Lemex Learns Ya' Latin Poetry #2 Virgil's Eclogue 1 part 1

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Ok, so the last time we broke down the text of Catullus 1 to allow anyone who read the Latin without master the language. That, for the sake of speed and my own sanity I cannot exactly replicate here, but what I can do is provide the Latin, and then an English translation with some notes that will be of interest. My translations, too, stick as closely to the meaning of the original as possible in prose.

Virgil is one of my favourite poets from antiquity, mostly because he wrote of ordinary people, and was able to sympathize with them in such a profoundly meaningful way in both his Eclogues and his Georgics. His epic poem The Aeneid is also a fine adventure story in it's own right, and a worthy successor to Homer's two epics in the Ancient Greek.

Since the Eclogues are long, and there are ten of them in total, I thought that it may be best to break them down into sections so they are more easily manageable. I plan to do each Eclogue in at least three parts, but since I have not finished translating them all myself it may take a while before I can talk about them all in the level detail I want to go into.

So what is an Eclogue? When encountering the Eclogues for the first time it is very important to understand the work that influenced Virgil, and he is now using, to understand what he was trying to do. The Eclogues are often also called the 'Bucolic' and should be thought of as pastoral poems, poems on rural themes and peasant farmers. This poetic tradition seems to have came from the Arcadia area of Greece, and Arcadia has long been associated with images of paradise, perfection, and of a simple and pleasant life.

Eclogue/Bucolic/pastoral poems were for many people perfected with Theocritus's Bucolic poems, called the Idylls. In Theocritus's poems we find farmers enter into singing contests, of sang to their flock as a from of entertainment, which is a tradition still alive in places like the Balkens in eastern Europe. We know about this thanks to the work of who is The name in Homeric scholarship, Mathew Perry. We also find women who, suffering of a broken heart, is creating a love tonic in a crazed panic, showing there is room in pastoral poetry for more than just talking about the farm and the wild life. This genre of poetry exists even today, and can be found in the work of Seamus Heaney and Robert Frost. Robert Frost even wrote a version of Eclogue 1 in his poem 'Build Soil - A Political Pastoral'.

On to the poem itself, which during it's 83 lines deals with two characters, Meliboeus and Tityrus interacting. The poem is a conversation, and one that starts off with:

Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena;
nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arva.
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.​

In English this is essentially:

Tityrus, you are dosing under that beech tree sheild cover, meditating on the muses of woods with your pipe; we however are outcasts leaving our countries boundaries and our sweet home farms. We are fleeing our homes and you, Tityrus, are cool in that shade, teaching the woods to sing back with beautiful Amaryllis.​

What this opening stanza does is introduce us to the character of Meliboeus, and it also sets the scene of the poem. The characters are in a woodland, that seems well lit because Tityrus is lazing in the cover of a tree playing a pipe reed. The pipe reed also indicates he is a shepherd, since the pipe reed was long associated with shepherds and pan, people close to nature, since Theocritus's time some few hundred years before Virgil.

We also in this stanza get a hint as to the subject of the poem. Meliboeus is part of a 'we' that is now on the move. He is fleeing because of something, but it cannot be danger, as why is Tityrus also not running? We will find out more about Meliboeus's situation later in the poem.

This stanza ends with a subtle sex joke. Amaryllis is a type of flower common to the Mediterranean.
Amaryllis is also a young woman who appears often in Ancient Greek pastoral poetry, and she is often represented as very beautiful and innocent. The name means something like ‘Mrs Sparkle’, and Virgil likely encountered this name in Theocritus’s Idyll 3. If Tityrus was to 'sing' with Amaryllis, he is not only to sing with the flowers, and sing with an image of innocence and beauty (which is often the theme of pastoral poetry) but Tityrus is also teaching the woods to sing back to her, making the woman 'sing' by bringing her to orgasm.

Meliboeus seems worked up in any case, as he talks to Tityrus quite sharply and directly, with the two uses of 'tu' or 'you'. Meliboeus also uses the word 'tegmine' which is in some ways a military word for cover, like the shield in a testudo when talking about the tree protecting Tityrus from the sun. Could this be a hint at Meliboeus's problem? We will find out, as Tityrus responds with:

O Meliboee, deus nobis haec otia fecit.
namque erit ille mihi semper deus, illius aram
saepe tener nostris ab ovilibus imbuet agnus.
ille meas errare boves, ut cernis, et ipsum
ludere quae vellem calamo permisit agresti.​

In English this is essentially this:

Oh Meliboeus, a noble god has given us a reason to enjoy ourselves. And yes, he will always be a god to me now, for his altar there will always be a lamb to slaughter from my own flock. As you can see, he has allowed my cows to wander freely, and let me play what ever music I want on my reed pipe.​

Tityrus's remark here is pretty flippant, and rather insensitive to Melibeous's pain. This may make Tityrus seem like a bit of a jerk, but we need to understand things from his perspective, something this stanza allows us to do. He is sitting in the shade of a large tree, watching over his flock of cows as they do ... something, most likely grazing, and he is playing a reed pipe. In short, he is happily minding his own business. Then, suddenly, along comes Meliboeus to comment in him.

To suggest Tityrus is trying to somehow lighten Meliboeus's spirits with his own good news might be giving Tityrus too much credit. It is more the case that Tityrus was in a good mood and was simply not thinking about trying to console Meliboeus over his woes. This is obviously insensitive, but it also feels very real. It does appear to be an example of excellent characterization on Virgil's part, because his character has made a mistake, but one that we have surely all made before.

Tityrus in his stanza talks in praise of a 'god' and it becomes quickly apparent with his comment 'namque erit ille mihi semper deus' or 'and he will always be a god to me' that this 'god' is in fact a man. This 'god' has saved Tityrus from something quite harsh, something that has forced Meliboeus to leave his home and move on to parts unknown.

Just what has happened in not-too-distant past in this poem we will find out about in the next part, but before we can call this to a close two things need to be pointed out to the reader about Virgil's style.

One is the constant references to Theocritus, and ancient readers who would be very familiar with Theocritus's Idylls would have picked up on them. Virgil lived during a time when the Roman empire had conquered Greece, and the Greek poets were much admired by Virgil's contemporaries. Tityrus is a name taken directly from Theocritus's Idylls, and the idea of having a simplistic voice living in innocence contrasted against someone more aware and worldly was a common theme in Theocritus.

Also, Virgil had encyclopedic knowledge of plant life, which makes sense considering the genre of poetry he is writing in, but sometimes he will name plans specifically, and direct translations of these cannot be avoided, even if they can be slightly frustrating to a modern reader unfamiliar with the plans being talked about. The only example we have seen of this so far is 'Amaryllis', which thankfully also has a double meaning - which is good for us students of poetry. However further into the poem we are given the specific names of plants, and as far as I know there is no poetic symbolism to them.

This is the introduction to Virgil's Eclogue 1. Please keep aboard for part two, when we go deeper into this poem and find out exactly what has happened to our new friends.
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