Arcadia and Acadia – A Meditation – Part I

(This post is dedicated to my old friend Marcel Carpenter with whom, back in our school days in Montreal, I discovered that “nothing leapt in the heart of the Arcadian Youth.”)

At first glance this blog post has almost nothing to do with PEI Heritage. That is because it is mostly about things that happened in Europe. While many people I know regard Prince Edward Island as the Jewel in the Crown, I see it differently. I see a magnificent crown, covered with many jewels, one of which is the Island. All my mature life I have seen the Island story as one of those jewels, cheek and jowl to other stories that are culturally bound to our story, hence my Arcadian memory trip.

In my garden, here in Belle River, from 2004 until 2014, and previous to that, in Charlottetown in the 1980s and ’90s, I had a fountain called a nymphaeum built into my garden wall. A nymphaeum was a feature built into garden walls in Roman times in honour, I suppose, of the nymphs that inhabited the water that streamed out of them. These Roman fountains were surrounded by symbolism in art and sculpture and inscriptions, and in like manner, so was mine. It was like a garden altar. The lion head water spout, for example, was a favourite water feature for many centuries but it also had another meaning connected with various elements in the Catholic Liturgy for Passiontide and the Dead: libera me ab ore leonis – deliver me from the mouth of the lion. In other words, deliver me from death. This prayer is probably pre-Christian. So, on my fountain was this apotropaic device to protect me from an untimely death that would separate me from my earthly delights. Apotropaic is such a lovely word. Look it up.

As well, my fountain was topped with urns that could contain exhilarating wine of celebration or the ashes of death. In between the urns was a planter with Latin words upon it. The words are, Et in Arcadia ego, and are full of meaning which I will now explore.


My Discovery of Arcadia

When I was a schoolboy in the 1950s and ‘60s Latin was compulsory for all four years of high school. This was very much the case at the Catholic Boys School I attended in Montreal. After a year of being introduced to Latin Grammar it was time to start reading the real stuff, in our case, and for the next three years, an anthology of what were considered basic Latin literary texts that would bring a cultured imagination to teenagers. Amazingly a group of us boys found this interesting, even at times exciting, not because of the magic of reading Caesar’s or Ovid’s actual words but in finding a new language in which to insult and tease each other. The first big opportunity came when we looked into the Satires of Juvenal, a late First and Early Second Century Roman poet. These literary works by their very nature made fun of others.

In Book III, Satire VII Juvenal goes on an on complaining about the awful state literature and teaching are in and saying only the Emperor can cause things to improve. One complaint in particular is that teachers of rhetoric were underpaid. They had to listen by the day to unprepared or not very bright students developing the ornate speeches that the Romans so desired of their best orators, and which played an important role in public life. In this Satire Juvenal addresses Vettius who teaches oratory to a lot of not very good students, and who, when asked for payment, say “Why? What have I learned?” He makes one particularly vicious remark concerning a student who can only repeat, over and over again, his piece on the Wars of Hannibal. Juvenal produced this bitter complaint (Translated by Lewis Evans 1889):


Do you teach declamation! Oh what a heart of steel must

Vettius have, when his numerous class kills cruel tyrants!

For all that the boy has just conned over at his seat, he will then

stand up and spout–the same stale theme in the same sing-song.

It is the reproduction of the cabbage that wears out the master’s life.

What is the plea to be urged: what the character of the cause; where the

main point of the case hinges; what shafts may issue from the opposing

party; – this all are anxious to know; but not one is anxious to pay!

“Pay do you ask for? why, what do I know!” The blame, forsooth,

is laid at the teacher’s door, because there is not a spark of energy

in the breast of this scion of Arcadia, who dins his awful

Hannibal into my ears regularly every sixth day.


The Latin phrase which so caught our attention was,

Quod laeva in parte mamillae

Nil salit Arcadio iuveni

which in the clever poetic Latin more or less means “because nothing leaps in the heart of this Arcadian youth.” In Ancient to Mediaeval times mental activity was thought to take place in the heart, hence ideas leap in the heart, not in the brain. The people of Arcadia in Greece were thought to be rather thick and not very bright, so it was a sort of Roman slang to call stupid people “Arcadian.”

From that day forth we identified all the Arcadian youths in our class and even spread our evaluations to other groups in the school. It became part of our smart-ass vocabulary.

That was my introduction to Arcadia. In an atlas I found where it was located in Greece and discovered that in ancient times it was completely land-locked with no access to the sea. Today it has had a piece taken away from another region so that it has access to the Gulf of Argos.

As you can see in this topographical map Arcadia is mostly mountainous with the lower valleys suitable for pasturing sheep and goats. It was a country of shepherds. Farming had to take place on built-up terraces.

In our Latin class we encountered Arcadia again when we studied Vergil’s Eclogues or Bucolics which fall under the classification of Pastoral Poetry. These were Vergil’s first major poetic work and were written in the 40s and 30s BC. They were modelled on poems written by a Greek poet called Theocritus in the Third Century BC and described Arcadia as a land of milk and honey where generous Nature took care of you and love was everywhere. Theocritus had known that the Greek Arcadia was a poor and backward place where life was not easy or good and so modelled his Arcadia on Sicily which was indeed a land of leisure and plenty, not the rocky slopes of the Arcadian topography fit only for goats. Virgil, who never saw the real Arcadia imposed his Theocritan images on the Greek landscape and went cheerfully ahead.

In our class we studied the Second Eclogue which was about the shepherd Corydon who had a terrible crush on his master’s servant, the beautiful Alexis.

Formosum pastor Corydon ardebat Alexin,

delicias domini, nec, quid speraret, habebat.

tantum inter densas, umbrosa cacumina, fago

sadsidue veniebat. ibi haec incondita solus

montibus et silvis studio iactabat inani.

“O crudelis Alexi, nihil mea carmina curas?

nil nostri miserere? mori me denique coges.

And this translates as,

Corydon, the shepherd, was aflame for the fair Alexis, his master’s pet, nor knew he what to hope. As his one solace, he would day by day come among the thick beeches with their shady summits, and there alone in unavailing passion fling these artless strains to the hills and woods: “O cruel Alexis, care you naught for my songs? Have you no pity for me? You will drive me at last to death.” (Translated by H. R. Fairclough)


Imagine giving this translation task to horny post-pubescent adolescent boys. What passions this seemed to condone, and one can only imagine the wild passionate encounters at Cardinal Newman High School, not under the shade of the beech trees but in the shady dark corners of the old building.

I caution you that Arcadia is not mentioned in the Second Eclogue, just some of the things one did there. The most significant mention of Arcadia takes place in the Tenth Eclogue where there is more whining about unrequited love enriched with a broader description of the countryside with mention of specific places. The abbreviated quotation is taken from Wilkins, p.4.

Yet you will be singing, 0 Arcadians, to your hills of this: alone Arcadians are skilled to sing. Ah how softly then may my ashes rest, if your pipe once may tell of my loves. And would God I had been one of you, and yours been the flock I kept or the ripe grapes of my vintage ! . . . Here are chill springs, here soft meadows, 0 Lycoris: here the woodland: here with wasting time I too at thy side would waste away. . . . I will be gone . . . resolved in the woods, among the wild beasts’ dens, to embrace endurance, and to cut my loves on the tender trees; with their growth you, 0 loves, will grow. Meanwhile I will range Maenalus amid the rout of Nymphs, or hunt the keen wild boar; no rigour of cold shall forbid me to encircle Parthenian glades with my hounds. Even now I think I pass among rocks and echoing groves, and delight to send the Cretan arrow spinning from a Parthian bow (31-36, 42-43, and 52-60). Translation by J. W. Mackail.


Arcadia in Art

So that was my introduction to Arcadia, all before I was even eighteen! Somehow, I survived the advances of the shepherd Corydon and went on, in a few years to study Art History, which was to become my great passion in life.

At some point in my study of Late Renaissance/Early Baroque painting I came across this arresting painting by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, nicknamed “il Guercino (1591-1666) because he squinted a lot. He is still known by that name.

It is called, simply, in Latin, Et in Arcadia Ego and was painted around 1618. It is now in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome. It is a fairly small picture, only 30.7 x 35 inches, but it is very powerful, showing the influence of the painter Caravaggio, who had died just 8 years before, with its extreme chiaroscuro – contrasts of light and dark. Guercino would later abandon this moody style and become an austere classical painter of the Baroque.

Two young men, one dark and the other fair (this must symbolise something vital), have emerged from the umbrageous wood and have come across a ruined tomb made out of brick or masonry. On a low pedestal there is a large skull that catches powerfully a beam of light while a mouse hides near its jaw and a large insect – it has never convincingly been identified – is on the cranium above the left eye. On a branch at the top right is something that could be a bird looking on. These symbols are rarely discussed in the literature, and then unsatisfactorily. Barely visible, carved into the side of the base away from the boys, is an inscription in capital letters: ET IN ARCADIA EGO. What does this mean?

Latin is notoriously reluctant to give up its subtleties and one’s first impulse is to translate it as “I too was in Arcadia,” meaning that the speaker had fond memories of the great joys of the Vergilian Arcadia. The speaker seems to tell us that, of all the events in his life, the time spent in Arcadia was the sweetest. That was my impression too, and I thought it a wonderful sentiment. But is this really what the inscription is telling us?

In 1936 the great art historian Erwin Panofsky published a short study called Et in Arcadia Ego: On the Conception of Transience in Poussin and Watteau, which was later published in 1955 as Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition. In this study, full of references to pictures, writing and people related to the subject, Panofsky advances another interpretation, a very powerful one. Looking at the Latin text very closely he postulated that the person speaking was not the one buried in the tomb, but Death himself, so that the inscription now read, “Even I, (Death,) am in Arcadia.” This changes everything around and is most probably the correct interpretation. However, Panofsky’s essay did not prevent various people, before and after him, to continue using the translation where the point of view is that of the fond memories buried in the tomb. Those two traditions are still alive today.


Poussin’s Paintings

In my Art History studies I had already come across two paintings by the same name that were the work of the great French Classical Baroque painter, Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) who lived most of his life in Rome. It is highly likely that Poussin knew Guercino as they moved in the same circles. They were contemporaries. Poussin’s earliest version of the subject is now in the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire and was painted around 1630, a dozen years after Guercino’s effort and vastly different.

Poussin was from the start a classicist and his painting reflects that in many ways. The two shepherds and the girl who come across a beautifully carved Roman style sarcophagus with the inscription on it are dressed in an antique fashion. In the foreground, identifying the location precisely, is a man holding a pot from which water flows. He is a river god, in fact, the river god Alpheios who personifies the river of that name that runs through Western Arcadia. Here there is excited drama in the figures, as if we are viewing a play where the actors are astonished or curious about what they have come upon. You can be sure that they are asking each other what it means. There is the possibility of joy in their excitement.

About ten years later Poussin did another painting of the same subject, but in a much more restrained manner. The picture is now in the Louvre.

This time there are four figures and the agitation found in the Devonshire version has been replaced by study and contemplation about the possible meaning of the words. It is more sober. One of the shepherds, no doubt an accomplished Latinist, has determined that Death is the speaker and they are all appropriately subdued as they contemplate their ultimate fate. Classical balance and restraint are everywhere.

Why, all of a sudden, was there so much interest in Rome in a subject with a Latin title? Why were three painting that we know of produced on the same obscure subject in less than twenty years? There are no convincing explanations that I have ever read, but I suggest this.

Sophisticated urban life, even today, is fascinated by the quality of life – the pastoral – found in the country, where, it is imagined, life is simpler, possibly even sweeter. Think of the vast numbers of foreigners who buy pastoral properties on PEI!

Rome in the Seventeenth Century was a city of utmost sophistication and accomplishment. Is the whole “Et in Arcadia Ego” fascination nothing more than that – the yearning for urban sophisticates to escape to the simple countryside which teemed with classically-inspired villas? I believe that the tendency of most readers – and translators – of that phrase would be instinctively to choose the cheerful meaning. Art and literature display many instances of the latter. For example, when in 1816-17 the great German playwright and poet Geothe published his journal of a trip to Italy, he began it with a German translation of the Latin tag – Auch ich in Arkadien – meaning that he too had been in Arcadia. On the other hand, when King George III saw a painting by Reynolds of two ladies contemplating the inscription, he immediately recognised Death as the speaker. Go figure.


Arcadia in Literature

The Renaissance was also a time when writers turned to Antiquity for inspiration and the theme of Arcadia was explored by poets and other writers. One such writer was the Sicilian Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530) who in the 1480s wrote in Italian a prose poem called Arcadia, which I have only read about, never read. It was not published to his satisfaction until 1505 and told the story of a Sicilian youth, Sincero (the poet himself), who in a love crisis flees to Arcadia to rediscover the sweetness of life and loving in the ancient world of the shepherds as described by Virgil. Sannazaro wanted to improve the status of Italian as a literary language and he enriched it with all sorts of classical references and elaborate language that would recreate the atmosphere and melancholy of the Latin authors. I understand that this causes all sorts of difficulties to those who would translate the work into and English and perhaps that is the reason why a complete English translation was not produced until 1966 when Ralph Nash published Arcadia and Piscatorial Eclogues (the latter in Latin). Sadly I do not have a copy as the book is now very scarce, costing over $300 on the rare book market. There is a good article on Sannazaro in Wikipedia where you can find a summary of Arcadia and I provide the link below.

In the article is this reproduction of the wonderful 1514-18 portrait by Titian of the writer which is now in the Royal Collection.


Around 1585 the English poet and adventurer Sir Philip Sidney wrote The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, known simply as Arcadia. It is an endless prose pastoral romance that goes on and on in courtly language about all sorts of amatory things with the main theme of ideal love in Arcadia. I read it when I was young and never thought it would end. Here is a fine portrait in the National Portrait Gallery by an unknown artist of Sir Philip Sydney.


We see that in the time of the Renaissance and the years that followed there was a considerable preoccupation with the theme of Arcadia in European culture. We should then not be surprised that the explorer Verrazano, a Florentine in the employ of the the French king Francis I who would introduce the ideals of the Renaissance to his country, would, upon seeing a particularly attractive area along the the coast of Virginia should, in his educated enthusiasm, name it Arcadia.


Arcadian Landscape

When Sir Philip Sydney wrote his Arcadia for the Countess of Pembroke it was for a very good reason. The Earls of Pembroke, for over a century, in their vast estates in Wiltshire, dreamed of living in a lost beautiful world filled with happiness. In every possible way they used their resources and the land they owned to create a New Arcadia, particularly at Wilton, where their numerous estates spread over thousands of acres. It is a fascinating story that has been told in detail by Adam Nicolson in his book, Arcadia: The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England. I quote the first paragraph of the first chapter of the book, called “Arcadianism in Renaissance England” so that you may one day be tempted to read it and discover how an intellectual dream of a world lost in the mists of Classical Antiquity would be revived and eventually lead to the creation of gardens that foreshadowed one of Britain’s greatest contributions to the world in the next centuries – the Picturesque landscape garden.

ENGLAND IN the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries dreamed of a lost world, an ideal and unapproachable realm of bliss and beauty. That realm had a name — Arcadia — and this book addresses the Arcadian ideal in three connected dimensions: across a long century — the arc of the English Renaissance from its birth in the 1520s to its death in the 1640s; through a family — the Earls of Pembroke, their wives and children, who were in the grip of that ideal over three generations, and whose standing, influence, wealth and appetite for beauty set them at the heart of English culture; and in a place — the great Pembroke estates at Wilton, spreading over 50,000 acres of the Wiltshire downs, a great house, its garden, many manors, villages, parks and hunting grounds in which something of the theatre of Arcadia could be played out. It is the story of a forgotten idealism flowering and then collapsing into the pain and brutality of civil war on the banks of a trout-filled Wiltshire chalkstream.

The Arcadian vision of the landscape of beauty and bliss would find its greatest expression in the landscape garden movement that in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries would transform all the Baroque formal classical gardens of the nation into a picturesque vision that seemed, through vast planning and artifice, to bring a picture of rural perfection right up to the door of the great country houses that proliferated during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The author of many of these gardens, and indeed their essential style, was Lancelot  nicknamed “Capability” Brown.

Few of his gardens remain untouched today because the estates they were planned for no longer exist in their original forms. The great garden at Stourhead in Wiltshire, which required changing the course and volume of the river, and the moving of hills to create the perfect vista, is perhaps the most spectacular example of the Brown vision, even though others have added to it after his time.

We can get a glimpse of the Brown dream for integrating, wilderness, water, farmland and a stately home though in this much later 1816 painting of Wivenhoe Park in Essex by John Constable.

If you are interested in the birth of the English landscape garden you can do no better than read The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape, by Tim Richardson. There are hundreds of books on the subject and in the reference section I have listed several that have given me particular pleasure.

The English Renaissance vision of Arcadia has survived in its many great country gardens, many of which are open to the public. Naturally, over time, the gardens have grown to maturity and the picture they were meant to represent was lost, but later generations cut and pruned and planted and added imitation classical architecture such as bridges and temples of various kinds so that what you saw looked like something painted by Claude Lorraine, mentioned earlier in this post. In time this led to paintings and the landscape itself being called “Picturesque” – a whole movement in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century art. Here is a painting by Claude in the Louvre and dating from 1639. It is called “The Village Fair.” It was this sort of picture, eagerly collected by the English, that inspired these Arcadian gardens.


I Visit Arcadia

In 1979 I had the opportunity to study in Greece where I received very extensive training in Greek topography. I had the opportunity to visit all the major archaeological sites and museums in the country and to explore on foot the most significant landscapes. To my intense joy I was able to visit a number of sites in Arcadia and to view the rugged countryside for myself. One of the places I visited was the temple of Apollo Epicurios at Bassae, which in ancient times was part of Arcadia.

The temple, one of the least known and hard to get to, was dedicated to Apollo the god of the sun and Apollo the Healer and built in the middle of the 5th Century BC. The style is early Doric, the interior columns are archaic Ionic, and the column supporting the wall leading into the adyton or sacred room where the cult statue was kept is topped by the oldest Corinthian capital ever discovered. A modern copy, coloured in the ancient fashion, was placed in the Fellows’ Dining Hall, Gonville and Caius College, at Cambridge University, by John Simpson Architects. I show you a photo because it is so rare and unique at that time in the development of the Greek orders. And it was carved in Arcadia!

Bassae is in an earthquake zone and the temple has been badly damaged over the millennia. Today it is covered by a huge tent as restoration work continues.

If seeing this secluded temple were not enough, I was given the opportunity to engage on the longest walk in my life, about 15-20 kilometres north of Bassae, through a couple of small mountain passes to the tiny village of Andritsaina where I spent the night.

We never once used a road or path, but following a route marked with splashes of red paint by the clever Swiss, we finally reached the village of Andritsaina where, in a little square, out of a great oak tree, bubbled a fountain through a spout put there centuries before. My friends and I marvelled while the elders sitting about sipping ouzo stared at us in amusement.

Here is my journal entry for July 16, 1979. It records my ecstasy of walking through an Arcadia that seemed not to have changed since antiquity. I left my camera with my things in the bus and so was not distracted by the urgency of taking photographs, something which destroys the essence of sight-seeing.

This afternoon we drove up to the temple of Apollo at Bassae and as the sun was slanting down in the sky, walked home to Andritsaina across the mountains and valleys. It took us two-and-one-half-hours. It was probably the most beautiful and most pleasurable walk I have ever had in my life. As we descended into the valley beyond the temple, we encountered peasants returning after harvesting the terraces, their donkeys laden with barley and other green things. The very old women rode. All along the valley were carefully planted terraces of golden cereal. In some parts flocks of goats were pastured, their bells filling the place with variously pitched tinkling sounds.

As we moved further off the beaten track, we climbed a ridge and saw a stream gleam silver in the bottom of the valley, about 800 feet below. There were lizards scurrying all over the place while cicadas and grasshoppers criss-crossed the path with their mad leaps. Wild holly grew in profusion along with an incredible variety of thistles. On one large purple-headed thistle bloom I saw a black and white butterfly, half a dozen pale green stink bugs and a large number of ants all doing something intimate to the flower. There were oaks and plane trees, pine trees and even wild pear. In some shady valley bottoms streams flowed gently, but the surrounding gorge and the erosion showed clearly how violent these spring and fall torrents could be.

Along the way I plucked an oak leaf off a tree as I went by and when I got home I framed it and hung it in my study where it has remained ever since – a daily, tangible reminder of my time in Arcadia.

I even began to collect art about Arcadia. My collection did not progress very far because of the paucity of material available, but I did buy this grotesque satire on the subject by the late Victorian artist Aubrey Beardsley which dates from 1896.

This hung on my walls for years until it began to lose its charm because of the intensity of Guercino’s image that was more and more claiming my attention. I was never able to find a decent print of the Guercino work with which to replace it.


My Fountain

Until a few years ago when its base rotted and a gale blew the whole structure down into the ditch, my garden was dominated by the fountain illustrated at the beginning of this section. Along the top, flanked by urns (and occasionally my cat Filippina) was a planter with those enigmatic words on it in raised capitals.

A sickle, also a very ancient symbol of death which I came upon while digging a garden bed, had its handle restored and was placed, perhaps unnecessarily, on top of the words.

For many years I have been conscious of the beauty that surrounded me in the various places I have lived, and can say with the unskilled Latinists, that I too was in beautiful Arcadia. At the same time the awareness that Death was waiting to take it all away was with me equally, so the words hit me powerfully in two ways. I live both meanings.

I have told you this very disjointed and segmental story about my discovery of Arcadia at a very early age, and of the inscription, Et in Arcadia Ego, just a few years later when I was in my twenties and how it has stayed with me visible in the symbolism that punctuates my life.

There is another reason why Arcadia stuck with me so closely. My maternal ancestors were Acadians and their ancestors came from Acadia to Ile St. Jean in the Eighteenth Century. At the time I was pursuing my studies of the Greek Arcadia I realised that my French ancestors, centuries before, had left France and crossed the Atlantic to settle in a large area that had been named Arcadia, then simplified to Acadia, at about the time the paintings of Guercino and Poussin were being created.

This realisation intensified, and I saw that it was the sweetness of the Arcadian story of a good life that might be found there that had lured them to this land in the first place. On the other hand, it was the sadness of Death’s presence, even in Acadia, that had caused them to lose it all just 150 years later.


I will talk about that story in Part II of this post – how Arcadia in the new world became Acadia and how the bitter end, always a likely threat in that place, had come and taken it all away in 1755 and 1758.



Brown, Jane, Lancelot Capability Brown: The Omnipotent Magician 1716-1783, Pimlico, London, 2012.

Chambers, Douglas D. C., The Planters of the English Landscape Garden, Yale, New Haven, 1993.

____________________ Georgian Arcadia: Architecture for the Park and Garden, An Exhibition to mark the Golden Jubilee of the Georgian Group, London, 1987.

Jackson-Stops, Gervase, An English Arcadia 1600-1990, The American Institute of Architects Press, Washington DC, 1991.

Jacques, David, Georgian Gardens: The Reign of Nature, Batsford Ltd., London, 1990.

Juvenal, Satires, Book III, VII.

Mowl, Timothy, Gentlemen & Players: Gardeners of the English Landscape, Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire, 2008.

Nash, Ralph, Jacopo SannazaroArcadia and Piscatorial Eclogues, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1966.

Nicolson, Adam, Arcadia: The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England, Harper Perennial, London, 2008.

Panofsky, Erwin, “Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition”, pp. 295-320 and Figures 89-95 in Meaning in the Visual Arts, Doubleday Archer Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y., 1955.

Porter, Reginald, Journal of a Trip to Greece, unpublished manuscript, 1979.

Richardson, Tim, The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape, Bantam Press, London, 2007.

Strong, Roy, Visions of England: Or Why We Still Dream of a Place in the Country, Vintage Books, London, 2012.

Vergil, Eclogues, II.

Wilkins, Ernest Hatch, “Arcadia in America,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 101, No. 1, 1957.