Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Some reflections on Virgil's Georgics

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, farmers--at least those farmers who could read--spent their Sunday afternoons reading from either the Bible or from Virgil's Georgics. That farmers read from the Bible is probably not too surprising. But while the Georgics might be a surprising choice for farmers in terms of its antiquity, it certainly wasn't surprising in terms to its subject: which is, of course, agriculture. It's a little shamefacedly, in fact, that I admit never actually having read through the entire work. I thought that it was finally time to address this lacuna, and so I set about doing so these past few weeks.

And what did I think? Like Virgil's Aeneid--which, I hasten to add, I have read--the Georgics is masterfully, beautifully written. The Georgics isn't simply idyllic and agricultural either. I found that there is a purposefulness to its narrative, with the pastoral beauty and orderliness of the cultivated countryside set against troubling civil unrest and general human dissipation. 

As much as Virgil sings of Bacchus, the "Father of the wine-press," for

all things here
Teem with the bounties of thy hand; for thee
With viny autumn laden blooms the field,
And foams the vintage high with brimming vats

that much Virgil also laments that "Bacchus even to crime hath prompted..." Virgil decries that the bountiful fruits of the cultivated land lead man

with havoc [to fall]
Upon a city and its hapless hearths,
From gems to drink, on Tyrian rugs to lie;
This hoards his wealth and broods o'er buried gold;
One at the rostra stares in blank amaze;
One gaping sits transported by the cheers,
The answering cheers of plebs and senate rolled
Along the benches: bathed in brothers' blood
Men revel, and, all delights of hearth and home
For exile changing, a new country seek
Beneath an alien sun.  

The tension of the Georgics, I think, is between the abundance that comes from hard work and the dissipation that seems inevitably to follow from the enjoyment of that abundance, both in the life of a single man and evidently in the life of an entire society. 

In the last book, in contrast to man's inconstancy, Virgil praises the work of the bees, calling their honey "clear-strained nectar sweet," the "gift from heaven." He lauds their orderliness and the abundance they produce, all the while managing to maintain their stoic discipline as opposed to the vacillating, inconstant efforts of man. Human dynasties rise and fall, but for the bees 

Yet deathless doth the race endure, and still
Perennial stands the fortune of their line,
From grandsire unto grandsire backward told.

Of course, my favorite section is where Virgil talks about the work of the shepherd, for nothing symbolizes imminent pastoral disorder better than the capricious behavior of "pestering goats," among other creatures. Virgil's sage advice:

Hedges too must be woven and all beasts
Barred entrance, chiefly while the leaf is young
And witless of disaster.

The word very word "capricious" is derived from caper, capri, Latin for "goat," and Virgil writes regarding the "venom-bite/ Of their hard teeth, whose gnawing scars the hard stem":

For no offence but this to Bacchus bleeds
The goat at every altar...
Therefore to Bacchus duly will we sing
Meet honour with ancestral hymns, and cates
And dishes bear him; and the doomed goat
Led by the horn shall at the altar stand,
Whose entrails rich on hazel-spits we'll roast.

Indeed, I can identify. But I can also identify with Virgil's rhapsodizing over goats' "plenteous store of milk" and their "plump udders clogged":

The more each dry-wrung udder froths the pail,
More copious soon the teat-pressed torrents flow.

And again,

What they milk at dawn,
Or in the daylight hours, at night they press;
What darkling or at sunset, this ere morn
They bear away in baskets- for to town
The shepherd hies him- or with dash of salt
Just sprinkle, and lay by for winter use.

Ultimately, I suppose, Virgil is saying that the order that we impose on nature through agricultural endeavors, and the abundance that results, is always in danger of impending disaster, not so much from the the capriciousness of nature--be it weather, disease, or the ravaging of goats--as from the capriciousness of ourselves.

"This law of life... by the bees obeyed," in other words, is not always something we ourselves obey.

So, the Georgics is a good read, a meditation on free-will and the inconstancy of human beings ever caught between the enjoyment of our "rich acres" and "poverty's shrewd push." I highly recommend it!

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