In a recent article in the New York Review, Mary Beard addressed the growing discourse in modern times about the Classics as an endangered species with a new and bold understanding of the Classics that goes beyond the study of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Classics is that world, plus our decline from it, plus our nostalgia for it: “The study of the classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. It is not only the dialogue that we have with the culture of the classical world; it is also the dialogue that we have with those who have gone before us who were themselves in dialogue with the classical world (whether Dante, Raphael, William Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon, Pablo Picasso, Eugene O’Neill, or Terence Rattigan)” (Beard 2012).
Beard showed that the Classics are thus always – and have always been, from Nestor onward – losing ground and prestige because loss is at the heart of the Classics’ identity. The one moment, perhaps, in which the ancients expressed the belief that they were living in the best possible age, at the apex of a tradition, was Rome’s Augustan age. Vergil, Horace, and Propertius all claimed to have revived, even refined, Greece’s great literary forms, histories saw Rome as the telos of the whole world’s past, and Augustus claimed to have reintroduced the golden age. In this grand culmination, what space is there for Beard’s formulation of Classics as content-plus-decline-plus-nostalgia?
In this paper I read pastoral echoes in Rome’s elegiac poetry as just such a discourse of “Classics.” Whereas Vergil’s bucolic poetry presents the tension between pastoral and urban from within the green pastoral world, which was even then losing ground to the city and its morals, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid write from an urban perspective about the pastoral specter that haunts the golden city in which they live and love. After opening remarks on pastoral moments in these three elegists, I focus on how Propertius 1.18 uses a pastoral landscape to probe the themes of decline and nostalgia. In this short elegy, the poet has sought out a pastoral landscape in order to lament and recover from Cynthia’s disdain. Scholars have found strong traces in this poem of the pastoral of Gallus, Vergil, and even Theocritus (Ross, Zetzel, J. King, Richardson, Gow, Cairns). Rather than establish a tension between pastoral and elegiac verse, I read this poem as a testament to their interdependence and, beyond that, a testament to the interdependence of the “then” and the “now” in Beard’s concept of the Classics.
Propertius seeks out a solitary landscape as balm and audience for his own pain (1-4, 19-20). The pastoral landscape here takes the place of Cynthia, the poet’s lost lover, and his song of lament strives to bridge the gap between his current sorrow and his past joy. Propertius, though, knows this attempt is futile and that the pastoral world is never quite fully his to grasp. He doubts the grove’s ability to keep promises, and wonders if the nearby trees even have love affairs (or love poems, amores). With Cynthia gone, the glory and culmination of the Augustan age are out of his reach. Nonetheless he seeks the lost ideal and acknowledges, through his intertextual nods to Vergil, Gallus, and Theocritus, that others in the past have sought it too. The gap has always been there; pastoral has always been irrecoverable, just like Beard’s “Classics.” Pastoral is, on this understanding, content-plus-decline-plus-nostalgia.
The essential remoteness of pastoral is confirmed by the poem’s close (31-2):
sed qualiscumque's, resonent mihi 'Cynthia' silvae, nec deserta tuo nomine saxa vacent.
The poet longs to hear the name of his beloved, but knows only an echo may come back to him – an echo that can be revived and have meaning only by re-touching the source – like pastoral, like the Classics.