Virgil’s fourth eclogue

In his post for the fourth Sunday of Advent, Walter Russell Mead referenced Virgil’s fourth eclogue. Mead wrote:

Periods of globalization and cultural mingling are often periods of apocalyptic thinking; the Jews weren’t the only people expecting big changes in the world at that time. Even in the court of Augustus, the staid and sleek Vergil wrote about a heroic, divine birth that would change the world. His famous fourth eclogue is at one level a brilliantly executed piece of literary fawning at the feet of the imperial family, but it bespeaks much wider hopes for a new age in the world, so much so that many commentators have read it as a kind of pagan prophecy of the coming of Christ.

Yet with all this anticipation of a savior of some kind, few even understood who Jesus claimed to be, fewer still believed him, and none of his friends and followers really understood what he had come to do. The birth and mission of Christ were both thoroughly predicted and completely surprising. It was exactly what God had been saying for centuries that he would do—and yet nobody expected anything like what actually came.

Virgil’s poem is short (eight stanzas of varying lengths). Here’s the third stanza:

And for yourself, little boy, the uncultivated earth

will scatter its first small gifts:

wandering ivy and cyclamens everywhere,

Egyptian beans mixed with laughing acanthus.

By themselves, she-goats will come home

with udders swollen with milk;

cattle no longer will fear mighty lions.

For you, your own cradle will bear delightful flowers;

the serpent will die, and the plant that hides its venom;

Assyrian spices will spring forth all over.

But as soon as you are able to read

the praise of heroes and your father’s works

and come to understand what virtue is,

fields will slowly turn golden with soft ears of grain,

red grapes will hang down from uncultivated briars

and stubborn oaks will exude dewlike honey.


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