Hearing the silence

Way back last October I was helping Mary Beard and Peter Stothard introduce Virgil’s 9th Eclogue at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, gamely claiming that it was the best poem ever written. I’d still insist it was one of the very best Latin poems ever written, at least, up there with Odes 3.29.

What makes Eclogue 9 so great, to my mind (and in a couple of sentences), is that it takes the conventions of pastoral poetry and essentially shreds them. Pastoral (also known as bucolic) is a peculiar but very resilient genre of poetry. It describes a world populated by idealized herdsmen, living a carefree life in a sympathetic landscape. The Eclogues start off in typical fashion (1.1-3): “You, Tityrus, lie beneath the canopy of a spreading beech,/ and practice your woodland music on slender pipe.” The shade from the midday sun, and especially the song that we are told that Tityrus is singing about his lover Amaryllis, are classic pastoral motifs. But if I give you the whole of the first five lines of Eclogue 1, the nature of Virgil’s project is clearer:

Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
siluestrem tenui Musam meditaris auena;
nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arua.
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.

You, Tityrus, lie beneath the canopy of a spreading beech,
and practice your woodland music on slender pipe;
I am leaving my country’s boundaries and sweet fields.
I am an outcast from my country; you, Tityrus, at ease in the shade
teach the woods to echo “beautiful Amaryllis.”

It is characteristic of Virgil’s pastoral poetry that the blissful scene around Tityrus is set against the dire circumstances affecting the herdsman addressing him, Meliboeus, who has been expelled from his land. This sharpens the appeal of the pastoral dream, but it also betrays its fundamental fragility.

In Eclogue 9 two herdsmen are experiencing the same as Meliboeus in Eclogue 1. Moeris and Lycidas, the latter a younger man, wander through a shattered landscape, dispossessed of their land and unable to do any of the things pastoral characters are supposed to do: they cannot stop, cannot recline under a shady tree, and above all cannot sing. Indeed they cannot any longer remember the songs that they used to sing. In Eclogue 1 and 9, furthermore, the destruction of the pastoral world is associated by Virgil with contemporary events in Italy, especially the land confiscations (to resettle the demobilized troops) that followed the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. These pastoral poems are thus in some respects spectacularly artificial compositions (a lot of the impact of Eclogue 9 derives from its systematic reversal of one poem in particular, the 7th Idyll of the Greek poet Theocritus, his great predecessor in pastoral poetry, for example), but they also offer an urgent commentary on some of the darkest days in Rome’s history, the chaos that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44, in middle of which Virgil was composing these exquisite pastoral poems.

My main job at Cheltenham is to do some close reading: literally reading chunks of the poem out loud in Latin, but also drawing out what I think is most important about the detailed composition of the poetry. Preparing for this–and that includes working out with Mary and Peter what to emphasise (the event is only an hour long)–is excellent discipline: I always end up seeing much more even in very familiar poems than I had before. Occasionally enough to dash off a blog about it…

This time I came away thinking about prosody. Prosody is closely related to metre, in which readers of this blog will know I have a passing interest (here, here, and here, for example). Specifically, prosody concerns how the words of poetry are set in their metrical scheme: what kinds of word are allowed where, what pauses there should be in a line, etc.

One example of a prosodical issue in Eclogue 9 is the “bucolic diaeresis”, a habit of introducing a pause between sense units after the fourth foot of the (six-foot) hexameter line. It doesn’t sound too significant, but it was common in Theocritus’ pastoral poetry and, while less regular in the Eclogues, Virgil seems to reserve it for moments when he wants to evoke a pastoral atmosphere especially strongly: the “bucolic diaeresis” retains its bucolic associations, in other words.

At Eclogue 9.51-4, for instance, Moeris complains that he can’t remember songs any more:

omnia fert aetas, animum quoque; saepe ego longos
cantando puerum memini me condere soles:
nunc oblita mihi tot carmina…

Time takes everything away, the memory too; often I remember
as a boy putting the long days to rest with singing:
now I have forgotten so many songs…

There’s a reminiscence here of a celebrated poem by another Greek poet, Callimachus (translated by Cory), but what interests me is how, as Moeris recalls the days when pastoral was pastoral, when all day could be spent in carefree song, he introduces a “bucolic diaeresis”, the strong sense break between quoque and saepe. The prosody is evoking that long-lost pastoral past in its own right.

Sticking with the “bucolic diaeresis” for a moment, toward the end of the poem Lycidas makes a final desperate effort to persuade Moeris to stop and sing, in other words to recover the pastoral fantasy (9.59-62):

hinc adeo media est nobis uia; namque sepulcrum
incipit apparere Bianoris. hic, ubi densas
agricolae stringunt frondis, hic, Moeri, canamus:
hic haedos depone, tamen ueniemus in urbem.

From here on there is half our journey to go; look, the tomb
of Bianor is coming into sight. Here, where the farmers
are stripping the thick foliage, here, Moeris, let us sing:
put the kids down here; we will reach the City all the same.

Again, Lycidas’ pleas gain extra force by an intensification of the pastoral ambience. The first two lines imitate Theocritus Idyll 7 very closely, but each also has a strong “bucolic diaeresis”, uia || namque and Bianoris || hic. Lycidas is refusing to give up hope, and his prosody reflects that.

Moeris, the disillusioned older man, will have none of it. The poem ends with an abrupt couplet expressing his adamant refusal to sing (66-7):

desine plura, puer, et quod nunc instat agamus.
carmina tum melius, cum uenerit ipse, canemus.

Say no more, boy, and let’s get on with the matter at hand.
We shall sing songs better when the master comes.

(“The master” refers to Menalcas, a poet-figure whose absence from the scene earlier in the poem is a symptom of the disruption in the countryside. His return is a faint hope, one presumes.)

I’m going to focus on another detail of prosody here. In desine plura, puer Virgil does something naughty, introducing a syllable quantity that is strictly illegal. The seven syllables of the phrase should follow the pattern long-short-short long-short-short long, but the -er of puer, “boy,” is a short syllable. Now the rule that Virgil is breaking here is not an absolutely hard-and-fast one, but this is still a very rare license, only occurring when it does in the first syllable of a metrical foot, and normally only (as here) before the main caesura (a conventional pause) of a verse. Virgil will have been aware of similar moments in Homer’s hexameters and in other Greek poets, and sometimes his practice reflects an older pronunciation of the Latin words (syllables short in his day which had once been long). More often, though, and this is the case here with puer, Virgil simply places a short syllable where readers would firmly expect a long syllable to go. The best discussion of Virgil’s practice is in R. G. Austin’s wonderful commentaries on books of the Aeneid, for example his note at Aeneid 4.64 (pectoribus inhians), but Austin’s most important observation is that Virgil was sometimes clearly just exploiting the license for artistic effect: “Whatever the technical explanation of the matter, Virgil’s pleasure in using the device is obvious, and his skill as plain.”

So the question that occurred to me in Cheltenham was why Virgil had introduced a short-weight syllable at the end of desine plura puer.

I think it’s a very subtle, rather beautiful effect rounding off this pretty marvellous poem. In a sense Eclogue 9 is all about silence. The characters struggle, and fail, to remember the songs that are the quintessence of the pastoral pipedream: the pastoral world has lost its all-important music. We should note also that Virgil is coming to the conclusion of his own poetic collection: there is one more poem and the Eclogues will end, and since Virgil has encouraged us to see the Eclogues as themselves pastoral songs, the songs of pastoral figures in their idyllic surroundings (he refers to himself as Menalcas or Tityrus, names of herdsmen, for example, and Virgil’s poetry has a deliberately singsong quality), the fact that Virgil’s poetry falls silent at the end of the collection itself works as a protest against the forces that make the pastoral dream impossible, the civil wars pitting Roman against Roman.

Here Moeris, in the face of their overwhelming misfortunes, demands silence from the ever-optimistic Lycidas: “Say no more, boy.” In the subtlest way possible Virgil underlines that enforced silence, lengthening the pause at the caesura after puer with a syllable that falls ever-so-slightly too short. It might be just that phrase that is enhanced by that extended lack of sound, but desine plura, puer, in the context of a collection of pastoral songs, songs that conjure into existence a bewitching alternative existence, is a devastating statement. Within the poetry we “hear” momentarily the suppression of all poetry.

It is very, very technical stuff, sometimes, Roman poetry. But that can also be when it’s at its most gorgeously expressive.



Just because, here’s a section from the versified survey of metres by Terentianus Maurus, perhaps around A.D. 300, where he describes the bucolic diaeresis, followed by my best effort at an English version, aided by Cignolo’s edition (2002). At 2129-30 Terentianus translates the very beginning of Idyll 1 of Theocritus (“the child of Sicily”) into Latin (the Greek is Ἁδύ τι τὸ ψιθύρισμα καὶ ἁ πίτυς, αἰπόλε, τήνα,/ ἁ ποτὶ ταῖς παγαῖσι, μελίσδεται, ἁδὺ δὲ καὶ τύ/ συρίσδες, and both Greek lines have bucolic diaereses); and at 2133-4 he quotes the first two verses of Eclogue 3 of Maro (Virgil), exhibiting a nice opening example in an Meliboei. The “tetrameter” is the first four feet of the six-foot hexameter verse:

pastorale uolet cum quis componere carmen,
tetrametrum absoluat, cui portio demitur ima
quae solido a verbo poterit conectere uersum,       2125
bucolicon siquidem talem uoluere uocari.
plurimus hoc pollet Siculae telluris alumnus:
ne graecum immittam uersum, mutabo latinum,
‘dulce tibi pinus summurmurat, en tibi, pastor,
proxima fonticulis; et tu quoque dulcia pangis.’      2130
iugiter hanc legem toto prope carmine seruat:
noster rarus eo pastor Maro, sed tamen inquit
‘dic mihi, Damoeta, cuium pecus? an Meliboei?
non, verum Aegonis: nuper mihi tradidit Aegon’.

If anyone wants to write a pastoral poem,
let them round off the tetrameter, to which a final section is lacking
which can complete the verse starting from an unbroken word,
since they have decided that such a verse be called “bucolic”.
A son of Sicily is best known for this:
so as not to introduce a Greek verse, I shall translate into Latin:
“The pine whispers sweetly, look, shepherd,
The one right by the springs; and you too make sweet songs.”
Theocritus observes this rule almost continually throughout his poetry;
for that reason our shepherd Maro, though sparing with it, still says
“‘Tell me, Damoetas, whose is the flock? Meliboeus’s?’
‘No, Aegon’s: Aegon handed it over to me the other day.’”

(Terentianus Maurus, De litteris de syllabis de metris 2123-2134)

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

One response to “Hearing the silence”

  1. The Shaved Poet says :

    Another wonderful article (you seem to have strong powers of composition and I bet you wowed your teachers all your academic career). Thanks especially for the revelations and for the excuse to review E9 and Id7. Virgil was a metaliterary freak, a kind of T.S.Eliot on steroids, and I see E9 as another Waste Land, its symbolically muddled characters wandering about a landscape as muddled as themselves, spelling the end of poetry and maybe civilisation too so that the author can reinvent them somehow. Personally I think all his bucolic poetry is “spectacularly artificial”. The idylls of Theocritus on the other hand are spectacularly realistic. The shared character Lykidas is a good example of the difference. Virgil’s character is just another mouthpiece on his metaliterary chessboard. Theocritus’ Lykidas is symbollically muddled too but he is also like a real goatherd and mysterious at the same time, like a god. He buzzes with energy. His counterpart in E9 is papyrus. But Virgil’s wordsmithery is stunning once guys like you explain its subtleties for the rest of us.

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