Virgil's 6th eclogue and the poetics of middle style

The following is the abstract of a paper read by John Van Sickle to the American Philological Association annual meeting in New York, December 20, 1976. Author references are to books unless otherwise noted.
[References to a series of sequels of this study appear at Aipolic vs Bucolic & on the bibliographical page.]
In the last 15 years, some scholars have come to view the 6th eclogue as a general 'declaration of Callimachean faith', which enuciates a program of  'slight style' for Virgil's entire eclogue book. The present paper would modify this view, suggesting that it arises from a natural reaction but risks finally over-reacting to the discovery of a prologue for Callimachus' Aitia. The paper argues that Virgil in B 6 deliberately alters Callimachus, rather than simply taking over the canon of 'slight style', and that the allusion to the Aitia sets a poetic direction not for the entire book but at most for the second half.

Scholarship has reacted unevenly to the discover of the Aitia prologue (1927, P. Oxy. 2079, fr. l, + P. Oxy. 2167, fr. l), from the immediate recognition of its bearing on B 6.3-5 (Rostagni, RFil 1928; Pfeiffer, Hermes 1928; E. Reitzenstein, Festsch. Reitz. 1931), through long neglect (e.g. Rose 1942, Stegen 1957), to mere citation of Pfeiffer by Buechner, Holtorf 1959), but then full recognition of its importance for poetics (e. g. Hardie, ProcVirgSoc 1960: Wimmel 1960), and at last with growing familiarity and prestige the risk of overinterpretation: talk of 'Callimachean faith' and a program for all the eclogues (e.g. Otis 1964, Clausen, GRBS 1964; and still Boyle, Ross 1975).

Without questioning the importance of the Aitia-prologue, I ask what makes us so sure that any one eclogue sets a program for the rest; or if some single eclogue, why the 6th rather than one of the others where scholars have been busily detecting poetic programs, e.g . the 7th (Beyers, AntClass 1962, Poeschl 1964, Van Sickle TAPA 1967, Frischer 1975), or 5th (centerpiece for Maury LettHum 1944 et al.), or 4th (Van Sickle, HSCP 1966; Hardie 1970, Berg 1974), 3rd (Segal AJP 1967), 2nd (Galinsky CetM 1968, Leach, AJP 1968), or perhaps the 1st, where two recent studies (J. R. G. Wright, lecture to ClassAssScot 1974/5, and J. Van Sickle QUCC 1975) have argued that the 1st eclogue defines an ambitious program in deliberate contrast with Theocritus: that Virgil transformed the poetics of the 7th idyll (which in turn had defined its own more modest poetics by transforming Hesiod' s initiation on Helicon).

Now if Virgil in the 1st eclogue does so stake out a position and define a program, it must be compared with the program of the 6th eclogue in order to determine what kind of system, if any, can be discerned in these poems and their themes. The comparison uncovers a number of signs of a system, not least that the narrator of the 6th eclogue is called 'Tityrus', which was the name of the secured old herdsman in the 1st eclogue. Moreover the first 'Tityrus' was imagined as benefitting from the authority of Rome, while the latter 'Tityrus' is imagined as warned away from expansive, Roman themes.

Thus an order can be discerned in the book: the first half starts off with a program that is expansively critical of its tradition (the bucolic in idyll 7) and touching the levels of low, middle, and high styles (which Putnam, Ancient Pastoral 1975, finds in B 1; c.f. Berg 1974 on B 4); then the second half book starts over with a program that is restrictively critical of the first half, drawing back from the range of high style ('Rome', consule,facta, fata: cf. Hubaux 1930; Van Sickle, TAPA 1967; Leach AJP 1968; Galinsky CetM 1968; Hardie The Georgics 1970; Leach 1975; Frischer 1975) though leaving scope for further elaboration of middle and low style.
[This argument having been made here & fully developed in a series of studies, it is wrong to speak of "Hubbard's revolution" as Kuipers does: hence my critique in BMCR.]

The paper concludes that such a view of the differentiated but related functions of B 1 and B 6 in a larger poetic design finds confirmation in the way Virgil alters the Aitia-prologue. Pfeiffer 1928 observed that 'die Ekloge die kallimacheischen Verse ins "Bukolische" umstilisiert' and most scholars have been content to accept this as Virgil' s 'one important departure' ( so Ross 1975). Yet the Aitia showed Apollo at the start of Callimachus' career assigning the slight style from which the docile poet never strayed (cf. Wimmel 1960, 134), while Virgil reports a more complex poetic biography - not one but three moments: first Theocritean bucolic play in woods; then an attempt at heroic song, squelched by Apollo; and ? 'now' the project for B 6 of 'working up' (meditabor, 8) a muse of the tilled fields not the pastoral woods (agrestem musam, 8 ).

These three moments, as I see it, correspond to three levels in theme and style. This means that rejecting Callimachus' single-minded fixation on slight style and simple opposition to grand style, Virgil has opted for something like the three part hierarchy employed previously only in rhetoric, which comprises the extremes of low style (here newly defined as bucolic play) and high style (heroic song, 'kings and battles' as also for Callimachus), but now, too, in between the extremes, a third style. This third style Virgil characterizes as slight (tenui, 8) by contrast with heroic song (reges et proelia, 3 ) yet still more than mere bucolic play in woods.

In terms of literary history, Virgil appears to have subdivided the Alexandrian slight style, which was Hesiodic as opposed to Homeric, into low and middle styles that are newly typed as Theocritean and Hesiodic-Callimachean, thus foreshadowing the tripartite development of Virgil' s own life work. In terms of the eclogue book, B 6 can thus serve, in reaction against B 4 (cf. Otis 1964), to sound retreat from the upper stylistlc range of the first half book down to a middle range which the poem itself defines by numerous echoes as that of the non-historical and non-heroic, sc. Hesiodic and Callimachean epos (hence, too, its vision on of a world of natural and poetic causes, dominated by Amor not by heroic action or Roman fate).
    In a sequentially ordered book, this downward modulation might be felt to clear the way for further poetry at the more purely bucolic level (e.g. ludo, B 7, 17: Frischer 1975): pastoral but now without the god at Rome. To this degree, B 6 might be said to prepare for the second half, but certainly not to promulgate a Callimachean creed for the book as a whole.

NOTE: For a practical application of these ideas, see the review article by the author, "ET GALLVS CANTAVIT," CJ 72 (1977) 327-33. © 1977 by John Van Sickle. Originally published in LCM 2 (1977) 107-8.

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