Ancient biographical tradition (for which there is almost not one single shred of actual evidence) holds that the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro first lost everything to the wars that tore apart the old Roman Republic and then got back everything and more from the victor of those same wars. We think he was born near Mantua in October of 70 B.C., the only male child of a prosperous farmer who provided for him a first-rate Roman education and a comfortable patrimony. The biographical tradition goes on to say that young Virgil (as the apparently irreversible styling of his name now goes) was dispossessed of his family estate when Octavian and Antony, victorious in the latest round of civil wars, doled out vast tracts of Cisalpine Gaul to their retiring veterans after the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. But Virgil had luck on his side, in the person of Gaius Asinius Pollio, a friend of his who also happened to be one of the commissioners in charge of the land redistributions. An alternate estate was found for Virgil in Campania, and the poet was introduced to Octavian, who not very subtly encouraged him to sing for his supper. Having seen firsthand the abyss that awaited opponents of the new regime (and having very nearly been destroyed by just trying to stay neutral), Virgil, in his hyper-intellectual and morally complicated way, set about creating propaganda for that regime.
Students today know him for his exquisite, tightly controlled booster-epic The Aeneid (in which a fleeing hero of Troy itself makes his way to Italy in order to found the only city, naturally, great enough to be Troy’s successor), but for centuries prior to our vociferously secular age, he was more readily known for one little poem: the fourth of his ten Eclogues (which together form his precocious debut work, the Bucolics). This poem—infinitely translated, infinitely annotated—hails the birth of a marvelous Boy who will bring peace and justice to all the world. It was written no later than 40 BC and was seen by generations of early commentators as a pagan presentiment of the birth of Jesus Christ. The sheer amount of critical attention paid to that poem has always served to turn more focus on the Eclogues in general than they would otherwise have received, being in themselves fairly ordinary echoes and adaptations of the 3rd-century Greek pastoral poet Theocritus, whose Idylls Virgil obviously knew with a loving familiarity. The 19th-century classicist J. W. Mackail famously dismissed the whole production as “uncertain, hesitating, and sometimes extraordinarily feeble,” noting that “even the versification is curiously unequal and imperfect.”
To the implication that the Eclogues have always been a mediocre collection held hostage by one misappropriated text, lovers of pastoral verse have cited the limpid beauty of its constructions and the massive influence it’s had on virtually every major Western poet from the Renaissance to the mid-20th century (when the whole genre of pastoral poetry finally died a natural death with its testy heirs, irony, and urban wit by its bedside). Certainly the Romans themselves weren’t divided as to the collection’s charms: the appearance of the Eclogues made Virgil a star. We’re told the various pastoral dialogues of the collection were declaimed to rapturous applause in public theaters.
Most readers from Shakespeare’s day to Pope’s to our own have naturally looked on the Eclogues as the quintessential slim volume of poetry, but it’s right at that mention of public theater productions that CUNY’s John Van Sickle leaps on board. His new book is offered to readers with the curiously Elizabethan prolonged title of Virgil’s Book of Bucolics, the Ten Eclogues Translated into English Verse, Framed by Cues for Reading Aloud and Clues for Threading Texts and Themes. It turns the 30 pages of Virgil’s volume into 300 densely packed pages of text, notes, and dissections. The resulting book is the single best edition of the battered old Eclogues that’s ever appeared in English.
Van Sickle has written two books here, really, and grafted them together just as Virgil counsels the grafting of vineyard stock. One is simply a new annotated translation of the Eclogues—a profound accomplishment on its own, considering not only how often this work has been translated but also how creaky and foppish so many of those translations have been. (The first English translation I read, by an actual Elizabethan wise enough to remain anonymous, contained shepherd’s laments so god-awful they prompted me to give up mutton then and there.) Van Sickle’s work is understatedly stunning, ranging from the truest possible image of the weird, jumpy beauty Virgil can capture, as in the tenth—
. . . O how softly then my bones would rest,
if your panpipe at some time hence my loves declared.
But really would that I’d been one of your number, either
your troop’s keeper or maker of wine for your ripened grape!
Surely, whether for me Amyntas it were or Phyllis
or whatever rage (so what if Amyntas dusky?
Violets as well are dark, and hyacinths are dark),
they’d sprawl with me among willows, beneath a limber vine;
Phyllis would pick wreaths for me, Amyntas chant.
—to the lively back-and-forth that made these poems such a hit when dramatized on stage, as in the snarky dialogue between Damoetas and Menalcas in the third:
Mn Declare me, Damoetas, whom’s the herd is: Meliboeus’?
Da No, really Aegon’s; Aegon handed me it just now.
Mn You sheep, as always, malnursed herd: while he himself
feels up Neaira, fearing she’ll like me, not him,
right here an outcast keeper twice an hour milks ewes—
from the herd their very sap gets drawn, their life from the lambs.
Da A bit more sparsely (mind!) toss manly men that talk.
We know who did it to you (while billy goats crossed their eyes)
and in what shrine (but—making it happen—the Nymphs just laughed).
But in addition to this already formidable feat, Van Sickle has added another, no less formidable: he’s created an entire program of “cues,: an elaborate, erudite, and extremely playful re-animation of some of the possible tricks of the Roman stage trade. These performance programs bear the marks of having been trial-tested on many seasons of students—the commentary is full of investigation, full of prodding, challenging questions, and most of all full of the joyous contextualizing that is the sum and essence of all good teaching. For each poem, we’re given an exhaustive account of the dramatis personae, the settings, and what’s at stake. A vast amount of study and expertise underpins this commentary, but readers never feel it for an instant. Instead, we feel welcomed inside this work in a way no other version has come close to doing. With Van Sickle’s careful guidance, we can easily imagine ourselves in a theater audience on Mars Field, shifting between laughter and wonder as this new poem-cycle is performed—or even better, we can imagine ourselves performing it. Time and again, we’re exhorted to do just that, as in the stage directions for that infamous Fourth Eclogue:
Stand up and breathe a bit more deeply. Take a cue from the first verse, where a voice more ambitious than any heard thus far pushes for something specified (ironically, you may suspect) as just a little more than lowly trees and plants—your cue to simplify and reduce in your mind the previous three eclogues to mere woodsy, Theocritean bucolic stuff. You are supposed now to stretch for something Roman, official, worthy of the highest magistrate (ecl. 4.3: consul). You have to push for the big talk—oracles and cosmic cycles, Maiden (Justice) coming back, new line sent from above (4-7): it all prompts you to get worked up into a prophesying style. Yet your tone might also need to be cajoling, almost avuncular, since you’ve got to imagine yourself talking to a Boy just born.
The only heartbreaking thing about this volume is, ironically, extremely Virgilian: our author has absolutely no sense of publicity. Just as the Roman poet shunned readings and had to be prodded by friends to promote his own work, so too Van Sickle has created a work so seemingly hermetic (there are multi-columned graphs and, God help us all, algebraic equations complete with brackets) and uninviting that the general just-in-off-the-street intelligent reader, looking at it, will prefer to eat it with Worcestershire sauce rather than read it—even the book’s title looks like a dissertation. The surface publicity of the thing gives no hint at all that this kind of fun lurks within:
In the swelling drama, this one stretch gives rise to others: What’s new? You’re trouble for the status quo! What about your bad stuff? Yeah, and your dirt? Yeah, yours too. My songs! Songs, you? My eye!
Fortunately, this is easily corrected. Step One: remove the graphs, cosines, secants, and hypotenuses (there simply has to be a way to do without them). Step Two: change the title to, obviously, Virgil Tonight! Step Three: hand the revised edition over to Penguin Classics for the widest possible distribution (no high school or college Classics department, for instance, should be without a copy).
Until then, intrepid readers are strongly urged to bear with our author’s nerdy quirks long enough to savor the sheer genius he’s sharing here.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His writing has appeared in The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Lifted Brow. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
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