Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue

I had a busy day in the office today. To stop myself from getting carried along by it I took a time out to read Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue.

This poem is about endings and beginnings. At the start, Virgil tells us that

Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung
has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:

These lines remind me of the idea that before our universe existed there was another one. It lived, then died when space and time contracted – presumably to the point of nothingness – only for our universe to be created when that contraction led to the Big Bang.

I have no idea if this idea is what scientists today think what happened or if it is the stuff of fairy tales but it is a very romantic notion, either way.

You’ll have noticed the colon at the end. Virgil continues,

Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,

This line surprised me because of its association of justice with Saturn. I thought that the Greek/Roman gods were a morality-free zone. Well, I know the Greek gods are but maybe I have misjudged the Romans.

It is not Saturn himself who will bring justice to the earth. Saturn, Virgil says, will send ‘a new breed of men… down from heaven’.

He then gets very specific. It is,

… at the boy’s birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden race arise…

This glorious age, O Pollio*, shall begin,
And the months enter on their mighty march.

He shall receive the life of gods, and see
Heroes with gods commingling, and himself
Be seen of them, and with his father’s worth
Reign o’er a world at peace. For thee, O boy,
First shall the earth, untilled, pour freely forth
her childish gifts…

In times past (late antiquity and Middle Ages), the boy of whom Virgil speaks here was interpreted as being Christ. The eclogue was, in other words, a prophecy. It is easy to see why they thought this.

What is of particular interest to me is that whoever the boy is – Jesus, the son of Mark Antony and Octavia, a generic symbol – Virgil wrote this poem just over half way through a blood soaked century, at a time when no Roman, I think, had any right to feel particularly hopeful about the future. And yet, hope remained. It is interesting to compare this eclogue with our own poets’ responses to the First and Second World Wars. Not nearly so hopeful.

Virgil’s hopefulness is not completely unrestrained.

Yet shall there lurk within of ancient wrong
Some traces, bidding tempt the deep with ships
Gird towns with walls, with furrows cleave the earth.

When I read this, I can’t help but think of how piously our politicians say ‘never again’ when attending memorials of past disasters only to let them happen again because the political will to stop them isn’t there. I imagine they do know of the ‘ancient wrong’ that still exists but simply dare not speak of it.

Virgil doesn’t end on this downbeat note. He believes that things will get better

… the glebe no more
Shall feel the harrow’s grip, nor vine the hook;
The sturdy ploughman shall loose yoke from steer

And he cries out to the boy who will make all things well,

Ah! might such length of days to me be given,
And breath suffice me to rehearse thy deeds…

It’s what we all wish for. Instead, we live in the brokenness of the world as it remains for now. Or, in the Shire with Frodo, and with him find many reasons to say,

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,”…
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
(quotation taken from Good Reads)

And they call The Lord of the Rings a fantasy.

With these thoughts in my mind, I got back to my work.

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