Argument: "This piece is perhaps one of the most beautiful of all the ten Eclogues. Virgil addresses it to Varus his friend and fellow student under the celebrated Syro an Epicurean philosopher. Two shepherds are introduced, who seize Silenus sleeping in a grotto, and compel him, with the assistance of a water nymph, to entertain them with a song he had often promised them. The god immediately begins to give them an account of the formation of things, and lays before them the system of Epicurus's philosophy both natural and moral; which last circumstance was never thought of or understood by any one translator or commentator before Catrou. After Silenus has told them how the world was made according to the doctrine of Epicurus, his adjungit Hylam; that is, say the critics, he recounted the most famous ancient fables, and some surprizing transformations that had happened in the world. How absurd and unlike the regularity and exactness of Virgil! The meaning seems to be, — that after Silenus had done with the natural, he entered upon the moral philosophy of Epicurus: which consisted in teaching men to avoid all immoderate passions and violent perturbations of mind. This was the reason that he sung to them the unnatural passion of Hercules for the boy Hylas, the brutal lust of Pasiphae, the vanity of the Praetides, the avarice of Atalanta, and the immoderate grief of the sisters of Phaeton. All which the Epicureans condemned as enemies to that quiet and soft repose which they esteemed the perfection of virtue and happiness" 1:111.
John Dryden: "Encourag'd with Success, he proceeds farther in the Sixth, and invades the Province of Philosophy. And notwithstanding that Phoebus had forewarn'd him of Singing Wars, as he there confesses, yet he presum'd that the search of Nature was as free to him as to Lucretius, who at his Age explain'd it according to the Principles of Epicurus" Works of Virgil (1697) 2.
My Muse first sported in Sicilian strains,
Nor blush'd to dwell amid' the woods and plains;
When chiefs and fields of fight to sing I try'd,
Apollo whisp'ring check'd my youthful pride;
Go, Tit'rus, go, thy flocks and fatlings feed,
To humbler subjects suit thy rustic reed;
Thus warn'd, O Varus, in heroic lays,
While bards sublime resound thy martial praise,
I meditate the rural minstrelsy;
Apollo bids, and I will sing of thee.
Pleas'd with the subject, with indulgent eyes
If any read, and this, ev'n this should prize,
Thy name shall eccho thro' each hill and grove,
And Phoebus' self the votive strains approve;
No page so much delights the god of verse,
As where the lines great Varus' praise rehearse.
Stretch'd in a cavern on the mossy ground,
Two sportive youths Silenus sleeping found,
With copious wine o'ercome; his flowery wreath
Just from his temples fall'n, lay strewn beneath;
His massy goblet drain'd of potent juice
Was hanging by, worn thin with age and use;
They bind him fast (tho' cautious and afraid)
With manacles of his own garlands made;
For oft the senior had deceiv'd the swains
With hopes (for well he sung) of pleasing strains:
Young Aegle too to join the frolic came,
The loveliest Naid of the neighb'ring stream;
Who, as the god uplifts his drowzy eyes,
With berries' purple juice his temples dies.
Pleas'd with the fraud — "Unloose me, boys, he cry'd,
Enough, that by surprize I've been espy'd.
Attend, ye youths, and hear the promis'd lay,
But Aegle shall be paid a better way."
Soon as he rais'd his voice, the list'ning fauns,
And wondering beasts came dancing down the lawns;
The hills exulted, and each rigid oak,
High-seated on their tops, in transport shook;
Parnassus' cliffs did ne'er so much rejoice,
At the sweet echoes of Apollo's voice;
Nor Rhodope nor Ismarus that heard
The magic warblings of the Thracian bard.
He sung, at universal nature's birth,
How seeds of water, fire, and air, and earth,
Fell thro' the void; whence order rose, and all
The beauties of this congregated ball:
How the moist soil grew stiffen'd by degrees,
And drove to destin'd bounds the narrow'd seas;
How Earth was seiz'd with wonder and affright,
Struck with the new-born sun's refulgent light.
How clouds condens'd, in liquid showers distill'd,
Dropt fatness and refreshment on the field;
How first up-springs sublime each branching grove,
While scatter'd beasts o'er pathless mountains rove.
Next to the world's renewal turns the strain,
To Pyrrha's fruitful stones, and Saturn's reign;
And bold Prometheus' theft and punishment,
His mangled heart by hungry vultures rent.
To these he adds, how blooming Hylas fell,
Snatch'd by the Naids of the neighb'ring well,
Whom pierc'd with love, Alcides loudly mourn'd,
And Hylas, Hylas lost, each echoing shore return'd.
Then, he bewail'd the love-sick Cretan queen;
Happy for her if herds had never been;
Enamour'd of a bull's unspotted pride,
Forsaking shame, for him she pin'd and sigh'd.
The Proetian maids whose lowings fill'd the plain,
Ne'er knew the guilt of thy unnat'ral pain;
Tho' fearful oft their necks should bear the plough,
They felt in vain for horns their polish'd brow.
Ah! wretched queen! while you o'er mountains rove,
Near some dark oak regardless of your love,
He, on soft hyacinths his side reclines,
Or for some happier heifer fondly pines.
"Dictean nymphs! with toils your woods surround,
Search where my favourite's footsteps may be found,
Haply the herds my wanderer may lead,
To fresher grass on rich Gortyna's mead,
Or far away, while I such pains endure,
The wanton heifers may my love allure!"
Next told, the nimble-footed, cruel maid,
By the false apple's glittering shew betray'd;
The nymphs who their ambitious brother mourn'd,
He next inclos'd in bark, and to tall poplars turn'd.
How tuneful Gallus wandering, next he sings,
Indulging raptures, near poetic springs,
A muse conducted to th' Aonian seat,
Whose whole assembly rose the guest to greet;
While hoary Linus, crown'd with parsly, spake,—
"This pipe, the Muses' gift, O Gallus, take,
Which erst the sweet Ascrean sage they gave,
Who bad the wondering oaks their mountains leave;
Go, sing on this thy fam'd Grynaean grove,
So shall Apollo chief that forest love."
Why should I tell, the maid with monsters arm'd,
Whose barkings fierce the wand'ring Greeks alarm'd,
Whose hungry dogs the shrieking sailors tore,
And round her dungeon ting'd the sea with gore.
Or why the Thracian tyrant's altered shape,
And dire revenge of Philomela's rape,
Who murder'd Itys' mangled body drest,
And to his father serv'd the direful feast.
What Phoebus sung, Eurota's banks along,
And bade the listening laurels learn the song,
All these Silenus chaunts; the vales reply,
And bear their echoes to the distant sky;
Till Hesper glimmering o'er the twilight plains,
To fold their counted sheep had warn'd the swains;
The heav'ns delighted with the matchless lay,
To Hesper's beams unwillingly gave way.