The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Simon Pulleyn
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Given that I have written a fair bit about Homer, people might expect me to say the Iliad or the Odyssey. But I don’t think I go to those works in order to be cheered up. The Iliad, in particular, is apt to show you nature red in tooth and claw and it has about as much consolation in it as a Greek tragedy. In her obituary of Prof Martin West OM, Prof Jane Lightfoot said that, ‘he was drawn to archaic poetry because of its unaffected, unshowy directness and lack of mannerism (not for him the “clever-clever” Hellenistic poets, Callimachus and the poets of the Alexandrian library.’ Martin himself once said of the Avestan Gāthās that they ‘give the impression of ringing out somewhere in the middle of a fresh and hopeful young world.’ I recognize the attraction of that lofty archaic simplicity, even if I think that Homer and the Gāthās are a good deal more sophisticated than they might seem. But I am not sure that this is where I go in order to feel better.
For that, I almost always go to Virgil’s Eclogues.
When did you first come across this text?
As a student at Balliol in the 1980s. I had the good fortune to be taught by Jasper Griffin and Oliver Lyne. People might think that Jasper was a Hellenist and Oliver a Latinist. But this was not so. Jasper wrote Latin Poets and Roman Life and also a very good study of Virgil in the Oxford Past Masters series. Oliver, for his part, was a brilliant expositor of Homer and I had half of my tutorials on Homer with him, not Jasper! So both my tutors covered Greek and Latin evenly. But it was Oliver who introduced me to the Eclogues. I later read the Georgics with him too.
Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?
Virgil wrote two works about the countryside, the Eclogues and the Georgics. The first in time was the Eclogues, a book of ten poems on which he was at work from about 43–38 BC. Although they are both ostensibly about rural life, they are very different in content and feel.
Essentially the Eclogues owe a great deal to the pastoral poetry of the Greek poet Theocritus (fl. 280–260 BC). Theocritus wrote Idylls – these were partly poems about shepherds and rural pursuits but they could extend to urban themes. Although rustic in content, there is nothing crude or simple about the style of either the Idylls or the Eclogues. Theocritus was a Hellenistic poet and the literary movement to which he belonged valued craft and allusiveness in poetic constructions. Virgil took Theocritus’ characters and moved them to a world nearer to Rome (e.g. E. 1). He also wove into them some of the tension that surrounded the political struggles that attended the last decades of the Roman Republic. Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Octavian claimed the succession. Antony, Lepidus and Octavian formed the second triumvirate in 43 BC. In the next year, at the Battle of Philippi, Octavian and Antony defeated Cassius and Brutus, who were behind the killing of Julius Caesar. In 41 BC, the three divided up the world between themselves: Octavian took the West, Antony the East and Lepidus Africa. War broke out in Italy between soldiers loyal to Antony and those supporting Octavian. In 40 BC, Octavian captured Perusia and Antony’s Italian forces collapsed. Later the same year, Antony and Octavian temporarily patched up their differences through the Peace of Brundisium. Octavian gave his sister Octavia to Antony in marriage to strengthen the alliance. In 37 BC Antony repudiated Octavia and married Cleopatra.
This is not the place to narrate the rest of the events that led to the victory of Octavian over Antony at Actium in 31 BC. The last Eclogues had appeared by 37 BC. It is enough to note that the period during which Virgil was writing was one of profound upheaval and anxiety. Concerns about loss of land through expropriation in favour of military veterans, loss of livelihood, and worries about the effect of war on the rural way of life surface time and again in the Eclogues. But there are also charming passages celebrating love, even if mostly not straightforward or successful, and the simple pleasures of the locus amoenus (the charming spot) and Arcadia. The Eclogues are formed into a book with a conscious architecture – poems towards the end of the book echo themes and lines from poems earlier in the book and the poems alternate between a single poetic voice and amoebaean song with two or more participants. So there is considerable sophistication there.
The Georgics are a very different kind of rural poetry. They stand in a didactic tradition going back to the Greek hexameter poet Hesiod (C7 BC) but with the huge influence of the Latin poem on natural philosophy De Rerum Natura by Lucretius (99–55 BC). The style of Virgil’s didactic poetry is altogether loftier than that of the Eclogues and stands in a different tradition, albeit allusion and craft are still very much to the fore. The sort of simplicity that some attribute to the archaic Hesiod is not to be found in the Georgics.
What is it about these poems that appeals to you most?
What I love about the Eclogues is their sheer charm and beauty. There are catalogues of flowers, with Virgil showing off his knowledge of the flora of Italy but also of Theocritus’ Sicily. There are contests among shepherds in poetic song – shepherds who turn out to be remarkably skilled at crafting dactylic hexameters with pointed rhetorical figures and games. There are laments about lost love, including a clever conceit (E. 2. 25–6) where Alexis says that he cannot understand why he has been rejected. After all, he recently caught sight of himself in the still waters of the sea and he did not seem so ugly. The joke here is that Virgil is following the story of the cyclops Polyphemus from Theocritus. A giant might be able to use the sea as a mirror, but scarcely an ordinary mortal. There is a pathos in these borrowed words.
This might be criticized as ‘clever clever’. Perhaps it is. But I have been enjoying these poems for more than 30 years and every time I come back to them I want to re-read so much other Latin poetry as well. Virgil expects you to revel with him in the quality of the poetic textures that he is creating.
In the end, I perhaps love the Eclogues for the same reason that I love AE Housman. Both show great beauty shot through with the complexity of longing and loss. Eclogue 2. 3 begins with rustic singing under umbrosa cacumina (‘shady tree-tops’); by Eclogue 9. 9 these have turned into iam fracta cacumina (‘tree-tops that are now shattered’). The move from pleasant rural pursuit to loss and gloom is also echoed in the placement of these two poems within the larger whole. In the same vein, Housman talks about the countryside of Shropshire and ‘the happy highways where I went and cannot come again’. (Shropshire Lad, XL). Just as Virgil’s characters bemoan the loss of love, e.g. Corydon and Alexis (Eclogue II), so Housman knows the same all too well (‘The heart out of the bosom / Was never given in vain; / ‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty / And sold for endless rue’, Shropshire Lad, XIII). Just as Virgil’s shepherds know of loss of land and livelihood (Eclogue IX), so Housman’s characters know about the bitter contrast between soldiery and farming (‘Oh stay at home, my lad, and plough / The land and not the sea, / And leave the soldiers at their drill, / And all about the idle hill / Shepherd your sheep with me.’ (Last Poems XXXVIII). In some ways, Virgil’s Arcadia and Housman’s Shropshire are mirrors to the same concerns.
The Eclogues is a book of contrasts. There is the complex literary allusiveness of Eclogue IV (the so-called Messianic Eclogue, seen in the Middle Ages as a prophecy of the birth of Christ) and Eclogue VI (the so-called Neoteric Eclogue where Virgil sets out a literary manifesto following the artful Hellenistic poet Callimachus and others). But there is also some very poignant poetry about love and loss and the beauty of nature and song. It is to this inexhaustibly rich mixture that I find myself drawn again and again.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I read poetry, listen to music, go for walks, and ride my bike. My tastes in English poetry range from Tennyson, Keats and Matthew Arnold to Philip Larkin, Dick Davis and Richard Scott. I have never enjoyed TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. In French, I love the poems of José-Maria de Hérédia, a C19 French Parnassian poet born in Cuba who wrote some brilliant classicizing verses and was elected to the Académie Française. My musical tastes range from a deep love of early and Renaissance polyphonic religious music (sung by The Tallis Scholars, The Cardinall’s Musick and The Sixteen) through French chansons of all periods to the great English classics of the 60s (The Kinks) and the 80s (Dire Straits). Mark Knopfler, IMHO, knocks Eric Clapton into a cocked hat. I could not ride a bicycle until I was 47. In the years since then, it has given me so much pleasure making up for lost time.
Simon Pulleyn read Classics at Balliol College, Oxford in the 1980s. He stayed on and did a doctorate on Prayer in Greek Religion. He was a Lecturer in Classics at Merton College, Oxford for most of the 1990s. He practised Law in the City of London for seven years and taught Law for another six after that. During that time, he took a degree in Canon Law and has written a bit about that too. He is a vegan and committed to the raising the quality of ethical thinking about animals. He is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and has contributed papers on animal experimentation in antiquity, vegetarianism in antiquity, and the treatment of animals in the religious laws of Latin Christendom. In 2014, he decided to go back to writing. He is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Greek and Latin at University College London. He is currently preparing an edition and commentary on Homer, Odyssey Book XI under contract to Oxford University Press.
A full list of his publications can be seen here, including a work for the non-specialist reader wanting an introduction to linguistics and philology.
He has three elderly cats, the oldest of which – Mildred – recently turned 19 and is pictured below: