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Poetic Constraints: Gallus and the Limits of Generics Exploration in the Eclogues

Aaron Seider

In this paper, I argue that the Eclogues portray Gallus as a figure of failed generic exploration whose poetic experiments reflect upon Vergil’s literary aspirations. While scholars are certainly right to associate Gallus with love elegy, the genre he putatively founded, his characterization in the Eclogues focuses more on his dynamic engagement with other genres than on any static relationship with elegiac poetry. Appearing in Eclogues 6 and 10, two poem that focus on the production and limits of pastoral song, Gallus experiments with ways to leave love elegy behind or combine it with another genre. Through a close reading of the Eclogues’ depiction of Gallus, I argue that his literary activity serves as a mirror for Vergil’s generic play and, in particular, enriches our reading of the enigmatic final lines of Eclogue 10.

Even within the extraordinarily varied nature of Eclogue 6, Gallus stands out for his poetic stature and his links with the singer of the Eclogues. Gallus’ appearance comes in the midst of Silenus’ tales of fantastic metamorphoses and doomed love. Lines 64-73 insert Vergil’s coeval into this mythical world, and the surprise of his appearance calls attention to the poetic exploration described therein. As Silenus tells it, Gallus is journeying through mountains when Linus, a renowned pastoral figure, charges him with singing the origins of the Gryneian grove. This initiation depicts Gallus as moving to aetiological poetry, and Servius’ note associates these verses with Gallus’ engagement with Euphorion, a challenging Hellenistic poet. This literary movement, where Gallus’ climb to the mountains of the Muses mirrors his generic ascension, offers a telling perspective on Eclogue 6. After beginning with a statement of its pastoral nature (6.1-12), this poem incorporates an array of generic strands into its narrative, and Gallus’ journey highlights this play with the limits of a particular genre.

In his next appearance Gallus attempts to journey from elegy to pastoral, and here he is linked even more intensely with Vergil. References to Gallus’ mistress (Lycoris, 10.2) and poetic collection (amores, 10.6, 34, 53, 54) identity him with love elegy, but most of this poem imagines his attempts to leave that genre behind or fuse it with pastoral. In the end, though, Gallus professes, “Love conquers all; and let us yield to Love” (omnia vincit Amor: et nos cedamus Amori, 10.69). Standing as a capitulation to his all-consuming desire for Lycoris, this resignation also signals that Gallus cannot leave elegy behind. When Vergil concludes the poem with a statement of his own growing love for Gallus, it emphasizes the poets’ connection and invites the reader to view the poem’s last lines in light of this relationship.

In conclusion, I argue these links suggest that Vergil leaves behind pastoral in 10.75-7 because of the constraints it places on his generic experimentation. Vergil’s exhortation to rise (surgamus, 10.75) hints at a climb up the generic register, a movement similar to Gallus’ ascent in Eclogue 6. The subsequent description of the trees’ shade as “heavy” (gravis, 10.75, 76) also invites reflection. Shade typically offers a protected space for composition (see, e.g., 1.1-5), but now it is oppressive, implying that pastoral’s generic limits burden the singer. Lastly, the designation of the singer’s she-goats as saturae (10.77) recalls Apollo’s charge to the poet at 6.4-5, where the god told him to keep his poems “thin” (deductum) but his flock “fat” (pinguis). Now, this satiety hints that the poet has fulfilled his bucolic task or at least gone as far in the project as he can. Just as Gallus was unable to fuse pastoral and love elegy, Vergil also has exhausted the possibilities for generic experimentation if pastoral is to retain its essential qualities, and he must move on to a more expansive field of composition.

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Vergil, Elegy, and Epigram

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