The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Eclogue: From the Greek for “selection,” a short, formal, typically pastoral poem written as a monologue or dialogue. The term eclogue originally referred more broadly to any choice poem or extract but came to have a more limited meaning with its application to the Roman poet Virgil’s Bucolics (c. 40 B.C.), a collection of pastoral poems featuring shepherds conversing or singing alone or in pairs. Virgil modeled his poems after the Idylls of Theocritus, a third-century B.C. Greek poet who romanticized rustic life in the Sicilian countryside; he adapted elements including the idealized rural setting, singing contests, and the use of refrains, thereby establishing several conventions of the genre. Traditional eclogues privilege sentiment, form, and setting over action and characterization and often concern love or death. Common forms include the singing contest between two shepherds, the shepherd’s song of courtship, the shepherd’s song of frustrated or distressed love, and the lament for a dead shepherd.

The eclogue declined after ancient Roman times until the Renaissance, when the poets Dante Alighieri, Petrarch (Francisco Petrarca), and Boccaccio renewed interest in the genre. The Eclogues (1498) of Mantuan (Baptista Mantuanus Spagnuoli), written in Latin, were particularly influential. Other noted writers of eclogues were the Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega and English poets Edmund Spenser and John Milton, both of whom wrote “golden-age eclogues,” a messianic form that typically features a child who brings about a regeneration of nature and the return of a golden age. Over time, the eclogue was extended to nonpastoral subjects, such as fishermen and city life, and the term came to be distinguished from pastoral, the former indicating the dramatic form of a poem and the latter referring to its sentimental content.

Since the eighteenth century, nonpastoral eclogues have been written on a variety of subjects to express social and political commentary, but the form has generally been in decline since the Romantic Period.

EXAMPLES: Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar (1579) contains twelve pastoral eclogues, one for each month of the year. Perhaps the best-known nonpastoral eclogue is Jonathan Swift’s “A Town Eclogue. 1710. Scene, The Royal Exchange” (1710). Percy Bysshe Shelley introduced “Rosalind and Helen: A Modern Eclogue” (1819) by advising readers that his poem “is in no degree calculated to excite profound meditation; and if by interesting affections and amusing the imagination, it awakens a certain ideal melancholy favorable to the reception of more important impressions, it will produce in the reader all that the writer experienced in the composition.”

W. H. Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947) describes four characters representing diverse personality types (or, perhaps, mental faculties) seeking to journey from the modern condition of alienation, decay, and despair to a state of rejuvenation and harmonious reconciliation. Instead of traversing conventionally pastoral rural scenery, they pass through landscapes symbolically suggestive of human anatomy.