Poetry as equipment for living:
a gradual reading of Vergil's ninth eclogue

by Andrew Becker 

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
                   Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

Wallace Stevens, Of Modern Poetry


In his ninth eclogue, Vergil dramatises poetry's growing ineffectiveness in the years following the collapse of the Roman Republic. The poem treats the growing failure of poetry as equipment for living, as a significant force in the lives of those who have heard it.[1] Much has been written about this eclogue, focusing on the composition, nature, or subject matter of pastoral poetry;[2] my focus here, however, is not the composition of song (the poet), but rather the reception (the audience), the function and use of song in the lives of those who have heard it and remember it.

The two characters in the poem are herdsmen of northern Italy, near Vergil's home: a young man, Lycidas, and an older man, Moeris. The older Moeris, dispossessed by the settlements that Octavian, among others, had arranged for his veterans, now works for a soldier who has taken possession of his land. In the poem, the two herdsmen are discussing their fate, and that of the absent Menalcas, an admired singer already driven away by the settling soldiers. Their conversation turns to the songs they have heard from Menalcas; Moeris and Lycidas react in very different ways to these remembered songs. In the course of the poem each of the familiar ways to use songs from the past is rejected by Moeris, while Lycidas tries to retain hope that the familiar, inherited uses of song can still hold. Their topic is the possibility of using poetry as equipment for living in the age of Vergil's ninth eclogue.

For us, the functions of literature in Vergil's time are in some measure derivable from rhetoric. While the categories of ancient rhetorical criticism can be a Procrustean bed for Latin literature, they can also allow us to see some assumptions against which much Latin poetry plays.[3] The Roman literati learned and articulated their responses to literature at the rhetorician's knee; Vergil himself studied rhetoric, and Vergil's audiences were conversant in the commonplaces of rhetorical training. Rhetorical teaching divided the functions of speech into three: delectare(to please), docere(to teach), and movere (to move, to induce us to undertake some course of action).[4] If we read Vergil's Eclogue 9 with these terms in mind, the poem calls into question each of these three rhetorical functions of stylised language, here in terms of poetry rather than
oratory. The eclogue shows how each of these functions has lost some or all of its force as equipment for living in that age of civil war. By the end of the poem all three uses of poetry are lost to the older man, Moeris, while young Lycidas loses his faith in the ability of song either to move its audience to any significant action (movere) or to teach in any useful way (docere).[5] Yet, at the end of the poem, Lycidas still expresses hope that song will be able to please (delectare). Lycidas' last hope is for poetry to function as an escape; he hopes that song, shared song, can create a moment of fellowship that itself can provide solace and pleasure, however tenuous or transient.[6]

A Reading of the Eclogue

The opening questions asked by young Lycidas set the tone for the poem (line 1): Quo te, Moeri, pedes? an, quo via ducit, in urbem?Where, Moeris, are you walking? Where the road leads? To the city? This first line is a close imitation of Theocritus, Vergil's most famous Greek predecessor in pastoral poetry: Theocritus' Idyll 7.21 has the phrase 'Simichidas, where are you dragging your feet in the noon-day sun?'[7] Simichidas was proceeding from the city to a lush harvest festival in the country and the whole of Idyll 7 moved toward pleasance and lack of care and rest and beauty. But the herdsmen here in Vergil's poem are reversing the journey, moving away from the pastoral world: the reminiscence of Theocritus in Vergil's opening line prefigures the unpleasantness of Moeris' response.

Following Lycidas' question, the older Moeris does not answer directly, but rather laments the cause of the journey. He expresses surprise and shock, indignation and anger, at his dispossession by a soldier settled on his land by Octavian (lines 2-6): O Lycida, vivi pervenimus, advena nostri
(quod numquam veriti sumus) ut possessor agelli
diceret: 'haec mea sunt; veteres migrate coloni.'
nunc victi, tristes, quoniam fors omnia versat,
hos illi (quod nec vertat bene) mittimus haedos.O Lycidas, we have lived to see an outsider (something we never feared), as possessor of our little field, say: 'These lands are mine; leave, old settlers.' Now, beaten, bitter, since chance overturns everything, we bring these young goats for that man. May it never turn out well for him. These bitter lines include the words fors omnia versat ('chance overturns everything'). This proverbial phrase initially signals resignation; it is a way of generalising one's own misfortune into an unpleasant but comprehensible rule of nature. It is a familiar way of using language (in the case of such proverbs, a type of inherited, familiar language) to deal with misfortune: we are all victims--that is the only solace to be found from the proverb uttered by Moeris.[8] The function of the proverb here is to mitigate anger or despondency, and encourage one to go on: it is used by Moeris as equipment for living. We could say that the proverbial phrase uttered by Moeris teaches a way of understanding experience (docere); we could even say that by giving comfort, albeit cold comfort, it may please (delectare). This type of proverb, however, with its resignation, rarely moves one (movere) to alter the circumstances that cause the suffering.

So, too, poetry? While poetry was expected to teach (docere), and also to provide the pleasure of diversion (delectare), Lycidas' next lines show that song was also expected to move (movere), to change both attitudes and actions. Lycidas' surprise at Moeris' dispossession presupposes a belief in the power of poets to change their world (7-10):
  Certe equidem audieram, qua se subducere colles
incipiunt mollique iugum demittere clivo,
usque ad aquam et veteres, iam fracta cacumina, fagos,
omnia carminibus vestrum servasse Menalcan.Surely I had heard [this] at least, that where the hills begin to rise up and send down a ridge with a gentle slope, all the way up to the water and the ancient beech trees, now broken peaks, your Menalcas with his songs had saved everything. Lycidas believes that Menalcas should have been able to save the lands with his songs, i.e., his songs should have moved those in power, the powerful should have responded to poetry. Lycidas here makes this assumption; Moeris, as the poem continues, shows that it no longer holds.

In these same lines, Lycidas also gives a fine description of the landscape. Beautiful description is a commonplace in pastoral poetry, and throughout the eclogue Lycidas shows himself to have great affection for pastoral commonplaces. Unfortunately the pleasure of the description is precluded, for Moeris, by its content: Lycidas describes what Moeris has lost. In his words of surprise, young Lycidas thus assumes both the ability of song to move the powerful and also, understandably but vainly, the ability of pastoral description to please its audience.

Moeris' resigned response tries to chasten the boy (11-13): Audieras, et fama fuit; sed carmina tantum
nostra valent, Lycida, tela inter Martia quantum
Chaonias dicunt aquila veniente columbas.You had heard it, and it was the rumour; but our songs have as much strength, Lycidas, among the weapons of Mars as they say that Chaonian doves have when an eagle is coming. Moeris tells him the bad news, the uselessness of song, using another proverbial phrase (the Chaonian doves in the face of an eagle).[9] He denies that poetry is an antidote to force, or that it can shield them from danger; in short, he rejects poetry's power to move (movere). With Moeris' next words Lycidas hears that poetry is now so powerless that it took a lucky reading of a portent to save the beloved bard Menalcas. Moeris says (14-16): quod nisi me quacumque novas incidere lites
ante sinistra cava monuisset ab ilice cornix,
nec tuus hic Moeris nec viveret ipse Menalcas.but if a crow on the left had not somehow warned me from his hollow oak to cut short these new disputes, neither would your Moeris still be alive, nor Menalcas himself. Lycidas, however, shows himself still reluctant to believe that the world could be so (17): Heu, cadit in quemquam tantum scelus?Alas, can such a crime happen to anyone? The question is perhaps naive, but also appealing. He (and perhaps we) would like to believe that the world could not possibly be the way it is. In his urgent excitement, after his surprise that the world could be so, and apparently accepting that poetry was not able to move those in power, Lycidas turns to another use of poetry, the pleasure of solace (delectare). But even so he is merely remembering the pleasures of the past (17-25):                             ...heu tua nobis
paene simul tecum solacia rapta, Menalca!
quis caneret Nymphas? quis humum florentibus herbis
spargeret aut viridi fontis induceret umbra?
vel quae sublegi tacitus tibi carmina nuper,
cum te ad delicias ferres Amaryllida nostras?Tityre, dum redeo (brevis est via), pasce capellas
et potum pastas age, Tityre, et inter agendum
occursare capro (cornu ferit ille) caveto....alas, along with you, your consolation was almost taken from us, Menalcas! Who would sing the nymphs? Who would spread the ground with flowering plants or cover over the springs with green shade? Or (who would sing) these songs of yours I recently overheard, silent myself, when you were heading off to Amaryllis, our sweetheart?'Tityrus, until I return (the road is short), feed the she-goats and take them to drink once they have eaten, Tityrus, and, while taking them, beware of running into the billy-goat - he butts with his horn.' To Lycidas, songs were and still should be solacia (consolations, relief, comfort), which create a locus amoenus, a pastoral grove, to enjoy. In other words, songs are to please (delectare). Poetry as equipment for living has now turned from power to consolation.[10]

Despite his attempts at comforting song, Lycidas has unwittingly chosen another theme that emphasises Moeris' loss. Moeris no longer has choices about what to do with the sheep: he has lost his flocks, and now serves a stranger. The traditional pastoral subject matter has undercut, once more, the function of song intended by Lycidas. While the old songs may still work for Lycidas, they regularly remind Moeris of his woes.

Nevertheless, Moeris does make an attempt to join Lycidas in singing the remembered songs of Menalcas (26-29):

Immo haec, quae Varo necdum perfecta canebat:

Vare, tuum nomen, superet modo Mantua nobis,
Mantua vae miserae nimium vicina Cremonae,
cantantes sublime ferent ad sidera cycni.

What of these songs, though they are still not polished, which he [Menalcas] was singing to Varus:
'Varus, singing swans will bear your name aloft to the stars, if only you let Mantua survive for us, Mantua, alas, too near unfortunate Cremona.'
While Moeris has been drawn into song, this first step is attenuated and disconcerting: he may be singing, but he sings of an unsuccessful appeal by the poet Menalcas to save his land.[11] Moeris' repetition of Menalcas' words recalls a situation in which song, despite it's failure in this case, was believed to have the power to move (movere). But when removed from its original motive and recalled here by Moeris, this formerly potent function of song is no longer even a possibility. Neither Moeris nor Lycidas is here trying to sing new songs in their new world; they are, rather, trying to bring old songs into the present. This eclogue explores not the fate of creativity in the face of force, but rather the possibility of using songs from the past in new and troubled circumstances.[12]

Undaunted, young Lycidas has not lost his desire for more song. Encouraged by Moeris' first attempt to sing, he begins again to speak in pastoral commonplaces, and these commonplaces continue to remind Moeris of his loss (30-32): Sic tua Cyrneas fugiant examina taxos,
sic cytiso pastae distendant ubera vaccae,
incipe, si quid habes.Thus may your swarms of bees avoid the Corsican yew trees, thus may your cows, fed on clover, fill their udders. Begin, if you have anything to sing. Lycidas still does not accept or notice that these old songs will not work for Moeris, that the dispossessed Moeris can no longer have bees and cows. Lycidas still sees songs as pleasing, consolation, solace (delectare). He still thinks he can help his friend, by using songs to create a moment of fellowship, the way they used to do. After the phrase incipe, si quid habes (32, 'begin if you have anything [to sing]'), Lycidas apparently meets with silence. So he exuberantly rambles on (32-36):                              et me fecere poetam
Pierides, sunt et mihi carmina, me quoque dicunt
vatem pastores; sed non ego credulus illis.
nam neque adhuc Vario videor nec dicere Cinna
digna, sed argutos inter strepere anser olores.The Pierian Muses have made even me a poet, and even I have songs; the shepherds also call me a prophetic bard, but I don't believe them. That is because, thus far, I seem to sing songs worthy of neither Varius nor Cinna, but rather to screech like a goose among these silver swans. These lines echo another passage of the canonical Greek exemplar in pastoral poetry; compare Theocritus Idyll 7.37-41:[13]For the Muse has also smiled on my voice, and everyone calls me the best of singers. But I'm not someone so quick to believe it, by Zeus. For, in my opinion I still wouldn't beat good Sicelidas from Samos, or Philetas, in a singing contest. I compete with them as a frog competes with a cricket. The lines of Lycidas, so closely adapted from Theocritus, show us again that the pastoral tradition is ever part of his reactions. He still thinks the tradition of pastoral song can be of use.

Moeris then breaks in with some telling words, as he tries to explain his silence. In a belated response to Lycidas' exhortation (incipe si quid habes, 'Begin if you have anything [to sing]'), Moeris says (37-38): Id quidem ago et tacitus, Lycida, mecum ipse voluto,
si valeam meminisse; neque est ignobile carmen.Indeed, I am doing just this, and silently, Lycidas, to myself, I am going over a song, on the chance that I might remember it; and it is not an unworthy song. The phrase si valeam meminisse ('on the chance that I might remember it') first broaches the question of memory, which will recur in the poem. Memory is fundamental to poetry's ability to teach (docere); Moeris' memory, he suggests, may be losing its control over the songs he has known in the past. Nevertheless, he tries to sing a Theocritean theme, that of the Cyclops Polyphemus singing to gain the love of Galatea, a nymph of the sea (39-43): huc ades, o Galatea; quis enim nam ludus in undis?
hic ver purpureum, varios hic flumina circum
fundit humus flores, hic candida populus antro
imminet et lentae texunt umbracula vites.
huc ades; insani feriant sine litora fluctus.Come here, Galatea. What fun is there in the waves? Here is colourful springtime, here along the rivers the ground pours forth different kinds of flowers, here the radiant white poplar shades my cave and the supple vines weave canopies. Come here: let the raging waves beat upon the beaches. In the Theocritean model for this passage, song does not accomplish its purpose (movere) but it does provide solace (delectare), as it charms Polyphemus out of his grief: 'And so Polyphemus shepherded his love by singing and passed the time more pleasantly' (Theocritus Idyll 11.80-1).[14] It worked before. Why not now? Moeris here has gamely given it a try.

Moeris has at this point questioned his memory (37-8) and sung a few lines of an old song (39-43), but then he breaks off. He tries to turn the singing back over to Lycidas, and again questions his memory, specifically his memory of the words (44-5):[15]Quid, quae te pura solum sub nocte canentem
audieram? numeros memini, si verba tenerem.What about those songs I'd heard you singing, alone, on a clear night? I remember the rhythm, if only I could keep hold of the words. Songs are slipping away from Moeris. These lines show him recognising this loss, and he then quits his own attempt to sing by eliciting a song from young Lycidas. However feeble, it is an attempt to engage in the camaraderie and perhaps the solace of pastoral poetry that is so eagerly desired by Lycidas.

Lycidas then picks up the thread, but, for the fourth time in the poem, his words remind Moeris of what has been lost, as he starts singing the requested song (46-50): Daphni, quid antiquos signorum suspicis ortus?
ecce Dionaei processit Caesaris astrum,[16]
astrum quo segetes gauderent frugibus et quo
duceret apricis in collibus uva colorem.
insere, Daphni, piros: carpent tua poma nepotes.Daphnis, why do you look up at the ancient risings of the constellations? Look, the star of Caesar, who descends from Dione, has come out, a star at which the fields rejoiced in their crops and at which the grape on the sunny hills absorbed its colour. Graft your pear trees, Daphnis: your grandsons will pick your fruit. Lycidas sings, in effect, a hope that others will be more fortunate than Moeris. (It is no wonder that Moeris could not recall these words.) And this last passage of Lycidas is the telling blow. Moeris no longer tries to enter the consolation of poetry (51-5): Omnia fert aetas, animum quoque. saepe ego longos
cantando puerum memini me condere soles.
nunc oblita mihi tot carmina, vox quoque Moerim
iam fugit ipsa: lupi Moerim videre priores.
sed tamen ista satis referet tibi saepe Menalcas.Time takes away all things, my mind/memory too. I remember that I, as a boy, used to lay the summer suns to rest with my singing. Now I have forgotten so many songs; the voice itself now abandons Moeris: wolves saw Moeris first. But nevertheless Menalcas will bring those songs back often enough, for you. Moeris returns to the proverbial expressions of resignation that marked his opening words (cf. line 5, fors omnia versat, 'chance overturns everything'). He is again the victim of forces beyond his control: first it was chance, now it is the passage of time (aetas) and the superstition about the wolves.[17] And this time memory has failed completely: omnia fert aetas, animum quoque (51, 'time takes away all things, my mind too') and nunc oblita mihi tot carmina (53, 'now I have forgotten so many songs'). For Moeris, poetry can now no longer be equipment for living in any of the three senses outlined above. Earlier in the poem, it neither moved those it needed to move nor gave pleasure to Moeris; now, because memory has failed, the old songs cannot even teach. At the end of this passage, the older and resigned Moeris accepts that the return of Menalcas could bring back the songs, and, though they could not regain their power, they could, perhaps, bring some poetic pleasure. But the pleasure is for Lycidas alone (55, tibi, 'for you'); Moeris does not include himself. Maybe things will be better, but not for all. Formerly there were poets, then came those who repeated and sang the poetry they inherited; now, in a time of turmoil, there is poetic amnesia.

Lycidas, with remarkable stamina, perseverance, enthusiasm, perhaps with insensitivity but perhaps with compassion, ceases not. After an initial complaint, he works to draw Moeris into pastoral song to lighten the unpleasant duty of carrying young goats in baskets to the city for his dispossessor (56-65): Causando nostros in longum ducis amores.
et nunc omne tibi stratum silet aequor, et omnes,
aspice, ventosi ceciderunt murmuris aurae.
hic adeo media est nobis via; namque sepulcrum
incipit apparere Bianoris.[18]  hic, ubi densas
agricolae stringunt frondes, hic, Moeri, canamus;
hic haedos depone, tamen veniemus in urbem.
aut si nox pluviam ne colligat ante veremur,
cantantes licet usque (minus via laedet) eamus;
cantantes ut eamus, ego hoc te fasce levabo.With these excuses you put off our desires far into the future. And now the calm water is quiet for you, and look, all the breezes with their windy whisper have died down. Here, right at this spot, is the middle of our trip, since the tomb of Bianor is beginning to appear; here, where the farmers prune the thick branches; here, Moeris, let's sing; here, put down the young goats--we'll still make it to the city. Or, if we're afraid that night might gather up a rainstorm before we get there, then it's fine to sing while we go; the trip will be less bothersome. So we can sing while we go, I'll carry this load for you. Lycidas describes the quietness of their surroundings, unfortunately mentioning a farmer who can still tend to his land, then says that he is willing to do anything (stop the journey, walk in the rain, carry Moeris' burden), if only it will result in song. The penultimate line (64, minus via laedet, 'the trip will be less bothersome') shows that Lycidas has not lost his belief that song will make their lives easier and more pleasant, even if that means only to pass the time in their journey. While Moeris has lost all three uses of song, young Lycidas has ceased to expect that songs will move (movere) or teach (docere), but still expects them to please (delectare).

Finally Moeris has had enough of trying, and the poem concludes (66-67): Desine plura, puer, et quod nunc instat agamus;
carmina tum melius, cum venerit ipse, canemus.No more songs, boy, let's do what now presses upon us; we shall sing songs better then, when he himself has come. Is there some hope? In mentioning the possible improvement when Menalcas comes, Moeris has switched from the second singular (55, tibi, 'for you') to the first plural (67, canemus, 'we shall sing'). We know that Menalcas is powerless to change things (11-16). But, while movere is out of reach, delectare(solace) may still be possible. In the face of force, the Chaonian doves may still be able to sing their carmina (songs) and sing them melius (better), as Lycidas so fervently wishes.[19]

EpilogueThus truth, frankness, courage, love, humility, and all the virtues range themselves on the side of prudence, or the art of securing a present well-being.Ralph Waldo Emerson[20] Poetry as equipment for living means, in the case of Moeris and Lycidas, the current use of singing old songs. If the shepherds cannot use poetry to change their world or its effect on them, then they have lost poetry as equipment for living; a song becomes nothing more than an artefact, like Moeris' memory of Menalcas' failed appeal to Varus (27-9).[21] Young Lycidas may be forcing an inherited (but now inappropriate) poetic response onto new events, as he tries to use the old pastoral language in new circumstances; yet Lycidas' insistence on carmina (songs) as solacia (relief, comfort, consolation, compensation) may be the best they can get. He is trying, through the use of inherited language, to evoke the type of experience that song has produced in the past, and so to make a moment of camaraderie that may lighten Moeris' burden. But Moeris, though he tries to do so, cannot take advantage of the power of song, and eventually he acknowledges this loss. The eclogue enacts the failure of poetry to perform any of its rhetorical functions, for Moeris: it fails to move (movere), to teach (docere), or to please (delectare).

I am aware that drawing a moral from a literary work is often a dangerous, presumptuous, and reductive task.[22] Nevertheless, I shall try to do just that. If there is any hope in this poem, it lies with the somewhat thoughtless, but also appealing innocence of Lycidas.[23] He could be taken to task for the insensitivity of pressing his desire for song in the face of his friend's plight;[24] but Lycidas' concern is the possibility of singing together with another person in spite of the forces working against it. Lycidas is worried about Moeris, and his own relationship with Moeris, and the use of song to bring them together for a time, right now.[25] When subjected to a political force that is unacceptable but also inexorable, Lycidas has found one sort of solution: to create a moment of fellowship, a friendship albeit temporary, with another, through song. The hope, attenuated and fleeting as it is, lies in a particular and personal moment of camaraderie between two individuals, a kind of camaraderie that may still be available even against the background of civil war.[26] Perhaps such an engagement in the present moment, in the personal, in the creation of community, is the only source of hope, the only escape from despair, in the face of a force that can neither be opposed nor accepted. The old songs may not fit, but Lycidas is willing to pretend that they do.[27]

When read through the lenses of Kenneth Burke's essay and the rhetorical functions of stylised speech in Rome, Vergil's Eclogue 9 can become a lesson in particularity, and individual humaneness - for his fellow Romans, for Octavian, for us. It is a lesson in compassion on a personal scale, ostensibly futile, that is nevertheless needed to build any kind of compassion on a political scale.[28]

Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia

[1] The phrase 'poetry as equipment for living' is borrowed and adapted from an essay by Kenneth Burke, entitled 'Literature as Equipment for Living,' The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, third edition, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London 1973) pp. 293-304. Burke begins his essay with a discussion of the ways in which we use proverbs and commonplace sayings, i.e., familiar, inherited language, to make new experiences more acceptable or intelligible. He then explores the ways in which literature can be and has been read in this same light. Virgil's eclogue similarly treats the present uses of past language, the ways poetry can function in the lives of those who remember.

[2] Of the many books and articles written on the Eclogues and on this poem in particular, I mention here those that have stimulated parts of this essay but which are not referred to below: J. Van Sickle, The Design of Virgil's Bucolics (Roma 1978) and 'Reading Virgil's Eclogue Book,' Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.31.1, pp. 576-603; M. Owen Lee, Death and Rebirth in Virgil's Arcadia (Albany, N.Y. 1989); Maria C. Giner Soria, 'Tiempo en la Egloga 9,' Helmantica 33 (1982) 337-344; J.T. Roberts, 'The Power of Poetry and the Order of Vergil's Eclogues,' Augustan Age II (1982/3) 39-47; John Ferguson, 'Vergil and Philosophy,' Proceedings of the Vergil Society 19 (1988) 17-29.

[3] For the eclogues in particular, see, e.g., G. Tourlidès, 'Rhetorical Survivals in Vergil's Eclogues,' Platon 40 (1988) 61-5; J. Bollok, 'Vergil and Cicero: The Intepretation of Georgics 1, 231-58,' Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 30 (1982-4 [1987]) 211-27; J.T. Roberts, 'Carmina Nulla Canam: Rhetoric and Poetics in Vergil's First Eclogue,' Classical World 76 (1983) 193-9; A. Thill, 'Quellenforschung hier et aujourd'hui (à propos des Bucoliques de Virgile),' Revue des études latines 53 (1975) 10-12;.

[4] See G.A. Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (Chapel Hill 1980) 100; see also his The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton 1963) 292, and The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World (Princeton 1972) 377-8 note 9. Important texts giving these three functions are Cicero, Brutus 185 and 276; De oratore 2.115; Orator 69; De optimo genere oratorum 3 and 16; Quintilian 12.2. Cf. Quintilian 12.10.58-9; Boethius, De topicis differentiis 4; Elaine Fantham, Roman Literary Culture (Baltimore and London, 1996) 96. On some later manifestations of this three part division, see W.J. Ong, S.J., Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Ithaca and London 1977) 217-8, 226, 299. A division into two functions, not three, also appears in Roman literature: e.g., in Horace's Ars Poetica 333-4 poetry is supposed to teach and please, while later in the poem (391-407) Horace looks back on the days when poetry had the power to move as well. Cf. also the song of the sirens in the Odyssey, in which the listener is said to return home not only having taken pleasure in the songs but also having learned from them (12.188). The tripartite division of the functions of poetry, borrowed from rhetoric, is still present in our age in which rhetoric often has a negative connotation; e.g., Dana Gioia's 'Can Poetry Matter,' The Atlantic Monthly (May 1991) 106: 'Anthologies should be compiled to move, delight, and instruct readers.'

[5] Particularly telling are the comments of W. Clausen, Virgil Eclogues (Oxford 1994), describing Eclogue 9: 'irredeemably sad' (p.266); 'a bleak and empty landscape brightened intermittently by passages of song' (p.268); 'Poetry fails in the end.' (p.268)

[6] The limitation of poetry to pleasant diversion, consolation, or escape is common in ancient Greek and Roman writing: cf., e.g., the singing of Achilles at Iliad 9.186-191, Horace Satires 2.6.60-62, Cicero Pro Archia poeta 12, Ovid Tristia 4.10.111-122, Theocritus Idyll 11.80-81. Cf. also William Carlos Williams' poem entitled 'The Uses of Poetry,' and especially W.B. Yeats' 'On Being Asked for a War Poem': I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth
Or an old man upon a winter's night.' On Eclogue 9 specifically, see P. Alpers, The Singer of the Eclogues: A Study of Virgilian Pastoral (Berkeley 1979) 63: 'there is a diminished confidence that poetic practice can restore presences or reestablish connections.' M.C.J. Putnam, Virgil's Pastoral Art: Studies in the Eclogues (Princeton 1970) 294, points out that in the eighth eclogue poetry accomplished its purpose, it had the power to move.

[7] (This and other quotations from Theocritus are from Gow's Oxford Classical Text.)

[8] Kenneth Burke has called this strategy for dealing with misfortune, whereby one's own suffering becomes part of an aggregate suffering, the 'socialization of losses': pp. 312-4 of Attitudes Toward History (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1984; first published 1937).

[9] On this phrase, see G. Zanker, 'A Hesiodic Reminiscence in Virgil Eclogue 9.11-13,' Classical Quarterly 35 (1985) 235-7. On the weakness of doves in the face of a tyrannical and military force, Zanker mentions Lucretius 3.752, Horace, Odes 1.37.17-18, 4.4.31-32, and Vergil Aeneid 11.721-724. On the epithet Chaonias, see W. Clausen, Virgil Eclogues (Oxford 1994) pp.271-272, note to 9.13.

[10] In pastoral poetry a common case of poetry as solace is that of the lonely lover singing to ease his longing. Vergil here, in the lines quoted by Lycidas (23-25), has adapted Theocritus Idyll 3.1-5; that poem depicted a goatherd singing to his love for these very purposes of pleasure, consolation, and power (the hoped-for power to move the beloved to love in return).

[11] See W. Clausen, Virgil Eclogues (Oxford, 1994) p.275, note to line 26: 'Tired and depressed, Moeris no longer takes any pleasure in elegant imitations of Theocritus. He replies with three lines from the unfinished song which Menalcas addressed to Varus.'

[12] See the lines from Wallace Stevens that open this essay.



[15] I have been persuaded by Coleman's distribution of lines to the speakers. See Robert Coleman, Vergil: Eclogues (Cambridge 1977) 268-9, note on 9.51.

[16] On the star of Caesar, see W. Clausen, Virgil Eclogues (Oxford, 1994) 282-283, note to line 47; see also J.T. Ramsey and A.L. Licht, The Comet of 44 BC and Caesar's Funeral Games (Atlanta 1997).

[17] The sight of a wolf was ill-omened in itself, but if the wolf saw Moeris first, it was thought to cost him his voice. On this superstition, see W. Clausen, Virgil Eclogues (Oxford, 1994) p.285, note to line 54.

[18] On the significance of the name Bianor, a sinister echo from the Iliad, see S.V. Tracy, 'Sepulcrum Bianoris: Vergil Eclogues 9.59-61,' Classical Philology 77 (1982) 328-330, and F.E. Brenk, 'War and the Shepherd: The Tomb of Bianor in Vergil's Ninth Eclogue,' American Journal of Philology 102 (1981) 427-30.

[19] Lycidas' attitude recalls the tone of Yeats' 'Lapis Lazuli,' mentioned in Charles Segal's discussion of Eclogues 1 and 9, in Poetry and Myth in Ancient Pastoral: Essays on Theocritus and Virgil (Princeton 1981) 297 and 300 note 33. Cf. also Alpers (above, note 5) 64: 'Virgil's shepherds regularly come together for song, and song is what unites them. But they and their creator understand that separation and loss are the conditions of their utterance, and the human connections their songs establish are felt to be real precisely because of this poetically self-conscious and sometimes sobering awareness.'

[20] This quotation is from the essay entitled 'Prudence,' first published in 1841; it is difficult not to see in these lines a response to the deaths of his wife (1831) and two brothers (1834 and 1836).

[21] See A.L. Becker, 'On Emerson on Language,' in Deborah Tannen, ed, Georgetown University Round Table on Language and Linguistics (1981) 9: 'To understand it means to be reshaped by it, to let it defamiliarize one's world.'

[22] See, e.g., the ironic warning of Louis MacNeice, in Autumn Journal, IX: The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it
     Page by page
To train the mind or even to point a moral
     For the present age:


So the humanist in his room with Jacobean panels
     Chewing his pipe and looking on a lazy quad
Chops the Ancient World to turn a sermon
     To the greater glory of God.
But I can do nothing so useful or so simple; ...

[On MacNeice see Brian Arkins Classics Ireland 2000, vol 7 pp.1-24. Ed.]

[23] Cf. Tracy Kidder, Among Schoolchildren (New York 1989) 313: 'Many people find it easy to imagine unseen webs of malevolent conspiracy in the world, and they are not always wrong. But there is also an innocence that conspires to hold humanity together, and it is made of people who can never fully know the good they have done.' Cf. also Emerson's essay 'Friendship,' which calls for a hard-won naiveté in the creation of community.

[24] As he is in, e.g., the excellent commentary of R.G.G. Coleman, Vergil Eclogues (Cambridge, 1977) 273-274.

[25] E.W. Leach, Vergil's Eclogues: Landscapes of Experience (Ithaca and London 1974) 208: 'For Lycidas, the present moment is everything.'

[26] Cf. the poet, translator, and classicist C. Day Lewis wrote in the 'Dedicatory Stanzas' to his translation of Vergil's Georgics (making allowances for the masculine noun): It's for dear life alone that we shall be fighting,
The poet's living space, the love of men,
And poets must speak of common suffering men
While history in sheets of fire is writing.

[27] See Wallace Stevens' frighteningly titled but surprisingly congenial poem 'The Pure Good of Theory,' which contains the phrase: 'the nicer knowledge of belief, that what it believes in is not true.' Cf. also Ibsen's 'The Wild Duck,' a theme of which is the necessity of a life-lie, and the dangers of exposing it as such. For a more theoretical discussion of this topic, see Shelley E. Taylor, Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind (New York 1989).

[28] I would like to acknowledge the help of Trudy Harrington Becker, Terry Papillon, Alton L. Becker, Judith O. Becker, and the Works-in-Progress Group in my department here at Virginia Tech.

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