Despite my general lack of enthusiasm for the Eclogues, I must confess an intrigue with them that parallels my intrigue with the Aeneid. In his great epic, Virgil takes what Homer had already done and, borrowing many surface details from the Greek master’s work, creates something wholly new and marvelous on its own merits. In the pastoral Eclogues, Virgil borrows from the playbook of Theocritus but again creates poems that reach beyond simply a non-realistic shepherd–Theocritus’ shepherds seem to be largely well-scrubbed and idle fellows with animals as an occasional prop to maintain the setting.
To see the novelty of Virgil’s pastoral work, we can look at the apparent simplicity of the 8th Eclogue. On its surface, this poem seems to be a very simple one. In fact, it seems to be two very simple ones with very little to join them. In the beginning of the poem, we encounter sixteen lines of introduction–longer in David Ferry’s translation–in which the poet praises
The Muse of the shepherds Alphesiboeus and Damon,
At whose contending songs the very cattle
Were spellbound in the field, forgetting to graze–
The lynx was spellbound too, hearing the music–
And the rivers, spellbound, stood still listening–
After this quick preface, introducing the supposed poets and praising their Muse, Virgil proceeds to allow the two, Alphesiboeus and Damon to present their songs in turn. Of course, the Muse of these two shepherds must be Virgil’s own Muse, as he writes the songs of each poet; thus, perhaps in his first lines, Virgil praises himself.
The song of Damon is unsurprising. In a different era, it might have founds its way into the lyrics of a country song. Damon sings of his profound love for the delight of his childhood, Nysa. Alas, Nysa has married the loathesome Mopsus, whose songs appear in Eclogue V. Damon’s song seems to lament his childhood love and then to reveal a more mature view of love’s pains.
I know what Love is. He was born on the rocks
Of Tmaros or of Rhodope or else
Far in the Garamantian Desert. Love
Is not of our blood and he is not of our kind.
Love taught a mother how to stain her hands
With the blood of her children.
Damon’s view of love is harsh and typical of the scorned lover. Between the stanzas of his spellbinding song, he repeats a refrain: “My flute, begin to play Maenalus’ song,” a refrain that refers to the apparent narrator of Damon’s song. (irgil, then, writes words supposedly of Damon who sings words supposedly of Maenalus.) That refrain reminds the reader of Maenalus, the fact that we are hearing his song as related by Damon, and the entire pastoral conceit. The theme of a young man realizing love’s cruelty is hardly original in art.
The second song, that of Alphesiboeus, is similarly non-original. In this song, the poet mourns for the lost Daphnis, mythologically the creator of pastoral poetry, while at the same time creating magic that will bring restore the lover’s affections. Daphnis, the dead artist, reminiscent in various ways of Christ–semi-divine, encountered as a child by shepherds, likened to a shepherd as an adult–is restored to life in the poem’s last refrain, yet not in the traditional way. In both of these poems, poetry itself–and pastoral poetry specifically–is held up as the life-giving, transformative force. Daphnis lives in whoever the Muse empowers to bring him back to life.