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The Georgics (//; Latin: Georgica [ɡeˈoːrɡɪka]) is a poem by Latin poet Virgil, likely published in 29 BC. As the name suggests (from the Greek word γεωργικά, geōrgika, i.e. "agricultural (things)") the subject of the poem is agriculture; but far from being an example of peaceful rural poetry, it is a work characterized by tensions in both theme and purpose.
The Georgics is considered Virgil's second major work, following his Eclogues and preceding the Aeneid. The poem draws on a variety of prior sources and has influenced many later authors from antiquity to the present.
The work consists of 2,188 hexametric verses divided into four books. The yearly timings by the rising and setting of particular stars were valid for the precession epoch of Virgil's time, and so are not always valid now.
Virgil begins his poem with a summary of the four books, followed by a prayer to various agricultural deities as well as Augustus himself. It takes as its model the work on farming by Varro, but differs from it in important ways. Numerous technical passages fill out the first half of Book 1; of particular interest are lines 160–175, where Virgil describes the plow. In the succession of ages, whose model is ultimately Hesiod, the age of Jupiter and its relation to the golden age and the current age of man are crafted with deliberate tension. Of chief importance is the contribution of labor to the success or failure of mankind’s endeavors, agricultural or otherwise. The book comes to one climax with the description of a great storm in lines 311–50, which brings all of man’s efforts to naught. After detailing various weather-signs, Virgil ends with an enumeration of the portents associated with Caesar’s assassination and civil war; only Octavian offers any hope of salvation.
Prominent themes of the second book include agriculture as man's struggle against a hostile natural world, often described in violent terms, and the ages of Saturn and Jupiter. Like the first book, it begins with a poem addressing the divinities associated with the matters about to be discussed: viticulture, trees, and the olive. In the next hundred lines Virgil treats forest and fruit trees. Their propagation and growth are described in detail, with a contrast drawn between methods that are natural and those that require human intervention. Three sections on grafting are of particular interest: presented as marvels of man’s alteration of nature, many of the examples Virgil gives are unlikely or impossible. Also included is a catalogue of the world's trees, set forth in rapid succession, and other products of various lands. Perhaps the most famous passage of the poem, the Laudes Italiae or Praises of Italy, is introduced by way of a comparison with foreign marvels: despite all of those, no land is as praiseworthy as Italy. A point of cultural interest is a reference to Ascra in line 176, which an ancient reader would have known as the hometown of Hesiod. Next comes the care of vines, culminating in a vivid scene of their destruction by fire; then advice on when to plant vines, and therein the other famous passage of the second book, the Praises of Spring. These depict the growth and beauty that accompany spring's arrival. The poet then returns to didactic narrative with yet more on vines, emphasizing their fragility and laboriousness. A warning about animal damage provides occasion for an explanation of why goats are sacrificed to Bacchus. The olive tree is then presented in contrast to the vine: it requires little effort on the part of the farmer. The next subject, at last turning away from the vine, is other kinds of trees: those that produce fruit and those that have useful wood. Then Virgil again returns to grapevines, recalling the myth of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs in a passage known as the Vituperation of Vines. The remainder of the book is devoted to extolling the simple country life over the corruptness of the city.
The third book is chiefly and ostensibly concerned with animal husbandry. It consists of two principal parts, the first half is devoted to the selection of breed stock and the breeding of horses and cattle. It concludes with a description of the furor induced in all animals by sexual desire. The second half of the book is devoted to the care and protection of sheep and goats and their byproducts. It concludes with a description of the havoc and devastation caused by a plague in Noricum. Both halves begin with a short prologue called a proem. The poems invoke Greek and Italian gods and address such issues as Virgil's intention to honor both Caesar and his patron Maecenas, as well as his lofty poetic aspirations and the difficulty of the material to follow. Many have observed the parallels between the dramatic endings of each half of this book and the irresistible power of their respective themes of love and death.
Book four, a tonal counterpart to Book two, is divided approximately in half; the first half (1–280) is didactic and deals with the life and habits of bees, supposedly a model for human society. Bees resemble man in that they labor, are devoted to a king and give their lives for the sake of the community, but they lack the arts and love. In spite of their labor the bees perish and the entire colony dies. The restoration of the bees is accomplished by bugonia, spontaneous rebirth from the carcass of an ox. This process is described twice in the second half (281–568) and frames the Aristaeus epyllion beginning at line 315. The tone of the book changes from didactic to epic and elegiac in this epyllion, which contains within it the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Aristaeus, after losing his bees, descends to the home of his mother, the nymph Cyrene, where he is given instructions on how to restore his colonies. He must capture the seer, Proteus, and force him to reveal which divine spirit he angered and how to restore his bee colonies. After binding Proteus (who changes into many forms to no avail), Aristaeus is told by the seer that he angered the nymphs by causing the death of the nymph Eurydice, wife of Orpheus. Proteus describes the descent of Orpheus into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice, the backward look that caused her return to Tartarus, and at last Orpheus' death at the hands of the Ciconian women. Book four concludes with an eight-line sphragis or seal in which Virgil contrasts his life of poetry with that of Octavian the general.
Virgil's model for composing a didactic poem in hexameters is the archaic Greek poet Hesiod, whose poem Works and Days shares with the Georgics the themes of man's relationship to the land and the importance of hard work. The Hellenistic poet Nicander's lost Georgics may also be an important influence. Virgil used other Greek writers as models and sources, some for technical information, including the Hellenistic poet Aratus for astronomy and meteorology, Nicander for information about snakes, the philosopher Aristotle for zoology, and Aristotle's student Theophrastus for botany, and others, such as the Hellenistic poet Callimachus for poetic and stylistic considerations. The Greek literary tradition from Homer on also serves as an important source for Virgil's use of mythological detail and digression.
Lucretius' De Rerum Natura serves as Virgil's primary Latin model in terms of genre and meter. Many passages from Virgil's poetry are indebted to Lucretius: the plague section of Book 3 takes as its model the plague of Athens that closes the De Rerum Natura. Virgil is also indebted to Ennius, who, along with Lucretius, naturalized hexameter verse in Latin. Virgil often uses language characteristic of Ennius to give his poetry an archaic quality. The intriguing idea has been put forth by one scholar that Virgil also drew on the rustic songs and speech patterns of Italy at certain points in his poem, to give portions of the work a distinct, Italian character. Virgil draws on the neoteric poets at times, and Catullus Carmen 64 very likely had a large impact on the epyllion of Aristaeus that ends the Georgics 4. Virgil's extensive knowledge and skillful integration of his models is central to the success of different portions of the work and the poem as a whole.
The two predominant philosophical schools in Rome during Virgil's lifetime were Stoicism and Epicureanism. Of these two, the Epicurean strain is predominant not only in the Georgics but also in Virgil's social and intellectual milieu. Varius Rufus, a close friend of Virgil and the man who published the Aeneid after Virgil's death, had Epicurean tastes, as did Horace and his patron Maecenas.
The philosophical text with the greatest influence on the Georgics as a whole was Lucretius' Epicurean epic De Rerum Natura. G. B. Conte notes, citing the programmatic statement in Georgics 2.490–502, which draws from De Rerum Natura 1.78–9, "the basic impulse for the Georgics came from a dialogue with Lucretius." Likewise, David West remarks in his discussion of the plague in the third book, Virgil is "saturated with the poetry of Lucretius, and its words, phrases, thought and rhythms have merged in his mind, and become transmuted into an original work of poetic art."
Beginning with Caesar's assassination in 44 BC and ending with Octavian's victory over Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC, Rome had been engaged in a series of almost constant civil wars. After almost 15 years of political and social upheaval, Octavian, the sole surviving member of the Second Triumvirate, became firmly established as the new leader of the Roman world. Under Octavian, Rome enjoyed a long period of relative peace and prosperity. However, Octavian's victory at Actium also sounded the death knell of the Republic. With Octavian as the sole ruler of the Roman world, the Roman Empire was born.
It was during this period, and against this backdrop of civil war, that Virgil composed the Georgics. While not containing any overtly political passages, politics are not absent from the Georgics. Not only is Octavian addressed in the poem both directly and indirectly, but the poem also contains several passages that include references and images that could be interpreted as political, such as the description of the plague in Book 3 and Virgil's famous description of bee society in Book 4. It is impossible to know whether or not these references and images were intended to be seen as political in nature, but it would not be inconceivable that Virgil was in some way influenced by the years of civil war. Whether they were intentional or not, if we believe Suetonius, these references did not seem to trouble Octavian, to whom Virgil is said to have recited the Georgics in 29 BC. We can be fairly sure that if Octavian had been displeased by these references, they would not have been included in the published poem.
A comment by the Virgilian commentator Servius, that the middle to the end of the fourth book contained a large series of praises for Cornelius Gallus (laudes Galli means "praises of Gallus" in Latin), has spurred much scholarly debate. Servius tells us that after Gallus had fallen out of favor, Virgil replaced the praises of Gallus with the Orpheus episode. Those supporting Servius see the Orpheus episode as an unpolished, weak episode, and point out that it is unlike anything else in the Georgics in that it radically departs from the didactic mode that we see throughout, rendering it an illogical, awkward insertion. Indeed, the features of the episode are unique; it is an epyllion that engages mythological material. The episode does not further the narrative and has no immediately apparent relevance to Virgil's topic. The difficult, open-ended conclusion seems to confirm this interpretation.
In a highly influential article Anderson debunked this view, and it is now generally believed that there were not Laudes Galli and that the Orpheus episode is original. Generally, arguments against the view above question Servius' reliability, citing the possibility that he confused the end of the Georgics with the end of the Eclogues, which does make mention of Gallus. Further, they question its validity based on chronological evidence: the Georgics would have been finished a number of years before the disgrace and suicide of Gallus, and so one would expect more evidence of an alternative version of the end of the poem—or at least more sources mentioning it. Instead, the Orpheus episode is here understood as an integral part of the poem that articulates or encapsulates its ethos by reinforcing many ideas or reintroducing and problematizing tensions voiced throughout the text. The range of scholarship and interpretations offered is vast, and the arguments range from optimistic or pessimistic readings of the poem to notions of labor, Epicureanism, and the relationship between man and nature.
Within Virgil's later epic work the Aeneid, there are some 51 lines that are recycled, either whole or in part, from the Georgics. There is some debate whether these repetitions are (1) intrusions within the text of later scribes and editors, (2) indications pointing toward the level of incompleteness of the Aeneid, or (3) deliberate repetitions made by the poet, pointing toward meaningful areas of contact between the two poems. As a careful study by Ward Briggs goes a long way to show, the repetition of lines in the Georgics and the Aeneid is probably an intentional move made by Virgil, a poet given to a highly allusive style, not, evidently, to the exclusion of his own previous writings. Indeed, Virgil incorporates full lines in the Georgics of his earliest work, the Eclogues, although the number of repetitions is much smaller (only 8) and it does not appear that any one line was reduplicated in all three of his works.
The repetitions of material from the Georgics in the Aeneid vary in their length and degree of alteration. Some of the less exact, single-line reduplications may very well show a nodding Virgil or scribal interpolation. The extended repetitions, however, show some interesting patterns. In about half the cases, technical, agrarian descriptions are adapted into epic similes. This is fitting, as the stuff of many epic similes is rooted in the natural and domestic worlds from which epic heroes are cut off. Virgil shows his technical expertise by recontextualizing identical lines to produce meanings that are different, or inverted from their initial meaning in the Georgics. Additionally, some of these reproduced lines are themselves adapted from works by Virgil's earlier literary models, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica, Ennius' Annals, and Lucretius' On the Nature of Things. With a single line or couplet, Virgil links (or distances), expands (or collapses) themes of various texts treating various subjects to create an Aeneid that is a rich tapestry of literary influence, including his own.
For a full listing of all the repetitions found within the Aeneid and corresponding line numbers in the Georgics, see Briggs, W. Ward, 1982. "Lines Repeated from the Georgics in the Aeneid." Classical Journal. 77: 130–147. Also Briggs, W. Ward, 1980, Narrative and Simile from the Georgics in the Aeneid (Leiden: Brill).
The work on Georgics was launched when agriculture had become a science and Varro had already published his Res rusticae, on which Virgil relied as a source—a fact already recognized by the commentator Servius. Virgil’s scholarship on his predecessors produced an extensive literary reaction by the following generations of authors. Seneca's account that "Virgil ... aimed, not to teach the farmer, but to please the reader," underlines that Virgil's poetic and philosophic themes were abounding in his hexameters (Sen., Moral Letter 86.15).
John Dryden’s 1697 poetic translation of Virgil's Georgics sparked a renewed interest in agricultural poetry and country life amongst the more educated classes during the 18th century. In the same year, the young Joseph Addison published his “Essay on Virgil’s Georgics”. In his eyes Virgil’s poem seemed the principal model for this genre, which he defined as “some part of the science of husbandry, put into a pleasing dress and set off with all the beauties and embellishments of poetry”. In the context of the 18th century, however, interest in the georgic, or the choice of it as a model for independent works, was “profoundly political”, recognising an affinity with Virgil’s treatment of rural subjects after the social and political disruptions through which he had lived. The tone of Virgil’s work represented a longing for the “creation of order out of disorder” to which the Roman Augustan age succeeded, much as the British Augustan Age emerged from the social ferment and civil strife of the 17th century. The cultured of a later age were quick to see the parallel, but there was also an altered emphasis. Whereas for Virgil there was an antithesis between town life and country simplicity, in the view of the gentry of the 18th century city and country were interdependent. Those who created specialised georgics of their own considered the commodities about which they wrote as items of trade that contributed to both local and national prosperity. For Roman citizens, farming was carried out in the service of the capital; for Britons the empire was consolidated as the result of mercantile enterprise and such commodities contributed to the general benefit.
A critic has pointed out that “the British Library holds no fewer than twenty translations of the Georgics from [the 18th century] period; of these, eight are separately published translations of the Georgics alone. Several of these translations, such as Dryden's, were reprinted regularly throughout the century. Also noteworthy is the fact that the brisk rate of new translations continued into the early decades of the nineteenth century, with 1808 as a kind of annus mirabilis, when three new versions appeared.” Some among these, like Dryden’s and the Earl of Lauderdale’s (1709), had primarily poetic aims. Other translators were clergymen amateurs (Thomas Nevile, Cambridge 1767) or, “translated into English prose”, had school use in mind (Joseph Davidson, London 1743). William Sotheby went on to place his acclaimed literary version of 1800 in the context of others across Europe when he reissued it in the sumptuous folio edition Georgica Publii Virgilii Maronis Hexaglotta (London, 1827). There it was accompanied by versions in Italian by Gian-Francesco Soave (1765), in Spanish by Juan de Guzmán (1768), in French by Jacques Delille (1769), and in German by Johann Heinrich Voss (1789).
Dutch influence on English farming also paved a way for the poem’s rebirth, since Roman farming practices still prevailed in the Netherlands and were sustained there by Joost van den Vondel’s prose translation of the Georgics into Dutch (1646). English farmers too attempted to imitate what they thought were genuine Virgilian agricultural techniques. In 1724 the poet William Benson wrote, "There is more of Virgil’s husbandry in England at this instant than in Italy itself." Among those translators who aimed to establish Virgil’s up-to-date farming credentials was James Hamilton, whose prose translation of Virgil’s work was “published with such notes and reflexions as make him appear to have wrote like an excellent Farmer” (Edinburgh, 1742). This aspiration was supported by the assertion that, to make a proper translation, agricultural experience was a prerequisite – and for the lack of which, in the view of William Benson, Dryden’s version was disqualified. That Robert Hoblyn had practical experience as a farmer was a qualification he considered the guarantee of his 1825 blank verse translation of the first book of the Georgics; and even in modern times it was made a commendation of Peter Fallon’s 2004 version that he is “both a poet and a farmer, uniquely suited to translating this poem”. However, Hoblyn could only support his stance at this date by interpolation and special pleading. Throughout Europe, Virgilian-style farming manuals were giving way to the agricultural revolution and their use was supplanted by scientific data, technical graphs and statistics.
English poets wrote their own Virgilian styled georgics and country themed pieces with an appreciation of the rustic arts and the happiness of life on the country estate. Among them were poems directed to specialised subjects like John Philips’s Cyder (1708), Christopher Smart’s The Hop-Garden (1752) and John Dyer’s The Fleece (1757). These practical manuals were, unlike most translations of Virgil at the time, written in Miltonic blank verse; the two former stretched to only two sections, while the latter was in four, like its Virgilian model. James Grainger went on to create in his four-part The Sugar Cane (1764) a “West-India georgic”, spreading the scope of this form into the Caribbean with the British colonial enterprise. Such works were joined at the end of the century by Jacques Delille’s L'Homme des champs, ou les Géorgiques françaises (Strasbourg, 1800), a translation of which by John Maunde as The Rural Philosopher: or French Georgics, a didactic poem was published in London in 1801 and in the USA in 1804. In the following century there appeared in Britain Vita Sackville-West’s The Land (1926). This however, followed the course of the seasons through its four books and balanced rural know-how with celebratory description in the mode of Georgian Poetry.
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