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....
(The entire section is 1674 words.)