An Exchange of Gifts
From Eclogue V
You’re older, Menalcas, you decide
where to sit down and start singing: whether
beneath these shadows, shook and shifted
by the wind, or in that cave
wild vine clusters have almost covered up.
If you’ve got any valentines for Phyllis,
or praise for Alcon, or shit to say to Codrus,
go right ahead and sing it, Mopsus;
Tityrus can watch your grazing kids.
I’ve been writing a few new verses,
scratching them onto the green bark
of a beech tree, with all the modulations
for the pipe properly marked.
But before you call Amyntas
or anyone else to challenge me, listen:
“Daphnis died, and the Nymphs mourned him
as one of their own–you hazel-trees and rivers
watched them weep–while his mother, absurd
with grief, still clutching her son’s corpse,
damned the gods, and damned the cruel stars.
On that day, no one drove his pastured cattle
towards cold waters; no animal at all
drank from a stream, or touched a blade of grass.
And the wild hills and the rude woods
rumored that even the African lions
were moaning at your death, Daphnis,
who knew how to inspire a wine dance, or interweave
the mystic wand with softest leaves.
And since the Fates hauled you off,
two gods have renounced our fields: oat weed
and ugly cockle spurt up in the furrows
where we’d planted barley; in place
of soft violet and purple narcissus,
thistle and thorn. So scatter flowers, shepherds,
make shade by the fountain, and let’s crown
his tomb with a song: I am Daphnis,
famous from this forest to the stars,
more beautiful even than my animals.”
Your music’s like a nap on the grass
when one needs sleep, or a sweet rill
discovered in thirsty summer. Not just your playing–
a voice to match your master’s as well.
You’ll be the next him, after him.
Now here’s a small strain of my song, which finds
dead Daphnis at the fringes of the stars.
“Tentative at the threshold of Olympus,
Daphnis glows and watches clouds crossing
under his feet. And, all at once, sharp pleasure
seizes the woods, the rest of this world,
shepherds, and Pan, and the Dryad girls.
The wolf abandons his nasty plan for the flock.
No nets will trick stags any more,
for Daphnis commands peace. I’ll set out two cups
foaming with fresh milk, two bowls
of olive oil, and I’ll brighten the banquet–
by my fireplace in the winter, or, in summer,
in the shade–with wine strained
into goblets out of strange nectars.
This will be your ritual, Daphnis, you’ll be recalled
every time we pay our contracts
to the Nymphs, whenever bloody sacrifice
cleanses these fields. As long as the boar
adores his mountain and fish live in streams,
as long as bees feed on thyme
and cicadas drink the dew, so will your name,
your honor, and praise persist.
Just as they do to Bacchus and to Ceres,
farmers will now vow wild things to you;
make them keep every last promise.”
What can I say, how could anyone repay
such a song? The south wind bustling
in early spring, fantastic breakers
shaking the beach, or faint runoff down rocks
in glens–none have sounded sweeter to me.
What can I give you in return?
First, boy, for you: this tender
old hemlock reed. It’s the same one
that learned to play the tunes “I’m not that ugly”
and “You beat Damon? You actually outsang him?”
Accept this sheephook, Menalcas.
Though Antigenes always begged me for it–
and this was when his looks deserved the gift–
I never gave it up. It’s pure brass,
crafted so there’s equal space between the knots.
From Eclogue VI
Kings and complex battles–starting out,
I only liked a certain kind of song.
But then Apollo got me by the ear:
A shepherd should keep the flock fat
but his lines refined, like exquisite thread.
So now I woo a rustic muse on this compacted reed.
Don’t worry, General Varus, you’ll find plenty
of poets begging to construct your epics;
it’s simply that I no longer sing
what doesn’t simply come to me.
Once two shepherd boys stumbled
upon famous Silenus, splayed out in a cave
and snoring, his garlands discarded,
his two-handled drinking cup
still dangling from his fingers. They grabbed him
and tied him up with his own things–
for often the old man had teased them,
but they’d never gotten to hear him sing.
A nymph named Aegle showed up with mulberry juice
and rubbed it all over the poet’s face.
When Silenus woke and saw the trick, he laughed:
“But why keep me tied? You’ll get your songs,
and Aegle will get me whenever she wants.”
Then suddenly the great Silenus is singing.
You can see Fauns and fierce beasts
all keeping time, straight oaks
that can’t help shaking at the crown.
Nothing’s moved the woods like this since Orpheus.
For Silenus sang first of atoms–
seeds of the land, sea, and burning planets–
gathered dancing across the deep; sang how,
from these elements, everything would grow,
even this young orb called the earth,
spinning dry, hardening, until things slowly
owned their forms. The first sunrise stunned
the land, and the clouds, he sang,
now set above, apart, released their rain.
Pine forests started popping up.
Unaware of where they came from
or what they were, animals
rambled across the mountain ranges.
Silenus sang of causes and first things,
the stones that Pyrrha threw, Saturn’s reign;
how Prometheus ended up with fire,
the eagles that then fed upon his liver.
A song to comfort Pasiphae, relentless,
in love with a bull and doomed to wander.
A song to twirl bark and moss
around Phaeton’s sisters, turning them all
to weeping alders. A song recalling how Linus,
vatic shepherd, his hair arranged
with bitter parsley and flowers, inducted Gallus
into the order, “with these same reeds
the Muses gave Hesiod, whose songs lured
hard ash trees down from the mountains.”
And then the old story of Scylla,
monsters growling out of her bright groin
as she seized the Ithacan ship and made it shake
until, in the sea’s swirling depths,
her dogs had ripped apart each fallen sailor.
Or the legend of Philomela,
one day preparing for a wedding feast
then returned, horribly, a bird,
hovering above the roof of her old home.
Every kind of song that Apollo knows,
that the river Eurotas ordered its laurels to learn:
the valleys reverberate with them now.
And though the evening star–it was time
to drive in and count our sheep–
had begun to sweep through the reluctant sky,
Silenus could have kept singing.
Remembering Another Contest
From Eclogue VII
Daphnis chanced to be just leaning back
beneath a particular whispering holly
when two shepherds arrived together,
Thyrsis leading his sheep, and Corydon
with his swollen goats: two boys
in bloom, Arcadians each, eager to sing
and listen and match each other’s singing.
And it happened that, as I was wrapping
crape myrtles against the coming cold,
my he-goat wandered away from his wives
and ended up beneath this same holly tree.
Chasing after him and my scattering flock,
I bumped into Daphnis. “Take a minute, join me
beneath this shade. Your goats will be fine,
your steers will guide themselves to these slack waters
where low reeds meter the banks
and the holy oak thrums with honeybees.”
And why not stay? I had no slave at home
to watch my just-weaned lambs,
but I weighed the value of my work
against this chance at play, this once-in-a-lifetime
contest of Thyrsis versus Corydon.
And so, switching verses, they began to sing,
Corydon, then Thyrsis,
as the Muses commanded the lines to come.
“Mossy springs, grasses deeper
than sleep, my strawberry tree’s
basic shade: defend my flock
from this noon heat. Buds are swelling,
insipid summer’s coming. I can tell.”
“Here where the doorpost gathers soot
around the tang of smoky pitch,
a fire’s always going. We fear the winter
as much as a wolf troubles to count a flock
or a torrent bothers about its banks.”
“Majestic junipers straight up and down,
prickly chestnut trees, and under each a skirt
of fallen fruit: the entire landscape smiling.
But if my Alex abandoned these hills,
you’d see the rivers themselves dry up.”
“The fields are parched, grass sucks
at the tainted air, Bacchus has wiped his vines
from every hill. But when my Phyllis
comes back, each tree will go green again.
Jupiter will descend, wrapped in happy showers.”
–And that’s as much as I remember:
Thyrsis beaten, but singing hard, still trying to win.
That was the day Corydon became Corydon.