BMCR 1995.11.06

1995.11.06, Clausen, ed., Vergil Eclogues

, , A commentary on Virgil, Eclogues. Virgil, Eclogues.. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. xxx, 328 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780198149163. $60.00.

Wendell Clausen was in the early stages of work on his commentary on the Eclogues in the seventies when I was a graduate student. Ever since becoming aware of his important work in Latin poetry in the course of my studies, I have eagerly awaited this book. The project, as Clausen tells us in the Preface, originally called for a joint publication with R. A. B. Mynors’ commentary on the Georgics, but different timetables and the unfortunate death of Mynors, to whose memory the book is dedicated, resulted in the earlier publication date of the latter’s work ( Virgil: Georgics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990). In short, the commentary was well worth the wait.

The Introduction, brief—only sixteen pages—but effective, consists of three sections: Pastoral Poetry, The Book of Eclogues, The Composition of a Landscape. In the first section, different from other editors who often go on at length on the murky issue of the origin of pastoral verse, Clausen cuts to the chase: pastoral was invented by Theocritus. He proceeds to describe the genre quite simply: it is “never simple, though it affects to be; and in this affectation of simplicity, the disparity between the meanness of his subject and the refinement of the poet’s art, lies the essence of pastoral” (xv). I have not found a better definition. And in describing an essential difference between Theocritus and Vergil, he notes that, while the former gives little evidence of the intimacy with the countryside which Vergil evinces, still he is more consistent in maintaining the pastoral fiction. Vergil, on the other hand, shows more affection for the country but breaks the idyllic setting by including “a wider range of experience—politics and politicians, the ravages of civil war, religion, poetry, literary criticism …” (xix-xx).

In the second section, Clausen provides a masterful summary of the design of the book in only six and one quarter pages. I found his comparison between Vergil and Catullus particularly interesting: Catullus wrote his poems first and later published them together, but Vergil is envisaged as conceiving of his book first and then writing and rewriting the individual poems until they conformed to the design of the collection. For this reason, the order of composition of the individual poems, a time-honored chestnut, is consigned to a footnote, with the warning that “any attempt to determine the exact order of their composition will prove illusory” (xxii). More on this below.

The third section brings us back to a comparison between Greek and Roman pastoral poets. A pleasing symmetry. Here Clausen contrasts the landscapes that emerge from the two poets from which he can draw several conclusions. 1) Vergil’s countryside is heavily, Theoctitus,’ sparcely wooded. 2) Because, different from Theocritus, Vergil did not have a long poetic tradition to draw on, “the proportion of unliterary to literary plants and trees in the Eclogues is therefore higher than it is in the pastoral Idylls” (xxviii), though Theocritus’ shepherds are in general better botanists. 3) Vergil is the more daring of the two.

While the text used is Mynors’ (which he does not hesitate to emend when necessary; cf. ad 3.102), the commentary, like the introduction, is vintage Clausen: mollis atque facetus. The commentary on each Eclogue is preceded by its own introduction and it is upon these introductions that I shall focus my attention. Not only does Clausen set the scene for an informed reading of the poems; more than that, he creates an atmosphere for each reading through his highly sensitive touch. In this he reveals what his students have long acknowledged and admired: Clausen’s passion for, and intimacy with, this poet and ancient poetry in general. As an instance of the editor’s sensitivity and passion for his subject, I cite his description of the well-known adynaton in the first Eclogue : “Tityrus’ ‘impossibility’ is a painful reality for Meliboeus; and thus prompted, he conjures up the most remote and barren regions of the earth (64-6). Mainly, however, his second speech is concerned with the pathos of leaving a native place. Will he ever, he wonders, and after how many long years, see his farm, his little kingdom, again? He fears, knows he will not; will never again, stretched at ease in a mossy cavern, watch his goats hang browsing on some tufted crag; will sing no songs.” Clausen’s attenuated style both delights and informs.

In addition to creating a tone for a reading of each Eclogue, the introductory sections explore the literary background, in particular the Theocritean and other Greek or Roman models. For instance, he concludes the introduction to the Second Eclogue, modelled on Theocritus’ Eleventh Idyll in typical style: “Corydon’s song is similarly disjointed (sc. as that of Polyphemus) … And yet Corydon seems different, not so naive, so simply true as Polyphemus, nor so passionate; he seems self-conscious, as though aware—as Vergil expected his reader to be aware—of Polyphemus. Corydon’s is a more composed passion” (63). The discussions of models are never inert. In the introduction to the Third Eclogue, a poem modelled on the Fifth Idyll, Clausen problematizes a central issue of the amoebean poem, namely, why one competitor defeats another. The problem, as he sees it, lies in the apparent need of the poet to include an inferior creation within the poem. While the problem does not exist in the Third, Fifth and Eighth Eclogues, where there are no winners or losers, it emerges in the Seventh. Clausen argues, quite effectively, that Thyrsis, the loser, should not be judged as inferior to Corydon, but subordinate, stating: “No doubt Corydon is the more musical of the two, yet the voice of Thyrsis is essential to the harmony of Vergil’s composition” (212).

The individual introductions also take up some of the well known issues that have occupied scholars from the ancient world on, of which I shall look at a few. For instance, on the Fifth Eclogue, Clausen prefers to leave open the identification of Daphnis, setting aside the commonly accepted view that behind the mythical shepherd lies the deified Julius. His rationale: Vergil is “never so simple, and such an identification, grotesque if insisted upon, would be an inadequate response to the allusiveness and complexity of his poem” (p. 152, n. 4). Vergil is indeed hard to pin down and so this advice is well taken and perhaps would have been well applied elsewhere in the commentary.

From late antiquity scholars have gone back and forth on the identification of the general and tragic poet alluded to in Ec. 8.6-13—Octavian or Pollio. In his introduction to the Eighth Eclogue, Clausen, opting for Octavian, follows the Bowersock line (or rather the Garrod line, since as pointed out on page 234 (n.5) Bowersock was anticipated in this position in 1916): inter alia, the river Timavus, past which the unnamed patron is said to sail, lies 400 miles north of where the Parthini live, which people Pollio defeated in 39 BC, and closer to the area where Octavian had a series of campaigns in 35 BC. Nonetheless, one must keep in mind that Vergil does not name names here. Are we wrong to insist? After all, the description of his patron’s journey mentions the area of the Timavus as one of two options ( seu magni superas iam saxa Timavi / sive oram Illyrici legis aequoris, 6-7). The second option, the Illyrian shore, is surely vague enough to include the area where Pollio campaigned (cf. Coleman ad Ec. 8.7). Perhaps the poet’s elusiveness is purposeful: since the individual components of the book, as Clausen states, were constantly being rewritten, quite possibly failure to specify the general/tragedian—he does not hesitate to mention contemporaries elsewhere, including Pollio—arose from an important change that occurred or seemed likely to occur during the last years spent writing the Eclogues; namely, the eclipse of Pollio and the emergence of Octavian. Since cases can be made for both patrons, silence might be inclusive.

Along a different line, insisting on the exact location of this river as a significant fact might be dangerous for two reasons: mention of a large river in the anticipation of singing the military accomplishments of a general could possess a secondary, metaliterary sense, that was more important than any specific river (if so, could there be a pun in the poet’s choice of legis at Ec. 8.7?) and Vergil’s geography can involve a long stretch of the imagination as well as distance (see Georgics 1.489-492, if Thomas ad loc. and many others are correct). One final observation on the introduction to this Eclogue. Clausen provides a map featuring the Roman Conquest of Dalmatia on page 234 to show the distances between the two theaters of war. The map, marked with the various military campaigns held in the area, seems out of tune with this delicate commentary, like Roman generals in a pastoral setting.

To return to the issue of silence, Vergil’s unwillingness to name the god in the First Eclogue might derive from the same change that occurred during the years in which the collection was completed. The poet did not shy away from naming Octavian in his next work, and, what is more, describing him as a god; why does he demure here? While I, like Clausen (cf. pp. 31-32), always think of Octavian when reading the First Eclogue, it is after all the reader who provides the name, not the poet. Are we wrong to insist here as well? What then of the unnamed child of the Fourth Eclogue ? On the basis of the allusion to the Pact of Brundisium, packed into mention of Pollio’s consulship, and to Hercules at Ec. 4.15-17, Clausen reasonably concludes that the child was the expected offspring of Anthony and Octavia. Failure to appreciate the second allusion, given Anthony’s claim of descent from Hercules, it is argued, has caused scholars to miss the point. He states: “In the year 40 BC … Anthony, not Octavian, was ‘the greatest prince o’ the world’, and of this their contemporaries, spectators of the mighty drama, could be in no doubt. In the year 40 BC, Octavian was a sickly if determined and ruthless young man; the future Augustus unimaginable” (p. 125). The argument is hard to resist. Still I—and I am not alone in this—find it hard to believe Vergil would have risked investing such a magnificent poem in a boy who might not—and did not—exist. If the poet wanted to celebrate an important political birth, he would have been wiser to follow the example of Callimachus in the Hymn to Delos and predict the birth of a dynast after the fact. Instead, I prefer to follow Clausen’s pronouncement that identification can prove to be an “inadequate response” to so allusive, and I would add mysterious, a poet. Vergil didn’t tell; perhaps we shouldn’t ask, or at least harbor our suspicions without insisting.

I return to the introduction to the Eighth Eclogue. Clausen argues that Damon’s song postdates that of Alphesiboeus for two reasons. First, the presence of a refrain, necessary for the latter’s composition modelled on Simaetha’s incantation in the Second Idyll, was inappropriate to that of the former, modelled on the lament of the unnamed goatherd in the Third Idyll. Second, the metrical technique of Alphesiboeus’ song more closely resembles the technique of the Second and Third Eclogues. The conclusion: Vergil reused Alphesiboeus’ song, an earlier composition, in a later poem and set it opposite Damon’s song that was in turn given a refrain to respond to it. “If so, then Damon’s song may be among the latest of Virgil’s pastoral compositions, and the Eighth Eclogue, as a whole, contemporary with the First, which, like the Eighth, honours Octavian” (p. 239). The logic is clear and convincing in part (see previous paragraphs). Yet, employing a line of thinking suggested by the editor, I would have to wonder if this attempt to determine the exact order of the composition might be illusory within a holistic view of the Eclogue book. Or perhaps we might emend the earlier statement and conclude, as Clausen’s discussion on the Eighth Eclogue prompts us to do, that there is after all something to be learned from an investigation into the relative chronology of the individual Eclogues, and that the book can tolerate, even benefit from, two different perspectives—diachronic and synchronic.

The commentary proper is magisterial without being pedantic, patronizing, or overly inflated. Clausen covers a range of topics—diction, grammar, tone, rhetoric, meter, specific imitations, general parallels, even botany among other issues—and brings in the views of ancient and modern commentators appropriately and helpfully. The reader will discover a treasure of fascinating and informative observations. Best of all, this long awaited book gives students and scholars alike the opportunity to encounter Vergil’s Eclogues through the eyes of one of the finest American Latinists of this century. Regarding Vergil’s Arcadia Clausen states: “Rarely, if ever, can a poetic act be explained satisfactorily …” (p. 289). In reading this commentary, I have been satisfied.