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Oppen’s Reoccupation of Traditional Lyric in “Eclogue,” “Psalm,” and “Ballad” There are three poems named after traditional genres in Oppen’s oeuvre, and, interestingly, they are distributed over the course of three books: “Eclogue,” which was included in The Materials, “Psalm,” in This In Which, and “Ballad,” in Of Being Numerous . It is interesting, moreover, that these titles appear without the indefinite article: Oppen does not give us an eclogue, a psalm, or a ballad , but rather the genres themselves. This gesture, as I interpret it, has a paradoxically double significance: on the one hand, it implies distance from a time when poets had an organic relation to these lyric genres; on the other, it signals Oppen’s awareness that they continue to have something to say to us and must therefore be reoccupied (that is, invested with a modern content) and made new.1 The fact that “Eclogue” is the first poem in The Materials and thus the first poem we encounter after the long hiatus that followed Discrete Series is, of course, significant, and all the more so when one recognizes that the poem is a reflection on Oppen’s experience with communism and the Communist Party: The men talking Near the room’s center. They have said More than they had intended. Pinpointing in the uproar Of the living room chapter four oppen’s r eoccupation of tr aditional lyric 182 An assault On the quiet continent. Beyond the window Flesh and rock and hunger Loose in the night sky Hardened into soil Tilting of itself to the sun once more, small Vegetative leaves And stems taking place Outside——O small ones, To be born! (39) An eclogue is a pastoral poem—that is, a poem in which shepherds converse. The term was applied to Virgil’s pastorals (or bucolics). The concluding lines of Oppen’s “Eclogue” echo and allude to the conclusion of Virgil’s fourth eclogue: “incipe, parve puer: cui non risere parentes, / nec deus hunc mensa, dea nec dignata cubili est” [Begin, baby boy! Him on whom his parents have not smiled, no god honours with his table, no goddess with her bed].2 The fourth eclogue is of profound significance in literary history because , in heralding the birth of a new Golden Age under Augustus, it was viewed by the medievals, including Dante, as prophesying the birth of Christ and the Christian era. In canto 22 of the Purgatorio, Statius, addressing Virgil, quotes a passage from the fourth eclogue, which Dante (in a veritable tour de force) renders into Italian, keeping the terza rima: “Secol si rinova; / torna giustizia e primo tempo umano, / e progenïe scende da ciel nova” [The ages are renewed; justice and man’s first time on earth return; / from Heaven a new progeny descends].3 We know that the passage from eclogue 4 was important for Oppen because years later, in “From Virgil,” the fifth poem in “Five Poems about Poetry” (included in This In Which), he not only alludes to it but translates it: Parve puer . . . ‘Begin, O small boy, To be born; oppen’s r eoccupation of tr aditional lyric 183 On whom his parents have not smiled No god thinks worthy of his table, No goddess of her bed’ (104–5) It so happens that the men talking near the center of the room in Oppen ’s “Eclogue” are communists rather than shepherds. But so unrealistic and lofty are their sentiments (“paulo maiora canamus” [let us sing a somewhat loftier strain], says Virgil to the Sicilian Muses at the beginning of his fourth eclogue) that they might as well be shepherds heralding the return of a new age of justice and the birth of a new Golden Age. In section 2 of “Power, The Enchanted World” (from Of Being Numerous), Oppen will write: I’d wanted friends Who talked of a public justice Very simple people I forget what we said (204) The men in “Eclogue” “have said / More than they had intended” (notice the irony produced by the syncopated line break after “said”); they have no real understanding of what they are saying or what the afterlife of their ideas will be (and ideas do, after all, have an impact on history, even if they are foolish ones and those espousing them are simpletons). After the first tercet, Oppen’s syntax in “Eclogue” becomes difficult. Because of the period after “intended,” one cannot automatically make “Pinpointing” modify what the men have said. Oppen...


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