04 January 2010

'The Shepherds Sing'—Shepherds Virgilian, Biblical, & English

There are three specific themes I’d like to consider further with regards to Virgil’s ‘Messianic’ Fourth Eclogue (which I began examining here). The first is the pastoral conceit of the poem, second, the connection of the new ‘Golden Age’ with the reign of Augustus Caesar, and third, the rôle of Saturn in the Eclogue and in its Christian interpretation. I shall deal with them in separate posts.

While the Fourth Eclogue is the least ‘pastoral’ in the sense of making explicit use of the classic pastoral setting and imagery, [1] we mustn’t forget that its very genre is still inspired by ‘the actual practice of . . . shepherds (who will surely have played pipes and sung songs during the long hours of watching their flocks)’. [2] The lyric purports to be a song sung by a shepherd, who in this case is also a prophet. This has not been lost on Christian readers, who have often seen in the shepherds of the Eclogues a connection with the shepherds of Luke 2:8-18, who, because of their simplicity, as Blessed Theophylact tells us, ‘were counted worthy of the vision of divine things’, who ‘saw the Babe and then spoke of Him to others’. [3] Spenser refers to the shepherds of Christ’s Nativity as ‘the silly Shepheards’—meaning ‘innocent or happy’, from the Anglo-Saxon saelig, or ‘blessed’, [4] and Albert Hamilton notes in The Spenser Encyclopedia the Christian tradition of the significance of shepherds:

That Abel ([cf. Spenser’s ‘Julye’, l.] 127) and the Old Testament patriarchs (as Moses, [‘Julye’, l.] 157) were shepherds, that shepherds were the first to hear the news of the Nativity ([cf. Spenser’s ‘Hymn to Heavenly Love’, l.] 230), and that Christ called himself the Good Shepherd were taken as proofs of the close relationship between the shepherd and God; they were continually cited by pastoralists, including Spenser. The shepherd was taken as the type of the contemplative life as opposed to the active plowman; and this symbolism was combined with the metaphorical link between shepherd and priest, and with the fact that shepherds in their night vigils could watch the course of the heavens, to make the shepherd also the source of authoritative wisdom. [5]

As if to illustrate Hamilton’s points, Metropolitan Hierotheos summarises the patristic tradition regarding the reason for the shepherds being first to hear the news of Christ’s birth:

First, because of the purity of the Shepherds by reason of their solitude and hesychia. Secondly, because the Shepherds were imitators and followers of the way of life and virtues of the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. That is to say, the Shepherds were not chance characters. Thirdly, for it to be shown that Christ will be the true Shepherd of the Israelite and Gentile people. Fourthly, for it to be seen clearly that Christ chose the most simple-hearted and most capable of receiving this revelation, and not the crafty Scribes and Pharisees. All these things show the method that one can use to experience the mystery of the revelation. [6]

Finally, the great G.K. Chesterton has the following to say about the shepherds, returning us to the Eclogue:

I fear that many modern critics will see only a faded classicism in the fact that men like Crashaw and Herrick conceived the shepherds of Bethlehem under the form of the shepherds of Virgil. Yet they were profoundly right; and in turning their Bethlehem play into a Latin Eclogue they took up one of the most important links in human history. Virgil, as we have already seen, does stand for all that saner heathenism that had over-thrown the insane heathenism of human sacrifice; but the very fact that even the Virgilian virtues and the sane heathenism were in incurable decay is the whole problem to which the revelation to the shepherds is the solution. If the world had ever had the chance to grow weary of being demoniac, it might have been healed merely by becoming sane. But if it had grown weary even of being sane, what was to happen, except what did happen? Nor is it false to conceive the Arcadian shepherd of the Eclogues as rejoicing in what did happen. One of the Eclogues has even been claimed as a prophecy of what did happen.

But it is quite as much in the tone and incidental diction of the great poet that we feel the potential sympathy with the great event; and even in their own human phrases the voices of the Virgilian shepherds might more than once have broken upon more than the tenderness of Italy ‘Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem’. They might have found in that strange place all that was best in the last traditions of the Latins; and something better than a wooden idol standing up for ever for the pillar of the human family; a household god. But they and all the other mythologists would be justified in rejoicings that the event had fulfilled not merely the mysticism but the materialism of mythology. Mythology had many sins; but it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation. But something of the ancient voice that was supposed to have rung through the graves, it could cry again, ‘We have seen, he hath seen us, a visible god.’ [7]

As GKC suggests, many examples of this theme could be cited from English poetry. I offer two. First, ‘The Shepherds’ Song’ of Edmund Bolton (1575-1633?):

Sweet Musicke, sweeter farre
Then any song is sweet:
Sweet Musicke heauenly rare,
Mine eares, O peeres, doth greeete.
You gentle flocks, whose fleeces, pearl'd with dewe,
Resemble heaven, whom golden drops make bright:
Listen, O Listen, now, O not to you
Our pipes make sport to shorten wearie night.
But voyces most diuine
Make blissfull harmonie:
Voyces that seeme to shine,
For what else cleares the skie?
Tunes can we heare, but not the singers see,
The tunes diuine, and so the singers be.

Loe how the firmament
Within an azure fold
The flock of starres hath pent,
That we might them behold.
Yet from their beames proceedeth not this light,
Not can their christals such reflection giue.
What then doth make the element so bright?
The heauens are come downe vpon earth to liue.
But harken to the song,
Glory to glories king,
And pece all men among,
These quyeristers doe sing.
Angels they are, as also (Shepheards) hee
Whom in our feare we doe admire to see.

Let not amazement blinde
Your soules, said he, annoy:
To you and all mankinde
My message bringeth joy.
For loe the world's great Shepheard now is borne,
A blessed babe, an infant full of power:
After long night, vp-risen is the morne,
Renowning Bethlem in the Sauiour.
Sprung is the perfect day,
By prophets seene a farre:
Sprung is the mirthfull May,
Which Winter cannot marre,
In Dauid's citie doth this sunne appeare:
Clouded in flesh, yet Shepheards sit we here. [8]

But perhaps the most profound poem on the theme is the ‘song’ from Herbert’s delightful ‘Christmas’ (part of which I quoted here):

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymne for thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is thy word: the streams, thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Out-sing the day-light houres.
Then we will chide the sunne for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I finde a sunne
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipt sunnes look sadly.
Then we will sing, shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev’n his beams sing, and my music shine. [9]

[1] Though of course we still find such pastoral imagery as the Sicilian setting (l. 1), the references to sheep (ll. 43-5), and the references to Pan and Arcadia (ll. 58-9).

[2] Arthur Guy Lee, ‘Introduction’, The Eclogues, by Virgil, trans. Guy Lee (London: Penguin, 1988), p. 14.

[3] Fr Christopher Stade, trans., The Explanation by Bl Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid & Bulgaria of the Holy Gospel According to St Luke, Vol. 3 of Bl Theophylact’s Explanation of the New Testament (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1997), p. 30.

[4] The phrase is from ‘An Hymne of Heavenly Love’, l. 230. See Edmund Spenser, The Fowre Hymnes, ed. Lilian Winstanley (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1930), p. 29. The note is Winstanley’s, in Spenser, p. 67.

[5] Albert Charles Hamilton, The Spenser Encyclopedia (Toronto: U of Toronto, 1997), p.531.

[6] Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos, The Feasts of the Lord: An Introduction to the Twelve Feasts & Orthodox Christology, trans. Esther Williams (Levadia, Gr.: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2003), p. 42.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, Pt 2, Chapt 1 (from this page).

[8] From this page. I have a printed copy in H.C. Beeching, ed., A Book of Christmas Verse, illust. Walter C. Crane (NY: Bonanza, 1986), pp. 77-8, but it’s in modernised spelling!

[9] Rev. Robert Aris Willmott, ed., The Works of George Herbert in Prose & Verse (NY: D. Appleton & Co., 1857), pp. 79-80.


Theresa h said...

Aaron, great insight and inspiration to a story that sometimes seems so familiar and brief. Thank you for sharing such a thought provoking article! It's a unique eclogue when Heaven and Nature sing in refrain, and rather than a procession of mourners there is a procession of kings, and angelic beings sing in the distance like a Greek chorus! The antithetical awakenedness of the shepherds critiques both the religious and political rulers and frames the birth of Christ in ancient rhetorical terms, 'logos,' 'ethos,' and 'pathos.' I look forward to reading more posts!

Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you, Theresa! Yes, I've got quite a lot on here. Unfortunately, it's been quite a while since I've been able to post regularly. I'm hoping eventually to do more.