Classical Arcadia

by Marc Wiesmann, Professor of French and Classics

ET IN ARCADIA EGO by Nicolas Poussin, 1647

    Arcadia is an actual region of Greece, a series of valleys surrounded by high mountains and therefore difficult of access. In very ancient times, the people of Arcadia were known to be rather primitive herdsmen of sheep, goats and bovines, rustic folk who led an unsophisticated yet happy life in the natural fertility of their valleys and foothills. Soon, however, their down-to-earth culture came to be closely associated with their traditional singing and pipe playing, an activity they used to pass the time as they herded their animals. Their native god was Pan, the inventor of the Pan pipes (seven reeds of unequal length held together by wax and string). The simple, readily accessible and moving music Pan and the Arcadian shepherds originated soon gained a wide appreciation all over the Greek world. This pastoral (in Latin "pastor" = shepherd) music began to inspire highly educated poets, who developed verses in which shepherds exchanged songs in a beautiful natural setting preserved pristine from any incursions from a dangerous "outside." In the third century BC, a Sicilian poet, Theocritus, created a literary genre called "bucolic poetry" (from the Greek "bukolos," a herdsman), poems called "Idylls" that used these exchanges of verses by fictional shepherds as a compositional strategy. Mainly, these idealized shepherds recounted their heterosexual or homosexual love affairs and praised the poetry they loved and the master singers they admired. Two centuries later, the greatest of Roman (and perhaps of European) poets, Virgil (70-19 BC), used Theocritus's Greek Idylls in order to create in Latin 10 masterpieces of bucolic poetry, known as the "Eclogues" or "Bucolics." Unlike Theocritus, who had placed his shepherds in Sicily, Virgil locates them back in Arcadia, an Arcadia, however, which has features strikingly resembling those of Northern Italy, where Virgil was born. Just as their Theocritean counterparts, the inhabitants of Virgil's Arcadia sing about love and its poetry, but they also make several crucial references to the political situation of Virgil's turbulent times. Many subsequent readers have in fact insisted that the "Eclogues" are stuffed full of references to politics and politicians, such as Julius Caesar and Octavian (Augustus Caesar). Virgil's poetic superiority has insured that his "Eclogues" never remained unknown in all the subsequent centuries of European culture. They became especially popular and imitated in the Italian, Spanish, French and English Renaissances of the 14th to 17th centuries, a period in which a type of verse called Pastoral Poetry was much appreciated by the intellectual and cultural elites. Parallel to the literary vogue of pastoral there existed in this period a rich pictorial tradition, paintings and prints representing shepherds and shepherdesses in a bucolic or idyllic setting of forests and hills. In the seventeenth century, the French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) used this pictorial tradition to paint one of his most famous canvasses, known as "The Arcadian shepherds" or as "ET IN ARCADIA EGO" (1647). This painting represents four Arcadians, in a meditative and melancholy mood, symmetrically arranged on either side of a tomb. One of the shepherds kneels on the ground and reads the inscription on the tomb: ET IN ARCADIA EGO, which can be translated either as "And I [= death] too (am) in Arcadia" or as "I [= the person in the tomb] also used to live in Arcadia." The second shepherd seems to discuss the inscription with a lovely girl standing near him. The third shepherd stands pensively aside. From Poussin's painting, Arcadia now takes on the tinges of a melancholic contemplation about death itself, about the fact that our happiness in this world is very transitory and evanescent. Even when we feel that we have discovered a place where peace and gentle joy reign, we must remember that it will end, and that all will vanish.

    For a fundamental discussion of Poussin's great painting, see Erwin Panofsky's essay in his book MEANING IN THE VISUAL ARTS. In this essay, he analyzes brilliantly the possible interpretations of the expression ET IN ARCADIA EGO.

Marc Wiesmann received his doctorate in Comparative Literature (Classics and French) from UCLA. His domain of expertise is the reception of Greek and Latin poetry in the French Renaissance. He is fascinated, besides, by the survival and transfigurations of the Classical Tradition in Western culture.