Virgil: Eclogue IX

Heaney offers us his version of Virgil’s original.  He remains loyal to the original but weaves into his translation the subtleties of meaning he perceives, adding the alliterations, assonances, mood and rhythms that ensure that Virgil’s original ‘song’ remains pleasing to the ear.

The inclusion of the eclogue form in Electric Light is meaningful. There is much in Eclogue IX of 37BC that chimes with Irish experience and Heaney’s inner preoccupations 2000 years on: dispossession and change of routine imposed on ordinary folk from above; the apparent  impotence of opposition and repression of the vox populi ; the role of poetry in this respect and the dangers this brings; the reluctance of poets–in-waiting to wade into the debate; the opposition of lyrical celebration and polemic; the deplored absence of inspirational leaders; the weedy efforts of creative spirits who hide behind the parapet.

The verses, poems, poets, singers and live performance, of such importance to Virgil’s protagonists, bear a striking resemblance with Heaney’s deplored loss of tradition within Irish communities (see North’s ‘Last Mummer’).

Virgilian dialogue follows the path of two of the twenty or so characters who appear in the ten eclogues – locals on their rural road to town in their rich, provident landscape.

LYCIDAS: Where are you headed, Moeris? Into town?

  • Lycidas:stock eclogue figure here seeking news about tyrannical land confiscations;
  • head: make for;

MOERIS outlines the impact of dispossession and the nature of tyranny

The things we have Iived to see … The last thing / You could’ve imagined happening has happened. / An outsider lands and says he has the rights / To our bit of ground. ‘Out, old hands,’ he says, / ‘This place is mine.’ And these kid-goats in the creel – / Bad cess to him – these kids are his. All’s changed.

  • Moeris: outraged by what is happening, later regretting the onset of old-age dementia that, by killing memory, blunts opposition;
  • outsider: foreigner, alien;
  • rights: legal ownership;
  • old hand: veteran, sitting owners;
  • kid: young goat;
  • creel: large wicker basket;
  • bad cess to him (Anglo-Irish): a curse on him


  • Heaney composes a dense weave of assonances ’things…lived..thing..imagined happening’/‘says…place…changed’/’rights…mine’/ ‘see…these…creel/ and alliterations nasal[n] imagined happening has happened…lands…hands’;
  • Irish usage ‘cess’;

LYCIDAS reports hearsay – the power of a public voice said to have put a brake on tyrannical land-grabbing:

The story I heard was about Menalcas, / How your song-man’s singing saved the place, / Starting from where the hills go doubling back / And the ridge keeps sloping gently to the water, / Right down to those old scraggy-headed beech trees.

  • heard: the importance of word-of-mouth for everyday communications and cultural legacy;
  • Menalcas: country figure appearing in slightly different guises in a number of Eclogues; will lose land despite his public ‘singing’ for a return to the previous arrangements in Mantua;
  • double back: retrace its steps;
  • ridge: long, narrow hilltop;
  • scraggy-headed: with a ragged, untidy canopy;


  • assonances ‘about…how…down’/ ‘saved…place’/ ‘crow…go…sloping…those’/ ‘beech trees’ and sibilant alliteration ‘song-man’s singing save the place…starting’;

MOERIS corrects rumour; he was present, read the omens and, by restraining outspokenness, almost certainly saved their lives:

that’s what you would have heard. But songs and tunes / Can no more hold out against brute force than doves / When eagles swoop. The truth is, Lycidas, / If I hadn’t heard the crow caw on my left/ In our hollow oak, I’d have kept on arguing/ And that would’ve been the end of the road, for me / That’s talking to you, and for Menalcas even.

  • hold out: resist, survive;
  • brute force: violent method for achieving one’s intent;
  • swoop: pounce from above;
  • caw: crow’s harsh cry;
  • hollow: no longer solid in the centre;
  • end of the road: point beyond which a person cannot survive;


  • assonant strings ‘tunes…brute…swoop…truth…arguing…you’/ ‘crow…hollow oak…road’ / ‘eagles…Lycidas’ and alliteration [k] ‘crow…caw…kept’/ [h] ‘heard…heard…hollow’

LYCIDAS accepts what he hears but deplores the repression of free speech and with it the poetic voices that celebrate patrimony  in madrigal form – the inextricable relationship between delightful surroundings, natural abundance, country life and the characters that live there – all applicable to Heaney’s motherland.

Shocking times. Our very music, our one consolation, / Confiscated, all but. And Menalcas himself / Nearly one of the missing. Who would there be to sing / Praise songs to the nymphs? Who hymn the earth / To grow wild flowers and grass, and shade the wells / With overhanging green? Who sing the song / I listened to in silence the other day / And learned by heart as you went warbling it, / Off to the Amaryllis we all love? / The one that goes, ‘O herd my goats for me, / Tityrus, till I come back. I won’t be long. / Graze them and then water them, and watch / The boyo with the horns doesn’t go for you.’

  • assonant strings ‘shocking…one consolation confiscated…one of’/ ‘missing…sing…nymphs…hymn’/ ‘wild…silence…Tityrus’/ goes o…goats…won’t…boyo…go’; alliterations – sibilant variants + nasals  ‘ shocking…music…consolation…confiscated…Menalcas…missing…sing…praise…songs…nymphs’/ [t] goats…Tityrus…till…won’t’;
  • very: ‘very own’- the adjective emphasises the identity of the songs that bears local messages;
  • consolation – comfort, solace;
  • confiscate: steal, misappropriate;
  • all but: very nearly, as good as;
  • missing: nowhere to be found;
  • nymph: mythological spirit of nature depicted as a young woman;
  • hymn: heap praise on;
  • warble: sing softly and sweetly;
  • Amaryllis: beloved of Tityrus in the Eclogues, latter a goat-herder regarded as Orpheus’ equal
  • herd: gather into a group, look after;
  • boyo: (informal Irish/Welsh) man, boy, creature with a bit of attitude;
  • go for: attack

MOERIS refers to an unfinished appeal from Menalcus asking that political leaders learn lessons from what has created massive unhappiness in a neighbouring city-state:

And then there was that one he never finished, / Addressed to Varus, about a choir of swans / Chanting his name to the stars, ‘should Mantua / Survive, Mantua too close to sad Cremona.’

  • Varus/ Varius: very possibly the land commissioner who set out to appropriate and re-distribute lands and to whom Menalcus, taking an honourable poet’s stance in the political arena (something Heaney himself was very reluctant to do) addressed protestations of injustice;
  • swan: creature noted for its beauty and dignity and in mythology, sweet singing voice; widely held superstition supposed that swans only sang once before they died; in this context their celebration of Varus would have been his reward for reversing his decision;
  • Mantua: Italian city in Lombardy with Renaissance connections, similarly Cremona; Virgil was said to have been born close to Mantua around 70BC;
  • preponderance of alliterative nasals [m] [n]; assonances ‘choir…survive/ ‘close…Cremona’;

LYCIDAS feels that he has not yet mastered the art of poetic persuasion and that now is the moment for MOERIS to add his voice to the clamour so that local life remains unpolluted by politics:

If you’ve any song to sing, then sing it now / So that your bees may swerve off past the yew trees, / Your cows in clover thrive with canted teats / And tightening udders. The Pierian muses / Made me a poet too, I too have songs, / And people in the country call me bard, / But I’m not sure: I have done nothing yet / That Varius or Cinna would take note of. / I’m a squawking goose among sweet-throated swans.

  • swerve: follow a diverted flight pattern
  • yew: coniferous red-berried tree, mainly poisonous; associated with folklore;
  • clover: three-lobed plant of the pea family providing rich fodder;
  • thrive: prosper, flourish;
  • canted: sloping, tilting, at an angle
  • teat: nipple through which the young suck milk;
  • tighten: swell;
  • udders: pouch suspended between a cow’s hind legs in which the milk is stored
  • Pierian muses: In Greek mythology, the PierianSpring of Macedonia was sacred to the Muses (in Greek and Roman mythology each of nine goddesses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences) – the metaphorical source of knowledge of art and science;
  • bard: epic poet of a particular oral tradition;
  • Cinna: four times consul of the Roman Empire belonging to the powerful patrician Cotnelii family. His main impact upon Roman politics was his ability to veil his tyranny and make it appear that he was working under a constitutional government;
  • squawk: loud, harsh noise;


  • 4 lines dominated by sibilant alliterations; later accretion of nasals [m[ [n]
  • assonances: ‘bees…trees…teats…Pierian; ‘thrive…tight’/ ‘yew…muses/ ‘note…throated’/ ‘country…done…nothing’;

MOERIS is only just drafting a song comparing the lyric beauty of their surroundings with the demented stentorian voices of the ruling class:

I’m quiet because I’m trying to piece together/ As best I can a song I think you’d know: / ‘Galatea,’ it goes, ‘come here to me./ What’s in the sea and the wave that keeps you  spellbound? / Here earth breaks out in wildflowers, she rills and rolls / The streams in waterweed, here poplars bend / Where the bank is undermined and vines in thickets / Are meshing shade with light. Come here to me. / Let the mad white horses paw and pound the shore.’

  • Galatea:’she who is milk-white’ name popularly applied to the statue carved of ivory by Pygmalion of Cyprus, which then came to life in Greek mythology:
  • spellbound: fascinated, as if held by magic;
  • break out: erupt suddenly;
  • rill: Heaney uses noun as a verb to suggest the sound of running water:
  • roll: Heaney suggests movement in water
  • undermined: eroded by water-flow;
  • thicket: dense tangle;
  • mesh: interweave shades of colour;
  • white horse: mythological creature with exceptional qualities, bearer of leaders and heroes;


  • assonances ‘quiet…trying’/‘know…goes’/‘me…sea…keeps…streams…weed’/‘undermined…vines…light…white’;
  • alliterations ‘rills and rolls’/ ‘paw and pound’;

LYCIDAS suspects he has heard MOERIS in much greater protest mode – he recalls the pastoral melody and searches for lyrics that hinted at the absence of inspired leaders:

There was something I heard you singing by yourself / One night when the sky was clear. I have the air /  

So maybe I’ll get the words. ‘Daphnis, Daphnis, why / Do you concentrate your gaze on the old stars?

Look for the star of Caesar, rising now, / Star of corn in the fields and hay in haggards, / Of clustered grapes gone purple in the heat / On hillsides facing south. Daphnis, now is the time / To plant the pear slips for your children’s children’.

  • in Greek mythology, Daphnis was a Sicilian shepherd who was said to be the inventor of pastoral poetry. An ideal male beauty. According to tradition, he was the son of Hermes and a nymph, despite which Daphnis himself was mortal. Described on the one hand as a lover of boys, he was noted also for his legendary romantic partnership with Chloe;
  • star of Caesar: a comet visible for a short time around 44 BC seen as a divine sign;
  • haggard: (Irish usage) enclosure next to farmhouse where crops are stored;
  • pear slips: new shoots cut from the stem and planted directly into the soil;
  • alliteration: predominant sibilants/ repetition of ‘star’;[h] ‘hay…haggards…heat;
  • assonant strings: ‘night..I’ll…why’/’concentrate…gaze…hay…grapes’/ ‘Caesar…fields…heat’/ ‘slips…children’s children’;

Spineless MOERIS finds an avoidance mechanism leaving the task to younger guns:

Age robs us of everything, of our very mind , / Many a time I remember as a boy / Serenading the slow sun down to rest, / But nowadays I’m forgetting song after song / And my voice is going: maybe the wolves have blinked it. / But Menalcas will keep singing and keep the songs.

  • serenade: sing to something beloved
  • wolf blink: signal for wolves to gather;


  • frequent alliterative sibilant [s] and nasal [m] [n] variants; echoes ‘every…very’;
  • assonances ‘boy…voice’/ ‘mind…time…my’/ ‘serenading…maybe’/ ‘many…remember…serenade…rest;

LYCIDAS urges MOERIS to show his bardic mettle in the privacy of each other’s company and away from prying ears:

Come on, don’t make excuses, I want to hear you / And now’s your chance, now this hush has fallen / Everywhere – look – on the plain, and every breeze / Has calmed and quietened. We’ve come half-way. / Already you can see Bianor’s tomb ./ Just up ahead. Here where they’ve trimmed and faced / The old green hedge, here’s where we’re going to sing. / Set that creel and those kid-goats on the ground. / We’ll make it into town in all good time.

Or if it looks like rain when it’s getting dark, / Singing shortens the road, so we’ll walk and sing. / Walk then, Moeris, and sing. I’ll take the kids.

  • come on: phrase expressing urgency ‘get on with it’ or even mild disbelief ‘come off it’;
  • hush: silent tranquillity;
  • plain: open country;
  • Bianor’s tomb: reference to the son of Tiber by the daughter of Tiresias, named Manto and fabled to have fortified a city and given it the name Mantua in memory of his mother; his tomb was placed by the wayside;
  • trim: prune, shear;
  • face: tidy, neaten
  • set: put down;
  • all in good time/ in all good time: in due course and without hurry;
  • look like: seem likely to;


  • assonant strings ‘every…breeze…we’ve… already…see…Bianor…green…creel/ ..way…faced…rai…take’/ ‘going…goats…road…Moeris’

MOERIS confirms his old-man’s faint-heartedness by cutting Lycidas off:

That’s enough of that, young fellow. We’ve a job to do. /When the real singer comes, we’ll sing in earnest.

  • job to do: task to accomplish:
  • sing in earnest: get down to some serious singing;


  • assonance ‘enough…young…comes’;
  • prominent poet and spokesman Menalcus, whose reported attempts to protest against misappropriation of property were halted by threats and ominous warnings, reflect Virgil’s and, indeed, Heaney’s dilemma as regards the role of poetry in public affairs. Associated omens and superstition still existed in rural Irish communities in Heaney’s
  • commentators have hinted at the key melancholic elements of eclogue – loss, guilt, the consistent fear of losing one’s memory of songs and the unstated importance for posterity of recording in written form.
  • the common insistence on the sweet effect that music and poetry have on existence is shared by Heaney
  • Heaney’s response to the political landscape of Eclogue IX that records the tensions and uncertainties of dispossession and simmering but largely impotent anger aimed at ruthless landowners who care nothing for the indigent population is alluded to in Red, White and Blue and actively expressed in ‘North’ collection’s ‘Servant Boy’.


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]


  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • these are published above in commentaries;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;


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