Anna Jackson

Reading Virgil in a time of crisis

Working from a text we can say that they are not allowed to travel /
Working from a text we can say this poem may be a kind of betrayal
(Joshua Clover, Red Epic.)

The work I know as Virgil’s Eclogue 1 is all in dialogue
between a refugee and ‘you’, the landholder that he
addresses, ‘you’, the citizen, who rests, while
he, the refugee, cannot, who lives within a pastoral
present tense, while he, the refugee,
is cast out from the past, and bound towards
a future that he cannot reach, ‘you’, the citizen, who can
write poetry, ‘you’, the citizen, who can be heard,
who ‘bids the woods resound’.

I think it was the two voices that kept me coming back
to this eclogue, and some strange tension too
within each verse, between the beauty of the rural scenes
that they describe, and not so much the loss
the refugee describes but more the tears
and questions in the stanzas of our settled
citizen, the compromises he has made
that lets him keep his free-range flocks
and play what songs he will. It makes
me want to sound it out, as if my iambs were
a keyboard in an empty house.

And yet to sit and play when such confusion fills
the countryside, it does feel wrong. When
reading stories of the sinking ships
of refugees, or children in Calais taught to
try to hitch a ride by clinging to
the undercarriage of a truck, when reading
of impossible decisions ordinary families have
to make, it feels a distance more unbridgeable
than that of two millennia in time. I read and reread
Joshua Clover’s Red Epic—which you can
read online—because he’s found a way
to write of postmodernity, of ethics in an age
of capital, of this confusion, and it’s
beautiful. Somehow he can encompass blinded
senses, datatrails abandoned on the
bare flint of our days, along with
omens, hollows, cries, in staggered lines
across a page, and repetitions that do not so much
as take us back as they accrue . . . He’s like
the Virgil who can guide me back to Virgil: ‘We knew
it was time / We knew it was time to leave / We knew
it was time to leave our time’.1

In Virgil’s Eclogue, freedom is hard won—our
citizen has not been born to privilege, but
had to travel to the Capital and found himself faced
with a world so far from pastoral, it could
not be compared, old metaphors had lost their purchase.

‘Today,’ John Berger writes, ‘the infinite is beside
the poor.’ Their struggles for survival, for
respect, against injustice, cannot be
reduced to ‘movements’—actions taken by
collectives in the interests of a common goal. Such
terms ignore, or do not take into account, the countless
individual choices, the encounters, sacrifices, new
desires and griefs and memories the
movement brings about, but which are incidental
to that movement . . . A movement promises a
future victory; the promises of incidental moments
are in contrast instantaneous. Such moments,
Berger writes, are transcendental, are what
Spinoza termed eternal. Moments such as these
are multitudinous as all the stars in all the starry skies.2

What Joshua Clover sees in Ovid’s Metamorphoses
is how we all are subject to invisible, impersonal
forces—‘They go to work on us,’ he writes.
‘The world transforms the body.’3 The world
makes bodies run with tears, two bodies that once
lived as one become one body rooted to the spot, one
ever on the move.

What can a person do? How else to see a future
for the family left behind? Our farmer
citizen in Virgil’s Eclogue makes his application
and the answer’s given instantly: Go feed your
cattle as before, and rear your bulls.

Such applications made today take longer
in the processing. Ali Smith recounts the story
of a refugee from Ghana, who was kidnapped
into slavery as a child, and taken into slavery again
as an adult—if twenty years makes anyone
adult. Brought into the UK to work for
eighteen hours a day, and moved from
one job to the next, he joins a church, begins
to meet good people, tells his story, and is
helped to make an application as a refugee, assured
his case as someone caught in human trafficking
is one that could not be denied. And thus
begins a prison sentence with no end in sight,
and with no rights, no medication, privacy
or education, not even a window
opening outwards to the air.4

And while I sit with Virgil’s Eclogue 1 before me
on the page, the stories still unfold, the
travelling still goes on, from burning Syria
some, from Eritrea others, from Afghanistan,
Iraq, through Libya, and Turkey, Greece,
then Italy, and France, or Britain,
from the whole world sundered far . . . And not
to know if you will ever see your home again,
or what will happen to the carefully
cultivated land you’ve left behind, or to
your students you will not be teaching any more,
or customers you haven’t told you’ll never
see again, or to the animals you know
by personality and name, or if you’ll ever now
be able to make use of your so hard won
university degree, or what will happen to
the painting on the wall that was your
uncle’s once, and in what seems another
lifetime now, was once your own . . .

I do not know what good it does to bring together
Virgil’s Eclogue with these stories from the
newspapers I read today, but stories also go to
work on us, as does the darkening world.
In England during the campaign to leave
the European Union, I’m reminded of
the brilliant counter-factual history novels
that Jo Walton wrote, the ‘Small Change’ series,
in which she imagines life in England
if the nation hadn’t gone to war with Germany
but had accepted Rudolf Hess’s proposal
for a truce, the gradual change in attitude towards
the Jews, the growing powers accepted for
police, increasing insularity and fear of
anyone they might not count as ‘one of us’, while
still the balls went on, and girls dressed
up with pearls, and people pleasantly addressed
each other in the shops, and tied their roses
back, their apples ripening on the trees, their
cheeses placed on freshly laundered cloths . . .5
How gradually the differences began
to change the country, that is how, I think, the novels
chilled me most, and chill me now, as
from the hills the lengthening shadows fall.



[1] Joshua Clover, Red Epic, p.41.

[2] John Berger, ‘Wanting Now’, in Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, London and New York: Verso, 2016, p.2.

[3] Red Epic, p.27.

[4] Ali Smith, ‘The Detainee’s Tale’, in Refugee Tales, ed. David Herd and Anna Pincus, Comma Press, 2016, pp.49–62.

[5] Jo Walton, Farthing (Tor Books, 2006), Ha’penny (Tor Books, 2007) and Half a Crown (Tor Books, 2008).