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Eclogues – Virgil



Posted September 3, 2016 by

Eclogues – Virgil – 37 B.C.

Reviewed by: Michael Sympson          Date: 15 September 2001

Dryden’s labor of love, part III.

This translation by Dryden is hard to come by. But it is worth it! Nabokov called Virgil’s poetry “insipid,” the people in the circus of Naples, who rose to their feet for a standing ovation, must have thought differently. Perhaps the crowds merely empathized with Virgil’s awkward person, his hacking cough, the sly smirk under a peasant’s heavy brow, his rustic accent. Maybe they felt, that he was one of their own. Little does his early work indicate to which length of seemingly servile adulation Virgil eventually would have to go. Later ages would accuse Virgil of a subservient mentality – unjustly perhaps.

The Roman rich were very rich, the Roman poor very poor; in fact poverty decorated the mantelpieces of the upper crust – quite literally: we have unearthed many statuettes of that period. They portray low life figures in every realistic detail, warts and all – feisty slave girls, old fishmongers, a toothless washerwomen dozing off her liquor. Apparently such decorations became extremely popular items for a wealthy house. The thinly spread middle-class was trapped in a social seesaw situation and the institution of slavery would make it even more difficult to bridge the widening gulf between the classes.

In terms of income, Virgil came from a rural middle-class background; on her way to the fields, his mother had given birth in the ditches. His parent’s single-minded aim, which is so typical for people of the struggling middle-class, was to provide their son with the best education money could buy, in order to make it easier for him to climb the social ladder. There was an encouraging example: from a small town a banker’s son had ascended to the throne of an empire. But times could be tough. Virgil himself had been evicted from his father’s farm because the state confiscated land to provide for the army’s veterans.

When a modern reader thinks of idyllic poetry he automatically associates something nostalgic and sentimental with it, a hypocritical invocation of good old times and conservative values. But Virgil had it not in him to be sentimental. So in his very first poem Virgil introduces an evicted farmer who lost his homestead to a retired war-veteran. He has a last afternoon to visit his former neighbor and friend, they talk and there is no happy ending to this story: all what is left is a last look at the smoking chimneys of distant cottage-roofs which slowly drown in the lengthening shadows. And this is sheer magic. This last image suggests something enduring. Farmers pass, but farming will be here for ever; suddenly something eternal, a platonic archetype seems to cast light onto the fragility of our world. It doesn’t make it any easier for the dispossessed emigrant, but the world is essentially good.

Between a couple of cuter pieces about love among and between the sexes, especially 3 poems stand out. The enigmatic 4th Eclogue on the birth of his patron’s child would earn Virgil the status of a prophet. In the middle ages some considered him to be a saint (others a sorcerer). Eclogue 6 and 10 celebrate important friendships in Virgil’s life, but curiously mix the jocular with the tragic. Especially for the 10th it would be important to know when exactly it was written, because the fate of his friend Gallus became a turning point in Virgil’s work.

The ‘Eclogues’ are the only poems in Virgil’s work, which refer to slaves as leading characters. Virgil’s complete silence on the subject in his mature work, especially the ‘Georgics’ which seem especially suited to speak of forced labor, certainly means something, but we don’t know exactly what. Had he learned to resent the institution, and if yes on what grounds? Did he see it economically cutting into the franchise of the middle-class? Had he humanitarian reservations? Or had it become one of the unmentionables in polite society? We don’t know. But we do know, there was no such thing as a lobby for the abolition of slavery. The days of Spartacus had passed for good.

ReadLit Team


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