(Image by Myriad Ways)
The Eclogues are a series of dramatic poems, some presente as monologues, and some as dialogues, in the voice of various shepherds of the greek land of Arcadia. One of the earliest examples of pastoral poetry, the poems were written to be performed aloud and were, apparently, extremely popular in Ancient Rome, and to a good extent made Virgil's reputation long before he wrote the Aeneid.
The Eclogues were so popular, in fact, that they began to be viewed as almost religious documents. One of the Eclogues, which (to me at least) sounds as if it were meant to legitimize and mythologize the rule of Ceasar Augustus, was later used by the early Christian emperors (like Constantine) to explain away their rule as being the divine work of Christ, and it was this passage in the Eclogues (which talks about a divine son of Jove who will come and redeem the world from an age of darkness) probably that helped Virgil get his later reputation as a prophet of the coming Christian age, and thus get put up as the nice fellow who leads Dante through hell.
I have a confession to make: I've always kind of had trouble with the idea of Virgil, and it's because of his name. I mean, Virgil. Say it. It sounds like he should be a bluegrass fiddler, or something. Which is cool and all, but difficult to resolve with an ancient Roman poet. Yes, I know this makes no sense, as the Romans were around long before bluegrass, but nonetheless, when I think of Virgil, I think of, sort of, a Hillbilly Roman. This can be a challenging impediment...
These poems, then, were a nice introduction to him. On the one hand, they ARE country poems. Most of the poems are shepherds talking about their lovers, or shepherds playfully challenging each other to singing contests - no seriously. Which, of course, I'm sure is entirely unrealistic, but then I don't think there's any illusions in the text that the speakers are supposed to be living people - they are idealizations of people. And after reading all these ancient texts that idealize man as someone who should fight, sleep around, kill, etc (Odyssey, I'm looking at you), it was really nice to have someone write a poem that said, more or less, life should be beautiful, respect should be given to the makers of beauty.
Beyond this, while some of the eclogues were less interesting to me, others were really beautiful. The last three Eclogues were particularly beautiful. For instance, in the last Eclogue, a poet, dying for love, hopes that at least his death will make a song:
"Yet will ye sing, Arcadians, of my woes
Upon your mountains," sadly he replied-
"Arcadians, that alone have skill to sing.
O then how softly would my ashes rest,
If of my love, one day, your flutes should tell!
And would that I, of your own fellowship,
Or dresser of the ripening grape had been,
Or guardian of the flock!
Or, in number 8, where the speaker sings about love, and how it changes the world around you:
Begin, my flute, with me Maenalian lays.
Now let the wolf turn tail and fly the sheep,
Tough oaks bear golden apples, alder-trees
Bloom with narcissus-flower, the tamarisk
Sweat with rich amber, and the screech-owl vie
In singing with the swan
The little passage discusses this world that is at once frighteningly unpredictable and filled with unexpected beauty, while at the same time tying in the little love of an individual back with the Earth. To the speaker, and to all the Shepherds of the Eclogues, humanity isn't really a group of individuals surrounded by a world. Rather human life is just a manifestation of life itself, of the earth and the sky and the world around you.
The language is a little obtuse (though this may just be the translation), and I know I misunderstood scads of things in the poems, but these little poems gave me a little dose of happy this week, and it's a LITTLE easier to not imagine Virgil in a straw hat and overalls with no shirt, now. Or at least, to appreciate his fiddling. ;)