Friday, May 21, 2010


I just realized with some embarrassment that I have used the word "eclogue" in two of my recent reviews without a particularly clear sense of what it means. Last week it came up in my writing about the performance of Leonard Bernstein's "The Age of Anxiety" by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Then it showed up again yesterday morning in my account of this week's San Francisco Symphony subscription concert, since it was the title of the second movement of Igor Stravinsky's Ode.

It is not as if I was entirely ignorant of the word, but my memory needed refreshing. Also, I suspected I was prodded a bit when Michael Tilson Thomas called it "ecologue" while talking about Stravinsky's music before performing it. I knew the pronunciation was wrong, just as I knew that the word was not about an ecology-based travelogue. Beyond that, however, I realized that I needed to pay a visit to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

A short poem, esp. a pastoral dialogue such as those of Virgil.

That was sufficient to revive my memory. Almost a year ago, while spending part of my summer in Maine, I had brought along for reading a chapter from Ernst Robert Curtius' book European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (in the translation by Willard R. Trask). I may not have known much about eclogue before reading Curtius, but one passage leapt out at me by throwing new light on my ignorance:

To know only the Aeneid is not to know Virgil. The influence of his eclogues on later times is hardly less important than that of his epic. From the first century of the Empire to the time of Goethe, all study of Latin literature began with the first ecolgue. It is not too much to say that anyone unfamiliar with that short poem lacks one key to the literary tradition of Europe.

I had probably come across something like this while reading The New York Review, but Curtius' text had a way of making me feel guilty! After the dictionary pointed me towards the Virgil connection, I returned to that text to brood over it again.

From this point of view, I was very pleased with what I found by checking out the entry for the term in Wikipedia. It begins with the following clarification:

For the first of the three major works of Virgil, see Eclogues. For the work of the same title by Dante, see Eclogues (Dante).

The article itself begins with the following summary:

An eclogue is a poem in a classical style on a pastoral subject. Poems in the genre are sometimes also called bucolics.

The form of the word in contemporary English is taken from French eclogue, from Old French, from Latin ecloga. However it is also attested in Middle English as eclog, and this form was apparently taken directly from Latin ecloga. The Latin ecloga is a Romanization of the Greek eklogē (έκλογή), meaning "draft, choice, selection (particularly of short passages)". The term originally referred to short poems of any genre, or selections from poetry-books. The ancients referred to individual poems of Virgil's Bucolica as eclogae, and the term was used by later Latin poets to refer to their own bucolic poetry, often in imitation of Virgil. The combination of Virgil's influence and the persistence of bucolic poetry through the Renaissance imposed "eclogues" as the accepted term for the genre. Later Roman poets who wrote eclogues include Calpurnius and Nemesianus.

Ironically, Auden never arises in the "Modern eclogues" section. On the other hand, the "In music" section was nicely informative about Stravinsky:

Igor Stravinsky titled the second and third movements of his Duo Concertant (1932) "Eclogue I" and "Eclogue II". The middle movement of his three-movement Ode (1943) is also titled "Eclogue".

I am more familiar with Stravinsky's earlier 1932 composition; but, having known it through the choreography of George Balanchine, I realized that I had not checked out the Greek-oriented movement titles.

Bernstein got his title from W. H. Auden's extended poem, whose full title is The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue; and presumably Auden was being ironic. Dialog is certainly at the heart of the text; but even the most die-hard New Yorker would balk at the "pastoral" label for the settings for the dialog, a seedy bar and an even seedier apartment. As to the "baroque" adjective, that probably applies to Auden extending the brevity of the original form with a wealth embellishment that borders on the grotesque.

I suspect that, if I really want to fix the word "eclogue" in my working vocabulary, I need to let it associate securely with Stravinsky, rather than either Auden or Bernstein!

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