Et in Arcadia Ego


On Poetry

Titian, Portrait of Jacopo Sannazaro, ca. 1514–18.

One winter morning, seventeen years ago, Nadya woke me up with the words “Anthony, get dressed.” She explained there was a house on 57th Street (Hyde Park, Chicago), with all the windows and doors open, students everywhere, people walking out with grocery bags of books. “Everything’s free. He just wants the house emptied ASAP.”

I got down there quick as I could, but most of what had been in the house had already taken a walk. I gathered that the previous owner of the place had been a high school French teacher, age 1,000. The current owner of the house, age I-wanna-say-sixty, was visibly drunk, grinning and gabby, on the porch. Somebody said he worked in Hollywood.

I went upstairs. There was a hill of books in the middle of the floor of a ransacked bedroom. I picked up a book and bagged it. Here are photos of the book I bagged, 9 February 2002:

Don’t get too excited. It’s a 1772 Venice print of Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia. As you can see, it’s bound in vellum. In the condition shown in the photograph, the book is probably worth a hundred bucks.

Any Italian literary person would know the name “Sannazaro” in the same way people in my village would know the name “Sir Philip Sidney.” I’m not saying their merits are equivalent, just talking about name recognition. Both writers are classics, but the fame of each is hobbled by his investment in Renaissance pastoral, a much-maligned department of literature.

Just four months before I inherited, so to speak, the book in the picture, I had purchased this book at Powell’s Hyde Park, just down the street:

That, friends, is the only English translation ever of Sannazaro’s Arcadia. For reasons I don’t understand, that little feller will run you more than twice what an eighteenth-century print of Sannazaro would, online. 1966, Wayne State University Press—mine was $16, October 1, 2001. I actually have two copies. And I saw one on a shelf in San Antonio last December for like $12, so I don’t know what’s going on.

Anyhow, I have read Sannazaro’s Arcadia two or three times. It’s not that great, except for the last chapter, which is magnificent—and a game-changer. I’ve read that part at least a dozen times, sometimes aloud to friends. That last chapter taught me how to read Virgil! And more. But in order to get you anywhere near where I want you to be, I have to say something about pastoral in general.

I shall now defend pastoral. Step one, you have to get past the assumption that pastoral was merely a bunch of aristocratic dress-up and make-believe. It was dress-up all right, but it had a deep and emphatically legit purpose.

Let me give you a parallel case: writing poetry in Latin, in England, in the eighteenth century. Now, why would anyone do that. The mistake the modern interpreter is almost certain to make lies in assuming that the eighteenth-century literati must have done “X” for the same reasons we would do “X” now. And so we research the question by consulting our own bosoms. Today, May 15, 2019, anyone writing a poem in Latin would be doing it to strike awe in the rest of us. The person would rightly believe that almost nobody’s equipped to judge if the poet has, for example, botched the meter. More, virtually none of us know enough about the deep contents of Virgil, Horace, or Ovid to pick up on any but the grossest allusions. The poet could get away with anything; the incentive to pastiche would be very high. “Say something Catullus would say” would probably be the person’s MO, in a nutshell.

But in the eighteenth century, no part of the above hypothesis is safe. Most importantly, people’s sense of what Latin poetry was for was completely different. Samuel Johnson, for instance, is much more personal in his Latin poetry than he ever is in his English stuff. One of his Latin poems is a little reminiscence of a swimming hole near where he grew up. It’s just a tender little meditative thing. And why could he write that way in Latin but never in English? Because of conventions! One doesn’t write that way in English; that’s what Latin’s for.

Please take a second and savor it: In eighteenth-century Britain, Latin wasn’t a means of escape from the personal—it was a way in. Johnson wrote Latin so he could take off a mask, not so he could put one on.

Pastoral is like that. You do shepherds and sheep and cheese bags and so on, the better to descend from “affairs of state” into the personal. Love, friendship, food, the little swimming hole.

Whoever sits around wondering how in the world pastoral could possibly have achieved (for hundreds and hundreds of years!) such widespread approval doesn’t understand this principle of disguising oneself the better to act naturally.

And so to return to Sannazaro. You have to understand that he showed up fairly late in the game. Like everybody else in the Renaissance, he knew what he was up against. “Why read me, when you could read Virgil?”—big, big question for any fifteenth-, sixteenth-century Italian poet, but especially for somebody like Sannazaro, who sincerely loved Virgil as much as anybody ever did, even as much as Dante had, two hundred years before Sannazaro’s time.

Sannazaro really got it about lacrimae rerum. You know that bit in Virgil’s first eclogue, where there’s a guy whose land has been confiscated by the emperor? The guy is packing up and leaving right this minute, but then there’s the other guy who has been given land by the same decree. The fortunate one comforts the less fortunate, if only for one night. And all through their discourse, the one who’s lost everything declines to rebuke or curse the emperor in any way. (As Ezra Pound says, in a very different context, “The poem is especially prized because [the wronged person] offers no direct reproach.”) Key to the poem’s immense power: the tenderness that the unjustly lucky shows the unjustly wretched. And both leave unsaid the terribleness of it all. To say it again: Sannazaro got this; he knew sadness was where it’s at: the sadness that’s there, no need for words (and it’s a good thing there’s no need, ’cuz the words would probably kill us). He got it—but what could he add?

The true answer is, for the most part, nothing. His “singing contest” and “rural games” chapters are mere facsimiles. He’s in perfect control of the material, it’s all choice Italian: inefficient, slo-mo, heaving with emotion. But it’s nothing new. Then, at the end, something wonderful happens in the narrative, and it changes the meaning of everything.

Arcadia has twelve chapters. At the end of the eleventh chapter, it seems like there’s nowhere else to go. This one shepherd had announced rural games for the one-year anniversary of his mother’s death. Maybe you’ve seen this painting:


Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego, 1637–8.


Yeah, ET IN ARCADIA EGO—the painting (illustrating the beginning of Chapter 11) is the source of that famous tag. The line is not actually in Sannazaro, but it’s supremely in the right vein. Arcadia! Shangri-La! But death is here, too.

Right, so the games happen, prizes are distributed, cue night canopy. You would think the opera’s over, but no. The main character, called Sincero and Sannazaro interchangeably, cannot sleep. He has a bad dream, heavy with symbolism. Someone has destroyed his precious orange tree. Who has done this? Where am I supposed to compose now? The nymphs (or whoever) point to a funeral cypress. He wakes up in a sweat, full of foreboding.

He gets up. He wanders outside. Ah, Arcadia! But it’s no good, because he doesn’t really belong here; it’s not his country. Also, wherever he goes he takes his private grief with him. Also, Arcadia, after all, is not heaven. There’s still death. There’s still failure and shame. A nymph appears and beckons him to follow her.

You’re not sure if he’s dreaming. The landscape becomes liquid. They travel a long way—like in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arcadia is long gone. They go into the hollow earth. They see the source of all rivers, and the contented gods associated with them. Sannazaro is feeling sick. He wants to see his little river, the Sebeto (which is gone now, but which used to run through the middle of Napoli, Sannazaro’s hometown). Everybody around him turns gray, like he’s asking to see his chart and they know he has cancer. They take him to his little river, and here’s what happens. Summary will not suffice:

Thus by degrees we began to see the little ripples of Sebeto; the Nymph,  perceiving that I was rejoicing at this, sent forth a great sigh and turning to me all filled with pity she said: “Now you can make your way by yourself”—and having said this she disappeared, nor did she reveal herself to my eyes again.

I remained in that solitude all fearful and sad, and seeing myself without my guide I would hardly have had the courage to move a step, except that I saw before my eyes my beloved little river. After a brief space drawing near to it, I walked along searching eagerly with my eyes if one might be able to see the source from which that water rose; for at every step its current seemed to be increasing and acquiring still greater impetus. So taking my way along a hidden channel I wandered hither and thither until, arrived at last at a cave hollowed out in the stern rock-face, I found the venerable God sitting on the ground, with his left side leaning on a stone urn that was pouring forth water: which (already in great plenty enough) he had made the more with that which he was continually adding as it rained down from his face, his hair, and the bristles of his dripping beard. His garments seemed to be of a greenish ooze; in his right hand he was holding a slender reed, and on his head a garland woven of rushes and other grasses growing in those very waters: and round about him were his Nymphs all weeping in an unaccustomed murmur, and cast on the ground without order or any dignity they never lifted up their sorrowful faces.

A lamentable spectacle presented itself to my eyes, as I looked upon this; and now I began to be aware within myself of the reason my guide had abandoned me a little before. But finding myself led there, and lacking the confidence to turn back again, without taking further counsel, all sorrowful and full of mistrust I bowed down first to kiss the earth, and then began these words: “O most lambent river, O Monarch of my countryside, O gracious and pleasant Sebeto, that with your clear cold waters refresh my beautiful homeland, may God exalt your condition: may God exalt your condition, O ye Nymphs, the noble offspring of your father: I pray thee, be propitious to my coming; and receive me among your forests with kindness and grace. Let my fortune be content to have led me through diverse chances to this point: now, whether reconciled or sated with my troubles, let her lay down her arms.”

I had not yet finished my speech when a pair of Nymphs detached themselves from that sorrowing band, and coming toward me with tearful faces placed me between them. One of them, with her face held somewhat higher than the other, taking me by the hand led me toward the debouch where that little stream is divided into two parts, the one spreading out over the fields, the other by a hidden route proceeding to the necessities and the ornaments of the city. There having come to a halt she showed me the road, signifying that now the issue lay in my will. Then to make clear to me who they were she said: “This one, whom now it seems that you do not recognize, oppressed as you are by cloudy ignorance, is the beautiful Nymph who laves the beloved nest of your sole Phoenix, whose waters so often have been augmented by your tears, even to the brim: I, who now speak, will straightway be found under the slopes of the mountain where she lies.”—And her saying these words, and her changing into water, and her departure by the hidden way, were one and the same thing.

Reader, I swear to you (even as that Goddess, who has thus far lent me grace for writing this, may grant an immortality to my writings, such as they may be) that I found myself at that moment so desirous of dying, that I would have been content with any manner of death whatever: and fallen into hatred of myself, I cursed the hour that ever I left Arcadia.

Reader, wham. “Fallen into hatred of myself, I cursed the hour that ever I left Arcadia”—in other words, Arcadia, which is not home, which is largely fantasy, which can never be adequate, which does not relieve us of our sorrow one little dot and even instead almost seems to make things worse—Arcadia! Shangri-La!—is still better than facing the actual truth of ourselves: that we have no future, even if we have a future. We are nothing, forget it, it’s over.

The sickening evocation of irrational, eerie shame—this goes way out of bounds of Theocritus and Virgil, let alone slush like Heliodorus and Longus. In Arcadia, the masquerade and the need for it is thematized and made tragic, if I am not greatly mistaken, and this is what Sannazaro had to add to the history of pastoral.

The way I see it, he sorta out-Virgils Virgil, which I think was only possible because he matched Virgil’s special relation to sadness. As far as I know, Jacopo Sannazaro was the last European who did so.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.