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Poetry Guide: Eclogue

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

The etymology of the word is a Romanization of the Greek eklegē (εκλεγη), meaning "a choice, selection." 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 secured "eclogues" as the accepted term for the genre.

Ancient Eclogues

The Greek poets Hesiod, with his Works and Days, and Theocritus, in his Idylls, started the genre. Hesiod's poem is a matter-of-fact description of the seasonal life of a farmer, relatively sober and realistic; its literary descendant is Ovid's Fasti. The Idylls of Theocritus were much more influential; they were idealized fantasies portraying the life of the shepherds of Arcadia as a life of utopian leisure, taken up mostly by erotic pastimes. The Latin poet Virgil took Theocritus as his master, not Hesiod, in composing his own Eclogues, and most later attempts at producing work in the genre have followed Virgil's lead.

Modern Eclogues

In English literature, Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender belongs to the genre, as does Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia. Alexander Pope produced a series of eclogues in imitation of Virgil. The Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega also wrote eclogues in the Virgilian style. In French, Pierre de Ronsard wrote a series of eclogues under the title Les Bucoliques, and Clément Marot also wrote in the genre. In Central Europe, Miklós Radnóti, the Hungarian Jewish poet wrote remarkable, superb eclogues about his truly tragic era, the Holocaust (he was executed by the fleeing German army some months before the end of WWII).