Theocritus and Virgil both establish trees that are symbolic of their approaches to the bucolic tradition. Theocritus’ pine and Virgil’s beech stand in programmatic passages where each writer creates and reshapes the bucolic landscape as a symbol for the bucolic genre. In the opening of Theocritus’ Idylls, a goatherd’s piping is favorably compared with the sound of wind through the pine (pitus). This passage establishes the pine as a symbolic marker for Theocritus’ bucolic world. The pine, however, also marks passages where the placid bucolic landscape is punctuated by the frustration of unfulfilled personal desires (Idylls 1.134, 3.38, 5.49). These moments of tension, attached to the tree as a symbol of both the landscape and the genre, are adopted and adapted to resonate with in Virgil’s Eclogues.
Virgil shows his adherence to the bucolic tradition in the opening of Eclogue 1, where Meliboeus comments that Tityrus lies beneath a beech tree (fagus), piping to the woodland Muse. Although the reader may assume that the beech is simply Virgil’s version of the Theocritean pine, the beginning of the fourth line makes it clear that this bucolic world is not only inhabited by unrequited personal desire, but external upheaval and frustration: “nos patriam fugimus.” The inclusion of external strife in two key passages in the Eclogues associated with the beech tree (3.12 and 9.9) reveals that the beech tree in the Virgilian landscape highlights the poet’s break from the Theocritean tradition.
This new tradition is particularly highlighted in Eclogue 5, wherein Menalcas sings with a younger counterpart, Mopsus. Mopsus announces that he will not sing of the traditional topics but will instead sing a song he recently wrote on beech bark (5.14-15). By using his programmatic tree, the beech, in a novel way—as a writing surface—Virgil marks this “new” song as his own. The topic of Mopsus’ song, however, the death of Daphnis, nevertheless alludes back to the Theocritean and Hellenistic literary tradition. This paper argues that in this cordial Eclogue, Virgil casts himself in the dual roles of the shepherds: he is both Mopsus, a younger poet creating something new from what came before, and Menalcas, a singer of the traditionally bucolic Eclogues 2 and 3 (5.85-87). By assuming the double role of Menalcas and Mopsus, Virgil simultaneously breaks from the Theocritean tradition with the emphasis on the “new” and also recognizes the importance of the tradition itself. By doing this, Virgil establishes the mutability of the genre, which is further adapted by later bucolic and bucolic writers.