Traditional criticism of bucolic (and this includes traditional ecocriticism) has long assumed the dichotomy Town/Country as one of the genre’s fundamental elements. This dichotomy is particularly evident as the guiding principle of much of the scholarly reception of Vergil’s second Eclogue, which makes Iollas and Alexis representative urbani to Corydon’s rusticus, and interprets this as a major reason for both the hopelessness of Corydon’s passion and the comic incongruity of his situation. A major trend in ecocriticism (the school of literary theory concerned with nature and the environment), however, challenges such easy distinctions and instead conceives of the human and natural as inextricably intertwined and social formations such as town and country as mutually implicated on a continuum. This paper applies ecocriticism’s insights to Eclogue 2 to show that the central drama of the poem is a result precisely of this porousness of the categories “town” and “country”; that Corydon is therefore not as rustic as his passionate outbursts assert; and that, insofar as Corydon finds himself hopelessly excluded from the imaginative community to which he aspires to belong (which is not that of the supposedly urbanus Alexis, but rather that of his imaginary counterpart, the rustic character “Corydon”), the tone of the poem is not so much comic/ironic as it is tragic/pathetic. That this collapse of supposedly fundamental landscape categories occurs in the very text commonly thought to set the generic boundaries of bucolic certainly does much to highlight the remarkable fluidity of the genre.
Vergil’s choice of monody rather than dialogue in Eclogue 2 makes the poem uniquely suited for psychological exposition. Except potentially for the first 5 lines, the poem is entirely Corydon’s poetic fiction. The form naturally invites a reading that suggests that the contradictions with which the poem is concerned are conceptual, as the text is palpably a depiction of the character’s mental state. The addressees of the poem are also obviously imaginary constructs: it is not actually Alexis whom Corydon addresses, since he is alone, nor yet is the Corydon whom he calls upon precisely coextensive with his entire “self.”
It is furthermore not at all self-evident that Alexis has said any of the things Corydon ascribes to him, and even if he has, they are here internalized within Corydon’s monologue. Therefore it is most directly Corydon, the singer, who does not care for his (own) song, who is pitiless and disdains the shepherd, his flocks and gifts, and repeatedly uses forms like sordidus and rusticus to characterize his lifestyle. The precondition for Corydon’s composition is his “contamination”, his penetration, if you will, by an outsider perspective. And this is not surprising – although previous scholarship has often chosen to obscure the fact, Iollas and Alexis, too, must be touched, and deeply, by the Italian countryside.
We thus have two Corydons – the singer, who lives in a real world of complex landscapes and interactions between town and country, and the idealized rustic “Corydon” he constructs in his song along with his imaginary milieu, and whom he simultaneously looks down upon and aspires to be. On this reading, Corydon’s song becomes an attempt to reconcile the incongruities between an idealized vision of rusticity and its complex actuality, and the poem accords with Northrop Frye’s definition of low mimetic tragedy, whose “tradition of sophisticated pathos is the study of the isolated mind, the story of how someone recognizably like ourselves is broken by a conflict between the inner and outer world, between imaginative reality and the sort of reality…established by social consensus.” Furthermore, “the type of character involved here we may call by the Greek word alazon, which means impostor, someone who pretends or tries to be something more than he is” (Frye 2006), and thus Corydon is exposed for the fake that he (tragically) becomes as he insists on his pure rustic identity.