BMCR 2007.03.39

Pastoral Inscriptions: Reading and Writing Virgil’s Eclogues

, Pastoral inscriptions : reading and writing Virgil's Eclogues. Classical literature and society. London: Duckworth, 2006. 1 online resource (208 pages).. ISBN 9781849668088. $31.00.

The Eclogues are, perhaps paradoxically, grown-up poetry, and B has written an appropriately grown-up book — a much revised version of a 1999 Harvard dissertation — which deserves a warm welcome; it will no doubt soon be a standard item of bibliography for university courses, and rightly so. B employs a methodological toolkit which often draws on work outside what is strictly ‘pastoral criticism’ and, as such, his book is less inward-looking than much writing about the Eclogues (and, no doubt some would add, than the Eclogues themselves). B proves himself a critically sophisticated and theoretically informed (close) reader who wears his learning lightly. This is a book which will repay re-reading.

B’s thread through the Eclogues is ‘voice’ in all its manifold suggestiveness, whether that be the voices of shepherds in a pastoral mimesis, or ‘voice’ as the implication ‘that there is a human presence and a communicative context beyond or behind the actual written manifestation of the words we read’ (6). B’s alertness to just how productive a metaphor ‘voice’ can be is one of the book’s most arresting features, and he writes illuminatingly (9-11) on the prominent role that the idea has played in modern Virgilian studies as a whole. The key element in Virgil’s pastoral ‘voice’ proves to be the tension between, on the one hand, textuality and the sense of ‘the written’ and, on the other, the fictive orality of the narrative of the poems; all the intertextual possibilities that that tension brings with it, particularly within a set of poems which explicitly presents itself as a Roman version of a specific Greek body of poetry and as the words of naïve shepherds (‘Pastoral speakers are never in full possession of their language’, 20), form the subject of much of B’s book. ‘Voice’ holds out a promise of authenticity, the dream of tracing the words on the page to a specific author(ity), but when the words of a Corydon, say, are already a version of someone else’s words, it is disjunction, disconnection and fragmentation which are foregrounded. A major strength of B’s book is that the poems which seem the ‘easiest’ targets for such an approach, such as Eclogue 9, do not dominate disproportionately: this is a book about the Eclogues and about the book of Eclogues. Perhaps the poem which receives the thinnest treatment is Eclogue 4, but even here B’s close attention to narrative ordering and dislocation sheds light in singularly dark places. After the terms of his discussion have been established, B’s analysis moves from the amoebean poems in which voices compete to be heard to a chapter on the complexities of voice in Eclogue 6 and then separate discussions of 1, 4 and 10, before concluding with some well-judged remarks on the nature of the book as a collection and the collection as a book (some excellent remarks on similarities of ‘voice’ between Eclogue 4 and Eclogue 8). If I missed serious engagement with one aspect of ‘voice’ it would be with ‘tone’, but the briefest acquaintance with scholarship on the Eclogues will show that this is perhaps the thorniest nettle of them all.

For B, a principal difference between Theocritus and Virgil is the textuality of the latter, whether that be seen in the prominence of explicit references to reading and writing (e.g. Daphnis’ epitaph in Eclogue 5 in contrast to Theocritus 1.120-1) or in the complex allusivity of the poetry (it is probably unfair to note that B does not consider in any detail the allusivity, or absence of it, of Theocritus’ poems); allusivity is one mode of ‘inscription’, of ‘writing in/on’: ‘Virgil’s allusions [in Eclogue 5] to Theocritus 1 are an incorporation by way of inscription: Theocritean bucolic is written into Virgilian pastoral’. If ‘voice’ holds out the illusory prospect of tracing a secure origin, the thick textuality of the poems is closely linked to the powerful aetiological orientation of the Eclogues, which is unsurprisingly to the fore in the chapter devoted to Eclogue 1, but more surprisingly prominent in a very suggestive discussion of how Eclogue 10 fashions the (pre-Theocritean) origins of pastoral. Textuality functions in fact in many ways. It may help us understand disruptions of chronology in Eclogues 4 and 5, or — and here B offers an extended discussion — the formal resemblance of the ‘song of Silenus’ to an ecphrasis (Chapter 4): the similar problems of narrative ordering which arise in both suggest an analogy between the transformation of art to text and that of song to text; B initially makes a bit of a meal of the ‘ecphrastic’ nature of Eclogue 6 and of the alleged analogy with the Shield of Aeneid 8, but the point was in the end worth labouring, not just because ecphrasis, understood as description of real or fictive works of art — both plastic and ‘natural’ (cf. B pp. 113-14 on Meliboeus’ ecphrasis in Eclogue 1) — occupies a special place in the bucolic tradition as it was inherited from Theocritus, but because it also allows B to draw out the significance of the narrative voices of Catullus 64 for the subsequent tradition.

It should go without saying that B knows the literature well, and the notes offer useful guidance to allow readers to pursue particular subjects; some may find parts of the discussion somewhat parochial in the prominence given to the work of, say, Paul Alpers and David Ross, but B is rightly concerned with readings which have taken these poems as seriously as they deserve to be taken. B’s writing is usually clear — though there is sometimes a tendency to obfuscate a rather simple point (62-3 on the tree-inscription of Eclogue 5, the recurrent use of the idea of ‘phenomenal voice’, and 124-5 on Gallus’ voice are good examples) — and there is a real sense of progression as we move through his book and Virgil’s book of Eclogues; B’s essay may in fact revive debate about these wonderful poems: non equidem inuideo, miror magis.

A few details

1ff. It is a pity that B begins with Callimachus’ ‘Heraclitus epigram’ and its reworking in Eclogue 9 as an example of the prominence of ‘textuality’ in Hellenistic poetry because it is at least open to question whether the immortality of Heraclitus’ ‘nightingales’ is in fact owed in the poem to their written status rather than to the traditional immortality of ‘song’ (as in archaic and classical poetry). The whole poem emphasizes oral discourse, and B never explains how he draws the conclusions he does: where in this epigram is ‘the Callimachean elevation of writing as the source of immortality’ (17)? S. Heyworth, Materiali e Discussioni 33 (1994) 76-9, which B does not cite, was already moving in B’s direction. I am tempted in fact to suggest that Hades ‘will not lay his hands on’ Heraclitus’ nightingales because oral voice lacks physical substance; there is no text to pick up and read or devour. Contrast the famous prayer to the Charites in Callimachus fr.9 Massimilla. On the allusion in Eclogue 9 I hope it will not be inappropriate to refer to my The Shadow of Callimachus (Cambridge 2006) 132-4.

36-7 B helpfully discusses the levels of voice in Alphesiboeus’ song in Eclogue 8, but his attempts to link this to Froma Zeitlin’s work on ‘playing the other’ seem tendentious at best.

75 If it is broadly true that echo/Echo is ‘not a feature of the poetry of Theocritus’, Idyll 13.58-60 should not be ignored. It is odd that when B discusses the echoing of Hyla Hyla at Eclogue 6.43-4 he does not mention these Theocritean verses. Nevertheless, B has excellent things to say about how Virgil uses the ideas of echo, e.g. 99 on Eclogue 1.5.

80 Attention to Moschus’ Europa would have helped B’s discussion of ecphrasis here.

106 A concern with whether or not Tityrus’ closing invitation in Eclogue 1 is sincere or not perhaps suggests that B himself has not escaped the search for an ‘authenticity’ of character.

138-9 The comparison between Eclogue 4 and Theocritus 16 does not seem to me particularly illuminating.

150-1 It is perhaps a pity that B gives such prominence to the now rather tired (or so it seems to me) idea of the leaves in the Sibyl’s cave as an image of ‘the reader’s predicament’. That said, B’s stress on the transformative power of the effort that reading (in its full sense) involves is strangely invigorating; these are texts which should change your life.