BMCR 2005.05.49

Language in Vergil’s Eclogues

Michael Lipka, Language in Vergil's Eclogues. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2001. 1 online resource (236 pages).. ISBN 9783110888430 €89.00.

Michael Lipka begins his study of language in Vergil’s Eclogues with a clear statement of his goals. The book is a collection and analysis of words and passages relevant to understanding the language of Virgil’s first poetry book in terms of its general qualities, its debt to the poet’s literary predecessors, and its influence on subsequent authors. In keeping with these objectives, and Lipka’s declared aim to provide researchers with “material” (p. xi), the content of the book is selective and representative. Apart from a short prologue and epilogue, the study consists of four chapters, addressing in turn word formation, Vergilian adaptation of earlier models, stylistic level, and personal names. Discussion frequently takes the form of lists of examples and citation of parallels accompanied by brief analysis. This often results in a rather dry read and, given the amount of material in the book, prompts occasional disagreement. Moreover, many of the conclusions reached tend to reaffirm accepted characterizations of Vergilian language, although now perhaps more positively demonstrated. But Lipka manages successfully to fulfill his stated goals and consequently provides the researcher with a useful tool for study of the Eclogues.

In the first chapter Lipka analyzes Vergilian word formation through a review of, for example, adjectives in -ax, -bundus, and -osus, diminutives, nouns in -men and -mentum, and verbs in -sare and -tare. After a summary of the relevant material, Lipka concludes that in general Vergil is conservative in his formation of words and that the poet “never creates a word just to delight with linguistic eccentricity” (p. 27). He observes, furthermore, that Vergil takes cues from Catullus in his use of adjectives such as errabundus (errabunda bovis vestigia, 6.58) and his very infrequent employment of nouns in -men and -mentum and influences later poets both within and outside of the bucolic genre through his use of verbs such as cantare and captare. Although Lipka’s conclusions in this chapter are unlikely to meet much opposition, occasionally the examples he cites do not always provide the most persuasive evidence nor illustrate, in my opinion, “the most noteworthy features of word formation in Vergil’s Eclogues” (p. 1). Lipka, for instance, devotes five pages to a discussion of adjectives in -ax and -bundus, although in the Eclogues there are only two examples of the former (fallax, 4.24; vivax, 7.29) and one of the latter (noted above). I am not discounting the importance of these words for appreciating Vergilian language, but I do not feel that they are the best examples if one’s goal is to provide insight into the “general nature” of the language of the Eclogues.

In Chapter Two, the longest of the four chapters by a significant margin, Lipka turns to examining how, within the framework of linguistic technique, Vergil adapts the language of other authors. In the course of approximately 100 pages Lipka discusses how Vergil adapts the language of Theocritus, Lucretius, Catullus, Callimachus, Euphorion, Parthenius, Gallus and others such as Homer, Apollonius and Ennius. I found this to be the most useful chapter in the book, and no doubt it will serve many well who are looking to a find a relatively straightforward analysis of the impact of a particular author on a particular poem within the collection. There are, moreover, a number of illuminating and original discussions of specific passages in the chapter. But the conclusions generated by the discussion in Chapter Two reveal a Vergilian technique already familiar from existing studies. Thus in the summary to the chapter Lipka observes that it is typical of Vergil to adapt either a specific word with particular generic connotations, or specific passages in a model, or to adapt numerous passages from a number of models at the same time. Lipka also notes that in adapting the language of his models Vergil reshapes and improves it while leaving it recognizable, and, when adapting the content of his models, the poet’s main motives are amplification and clarification. These conclusions for the most part reiterate and reaffirm what scholars such as Thomas, Farrell and others have observed on Vergilian practice in the Georgics and Aeneid.1 Lipka is of course not unaware of this, but the end result is that we are presented here with a further demonstration of Vergilian technique, rather than a more substantial analysis of how the poet’s methods in the Eclogues might be different from or prefigure those in his later works.

In Chapter Three Lipka shifts from a study of Vergil’s specific models as presented in the previous chapter to an analysis of the poet’s employment of words and phrases with no specific source but rather imbued with particular stylistic connotations. The discussion here is divided into four categories: poeticisms, colloquialisms and prosaisms, synonyms, and technical terms. In his examination of poeticisms Lipka observes that Vergil rarely introduces words of the high poetic style into the Eclogues, and “generally avoids the patently artificial colour of excessively poetic vocabulary” (p. 130). He also reveals, not surprisingly, that colloquial elements are rare in elevated poems such as 4 and 6 and more common in amoebaean poems such as 3 and 9, although even in these instances the language is very often artificially colloquial. In his discussion of synonyms Lipka outlines numerous examples of Vergilian influence on later authors. He notes, for example, how Vergil’s frequent preference for the present participle (e.g., florens in place of floridus), no doubt employed to accentuate the “dynamic nature of Vergil’s bucolic landscape” (p. 147), was on occasion adopted by poets such as Tibullus, Ovid and Statius. The investigation of technical language is short and focuses mostly on botanical terms, and Lipka concludes that unlike Theocritus Vergil appears to derive the names of plants and fruits from literature, not autopsy, and that frequently such names reveal a greater symbolic function.

In the fourth and final chapter of the book Lipka provides the reader with a survey of personal names in the Eclogues and their historical, mythological and etymological connotations. Discussion is categorized into non-pastoral names (e.g., Caesar, Pollio), Theocritean pastoral names (e.g., Aegon, Corydon), and non-Theocritean pastoral names (e.g., Meliboeus, Moeris). In terms of the sources of the names in the Eclogues, Lipka notes that Latin names are mainly those of historical figures, while Greek names are mythological or literary, drawn for the most part from Theocritus, but also from Homer, Sophron, Callimachus, Apollonius and others. An important refinement of this observation is the conclusion that the Eclogues show no evidence of Vergil drawing on names from the Greek bucolic tradition outside of Theocritus. The discussion in Chapter Four also demonstrates that the names in the collection can express a variety of connotations. Lipka’s analysis of the name Tityrus, for instance, reveals its literary historical, innovative, euphonic and comedic implications. The chapter concludes with a brief comment on Vergil’s influence in establishing the range of bucolic names for later poets.

The book as a whole is faithful to the author’s aims as stated in the prologue. Throughout all four chapters there are a great number of observations about the general qualities of the language of the Eclogues and its debts and subsequent impact. Thus the discussion in Chapter Three, for example, demonstrates well that Vergil’s scrupulous deployment of poeticisms and colloquialisms results in a language that is “without stylistic eccentricities, without extremes but still not monotonous” (p. 170). Similarly, Chapter Two illustrates many points of detail on Vergil’s relationship with models such as Theocritus, Callimachus, Gallus and others, while Chapter One elucidates aspects of Vergil’s word formation and how they influence later authors. However, the book does not provide much new insight, in general terms, about Vergil’s language and linguistic technique in the Eclogues. The Vergil presented here is a familiar one, a poet who often refines the contrived effects of his neoteric predecessors to achieve a “playful simplicity” (p. 194), and whose language is characterized as an embodiment of the “plain style” (p. 195). I have few qualms with these conclusions, but in a book focused on the Eclogues I would have liked to see greater emphasis on any distinct features of the poet’s first collection. To be fair, Lipka does at times trace developments. In his discussion of Vergilian adaptations in Chapter Two, for instance, he remarks that in the progression from the Eclogues to the Aeneid we can trace a decreased sophistication in the poet’s chosen models. But, in general, the book still presents the reader with a poet whose linguistic technique remains in many ways remarkably consistent throughout his career.

One could also cite aspects of Lipka’s discussion of Vergil’s use of his models for further demonstration of the author’s occasional failure to shed new insight or to provide compelling interpretations of Vergilian practice. Lipka is frequently very good at suggesting possible models or supplying grammatical and metrical reasons for Vergil’s modification of his predecessors. But the discussion struggles when conclusions are drawn regarding some of the principles underpinning Vergilian practice. On at least 22 occasions in his discussion of Vergil’s adaptation of Theocritus, for example, Lipka cites amplification as Vergil’s motive. This repeated attribution to a specific category not only begins to lose meaning, but also often drains Vergilian technique of its vigour and complexity.

But Lipka does have more success in what is perhaps his primary and more modest goal: to “provide scholars with material” (p. xi). The book contains an immense amount of information and detailed discussion of specific words and passages in the Eclogues. Indeed, rather than attempting to do justice to the wealth of material offered, my remarks above have focused on some of the more general conclusions reached and the view of Vergilian language presented. This abundance of material is the strength of the book. For those looking for elucidation of the language or models of a particular poem, passage, or word the book is a useful tool, whether for Lipka’s own observations or for the references he makes to the work of others. Not surprisingly, therefore, the book is akin to the literary commentary, and its closest competition will be the works of Coleman, Clausen and others.2 While these commentaries might very often be more compelling for specific points of interpretation, Lipka’s work will also find its place. It will no doubt be of some value for those undertaking work on the Eclogues. Indeed, it is a timely contribution, for the Eclogues are a collection in need of a contemporary rereading.3


1. E.g., Richard Thomas, Virgil’s Georgics and the Art of Reference, HSCP 90 (1986) 171-98; Georgics, 1988, 2 vols. Cambridge; Joseph Farrell, Vergil’s Georgics and the Traditions of Ancient Epic: The Art of Allusion in Literary History, New York and Oxford, 1991.

2. Robert Coleman, Vergil: Eclogues, Cambridge, 1977; Wendell Clausen, A Commentary on Virgil, Eclogues, Oxford, 1994.

3. See the remarks of John Van Sickle, BMCR 1998.11.39.