Saturday, June 24, 2006

Under a beech tree

Virgil’s first Eclogue opens with the farmer Meiliboeus addressing Tityrus, who is reclining under a sheltering beech tree, playing his reed pipe. Meliboeus is envious of Tityrus, who has the leisure to sit in the shade and teach the woods to repeat his song ‘Fair Amaryllis’ and is amazed that Tityrus can be so relaxed when the countryside is full of troubles (the land confiscations following the Battle of Philippi). But Tityrus has recently been granted his freedom by Augustus and can afford to sing of love and celebrate the pastoral scene. Tityrus takes pity on Meliboeus and invites him to stay the night for a meal of apple, cheese and chestnuts.

Tityrus reappears in Paul Valéry’s ‘Dialogue of the Tree’ (1943), this time in conversation with the philosopher-poet Lucretius, author of On the Nature of the Universe. Valéry contrasts the desire of Tityrus to celebrate a simple unreflective idea of nature, with Lucretius’s search for a more profound underlying truth. Lucretius finds Tityrus gazing at the beech tree, drawn upward to the ‘leaf-woven air’ and inspired to give this beautiful moment a musical form. Tityrus only wants to know the tree in its ‘happy moments’ and fuse its fleeting nature and the voices of leaves, birds and animals into a single form. Lucretius by contrast seeks the Nature of Things and has a more profound understanding of the tree. He feels that Tityrus only loves his own song, not the true beech tree that is its source. Lucretius sees through fleeting appearance to the hard wood of a thirsty plant, gripping its rock and drawing sustenance from the earth. In meditating on the natural order, Lucretius goes so far as to liken himself to the tree it in its structured growth and natural rhythms. Tityrus sings of the tree, but for Lucretius the tree itself is a song. They feel the cool of evening approaching and part with Lucretius lost in radiant rapture.

Lucretius might be seen in this guise as reflecting some of the attitudes of modern post-pastoral poetry. And yet at the end of the dialogue there is something almost too serious and profound in his words, and the reader feels like leaving Lucretius under the tree to follow the modest shepherd Tityrus, as he goes to gather his flock.

Incidentally, the beech tree that Tityrus sits under in both dialogues was native to north Italy, where Virgil was born. It was not known in Greece and therefore it had no established poetic resonances when Virgil was writing: beech trees were mentioned by Catullus but do not appear in Greek poetry like Virgil’s model, the Idylls of Theocritus. It would seem that Virgil drew it from his own landscape experience. After the Eclogues the beech tree would often be associated with the artificial landscape of pastoral poetry. As in Valéry’s dialogue, the beech tree can seem real or poetic, depending on the poet.

1 comment:

aurelia said...

Was Thoreau searching for 'real' or 'poetic'?

‘I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow
to keep an appointment with a beech-tree,
or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.’
-  Henry David Thoreau,  1817 - 1862