Sunday, March 26, 2017

A black mountaintop looms out of the slate-grey darkness

Awoiska van der Molen is one of the contenders for this year's Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.  At the Photographers' Gallery her exhibition of large monochrome silver gelatin prints is on the top floor, after a room devoted to Sophie Calle's moving works on the death of her parents.  These too seem very private works, even though there are no titles or narrative - it is not even clear where the photographs were taken.  These landscapes convey a sense of the artist alone, quietly focusing on the way light was falling on foliage or illuminating the surface of rocks and water.  Sometimes this light is intense: what looks like a ribbon of white road seemingly scratched onto a mountainside or the bright tips of grasses caught by the slanting sun.  Sometimes it is softer, blurring forms, and you can imagine it disappearing altogether at the passing of a cloud.  A view out to sea has almost no light beyond a faint sheen at the horizon.   There are shadows too, but walking up close to the photographs you realise their resolution is too grainy to allow you to into into these dark places.   

The video interview with Awoiska van der Molen that I have embedded above begins (rather disappointingly from the perspective of this blog) with her admission "I am not interested in landscape".  She says that the landscapes she visits are places to escape to and find solace, a sense of safety.  Thus the pictures try to convey her feelings in the landscape rather than the landscape itself.  Sean O'Hagan has described her in The Guardian as 'a photographer that is infinitely patient, and interested in the stubborn core of things.'  He explains how she took the arresting image of a dark mountain (the photograph can be seen 45 seconds into the video above).  'In one of my favourite shots, a black mountaintop looms out of the slate-grey darkness, two wavy white lines flowing from the peak like moonlit streams. Astonishingly, these are light trails made by two groups of nocturnal hikers, which she managed to capture from a distance thanks to long exposure. You do not need to know this to appreciate its haunting beauty, but it alerts us to the delicacy of her transformative art.'

What I have briefly tried to convey here about Awoiska van der Molen's work is summarised in an essay by Arjen Mulder, published in the new monograph Blanco
'These are not photos of or after Nature, the photos are part of that same Nature, of an event enabled by Nature via her camera at that particular point in time and that particular exposure. As dusk falls, the thought takes shape in the landscape and the camera is part of this, replicates the scene to turn it into a relationship, a sign in which object and subject conflate, for that which is visualized coincides with what it refers to and who sees it. No symbol, no metaphor, no allegory — Awoiska van der Molen’s photography is so objective that to call it divine would not be an exaggeration. The photographer is utterly absent from her images, which, strangely enough, makes these photos highly personal and intimate, almost painfully so.'

Friday, March 24, 2017

Brick-dust in sunlight

‘Brick-dust in sunlight. That is what I see now in the city, a dry epic flavour, whose air is human breath. A place of walls made straight with plumb line and trowel, to desiccate and crumble in the sun and smoke. Blistered paint on cisterns and girders, cracking to show the priming. Old men spit on the paving slabs, little boys urinate; and the sun dries it as it dries out patches of damp on plaster facings to leave misshapen stains. I look for things here that make old men and dead men seem young. Things which have escaped, the landscapes of many childhoods.’ – Roy Fisher, City, 1961 

Roy Fisher passed away this week.  I thought I would remember him here with three quotations about landscape and place, taken from Interviews Through Time and Selected Prose, a book published by Shearsman in 2000, when Fisher was seventy.  In the first he is talking about City, the short sequence of poems and prose assembled for Gaell Turnbull's Migrant Press.  This drew on his experiences of Birmingham,   
‘… a particular large nondescript undersigned city, which was a deposit of all sorts of inadvertent by-products of ideas.  In many cases the cultural ideas, the economic ideas, had disappeared into the graveyards of people who had the ideas.  But the by-products in things like street layouts, domestic architecture, where the schools were, how anything happened – all these things were left all over the place as a sort of script, an indecipherable script with no key.   And the interesting thing for me was that the culture, particularly the metropolitan culture, the literary culture, had no alphabet to offer for simply talking about what I saw all the time.’
This second quotation gives me an excuse to include a Paul Klee painting and is part of a discussion on how his work is positioned in relation to the poems of place written by Ed Dorn and Charles Olson (I have written about the latter here before). 
‘I’ve been told that I’ve been influenced by Americans. An enormous number of people come to mind, some American, some not. You might just as well, for me, talk about Rilke’s Paris or Kafka’s Prague or the imaginary towns that Paul Klee made up or Kokoschka’s paintings of towns he worked in. […] Fascination with a location – I don’t want to duck out too hard from the American tag here, but it could as well be those little bits you get at the back of Italian primitive paintings, the cities on hilltops, as any sort of possibly theoretical concern with place, such as you get in Olson or Ed Dorn.’
Paul Klee, Castle and Sun, 1928
Public Domain

In this third one, Fisher contrasts his approach to that of a landscape painter.
‘I’m capable of being invaded by visual landscape, though I love visible landscape. […] The poem I write is the portrait of a mind, and the sense of the self, a sense of the world, which is responding to a landscape in such a way that the landscape doesn’t quite have a chance to congeal.  I dramatise.   I deprive the landscape of a painter’s vocabulary, where I’ll say ‘Several miles off, there is a little row of red roofs, and in the middle distance is this and that…’  In a fairly gentle way I’m dramatising the landscape to put dynamic lines in, so that there are certain imperatives – in fact, to energise, to potentiate events it.’
A lot more could be said about Roy Fisher and landscape.  As William Wootton wrote in the Guardian back in 2005,
'Much of Fisher's best work has been a poetry of place, and that place has tended to be the city of his birth. As he puts it in "Six Texts for a Film": "Birmingham's what I think with." In City (1961), whose verse and prose moves from dirty realism and detailed urban description to passages of hypnotic reverie, Birmingham has become an unreal, nameless city. In later works, the places of Birmingham are named almost religiously, as are rather different sites, notably the rural Derbyshire in which Fisher now lives. As one description follows another, a pattern of scenes builds up in the reader's mind, until we get what A Furnace (1985) terms a poetry of "landscape superimposed upon landscape". Individual places, too, can now look like palimpsests. Traces of forgotten fields and rivers are found lurking beneath the city. Vanished towns and industries are discovered in the countryside.'
In News for the Ear: A Homage to Roy Fisher (2000), John Kerrigan asked the poet about his changing attitude to the poetry of place (the interview has been republished in Jacket Magazine).  Fisher had said of City that it was to do with the ‘EFFECTS of topography, the creation of scenic movements, psychological environments, and it’s not meant to be an historical/spatial city entailed to empirical reality.’  Kerrigan put it to him that ‘on the evidence of ‘The Burning Graves at Netherton’ (1981), however, and parts of Birmingham River (1994), you have become more at ease with a ‘poetry of place’ which admits descriptive elements and even paysage moralisé’.  Fisher replied that ‘the landscape has come, with the passage of time and changes in my understanding, to moralise itself under my eye, without any nudging from me. I read it as a record of conduct as well as something subjectively transfigured.’

I will end here with a clip of Roy Fisher, filmed at his Derbyshire home.  He reads 'Birmingham River' (9 minutes in) and then 'For Realism' (1965), with its snapshots of the city: flats on the ridge getting the last light and 'afterimages of brickwork' as windows turning silver in the shadows...

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The wind was bitter from the north

Last night a strong wind rose in the evening.  As it rattled the windows at the top of our house, I was watching an old TV play, Whistle and I'll Come to You.  The professor in this story, played by Michael Hordern, is similarly troubled by the sound of the wind as he sits up in bed.  He seems to have conjured it by blowing an old whistle, a mysterious object he had found earlier, buried near a grave on the edge of the sea.  On returning with this artifact to his room at the Globe, a Suffolk guesthouse, he had felt some kind of presence while walking over the beach.  This is how that evening landscape was described in the original story by M. R. James:
'Bleak and solemn was the view on which he took a last look before starting homeward. A faint yellow light in the west showed the links, on which a few figures moving towards the club-house were still visible, the squat martello tower, the lights of Aldsey village, the pale ribbon of sands intersected at intervals by black wooden groynings, the dim and murmuring sea. The wind was bitter from the north, but was at his back when he set out for the Globe. He quickly rattled and clashed through the shingle and gained the sand, upon which, but for the groynings which had to be got over every few yards, the going was both good and quiet. One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars' church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage in the distance, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress...'
The following night, whenever he closes his eyes he sees himself running, pursued by something, over that same beach and groynes, each one seemingly higher than the last... 

James McBryde, illustration from the 1904 edition of 
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James   
Professor Parkins pictures 'a man running, jumping, clambering over the groynes, and every few seconds looking eagerly back. The nearer he came the more obvious it was that he was not only anxious, but even terribly frightened'
Source: Wikimedia

I will reveal no more about what happens to the professor after this disturbing night.  The details are slightly different in the original story and in the BBC adaptation, made by Jonathan Miller in 1968.  Both versions are discussed in a chapter of Mark Fisher's The Weird and the Eerie, which draws a link between Miller's film and Brian Eno's ambient album, On Land (1982) - 'both in effect are meditations on the eerie as manifested in the East Anglian terrain.'  Miller filmed on the large featureless beach at Waxham and at what is left of Dunwich, the medieval port that was destroyed by a storm and then gradually reclaimed by the sea.  Looking back on this blog to a post nearly ten years ago, I see I included a photograph of the beach at Dunwich and referred to a talk by Mark Fisher about On Land and the Suffolk landscape.  In The Weird and the Eerie, Fisher contrasts the destructive force in M. R. James's story with the gentler, mysterious mood of On Land.  Eno's eerie is alien but alluring.  It can still be unsettling though - in 'Shadow' for example, which 'features a quietly distressing whimper that could be a human voice, an animal sobbing, or an aural hallucination produced by the movement of the wind.' 

Posthumous tributes to Mark Fisher can be read at Verso, The Guardian, The Quietus, and on Owen Hatherley's blog.  I wish I had managed to see more of his talks; the k-punk blog was essential reading - see, for example, a piece on another BBC adaptation of 'Whistle and I'll Come to You', made in 2010 with John Hurt.  The Weird and the Eerie, published at the end of 2016, was discussed earlier this month by Roger Luckhurst in The LA Review of Books.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Court of Gayumars

Tabriz artist, Rustam Sleeping While Rakhsh Fights the Lion, c. 1515-22

This painting is the only page that survives from a manuscript of the Shahnameh (Ferdowsi's 'Book of Kings') commissioned by the Safavid ruler Isma'il I (1501-24).  It is used for the cover of The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800 by Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom.  They note that the lush vegetation serves to detach the dreaming hero from the fight between horse and lion, which becomes a kind of 'stylized ballet'.  This kind of vibrantly coloured, elaborately stylised and beautifully patterned landscape can be seen too in what is 'considered by many to be the greatest of all Persian miniature paintings', The Court of Gayumars.  This too is a scene from the Shahnameh and was in a book made for Isma'il's son, Tahmasp, who succeeded him at the age of ten and reigned until 1574.  King Gayumars, the first king of Persia, is depicted seemingly floating above a garden where animals coexist peacefully and courtiers stand, dressed in leopard pelts.  Rocks, clouds and water seem to be solid, immaterial and liquid all at the same time.  The closer you look, the more you see extraordinary details hidden in the flowers or among the coral-like cliffs.  Trees grow beyond the frame and in the top-most branches some monkeys seem to have climbed above the golden sky with its Chinese clouds and out of the world altogether.

Sultan-Muhammad, The Court of Gayumars, c. 1525-35

In 1544 the painter Dust Muhammad wrote about the artists in Tahmasp's library, specifically praising Master Nizamuddin Sultan-Muhammad's 'scene of people wearing leopard skins' in the Shahnameh, which must be this painting.  'It is such', he said, 'that the lion-hearted of the jungle of depiction and the leopards and crocodiles of the workshop of ornamentation quail at the fangs of his pen and bend their necks before the awesomeness of his pictures.'  The Court of Gayumars is now in the Toronto Aga Khan Museum.  Blair and Bloom relate the later history of the great book itself, which included 258 paintings and was probably produced over the course of a decade from 1525-35 (one image is dated 1527/8).
'In 1567 the Safavid manuscript was presented by Tahmasp to the Ottoman sultan Selim II, and it remained in the Ottoman imperial collection at least until 1801. [...] By 1903 it had entered the collection of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, whose family sold it to an American collector in 1959.  The manuscript, which had survived intact for over four hundred years, was subsequently dismembered.  Individual folios were sold at auction like so-many slices of pizza, and the integrity of one of the masterpieces of Islamic art was ignominiously destroyed.'   


Friday, March 03, 2017

Pyramids in the Sea

If you haven't been yet, there are still two days left to make your way through the long David Hockney queues and see Tate Britain's Paul Nash retrospective.  His work may seem familiar from relatively frequent exhibitions and the permanent collections of the Tate and Imperial War Museum, but there are a few exhibits on show that I don't remember seeing before, including two borrowed from Canadian museums.  Monster Shore (1939) shows a shattered elm which Nash encountered while 'the declining sun suffused the evening sky to a brickish red; beneath which the Malverns piled up intensely blue.'  Those hills almost seem to belong in a different painting - T. J. Clark refers to this work in his partly critical LRB review as 'a Dali-plus-Ernst assemblage'.  The other painting from Canada, Dymchurch Steps (1924, reworked 1944), is centered on a concrete structure that would not look out of place on Ballard's Terminal Beach, Sebald's Orford Ness, or somewhere in Tarkvosky's ZonaAccording to the curator Emma Chambers it is 'one of the most important works for understanding the beginnings of Nash’s interest in the metaphysical possibilities of architecture, and is among the earliest of a group of works which place a substantial architectural object having an uncompromising and mysterious presence in the centre of a landscape composition.'

'I wish the car had got into his paintings occasionally' writes T. J. Clark.  Figures too are largely absent, as Laura Cummings notes in her review of the exhibition.
'People do appear in his art, surprisingly often, but always as wraiths or surrogates. Far more haunting are nature’s figures, such as the two tiny trees holding still at the centre of The Pyramids in the Sea.  This irreducibly strange vision shows roiling seas by night, two pyramids dropped among them, and sand dunes metamorphosing into waves. It is a vision from the land of counterpane, made when Nash was scarcely 23. Yet it contains the future like a kernel – the intermingling of land and sea, the premonition of surrealism, the Samuel Palmer moon (long before Palmer was discovered in the 1920s) of Nash’s English nocturnes. Above all the bell-shaped waves that rise and fall across the picture, and all through the rest of his work.'
Paul Nash, Pyramids in the Sea, 1912
Source: Tate Gallery - public domain

In his catalogue essay, 'A Spectral Modernity', David Mellor wonders if this picture may partly have been inspired by a writer Nash is known to have enjoyed, Algernon Blackwood.  In one of Blackwood's stories, 'Sand', an English explorer experiences the desert as if it were liquefied.  'Rising above the yellow Libyan horizon, gloomed the vast triangles of a dozen Pyramids, cutting their wedge-shaped clefts out of a sky fast crimsoning through a sea of gold.'  Mellor's essay traces the influence of spiritualism on Nash and his wife Margaret, who believed she was clairvoyant.  I wonder whether she considered Pyramids in the Sea a kind of premonition of their first meeting, a year after it was drawn.  Margaret spent her early childhood in Cairo and her father was an Arab, born near Jerusalem, who later moved to Oxford where he taught the undergraduate T. E. Lawrence colloquial Arabic.  Lawrence admired Nash's work - he bought his first painting of the sea at Dymchurch and asked him to provide illustrations for an edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Ten years later Paul and Margaret Nash were about to visit Lawrence at Cloud's Hill when they heard the news that he had been killed. 

After the war Margaret Nash wrote a memoir of her husband.  It was published last year in a new edition of Outline, Nash's unfinished autobiography and letters from the front which originally appeared in 1949.  It provides a moving insight into the way Nash endured his asthma attacks, caused, it was thought, by breathing in the poison gas at Passchendaele.  At the end of 1933 the couple journeyed south through France and Spain, having to stop periodically while Nash recovered his health.  They visited Matisse in his studio, where Nash had to put up with advice from the great man on using a rowing machine to help improve his breathing.  Eventually they reached Ronda in southern Spain, from where it was a short journey across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco.  'Here Paul felt very well, as we were greeted in that lovely April by a glowing sun and a light, refreshing breeze which came from the Atlas Mountains, still snow covered.'  They returned home with plans to try to go back to North Africa but sadly it wasn't to be, as Nash's health problems persisted and war eventually closed in again.  Nash went on to paint a sea of wrecked war planes in Totes Meer (1944) - evidence according to T. J. Clark of 'an artist at last sure of his ground'.  But he would never get to experience the moonlit waves of the desert.

This year, Paul Nash entered the public domain so I have returned to some earlier posts on this blog and added images of his paintings and drawings:
  • a post on Nash's views of the sea wall at Dymchurch, one of the seven significant landscapes featured in a 1989 exhibition, 'Paul Nash: Places';
  • a post on the flowers he saw growing in the trenches, and on his vision of flowers in the sky during the Second World War;
  • a post on his late painting Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1944), discussed by Roger Cardinal in The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash;
  • a post on his the way landscapes intrude into interiors in work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery's 'Paul Nash: The Elements' exhibition in 2010;
  • and a post on his letters home from France, describing the landscape he would paint in We are Making a New World. 
Nash is also referred to in other posts - to see these click on the 'Paul Nash' label below, consult the index or use the search box.

Friday, February 24, 2017


If you have access to the BBC iPlayer you can see Andrew Graham-Dixon's latest series, an attempt to tell the story of the Art of France in three hours.  The first episode stretches over the centuries from L'abbé Suger to Chardin.  During the course of this, he visits Versailles and looks down on its gardens, with their panoptic design of paths radiating out from the palace of the Sun King.  But he also finds time for a visit to the basement of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille where he wanders among 'a collection of extraordinary but largely forgotten' table-top landscapes, made at the behest of Louis XIV.
"They were all made for the king, these great tables.  Each one is a town - a representation of a town that he had fortified.  This is Ypres.  This is Tournai.  There were originally a hundred and forty-four of these objects.  They occupied 8,000 square meters of the Louvre - nearly a mile to walk past all of them.  And what they represented I think for Louis was a tangible demonstration of the extent to which he had expanded and secured France's borders.  They also served a very practical purpose because when he came here with his generals or his advisers he could plan strategy.  He could literally feel with his hand the lie of the land.  And he could enjoy, as no-one else in the world could do, a bird's-eye view of these strategically important cities.  I think the Plans-Reliefs as they are called (it's extraordinary - goodness knows how many man hours went into their creation) - I think what they represent is a making good of the promise that Versailles holds out.  That, yes, the king's eye stretches to the very end of the realm."
This collection of relief maps has a complicated history.  Having been only accessible to Louis XIV and his staff, they eventually came to be seen as works of art, on show once a month to the public during the nineteenth century.  A new set of relief plans were made for Napoleon, seventeen of which were taken by the Prussians to Berlin after his defeat.  These were almost all destroyed during World War Two, but one of them, the map of Lille, was restored and returned to France.  Of the original seventeenth century plans, some are still in Paris and some have been transferred to Lille, where Andrew Graham-Dixon saw them. 

Earlier, smaller relief plans were made in sixteenth century Venice and Bavaria.  The Bavarian plans were the work of Jakob Sandtner (fl. 1561-79) who seems to have made the first one himself, which then came to the attention of Duke Albrecht, who bought it and commissioned others.  But these were city plans - what I like about the French Plans-Reliefs is that they show the surrounding terrain.  The inclusion of woods and fields was consistent with their use as a military tool.  But their usefulness declined as technology 'improved'.  Eventually, as the director of the Paris musée des Plans Reliefs explains in an interview, the range of cannon fire was too great for maps on this scale.  It is tempting though to imagine modellers trying to keep up, at work on ever larger constructions, eventually covering the whole of France and fitting together like a jigsaw.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Under the trees, where the light air stirs the shadows

I once wrote for myself a guide to the trees and plants in Virgil's Eclogues, drawing on the Clarendon Press commentary by Wendell Clausen.  I won't bore you with the whole thing, but will give here a brief summary to indicate how these details help create a landscape for the ten pastoral poems. Virgil's Arcadia is more artificial than the Sicily in which Theocritus set his Idylls, but I think this makes it all the more rewarding to try to picture the details of his settings.  In the course of the poems Virgil refers to both Greek and Italian places; it could be said that the Eclogues are partly set in the North Italian countryside near Mantua, where the poet grew up, and partly, overlaid on this, in an ideal, pastoral Greece of the mind. 

Tityrus and Meliboeus in the 5th century Vergilius Romanus

Eclogue One

The first Eclogue begins under the cool shade of a beech tree.  Meliboeus, exiled from his farm after the land confiscations that followed the Battle of Philippi, encounters Tityrus, playing his reed pipe and teaching the woods to repeat his song 'Fair Amaryllis'.  I have described this scene before, in a post that goes on to talk about the reappearance of Tityrus in Paul Valéry’s ‘Dialogue of the Tree’ (1943).  Virgil's beech woods would not have been dense, since the hills would need to have allowed grazing to take place.  Meliboeus has been driving goats through the hazel thickets and cannot let them remain to graze on the bitter willow and clover.  He pictures Tityrus, recently freed, happy on his farm, with bees in the willow boundary hedge and wood pigeons and turtle doves in the tops of the elms.  Tityrus takes pity on Meliboeus and invites him to stay the night for a meal of apple, cheese and chestnuts.  The poem ends with the sun setting and the mountains casting lengthening shadows.

Eclogue Two

It is the heat of the day and the sun is driving cattle into the shade and lizards into thorn thickets.  The shepherd Corydon seeks the shade of a beech plantation to contemplate his thwarted passion for the handsome boy Alexis.  The harvesters enjoy a refreshing pottage but Corydon trails after Alexis in the heat, his hoarse voice accompanied by the cicadas.  He imagines a life together with Alexis, herding kids with switches of green mallow.  He offers him gifts: a reed pipe made of hemlock stalks, two roe deer, a garland created by the nymphs, a simpler offering of his own: quinces, chestnuts, plums and branches of laurel and myrtle.  The sun goes down and Corydon thinks of his own half-pruned vines.  He decides that if Alexis rejects him, he can always find another love.

Eclogue Three

The setting for this singing match is an old beech plantation.  The judge, Palaeomon, remarks on the beauty of the wider landscape: crops growing, orchards full of fruit and woodlands in leaf.  The two shepherds sing of various imaginary loves.  In the course of their songs, Menalcus likens his feelings for Amyntus to the way crops love the rain, goats love the arbitus tree and breeding herds love the willow; Damoetus describes a love-sick bull who is pining away even though he is surrounded by vetch to eat.  The contest is declared a draw and Palaeoman asks them to stop their songs, because the meadows have had their fill.

Eclogue Four

This fourth poem is not set in a landscape, its subject is politics - probably the Pact of Brundisium between Anthony and Octavian.  Virgil excuses himself for leaving his pastoral theme, saying that not everyone likes the 'tamarisk' and that he will now sing a 'forest'.  He evokes a Golden Age that will come with the birth of a child (possibly the future child of Antony and Octavia), when grapes will hang from thorn trees and honey will be secreted by the oak trees.  Soil will need no harrowing, vines will need no pruning and - a detail that sounds rather less appealing - sheep will grow their wool in various bright colours.

Eclogue Five

Menalcus, the older of the singing shepherds in Eclogue Three, meets Mopsus and suggests that they sit down in a grove of hazel and elm.  But Mopsus has an alternative to sitting 'under the trees, where the light air stirs the shadows,' and proposes a cave, its entrance hanging with wild vines.  He wants to share a song that he had inscribed onto a beech trunk (it has been pointed out that the song is rather long to have been written out in full on a tree...)  He sings of the death of Daphnis, mourned by Nature so that where once there were fields of barley there now grew only darnel and wild oats, whilst violets and narcissi were succeded by thistle and thorn.  Menalcus then sings his own elegy for Daphnis, saying that he will be praised as long as boars love the heights, fish love streams, cicadas drink dew and bees suck thyme.

Eclogue Six

In this poem the god Silenus sings to two shepherd boys so beautifully that the oak trees bow their heads.  Among the myths he recounts is that of Pasiphaë, wandering in search of the bull who rests under the ilex among soft hyacinths.  The bull is described as pale, pallentis, a word that may represent the greenish yellow of summer grass.  Silenus tells of Phaeton's sisters, transformed into tall alders after lamenting his death on the banks of the Eridanus.  He sings all the songs that Apollo once composed and made the laurels along the river Eurotus learn.  It was at Eurotus that Apollo mourned the loss of Hyacinthus.  Finally evening comes and the young shepherds leave for home to count their sheep.

Eclogue Seven

The narrator is Meliboeus, from Eclogue One, who remembers being approached one day by Daphnis when he was busy protecting his myrtles from frost damage.  Daphnis persuaded him to go down to the river, fringed with reeds and the sacred oak, a-drone with bees.  There they witnessed a singing contest between Corydon and Thyrsis.  Corydon longed for a nymph sweeter than thyme and fairer than pale ivy.  He sang of the beautiful pastoral landscape: springs, soft grass, arbitus trees, vines, chestnuts and juniper bushes.  He concluded by listing plants associated with the gods and heroes but saying that above these is the hazel, loved by Phyllis; Thyrsis in turn said that if only his lover Lycidas were with him more often, the ash and pine would mean nothing to him.

Eclogue Eight  

This is another singing match in which the shepherd Damon laments his lost love while leaning against the trunk of an olive tree (or possibly on an olive-wood staff, like the one owned by Polyphemus in the Odyssey).  He sings of a world gone awry, of alders that bear sweet narcissus and tamarisks that shed tears of amber.

Eclogue Nine

The landscape here is that of the first Eclogue, and the conversation is between Lycidas and Moeris, a dispossessed landowner who is suffering the indignity of looking after the new owner's goats.  Lycidas thought that the land, which stretches down to a river where beeches grow, had been saved by the poetry of Moeris's friend.  But poetry wasn't sufficient to spare this countryside; the beeches by the river have their tops broken off.  The two men recall various poems, including one addressed to Galatea, which I have referred to here before.  Seamus Heaney translated this and in his version the grotto of Cyclops is an undermined riverbank with swaying poplars and vines in thickets 'meshing shade with light.'  Lycidas wants to hear more but Moeris is in no mood to continue.

Eclogue Ten

In this last poem Virgil himself appears in Arcadia, surrounded by his goats.  He sings of his friend Gallus, who was lying love sick under a crag, while the laurels and tamarisks wept for him, when Pan, stained with the juice of elderberries, arrived with Sylvanus, wearing a coronet of fennel and Madonna lilies.  Pan told Gallus not to weep over his love, but Gallus, inconsolable, vowed to live alone in the forest or by wandering in the mountains.  Virgil says that he hopes this song will not displease Gallus, for whom he expresses a love that is growing hourly, like alders shooting up in the spring.  He notices a chill in the air, under the shade of a juniper tree, so he gathers together his goats and heads for home.