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Vergil’s Bucolic Soundscapes: Song and Environment in the Eclogues

Erik Fredericksen

Princeton University

This paper examines how the nonhuman environment contributes to the production of bucolic song in Vergil’s Eclogues, by attending to the dense soundscapes imagined, constructed, and transmitted by the poems. I argue that the poems crucially link song and poetry itself to the nonhuman world, and to the particularities of local environments. The Eclogues imagine human song as emerging from a larger network of natural sound production, and derive their particular character from representing a bucolic soundscape including but not limited to anthropogenic sounds.

Many of the Eclogues place great stress on the location of bucolic performance, on scene setting before giving readers the actual songs of shepherds (e.g. Ecl. 2.3-5, 5.1-7, 7.1-13). But these places are not merely background settings to human activity: the environments that surround pastoral singers are both responsive to sound and productive of their own sounds. Echo, after all, has long been recognized as a distinctive and crucial feature of Vergil’s bucolic world (Desport, Boyle, Fitzgerald). Already in the collection’s programmatic opening, the reclining Tityrus makes the woods resound with the name of his beloved Amaryllis (Ecl. 1.4-5), and throughout the poetry book there is a more general pattern of sympathetic response between singing human and surrounding environment (Baraz 93-99). In addition to this, the environments of the Eclogues are repeatedly described as producing sound, whether with bees, birds, and cicadas or with the rustling of wind through reeds and trees. Through Lucretian intertexts, Vergil points to these nonhuman sounds as at the origin of song in an anthropological, deep historical sense (cf. Deremetz 295). The pastoral singer’s embedded performance thus returns human song to its origins: just as human song once emerged from a wider array of nonhuman sounds, each bucolic performance arises out of and takes its place in an environmental network of sound.

From this point of view, the Eclogues are not, as in Paul Alpers’ highly influential (and anthropocentric) account of pastoral, fundamentally about “herdsmen and their lives,” (Alpers 22). Rather, I suggest that they are mimeseis of an entire bucolic soundscape, drawing on the terminology of acoustic ecology (see Schafer). From the perspective of the shepherds within Vergil’s poems, surrounding environmental noises are in response to human song, or are the context out of which song arises. But from the perspective of the poems themselves, human and nonhuman sounds are equally parts of the sonic environment that the Eclogues construct and transmit to a reader.

While Vergil stresses the resonant environments of bucolic performances, I conclude this paper by examining the possibility of transmitting this kind of immersive environmental performance beyond the boundaries of its environment. The Eclogues contain a number of images of the containment of song, from pipes that seem to possess or hold music (e.g. Ecl. 2.36-39, 3.21-22, 5.85-87, 7.24, 10.34) to the ecphrastic image of Orpheus on a rustic cup (Ecl. 3.46). Vergil thus figures song both as an environmentally embedded performance and as something that can be captured and contained, exchanged and transmitted. This tension relates to the fundamentally double identity of the Eclogues as both oral songs and written poems (on which see Breed), which allows Vergil to, in a sense, have it both ways. Bucolic song is something constituted by and dependent upon its particular local environment, but it is also something that Vergil’s transportable poetry book can imaginatively provide.

In contrast to anthropocentric accounts of pastoral, this paper thus aims to show one way in which the nonhuman matters to the world of the Eclogues. Additionally, by elucidating the importance of the environment to shepherds’ songs within the poems and to the poems themselves, it suggests that one of the numerous things at stake in the threats of land dispossession that haunt the collection is the set of relations between humans and nonhumans in a particular environment, a whole local ecology out of which a particular poetry is made.

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