I’ve recently been reading David Ferry’s 1999 translation of Virgil’s Bucolics or Eclogues, not the greatest rendering of the poetry but an eminently understandable text. I’ll consider the entire set of ten poems in a later post, but today I’d like to look at the most famous of the bunch, number four.
The Fourth Eclogue stands out from the remainder of the group for several reasons beyond its traditional association with the advent of Christ. Only in this poem does Virgil’s poetic voice provide all of the lines. No singing shepherds grace this work. Also, the overall tone of this poem differs from the others. The pastoral elements in Eclogue IV seem grafted on where they’re essential to the remaining nine. These differences have led scholars to infer that the poem was written for a different occasion and then imported into the collection to round it out.
Perhaps these differences also caused Medieval readers to see the poem as something different, something that did not seem to fit, something that perhaps even the poet did not fully understand. Imagine a Benedictine monk copying the Eclogues, wishing that he’d been assigned to copy the more adventurous Aeneid, turning the page to begin reading “Eclogue IV.” He might have noticed the difference in tone immediately, but given the variety among the first three poems, he might have thought nothing of it. Then he reaches these lines:
The new order of centuries is born;
The Virgin now returns, and the reign of Saturn;
The new generation now comes down from heaven.
Lucina, look with favor on this child,
–Lucina, goddess, pure–this child by whom
The Age of Iron gives way to the Golden Age.
Our Benedictine, reading past the obviously pagan aspects–Saturn, Lucina–and seeing in the mention of the “Virgin” a reference to Mary and in the child from heaven a reference to Jesus. The monk might have known nothing of Hesiod’s description of Golden and Iron Ages, but he would likely know Daniel’s account (Daniel 2:31-33) of a statue with a golden head, breast of silver, thighs of brass, and legs of iron. He would likely have known that those materials have been interpreted as referring to a succession of rulers over Palestine: Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. If familiar with Daniel 2, he would have also known the reference to “feet of clay,” but, not finding those in Virgil’s work, would have likely ignored the omission.
That monk would have experienced the same sort of thrill experienced by an early Christian who read Psalm 22 and realized its obvious association with the crucifixion. He would have read through the remainder of the lines with bated breath, thrilling with every reference that can plausibly refer to Christ.
When he reads “Dear child, there will be new little gifts for you,” he might think of the Magi. When he hears that “The goats will come back home all by themselves,” he thinks of Jesus separating sheep and goats. If the goats are those who have gone astray, then returning goats are returning sinners. You can understand our Benedictine’s excitement.
That excitement is, however, misplaced. The apparent references to Christ in the Eclogue are intriguing, but they do not hold up to a thorough reading. Did Virgil derive some of his imagery from Isaiah, as some scholars have suggested? Perhaps, but his worldview clearly remained pagan.
The challenge for the modern Christian reader of this poem is to understand the Christian message, in its poetic forms, as unique when Virgil and others seem to employ many of the same tropes and images. Ours is not the only story of a golden age ruined and restored. We do not have the only account of a virgin bearing a miraculous child. These similarities are frequently raised overhead by triumphant atheists as evidence of the folly of Biblical belief.
Like our over-enthusiastic Benedictine, the over-enthusiastic atheist should not read too much into Virgil’s poem or the stories of Hercules or Gilgamesh or the myth of Osiris. That many poets and story-tellers employ similar stories and images, ones that resonate powerfully with the human mind, should not surprise us. The literary aspects of the Bible (or of the Book of the Dead or of Gilgamesh) should not be seen to either add to or take away from whatever truth or falsehood it contains.