My talk focuses on Joseph Brodsky’s reception of Vergil, specifically on his “rewriting” of Vergil’s pastoral landscape. While Brodsky’s reception of classical myth is a subject of many critical studies, his allusions to Vergil, especially the Eclogues, received little attention (Spence 2001; Torlone 2009).
Brodsky’s eclogues, written as separate poems rather than a poetic corpus, evoke Vergilian pastoral as an idyllic space of poetic creativity and contemplation. The poems also follow some of the previous Russian discourses on rural retreats and their idealization (Tolstoy, Turgenev), which then unexpectedly escalate into contemplation of exile, alienation, and devastation.
Especially noteworthy in Brodsky’s eclogues is the treatment of the pastoral space. Vergilian Arcadia based on Theocritus’s Sicily, despite the occasional intrusions from the outside world, offers an idyllic summer locus amoenus, the place of poetic inspiration. While Meliboeus is exiled from his land and Gallusis suffering from unrequited love, and even as Tityrus’s carefree existence becomes conditioned by the power of the city, Arcadian landscape remains a magic place of suspended existence where the exiles seek respite from the city and its anxieties.
Brodsky’s earliest “Field Eclogue” is full of references to a generalized Russian rural landscape, which is eerily uninhabited, abandoned. It is most certainly not a picturesque landscape of Tityrus’s leisurely existence. But it is that of Meliboeus, the exile, misplaced and lost. The theme of exile becomes in fact dominant in the poem. The “FieldEclogue” is a string of memory shots of Russian countryside as if the protagonist is on the move, wandering from one place to the next. That narrative finally culminates in the contemplation of what constitutes a true exile.
In his much later (1980) “Fourth” or “Winter Eclogue” Brodsky returns to the theme of exile again. The number of the eclogue does not signify its place in any previous succession of Brodsky’s eclogues but is in fact a clear allusion to Vergil’s “messianic” eclogue as the epigraph to the poem makes it clear: Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas. However, “Winter Eclogue” is not a poem about future, or awaiting Golden Age, political or spiritual. The idea of the “winter” in the space of the ecloguesis an oxymoron. Brodsky undoubtedly was aware that the countryside of Vergil’s shepherds was full of gifts of bountiful nature. In this eclogue, however, the traditional summer landscape of Arcadia changes into an uncharacteristic winter terrain, providing for the poem written in Cyrillic a setting and a theme appropriate for its form. Like Vergil’s characters, Brodsky seeks his refuge in this new pastoral landscape, his moment for poetic creativity, fraught, however, with angst and anticipation of banishment and hardship.
The poem offers a strangely soothing description of the comforts of Russian winter which stands in stark juxtaposition to Brodsky’s attempt to describe the traditional pastoral landscape in yet another eclogue which he pens one year later, in 1981: “Eclogue5th (Summer)”. “I hear you again, mosquito’s song of summer,” starts the poem, and then it languishes in hazy description of the Russian short summers. The summer landscape for the poet represents the uneasily suspended life, unwelcome languor that results in apathy rather than creativity (Reynolds 2005). The idealized landscape of ancient pastoral is no longer the mid-summer day of idleness that inspires poetic contests. Russian wintery countryside full of blizzards and frost becomes the metapoetic “spiritual” space where a Russian exile seeks his consolation and his hope.