Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1674
Vergil’s Georgics, a long poetic work in four sections, was written at the request of the poet’s patron, Maecenas, to bolster the Emperor Augustus’s agricultural policy. It was essential to the progress of the Roman nation that farming be seen as a worthy and patriotic occupation for soldiers returning from military campaigns, and Vergil’s work glorifies many aspects of country life. His poem is quite remarkable, for in it he manages to provide a considerable amount of what was, in his day, accurate information on the cultivation of crops and the care of animals, while maintaining a lofty tone that is far from the prosaic quality of the subject matter.
Vergil uses mythology extremely effectively, invoking the gods traditionally associated with agriculture at the beginning of each section and describing such ordinary phenomena as spring rains in metaphorical terms; the rain is Aether, the atmosphere’s embrace of his wife, the earth. By referring to familiar deities, Vergil lifts details of the weather and conditions of the soil far above the realm of the mundane. His metaphorical language, his use of epic similes, and his references to the greatness of his country also contribute to making the Georgics fine poetry.
Each of the four sections deals with a specific problem of farming, but each also has a number of digressions that add interest and grandeur to the work as a whole. The first Georgic begins with a long invocation to the deities who control the growth of grain, vines, and olives and a special prayer to Julius Caesar, who has become a new divinity, with his own place among the constellations. The body of this section is devoted to the plowing, planting, and harvesting of crops and to the helpful knowledge that can be gained by study of the stars. Practical advice on the best time to plow and sow, on crop rotation, on fertilizing the soil, and on the tools needed by the farmer is enlivened by a majestic description of a storm, brief vignettes of farm life, and a description of the worship of the goddess Ceres at harvest time. A discussion of the changing appearance of the sun under different weather conditions leads to a description of the eclipse that was one of the disastrous omens that appeared at the time of the assassination of Julius Caesar. The conclusion of this section is a prayer that Augustus, Rome’s new champion, may bring peace to the nation and allow farmers to return from the battlefield to their own lands.
The cultivation of the vine and the olive, staples of the Italian economy, is the central theme of the second Georgic, and Vergil makes the appropriate invocation to Bacchus, the wine god, as well as to the poet’s patron, as this part of the poem opens. Perhaps the most memorable passages here are the poet’s lines in praise of Italy, in which he cites the special virtues of each part of the country and evokes patriotic sentiments as he alludes to famous ruling families of past ages. Notable is the restatement of the pastoral ideal, Vergil’s picture of the happy state of the farmers who live at peace on their own lands, far from the battlefield, the rule of law courts, and the frenzy of politics.
Even subjects such as the grafting of trees and the preparation of soil for the planting of seedlings are treated in majestic language, and the catalog of the virtues of the various wines of the country is equally poetic. John Milton learned much from this classical master about the evocative effect of place names.
Vergil’s praise of country life at the end of this section is tied to his political aims; he asserts that it was through the efforts of the sturdy farmers of the past that Etruria and Rome won their first greatness, and he suggests that much of the fate of the new empire will rest on those who cultivate the Italian fields.
The third Georgic opens with a general statement on poetry. Vergil realizes that he is opening new doors in writing about fields and flocks; he also knows that the old myths have been repeated so often that they no longer lend luster to the poet. He hopes eventually to win fame for himself and for his homeland, Mantua, by describing the heroic exploits of Augustus Caesar and his army; but, meanwhile, he must follow Maecenas’s request that he chronicle the domain of the wood nymphs, and he turns to a new topic, the breeding of horses and cattle. He pictures vividly the strength and grace of the thoroughbred horse, alert and eager for action as the mount of a great soldier. Vergil elevates the tone of his subject by alluding to the magnificent horsemen and charioteers among the Homeric heroes.
The nurture of sheep and goats forms another part of this section. The poet even suggests remedies for diseases that strike these animals, and he gives a moving and realistic description of a devastating plague among them, picturing their death agonies as the result of the avenging force of the fury Tisiphone, who drives slaughter and terror before her.
The fourth Georgic probably has provided the greatest pleasure for modern readers, who can share Vergil’s fascination with the habits of bees more readily than his interest in various kinds of soil and methods of grafting. The poet relates the popular belief that the highly complex society of the bees results from a special blessing bestowed on them by Jupiter after they aided him when he was imprisoned in a cave; they alone of all the creatures live under law.
The poet has observed colonies of bees closely, and he describes with great accuracy their characteristic swarms and the battles between the “king” bees for supremacy. He suggests the best sweet-smelling plants for attracting the swarms to new hives and recommends the playing of cymbals to aid in drawing them toward their new homes. He also offers helpful hints about the flowers that make the best honey and mourns regretfully that he lacks time and space to speak of gardens.
The last half of this Georgic deals with the curious subject of spontaneous generation from corruption, a belief that has fascinated humankind as recently as the seventeenth century, when Francis Bacon discussed it in his New Atlantis (1627). There was a tradition, apparently quite widespread, that, should a whole colony of bees perish, a new swarm could be born from the corruption of the blood of a slaughtered bullock. Vergil explains this phenomenon by relating a mythological tale about a shepherd, Aristaeus, the son of Apollo and a sea nymph, who goes to the sea god Proteus to learn why his bees have died. He finds that the nymphs who mourn the deaths of Orpheus and Eurydice have brought about this misfortune, and he sacrifices four bulls to placate the spirits of the singer and his bride. A great cloud of bees arises from the carcasses of these animals, signifying the acceptability of the sacrifice; from that time on, hives were believed to be replenished in the same way.
The concluding lines of the fourth Georgic summarize the poet’s achievement in this poem; he speaks a little apologetically about singing of the cultivation of fields, flocks, and trees while Caesar is winning great victories, and he identifies himself as the same writer who formerly sang of the shepherd Tityrus, in his Eclogues(43-37 b.c.e.).
While the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.) is unquestionably Vergil’s masterpiece, the Georgics perhaps reveals his remarkable poetic imagination even more fully. There are few successful didactic poems in Western literature, only a small number of which achieve the majestic tone of Vergil’s work. Like all great practitioners of the genre, Vergil pays careful attention to the specifics of his subject, in this case farming, and his clear affection for the simple, unsullied lifestyle of the rural inhabitants of Italy shines forth in a work that allows him to transform the commonplace into the materials of great art. No doubt his patrons (including the emperor, Augustus) would have been exceedingly pleased to find such a compelling argument for the continuance of the agrarian lifestyle expressed in mellifluous language. The work stands with Lucretius’s De rerum natura (c. 60 b.c.e.; On the Nature of Things, 1682) as one of the finest transformations of technical materials into poetry produced during the classical period in literature.
Were the work only a technical treatise, however, its appeal to succeeding generations would have long since faded. As numerous critics have pointed out, in the Georgics, Vergil transcends his subject to present to readers a more universal theme about humankind and the relationship of humanity to the natural world. Working as he often does on the principle of analogy, Vergil draws constant, if subtle, parallels between the farmer’s life and that of all people: The cycle of life parallels the yearly cycle that the farmer repeats, working sometimes in cooperation with the world around him and sometimes against it, to forge a meaningful life and achieve a sense of happiness and accomplishment.
The work highlights the theme of regeneration and the symbiotic relationship between humans and the natural world. The work is also visionary in that it rises above the details of farming life to present a vision of “the function and value of human art.” Seen in this light, the many details of the work, including the curious inclusion of the story of Aristaeus at the conclusion of the fourth book, become important keys to understanding the classical view of the art of living. More properly, perhaps, the Georgics suggests ways that one can make an art out of living.
Vergil’s indirect method of presenting his theme is effective precisely because it is evocative rather than directive. The method has been practiced by many since that time but never with greater subtlety or technical skill.
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