Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Gregson Davis, The Interplay of Ideas in Vergilian Bucolic. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 346. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012. Pp. x, 177. ISBN 9789004233089. $125.00.

Reviewed by Kristi Eastin, California State University, Fresno (

Version at BMCR home site


Gregson Davis' book takes as its point of departure an investigation of the "Epicurean substratum" that underlies Vergil's bucolic poems.1 Building upon philological studies of Lucretian allusions within the Eclogues, Davis aims to show how Epicurean philosophy informs and shapes these poems. The author is careful not to suggest that the Eclogues are in any way a programmatic or didactic exposition of the philosophy; Davis presents rather a set of poems that investigates collectively the central theme of human felicity in an uncertain world—what is happiness and how best to attain it?—and he shows how the poet's mechanism for engaging this theme is decidedly Epicurean. The philosophy functions as a resource from which the poet can draw in his exploration (proffered in a bucolic guise) "of human weakness and vulnerability" (10).

The first chapter, "Prelude: The Poet As Thinker", is primarily an apologia of the author's approach. Working against scholarship that tends to disparage extrapolation of any cerebral content from a work of art, and also the penchant to ignore or deny any philosophical dimension to Vergil's bucolic poems, Davis tactfully exposes the inherent deficiencies in both trends. The poet is, indeed, a thinker, and even in these early poems (and like his friend Horace) he is meditating on the question: how to be? As support for his reading Davis refers to the recent scholarship on the Herculaneum papyri, which confirms Vergil's association with emigrant Greek philosophers centered in the region of the Bay of Naples—or Parthenope. Vergil is not an Epicurean per se (cf. Horace, Epist. 1.1), but the philosophy was a current, accessible, and potentially useful lens through which one might come to terms with human vicissitude. In this chapter Davis also nicely articulates the poet's use of the bucolic scaffolding as a means to stage his ethical inquiries. The Vergilian bucolic space is not escapist but instead reflects a "stripped-down representation of the human condition in a microcosm" (11), and the dialogues of the poets/herdsmen revolve around issues of genuine human concern. The attraction of such a reading is that we are presented with a poetic space that is not real, of course, but which nevertheless conveys a sense of truth. The chapter concludes with cursory review of all ten poems followed by a brief articulation of the leitmotif upon which Davis' philosophical thesis hangs: the experience by many of the bucolic actors of acute loss and dislocation. Vergilian bucolic presents its audience with poets/herdsmen struggling to cope with external or internal adversity, and their strategies are ideas "transplanted from the Garden" (14).

Chapters Two and Three address acute loss and dislocation in external terms, focusing on the experience of the loss of land in Eclogues 1 and 9. In the second chapter, "Framing a Dialogue on Vicissitude: The Interplay of Ideas in Ecl. 1", Davis examines how the dialogue between Vergil's two characters reflects "juxtaposed perspectives on how to respond to acute misfortune" (17). Dividing the chapter into the six dialogic exchanges, he leads the reader through a close reading of the poem, presenting an older poet/herdsman (Meliboeus) in the throes of acute loss and a younger one (Tityrus) whose fortune has changed for the better. Davis examines the "Epicurean cadence" of the poem (37), revealing the connection between the philosophy and the responses of the younger poet/herdsman. Through this reading, the seemingly disjointed dialogue of the first Eclogue stems not from an aloof Tityrus but from the inability of the elder poet/herdsman to grasp his younger counterpart's enlightened (Epicurean) world-view. As a programmatic introduction to the collection as a whole, Eclogue 1 foreshadows the "interplay of ideas" that will take place between many of the bucolic actors, as they seek for ways to cope with "forces of change beyond their control" (39).

In the third chapter, "Fracta Cacumina: The Consolation of Poetry and Its Limitations", Davis provides a close analysis of Eclogue 9, which he connects to the opening poem through the theme of acute loss in the form of land dispossession. In Eclogue 1 the reader is presented with individual responses to personal loss; in Eclogue 9 the poet is amplifying the range of those responses by examining the impact such loss has on the bucolic enterprise: "For the singers of Ecl. 9, the existential issue is the preservation, if not restoration, of poetic activity" (40). Faced with the loss of their locus or poetic space (the fracta cacumina), the poets/herdsmen explore the efficacy and limits of consolation through poetic memory. Analyzing closely the contrasting modalities that comprise the song fragments embedded in the poem—"Theocritean" or "Vergilian"—Davis finds, in the face of loss, a tendency toward optimism attributable to the power of memory. The Epicurean suggestion here is two-fold: first, memory of philosophical conversation (or, in bucolic terms, in the form of song composition and exchange) is a means for coping with adversity; and second, the very activity of recollection, when shared, provides consolation.

Chapter Four, "Vicissitude Writ Large: The Ontology of the Golden Age (Ecl. 4)", is an exploration of these same ideas of loss and change as articulated by the poet on a cosmic scale. Fundamental to Davis's argument is the Vergilian presentation of the sequence of world ages as inherently cyclical, and the negative connotations associated with that idea. True, we can look forward to a returning Golden Age, but the corresponding implication is that this too shall pass. Using both the fourth Eclogue and passages from Book II of the Georgics, Davis finds Vergilian "remedies" for such inherent vicissitudes in the form of learning and knowledge: the child of Eclogue 4 must come to understand what is virtue (4.27), and the farmer (overt Epicurean allusion felix qui potuit notwithstanding) must both come to understand the basis of their happiness.

Perhaps the most acute human loss is death, and this is the experience of the poet/herdsmen in the fifth Eclogue and the subject of Chapter Five. The title of the chapter, "Coping with Death: The Interplay of Lament and Consolation in Ecl. 5", recalls the "interplay of ideas" outlined in Chapter Two, wherein the bucolic dialogue juxtaposed competing avenues for coping with change in fortune. Here, the dialogue of the bucolic actors is an "interplay of ideas" which examines how best to cope with human mortality. Davis's argument centers on the nature of the discourse of consolation: "It is intrinsic to the logic of consolatory rhetoric that it implies a necessary limit (modus) to the expression of grief or lament" (80). Accordingly, Eclogue 5 is an exposition of which type of song is best for limiting grief—lament for the loss of Daphnis (as sung by Mopsus) or consolation for his loss by apotheosis/resurrection (as sung by Menalcas). This exchange reveals that death is over-valued by lament (the song must present the loss as supreme), whereas it is devalued if not negated by the conciliatory song. The "Epicurean substratum" of the poem is extensive: the type of pleasure invoked by the poets/herdsmen at hearing their rival's song (45-47 and 56-59) denotes Epicurean hierarchies of pleasure ("static" vs. "kinetic"); Menalcas' song contains prominent allusions to De Rerum Natura; and the bucolic exchange connotes the therapeutic function of ideas a strategy for coping with grief. Perhaps most significant is Davis's observation that the apotheosis of Daphnis is Virgil's own invention, an invention which, inter alia, allows the poet to explore, philosophically, the finality of death.2

Chapters six through eight turn from coping with external adversity and loss to examine the domain of erotic experience—amor. Though the topic is quite distinct from that of material loss or death, the inquiry remains the same: what are the mechanisms for mitigating or transcending amatory infelicity—and what are the limits of those mechanisms? Chapter Six, "Coping with Erotic Adversity: Carmen Et Amor (Ecl. 2 & 8)", shows how the second and eighth poems work to distinguish good amor from bad in distinctly Epicurean terms. Good desire is natural, the life force present in all sentient beings; bad desire is "a perturbation of the soul, [a] passion that overwhelms and destroys" (105).3 Corydon, Damon, and Alphesiboeus all suffer from "amor-dementia", as shown not only in their discourse, but also in their choice of locus, their disjointed song, or their unsettled behavior. A close comparison of Eclogue 2 and its Theocritean model (Id. 11) further supports Davis's thesis—for Theocritus poetry is a "pharmakon" for demented love; for Vergil, the solution is philosophical. As above, it is acquired knowledge or insight—"the internal resource of reason" (119)—that mitigates amatory infelicity.

The focus of the seventh chapter, "Erotic Vicissitude Writ Large (Ecl. 6)", is the problem of erotic pathology or deranged passion (amor insanus) as articulated in the "Song of Silenus", which presents the reader with "an over-arching narrative account of adversity 'writ large'"(121). The chapter is weighted toward an analysis of the examples of such amores insani as presented by Silenus (to include an astute vindication of the Gallus "intrusion"), but Davis begins with an intriguing analysis of the prelude, which he identifies nicely as a "generic disavowel", a complex strategy which (inter alia, all carefully articulated by the author) permits the poet to foreground the subject of amor. Davis gives much attention to the phrase "captus amore" (6.10), identifying Vergil's use of the verb amare to signify "to read/hear a literary work with intense pleasure and critical approval" (124), a conceit that positions the listening critic as approving amator and that figures profitably into the analysis of this chapter and the next.

Perhaps the most surprising argument is found in Chapter Eight: "Ecquis Erit Modus?: The Vergilian Critique of Elegiac Amor (Ecl. 10)." Building on the argument laid out in the previous chapter, Davis shows how the poet brings his investigation of insanus amor to a brilliant crescendo in this final poem: "[Vergil employs] the brilliant rhetorical strategy of making Gallus, the very inventor of Latin erotic elegy, enact his own emotional drama…[such that] the Vergilian critique of unbridled eros is indirectly mediated through the person of the elegiac amator himself" (141). The analysis is both persuasive and, for this reader, enjoyable. As the embodiment of elegiac poetry, Gallus resists any therapeutic solutions to assuage his pain, clinging instead—as the elegiac poet must—to the psychosis that informs his genre. Directing our attention to the numerous elegiac topoi in the poem, Davis unveils a unique generic experiment: "the transposition of the theme of elegiac amor to the genre of bucolic" poetry (144). Not surprisingly, the insanus amor requisite for elegiac is found wanting by the philosophical poet. The bucolic pose cannot sustain an elegiac poet who, like Meliboeus in Eclogue 1, refuses to relinquish his dementia. Yet philosophical criticism notwithstanding, Davis shows how, using the trope of amare as devotion to literature, the poet's concluding song remains a tribute to his friend.

The final chapter, "Postlude: Dulcis Parthenope" concisely summarizes Davis's thesis and again addresses the poet's use of Epicurean philosophy not as a didactic treatise but as means to explore "the central problematic informing the human effort to achieve happiness" (165). Returning once again to Book II of the Georgics, Davis contends that the common denominator for human happiness (in both the Georgics and the Eclogues) is understanding: "Above all, Vergil explicitly enunciates the view that true felicity is founded on sound cognitive premises" (168). This book is insightful and engaging; amatores of Vergil's Eclogues (scholars, students, or enthusiasts) will find the work accessible and profitable.


1.   The phrase was coined by A. Traina, (1986) [1965]: " 'Si numquam fallit imago': Riflessioni sulle Bucoliche e l'epicuresmo." In Poeti latini (e neolatini): Note e saggi filologici. 2nd ed. Bologna: 163-174.
2.   Davis credits I.M. Du Quesnay (1976) with suggesting the Vergilian invention of the apotheosis of Daphne: "Vergil's Fourth Eclogue." Papers of the Liverpool Latin Seminar 1: 25-100.
3.  The quotation is from Traina (1986), p.74.

1 comment:

  1. "presenting an older poet/herdsman (Meliboeus) in the throes of acute loss and a younger one (Tityrus) whose fortune has changed for the better" :: 'candidior postquam tondenti barba cadebat'


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