What makes the cornfield smile; beneath what star
Maecenas, it is meet to turn the sod
Or marry elm with vine; how tend the steer;
What pains for cattle-keeping, or what proof
Of patient trial serves for thrifty bees; –
Such are my themes.Georgic I Lines 1-6
In the modern age, we have very little time for poetry. More’s the pity. Unless you’re on a journey of spiritual discovery or a bookworm, poetry may even seem unnecessary to your own life. And you would have a point.
The learned elite of society wrote most poetry until recently. Poetry was a pastime for the rich and educated, not the poor and humble. If you remember, Shakespeare was called an “upstart crow” by some of his critics because he was writing poetry that was soundly trouncing the Oxford and Cambridge educated likes of Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene.
So, why should you read Georgics even if poetry doesn’t fit into your life? The answer may actually surprise if not outright shock you.
The Georgics are not about someone named George or about Georgia.
Virgil took his title from the Greek “georgika” which, roughly means “matters relating to farming.” This means the name “George” translates as “farmer” or “earth worker.” As you might expect, Georgics therefore refers to farming. There are four poems in total, each having almost 550 lines, in my translation.
This sounds long to us, but that’s because we’re used to lyric poetry has a fraction of that amount. Compare this to any epic poem, however and you’ll find the four poems of Georgics much easier to manage.
They’re also didactic. Yes, that’s a big fancy word. So, epic poems tell a story. Lyric poems are more musical and can often be set to music. Didactic poems are instructional. Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things is scientific theory set to poetry, for example. Didactic poems are something of a lost art and they aren’t studied that often except by scholar either.
But this is a pity because I think it’s in poems like Georgics that we actually find some of greatest correlations between the past and now.
Come then. and learn what tilth to each belongs
Acoording to their kinds, ye husbandmen,
And tame with culture the wild fruits, lest earth
Lie idle. .Georgic II Lines 35-38
It’s poetry about two things with which we can all sympathize.
Unlike The Aeneid, which is about lofty themes of destiny, perseverence, and virtue, Georgics is about two things: food and hard work. Food because they are about farming, and hard work because Virgil goes into an almost painful detailed account about the balance required to keep the fields fruitful season after season.
Now, who doesn’t sympathize with that? We all need food to eat so we can live another day and we all have to work, sometimes doggedly, in order to afford the food to eat. We can all disagree on destiny, free will, and virtue until we’re blue in the mouth. In fact, we do all the time to the point where we call try to cancel each other.
But we can all agree we need food to eat and jobs to provide us with food to eat and something worthwhile to do with our lives. Even though some like to make both of those things into moral arguments in themselves. For most of us, however, they are facts of life. And nothing matter more at the end of the day than having food on the table and a roof over your head.
This is the thrust of what the Georgics are all about. It’s about the immense skill required to till a field and the hard work it requires bringing in a successful harvest so that people can survive. While few of us today are farmers working the land, we can at least appreciate the delicate balance it takes to keep pace with everything that has to be done for survival.
Because we have our own version of it even if we call it keeping to a schedule, time mastery, or even just getting some planning done.
A few translation recommendations and notes on who Virgil is addressing.
For this post, I have used the James Rhoades translation of Virgil’s Georgics. Rhoades was an Anglo-Irish schoolteacher in the nineteenth century and the language is appropriately archaic. But, it’s what I had in my library and for me, it’s not entirely impossible to read.
However, it may end up being a little too much for some people, well, for most people anyway. So, I would recommend getting David Ferry’s translation. Not only does this have the original Latin on one page for those of you who are more adventurous, the English is neat, unadorned, and understandable.
For most modern readers, this is probably going to be your best bet.
However, if you can find a John Dryden translation and it’s in your budget, get it! I have a copy of Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid, and not only is it understandable, but I found it very hard to put down! There are very few publications out there that have it and most of the copies that are available are “vintage” or “collectable.”
Now, another point of interest is that you’ll see the name Maecenas mentioned in nearly every poem. This is Gauis Maecenas, one of Octavian’s (later Caesar Augustus) advisors. Maecenas was a great patron of the arts and, in his time, patronized both Virgil and Horace. Back then, poets made money if they had a wealthy patron to introduce them around and talk up their work.
Think of this like Jane Austen’s brother Edward subsidizing his sisters at Chawton while Jane edited and published her novels.
Why would Virgil address farming poems to a high-level advisor? We might never know that for certain, but it almost certainly had something to do, in part, about repopulating the Italian countryside with farmers as it had been in the days before the Civil Wars.
Why write about farming anyway?
Part of Virgil’s point in Georgics was to encourage support for and elevate the humble peasant farmer to a place of some honor and a trade of great skill. By doing this, he was hoping to generate enough interest in the countryside for the Augustan government to do something about encouraging repopulation.
Let’s travel back a bit to the 40’s BC. The Roman Republic is in tatters with political infighting, massive poverty, and growing unrest. Senators and other politicians play dirty to get what they want, and some even use the provinces as pawns to advance their own careers instead of caring for the people under their charge. Sound familiar?
Part of the fallout was that the peasants who farmed got pushed out into the cities to find a living. The reasons were various, but it had the effect of emptying the countryside and making more than a few native Italians desperate.
There’s a lot more detail than I can give in this blog post. For more information, I’d direct you to Chester G. Starr’s A History of the Ancient World, for a general overview or Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ. Both have excellent information about the time and are fairly easy to read. Starr’s work even has suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter, most of which refer to the contemporaries of the age themselves.
Why I think modern workers will appreciate the Georgics
I’ve already mentioned the delicate balance required in farming mirrors the delicate balance of a modern life. This is part of it. I think most of us today, overwhelmed by the notifications on our phones, the bills to pay, the technology to upgrade, the people to keep in contact with, and all the other hallmarks of modern life can probably identify with the plight of the ancient farmer.
We may not manually work in the fields, but that doesn’t mean our own labor is any less strenuous, tiring, or skillful. Anymore, one typo can ruin your entire day, particularly if you get internet trolls make snide comments about your all-too human moments. Or claim you’re Literally Hitler if you express an opinion they don’t like.
I think the other allure of Georgics has to do with our rediscovered love of the outdoors and nature. There is rich scenery in these poems that mirrors anything written by Byron or Shelley but with the down-to-earth practicality of Robert Burns.
And we need practical poetry if only to remind us we still have to live. We can’t all have our heads in the clouds while we protest that latest perceived threat to morality or what we think is democracy. Most of us just want to live our lives unbothered. And I think Georgics is perfect for just that.
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