Et in Arcadia ego

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The Latin phrase Et in Arcadia ego translates as ‘Even in Arcadia I [am present]’. Arcadia is a region in the Peloponnese (southern Greece), in reality rugged and barren, but idealised in classical literature as a rural paradise in which shepherds and shepherdesses tend their flocks and fill their leisure hours with music-making. The words Et in Arcadia ego are to be understood as spoken by Death personified or by someone who has died, and so the phrase serves as a memento mori, a reminder that, however pleasant our circumstances, death may be close by, waiting to strike us down.

The phrase Et in Arcadia ego has its origin in one of Virgil’s Eclogues, the Roman poet’s collection of poems set in the rural idyll of Arcadia, though the phrase itself is not to be found in any of the poems. In Eclogue V the shepherd Mopsus entertains his companion, Menalcas, by singing of the death of the shepherd Daphnis, recalling the instructions given by Daphnis about his tomb in the lines

Et tumulum facite, et tumulo superaddite carmen/’Daphnis ego in silvis, hinc usque ad sidera notus/Formosi pecoris custos formosior ipse’ (Eclogue V, 42-44).

(And make a tomb, and add these lines to the tomb:’I am Daphnis who lived in the woods, famed from here to the stars, of the lovely flock myself the lovelier guardian.’)

The scene described by Virgil has been the subject of a number of well-known paintings with the title Et in Arcadia ego. One by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666)), also known as The Arcadian Shepherds, painted in 1618-22 and now in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Rome, represents two young shepherds gazing at a skull, set on a stone block and inscribed Et in Arcadia ego; while the two paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) represent a group of shepherds and shepherdesses gathered around a simple tomb: the earlier of these, painted in 1627, is now at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, while the later, painted in 1637-8 and also known as Les bergers d’Arcadie, is in the Musée du Louvre in Paris.

Et in Arcadia ego is also the title given by Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) to Book One of his novel Brideshead Revisited (1945). In this part of the novel Charles Ryder, its central character, tells of the idyllic first months of his passionate but ultimately doomed friendship with the aristocratic Sebastian Flyte.