Virgil: Georgics

April 25, 2019

Georgics
Publius Virgilius Maro
Translated from the Latin by David Ferry
(FSG, 2005) [c.29 BC]
xx + 202 p.

Virgil wrote the Georgics a few years after his Eclogues and the two sets of poems share common ground, especially an admiration for rural life. Whereas the Eclogues were structured around rustic characters, the Georgics are much more interested in the nuts and bolts — or, I suppose it would be better to say, the grapes and olives — of farm life, and could be fairly described as outright didactic poems. I was reminded, more than once, of Cato the Elder’s “De agricultura”, not on account of the form, of course, for Virgil is infinitely more elegant, but of the subject matter.

There are four poems, or, it may be better to say, four divisions of one poem. The first is about agriculture: the sowing of crops, anticipation of storms, harvesting. The second is concerned with tree husbandry: types of trees, planting of trees, types of soil, grafting, and harvesting of fruit. The third transitions to the care and breeding of farm animals, both the nobler kind (horses and cows) and the more ignoble (goats, sheep), with an extended section on plague and diseases that can beset herds and flocks. The fourth, and for me the most enjoyable, is about bee-keeping.

We all know Virgil as the author of Aeneid. I must say that few things seem more unlikely than that he, our great epic poet, should, apart from that monumental achievement, be known for writing humble farm poems. It is as though a scriptwriter for a television nature program should then write “Hamlet”. Yet it is apparently so. Probably I am underselling Virgil’s accomplishments in these earlier poems, which I expect are exquisite in the Latin, and in which there is more going on than mere exposition, but, nonetheless, the contrast between this and that is striking.

Further to that point: my handy little Student’s Guide to Classics argues that the Georgics are actually comparable to the Aeneid in their exploration of “optimism about man’s ability to create order and pessimism about the disorder caused by his passions and appetites”. I would concur, at least, with the judgment that the creation of order is a major preoccupation of the poems. I’m unconvinced that the poems are especially focused on “passions and appetites” as sources of disorder; to my mind, they represent disorder as inherent in the natural world, from which order must be wrested.

A feature of these poems that particularly attracted my attention was the interplay in them of the quotidian and the sacred. Virgil may be describing something quite concrete and ordinary, like pruning a vine, but an attending god is rarely far off. Throughout the poems, tales from Greek and Roman mythology are interwoven with technical descriptions of farm management. The effect of this is, of course, to elevate the dignity of the farmer’s work, presided over so attentively by the gods, and also to convert the poems themselves into a celebration of Roman greatness in and through the primary Roman virtues, which since at least the time of Cincinnatus had been rooted in rural exemplars.

The presence of gods and heroes in these poems is especially striking in the fourth Georgic, which contains a long section relating the tale of Aristaeus (the Roman god of bee-keeping) and Proteus, during the course of which Proteus tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was here, in what is a very beautiful interlude, that I heard for the first time in these Georgics the voice of Virgil the epic poet. For all I know, it may have been on the strength of this very section that Virgil was chosen by Augustus to write the Aeneid.

Speaking of Augustus, he is everywhere in these poems. They open and close with references to him, whom Virgil portrays as the great patron of peace, and numerous deferential and laudatory remarks are made about him throughout. Thus the poems have a political dimension that sometimes feels merely sycophantic — emperors will be praised, after all — but sometimes seems more. The fourth Georgic, again, is interesting from this angle: in it, the bees are governed not by a queen but by a king, which makes me wonder whether we are to read this paean to the virtues of the hive as an allegory of the Roman empire? Or could it simply be that Augustan-age melittology was wayward in certain respects?

*

Virgil’s principal influences in these poems are Hesiod and Lucretius, both admired for their careful descriptions of natural phenomena. The Georgics have been read regularly between Virgil’s time and ours, albeit much less widely than has Aeneid. The first English translation was John Dryden’s, in 1697, and the poems enjoyed a heyday (or maybe a hay-day) of popularity in the eighteenth-century, with over 20 English translations published in that century alone. They inspired a modest echo in an English tradition of agricultural poetry, now dead, and were an influence on agrarian political and social movements at around the time of the American founding. The Wikipedia page is quite good at tracing the influence they have had.

It would have been nice to read Dryden’s translation, but for years I’ve had this David Ferry translation on my shelves and I decided the time was ripe to finally take it down. Ferry has rendered the poems into iambic pentameter, giving them a stately feel, and, like the Latin original, does not bother with rhymes. His English, however, is a good deal more verbose than the Latin (which in this edition is printed on the facing page), often running to at least 50% more lines. But this, I believe, is common in translations from Latin, and not counted a fault. I found Ferry quite good, in general, and excellent in the fourth poem, where his lines took on an aptly honey-golden sheen.

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