Vergil‘s eighth Eclogue is a remarkable text. It presents a ‘song battle’ between Damon and Alphesiboeus, two pastoral poets, whose poetry is described in supernatural terms (Verg. ecl. 8.1-5, transl. H. R. Fairclough):
Pastorum musam Damonis et Alphesiboei,
immemor herbarum quos est mirata iuuenca
certantis, quorum stupefactae carmine lynces,
et mutata suos requierunt flumina cursus,
Damonis musam dicemus et Alphesiboei.
The pastoral Muse of Damon and Alphesiboeus, at whose rivalry the heifer marvelled and forgot to graze, at whose song lynxes stood spellbound, and rivers were changed and stayed their current – the Muse of Damon and Alphesiboeus I will sing.
Remarkably, the songs of Damon and Alphesiboeus both feature an iconic, recurring line – a refrain, so to speak.
Damon’s recurring line goes –
Incipe Maenalios mecum, mea tibia, uersus
Begin with me, my flute, a song of Maenalus
And, in variation, at the end of his song:
Desine Maenalios, iam desine, tibia, uersus
Cease, my flute, now cease the song of Maenalus
Alphesiboeus’ recurring line, in turn, –
Ducite ab urbe domum, mea carmina, ducite Daphnim
Bring Daphnis home from town, bring him, my songs
And, again in variation, as a concluding line:
Parcite, ab urbe uenit, iam parcite, carmina, Daphnis
Cease! Daphnis home from town, bring him, my songs
This may not seem at all remarkable from a modern perspective.
We are used to poems and songs structured around recurring elements. They provide us with a sense of order, stability, and structure, motifs around which poets and musicians will unfold and unleash their creativity and imagination.
Within the context of ancient poetry, however, recurring lines and refrains were an absolute exception rather than the rule (or so the surviving evidence would suggest).
Servius, Vergil’s ancient and hitherto unsurpassed commentator, does not fail to notice:
dicitur autem hic versus intercalaris, qui frequenter post aliquantulos interponitur versus, sicut intercalares dies et mensis vocantur, qui interponuntur, ut ratio lunae solisque conveniat.
We call it a ‘leap line‘ (versus intercalaris), when there is a line inserted regularly after a small number of lines, just like we call leap days and months what gets inserted so as to reconcile the logic of the moon and the sun.
The insertion of leap days is a millennia-old practice, designed to synchronise calendars with the course of the solar year and thus to ensure that months always coincide with the exact same season of year.
We may think of leap days as an oddity, as something extraordinary, due to their rareness, just as to Servius’ mind recurring lines in poetry were something extraordinary and rare.
Servius conceptualises the rare use of recurring lines in poetry, interspersed with some regularity in certain intervals, as the equivalent of a leap day (dies intercalaris) or even a leap months (mensis intercalaris): they enforce synchronicity, harmony, and order; they provide utter predictability, in accordance with the grander scheme of things in nature.
But perhaps Servius’ image allows for its own reversal:
What if Leap Day, like a refrain in a song or a poem, could be memorable for its comfortingly recursive nature and its provision of meaning?
What if Leap Day, like a refrain in a song or a poem, could provide us with a theme tune, a sense of overarching structure and stability, amidst the seemingly random flow of everyday life?
What if Leap Day, like a refrain in a song or a poem, could be something enchanting, something to look forward to like an old friend, not just as the odd one out?
It may be worth giving this a thought.