Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Modern Eclogues

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Modern Eclogues

Article excerpt

"Modern eclogue" may seem to be something of a contradiction in terms. But from their very beginnings, in the pastoral poems of Theocritus and Virgil, these dialogues between herdsmen (or, sometimes, monodies uttered by a herdsman) were conceived as modern--that is, as attempts to find a viable poetic form in specific historical and cultural circumstances, particularly in relation to prior, prestigious cultures and forms of poetry. Like other kinds of poetry by his Alexandrian contemporaries (third century B.C.E.) Theocritus's "idylls" are self-consciously belated, to use Harold Bloom's term. Written in the same meter, dactylic hexameter, as the Homeric poems (and thus claiming to belong to the same genre), the Idylls are what David Halperin calls "inversions" or "subversions" of heroic poetry (219-37). In subject and theme, they concern the lives of ordinary people, the ups and downs of love, and minor or marginal episodes from myth and heroic poetry; in poetic handling, they are short, sophisticated, and playful or comic in tone. Their claim to literary authority lies in their self-aware modesty and sense of limitations.

Theocritus's "bucolics" are more wide-ranging and various than the idea of pastoral will lead you to expect. The development of pastoral as a coherent genre, with the herdsman as the central representative figure, was the work of Virgil. Separated even more than Theocritus was from the Hellenic epics and tragedies that were the measure of poetic achievement, he set about being a Roman poet by selectively imitating Theocritus's poems in a collection of ten Bucolica or Ecloga ("selections"). The same pattern of poetic motive and self-consciousness appears in the European Renaissance, though now it is Roman poetry which has become the measure of poetic accomplishment. Eclogues were among the founding works, in the sixteenth century, of modern vernacular literatures in Italian (Iacopo Sannazaro's Arcadia), Spanish (the eclogues of Garcilaso de la Vega), French (eclogues by Clement Marot), and English (Spenser's Shepheardes Calender and Sidney's Arcadia). Centered on the figure of the herdsman-poet, aware of his vulnerabilities yet trusting his skills, eclogues capture the tension inherent in the classicizing project--between the boldness of emulating and appropriating ancient poetic forms and the anxieties of belatedness, the felt inadequacies of one's language and culture, as well as one-self.

But although the eclogue emerged in antiquity and was reinstated in the Renaissance as a modern form, it strikes us now as highly traditional, both because it deploys a discernible repertory of conventions and because consciousness of predecessors is part of its essence. (To suggest the matter schematically, just as shepherds conventionally come together to exchange their songs, so the poems that so represent them incorporate the songs of other pastoral poets.) The way in which "modern eclogue" now makes sense to us is due, in English poetry at least, to Wordsworth's transformation of the form. Several of Wordsworth's poems can be considered, to use a contemporary's phrase about "The Brothers," "a local eclogue, of a new, and original species" (Alpers 260). One of his greatest poems, The Ruined Cottage, is a version of the traditional pastoral elegy: two country dwellers meet at noontime to lament and commemorate a dead "shepherdess." And yet everything about The Ruined Cottage makes the poem a different kind of revisionary eclogue from Lycidas. Whether or not one regards Milton as exploding the conventions of pastoral elegy or as regrounding and revivifying them, their presence in the poem, along with constant allusions to earlier pastorals, is indubitable: it is these conventions and modes of allusion that are themselves at stake. The Ruined Cottage is committed to the traditional values of pastoral elegy, notably the way commemoration at a scene of loss sustains the lives of mourners, and the power of poetry to sustain a link between past and present. …

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