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Latin pastoral poetry


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Among Latin pastoralists Virgil stands supreme. He extended the boundaries of the genre which he had inherited from Theocritus, whose inspiration he acknowledges, and upon whom he draws in all his Eclogues, except 4 and 6, in which the poet strives to lift pastoral to a higher plane (see 4. 1, ‘Sicilian Muses, let us sing a somewhat grander strain’). Virgil's originality is proclaimed at the start of the Eclogue‐book. Whereas Theocritus had kept pastoral and court poems distinct, contemporary politics and pastoral are blended in the first Eclogue, which describes, in the persons of Meliboeus and Tityrus, the effects on the Italian countryside of the triumviral dispossessions of the late 40s bc (see triumviri; proscription). So, the pastoral world may be said to exist no longer in isolation, but to suffer encroachments which disrupt the shepherds' ōtium (‘tranquil existence’).

Virgil also created the Arcadian setting, which was to prove so influential in European pastoral. But references to Arcadia in the Eclogues are actually few, and are combined with features of Italian topography. The precise import of Arcadia is disputed. It seems best to regard it as a lonely setting for lovers' plaints and for song (at which the Arcadians excelled). Both topics are central to pastoral. It is probably to the former of these that Horace's description of the Eclogues, molle atque facētum (‘tender and charming’) refers, though both adjectives have a stylistic connotation as well. The Eclogues are self‐reflexive, experimental, and challenging, but none of the authors who follow Virgil can rival him in complexity or suggestiveness.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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