The Eclogues (Latin for “Selections”) is the earliest of Virgil’s three masterpieces, each of which coincides with the prolonged sunset of the old Roman Republic. The Eclogues appears shortly before the end of the Roman Civil Wars, which ended in the triumph of Octavian over Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 30 BC.
In the Eclogues Virgil, then a young man, breathes new life into the Bucoloic poetic tradition of Hellenism (drawing heavily from Theocritus). In fact, The Eclogues is sometimes simply referred to as the “Bucoloics.” Much of latter scholarship has resigned the Eclogues to the bin of forgettable pastoral poetry, however Virgil’s early masterpiece is, perhaps, in need of reclamation and reassessment. In total there are ten short poems, or “Selections” in Virgil’s first great work. The Eclogues are written in hexameter.
The first “selection” is a dialogue between two men: Meliboeus and Tityrus. Meliboeus is envious of the overwhelming “peace” that Tityrus feels at the security of his farm far away from Rome amidst “familiar brooks” and “sacred springs.” However Rome is not his home, for it is like a “cypress towering above a guelder rose (25). He moved away from Rome to the quiet countryside and was able to keep his farm, thanks to a “god” he met in Rome.
The context of the first Eclogue is during the Roman Civil Wars. Meliboeus has lost his home due to the war, and he envies the peace of mind of Tityrus. Tityrus invites him over to rest at his home.
Unlike the first Eclogue, the second is not a dialogue. It is a narrative about Corydon, a shepherd, who has fallen in love with Alexis, his master’s “delight.” Aside from the first few lines, it is a long lament of love by Corydon for Alexis. Among his many Arcadian allusions, he compares himself to Amphion of Attica (Zeus’s son). Love is devoid of politics, best practiced out among the Arcadian forests, dreaming of what is to be, and taking joy in lament and sorrow.
The third “Selection” returns to the dialogue-esque format of the first. It is a singing competition between two men, Menalcas and Dametas. They both accuse each other of wrongdoing. They challenge each other to a singing competition, alternating verses with one another, to be judged by a friend, Palaemon. Winner receives a heifer. In the end, Palaemon says they both are deserving of the heifer.
The fourth Eclogue is the most consequential. It sings of a coming “golden age” after the “iron age” which will be ushered in by a “virgin” and “chaste” woman named Lucina, who will give birth to a boy -a god and a hero. It also points to the fruits of “man’s first tragic error” (31) and a “child of Jove” (49) whose time draws near.
The above etching was completed by Samuel Palmer in black and white pencil: “Eclogue IV: Thy Very Cradle Quickens” (1876).
Early interpretations found the poem to be alluding to a child of Marc Antony and Octavia; while obvious latter interpretations found the poem to be referencing Christianity. Some even suggested Virgil was a prophet. The poem contains elements of Hesiod’s Ages of Man poem found in his Works and Days, as well as Hebrew and Christian and other Eastern mysticism. Perhaps Virgil took inspiration from oracles and prophets, who drew upon references to the Book of Isaiah.
The fifth “Selection” is a dialogue between Menalcas and Mopsus who find shade in a cave and enjoy a song dedicated to Daphnis – the ancient Greek pastoral poet and shepherd (sung by the younger Mopsus). Then Menalcas also sings a song of tribute to Daphnis. Several of the eclogues reference each other ins subtle ways (Menalcas alludes to the second eclogue about Corydon and Alexis).
The sixth is a first-person account from Tityrus, the man from the first eclogue. It is an homage to the gods, particularly Phoebus and is riddled with contemporary poetic references to Virgil’s time.
The seventh showcases two familiar characters: Meliboeus and Corydon. Meliboeus recalls Daphnis (the ancient Greek shepherd poet) singing near a brook in the shade while two men, Corydon and Thyrsis, competed in song. The whole account is a recollection by Meliboeus.
The eighth takes place in the early hours of dusk and calls upon the Muse for the song Damon, whose pastoral songs “stopped the heifer” and ‘paused the lynx’ and ‘stunned the rivers.’ Damon has been deceived in faithless love by his betrothed, Nysa. It has a chorus throughout the song that is translated as: “My flute, begin with me a song Maenalus.” It is his tragic, suicide song.
The second half of the eclogue is a song of hope and lament, a lover, Alphesiboeus, longs for Daphnis, the great ancient Greek pastoral poet.
The penultimate eclogue is an exchange between two men: Lycidas and Moeris. Moeris is walking on foot as his farm has been taken over by a soldier-stranger. All men suffer reversals of Fortune. It is a song of his long-lost and beloved farm. They agree to sing together.
The final eclogue is a song for Gallus Cornelius, a man lovesick and dying of lover’s lament in Arcadia. Thus Gallus Cornelius replaces Daphnis (the Greek pastoral shepherd pastoral poet) and Arcadia becomes transformed in Roman mythos.
It contains the famous Latin phrase: “omnia vincit amor” -or love conquers all (Eclogue X 69).
For this reading I used the Loeb edition, translated by H.R. Fairclough.