely a problem. Widely admired, Virgil is commonly considered one of the greatest of Roman poets, and is often counted second only to Homer in the whole of surviving Classical literature. Many students have wrestled with Virgil’s best-known work, The Aeneid, at some point in their academic lives, in either their own modern tongue or in Latin. If they have read a little deeper, then students probably also encountered Virgil’s other two surviving major works, The Georgics and The Eclogues (sometimes alternately titled The Bucolics).
In many ways, the focus on pastoral scenes, on rural idylls, is a mask for the chaos of the times in which Virgil wrote. The first century BCE in Rome was a tumultuous era, and the constant strain of civil war, in the aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, would leave Roman society gradually transformed, from the Republic of old to a new Empire. Virgil himself felt this strain, as his family farm near Mantua was redistributed by the new Augustus’s government to a soldier or soldiers of the former Octavian’s army, and it was only through careful appeals to Augustus himself that Virgil’s family farm, and those of several neighbors, were restored. These events are alluded to in The Eclogues, but with seemingly little rancour, as though it was a matter that had been well resolved.
The text takes the form of a series of poetic conversations among shepherds, reminiscent of amoeboean singing, a sort of lyrical competition early seen in Theocritus’ Idylls. Some of the names occur elsewhere in literature, and here I’m thinking particularly of Thyrsis (Book VII), which was the name given to Matthew Arnold’s “Scholar Gipsy” 1,900 years later (set hauntingly to music by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in “An Oxford Elegy”).
The depiction of the world outside of the grandeur of Rome and the larger cities of the early Empire is one familiar to us: in many ways, the Romans (and to some extent, the Greeks) invented the way that we live now. But Rome in these poems is very far away, and the concerns of a more natural rhythm of life (although certainly a harder life) are at the fore. Every “back to nature” movement that there has ever been, it seems to me, has these poems written into their very foundations. Whether the concerns are sowing and harvesting, maintaining flocks and herds, or engaging in the lives and loves of the countryside, The Eclogues gave strife and war-weary Romans a frisson of longing for simpler times. As members of another war-weary world today, it can do the same for the Western world of the 21st century, if we choose to let it.
The Eclogues is a foundational piece of Western literature. Lesser known than Virgil’s Aeneid, it has nevertheless had a lasting influence on the notion of life outside the bustle and noise of towns. Virgil’s sense of nostalgia for a simpler life and time in the face of war and unrest is one that we find echoed repeatedly in history, and each of those echoes is in Virgil’s own voice.
The Folio Society edition of The Eclogues is a beautifully bound slender volume, as you would expect, and would be a boon to any shelf. It includes an introductory essay on Virgil and The Eclogues reproduced from Gilbert Highet’s 1957 book, Poets in a Landscape. The translation by James Michie is not particularly arcane, and has a rhythm and pattern of its own which doesn’t seem to stray too far from the original, according to my cursory examination and ill-remembered Latin. Of course, there are many other editions of Virgil’s works, but this particular volume has a definite charm.
Reviewed 10 December 2015.
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