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It is a commonplace that in bucolic poetry context permits distinctions between performative song and conversational speech. Typically, readers of Theocritus (e.g., Wilamowitz, Gow, Rosenmeyer, Payne) presume that hexameter misrepresents the herdsmen’s songs, which by rights should be imagined in different, more melic forms; what is taken as given for Theocritus is readily, if tacitly, applied to Virgil as well. I propose an alternative: in the Eclogues especially, characters freely blend speech and song. Thus Virgil’s reception of bucolic interrogates some of the genre’s fundamental conceits.

Formal elements do little if anything to corroborate the speech/song distinction, since bucolic employs consistent hexameter verse throughout. It is a dubious assumption that hexameter is prosaic, more suited to representing speech than singing. According to ancient critics, it is too elevated to accurately represent prosaic discourse (e.g., Arist. Poet. 1449a20-35). In addition to the grandeur of epic, it also evokes humbler, Hesiodic strands within the epos tradition (see Halperin). The hexameter of bucolic occupies a delicate, middle register (cf. Hor. Serm. 1.10.43-45), which is perhaps more suited to narrative than are lyric meters but not therefore ordinary or unmusical.

Nor do lexical indications distinguish performance from conversation. Theocritus occasionally signals a putative change from talking to singing: e.g., an “aside” in Id. 3: “My right eye is twitching—will I see her? I will move over by the pine here and sing (á¾€σεῦμαι)” (37-38). Thereafter the goatherd performs in a heightened stylistic register (Hunter). In Virgil such shifts are inconspicuous. Generally, the verbs cano and dico in Latin indicate authoritative or ritualized discourse, while unmarked verbs like loquor and narro denote mere talk (Habinek). Such a scheme does not map well on to the Eclogues. In Virgil, cano denotes performance and programmatic discourse, and dico is frequently used in the same way; loquor, however, appears only four times, and twice it indicates not speech but quasi-musical sounds made by non-human agents (5.28 & 8.22; λαλέω is used similarly at Idd. 5.34, 7.139, 20.29, 27.58 & [Mosch.] 3.47). Ecl. 6 poses a difficult case when the poem’s speaker stops relating what Silenus sang and speaks again in his own voice: “Why should I mention (loquar) either Scylla ...” (74). The verb calls our attention to the change from the reported song to direct speech. However, the speaker uses narro to allude to another part of the song he did not provide: “how [Silenus] told (narraverit) of the changed limbs of Tereus ...” (78). So the supposedly more prosaic verbs are used for what is not to be sung but could be, and then for something that had already been sung.

To show how slight the line between speech and song is in the Eclogues, I will consider two poems. Eclogue 1 excludes performance because it is essentially a conversation between herdsmen. Yet critics (e.g., Alpers) have noted that the speakers are not very responsive to each other. Performative elements intrude into their speech, especially Meliboeus’ lengthy “set piece” (46-58), including ecphrasis and onomatopoetic alliteration: sape levi somnum suadebit inire susurro (55). The poem cannot be satisfactorily described as either a dialogue or matched performances. Eclogue 5 is premised on an exchange of songs, one of which Moeris composed and wrote down earlier. After he performs it, Menalcas expresses his appreciation in conspicuously poetic fashion, with an elaborate simile (tale ... quale ... quale, 45-6) and a line that mimics the sound and action of its “leaping stream” (saliente rivo, 47) stream. Menalcas may be consciously one-upping his companion or unknowingly slipping into a poetic register. While communication and performance can still be differentiated, the distinction means little within in the poem. However salient the difference between speech and song may be, there is no cause to foist it in an absolute form upon this poetry and thus unduly constrain readers’ imaginative responses to bucolic fictions.