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   Chapter 15 THE GEORGICS

Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 19973

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The years that followed the publication of the Eclogues seem to have been a season of reading, traveling, observing, and brooding. Maecenas desired to keep the poet at Rome, and as an inducement provided him with a villa in his own gardens on the Esquiline. The fame of the digitus praetereuntium awaited his coming and going, his Bucolics had been set to music and sung in the concert halls to vehement applause.[1] He seems even to have made an effort to be socially congenial. There is intimate knowledge of courtly customs in the staging of his epic; and in Horace's fourth book a refurbished early poem in Philodemus' manner pictures a Vergil-apparently the poet-as the pet of the fashionable world. But these things had no attraction for him. Rome indeed appealed to his imagination, Roma pulcherrima rerum, but it was the invisible Rome rather than the fumum et opes strepitumque, it was the city of pristine ideals, of irresistible potency, of Anchises' pageant of heroes. When he walked through the Forum he saw not only the glistening monuments in their new marble veneer, but beyond these, in the far distant past, the straw hut of Romulus and the sacred grove on the Capitoline where the spirit of Jove had guarded a folk of simpler piety.[2] And down the centuries he beheld the heroes, the law-givers, and the rulers, who had made the Forum the court of a world-wide empire. The Rome of his own day was too feverish, it soon drove him back to his garden villa near Naples.

[Footnote 1: Tacitus, Dialogus, 13: Malo securum et quietum Vergilii secessum, in quo tamen neque apud divum Augustum gratia caruit neque apud populum Romanum notitia. Testes Augusti epistulae, testis ipse populus, qui auditis in theatro Vergilii versibus surrexit universus et forte praesentem spectantemque Vergilium veneratus est quasi Augustum.]

[Footnote 2: Aeneid VIII.]

It was well that he possessed such a retreat during those years of petty political squabbles. The capital still hummed with rumors of civil war. Antony seemed determined to sever the eastern provinces from the empire and make of them a gift to Cleopatra and her children-a mad course that could only end in another world war. Sextus Pompey still held Sicily and the central seas, ready to betray the state at the first mis-step on Octavian's part. At Rome itself were many citizens in high position who were at variance with the government, quite prepared to declare for Antony or Pompey if either should appear a match for the young heir of Caesar. Clearly the great epic of Rome could not have matured in that atmosphere of suspicion, intrigue, and selfishness. The convulsions of the dying republic, beheld day by day near at hand, could only have inspired a disgust sufficient to poison a poet's sensitive hope. It was indeed fortunate that Vergil could escape all this, that he could retain through the period of transition the memories of Rome's former greatness and the faith in her destiny that he had imbibed in his youth. The time came when Octavian, after Actium, reunited the Empire with a firm hand and justified the buoyant optimism which Vergil, almost alone of his generation, had been able to preserve.

During these few years Vergil seems to have written but little. We have, however, a strange poem of thirty-eight lines, the Copa, which, to judge from its exclusion from the Catalepton, should perhaps be assigned to this period. A study in tempered realism, not unlike the eighth Eclogue, it gives us the song of a Syrian tavern-maid inviting wayfarers into her inn from the hot and dusty road. The spirit is admirably reproduced in Kirby Smith's rollicking translation:[3]

[Footnote 3: See Kirby Flower Smith, Marital, the Epigrammatist and, Other Essays, Johns Hopkins Press, 1920, p. 170. The attribution of the poem to Vergil by the ancients as well as by the manuscripts, and the style of its fanciful realism so patent in much of Vergil's work place the poem in the authentic list. Rand, Young Virgil's Poetry, Harvard Studies, 1919, p. 174, has well summed up the arguments regarding the authorship of the poem.]

'Twas at a smoke-stained tavern, and she, the hostess there-

A wine-flushed Syrian damsel, a turban on her hair-

Beat out a husky tempo from reeds in either hand,

And danced-the dainty wanton-an Ionian saraband.

"'Tis hot," she sang, "and dusty; nay, travelers, whither bound?

Bide here and tip a beaker-till all the world goes round;

Bide here and have for asking wine-pitchers, music, flowers,

Green pergolas, fair gardens, cool coverts, leafy bowers.

In our Arcadian grotto we have someone to play

On Pan-pipes, shepherd fashion, sweet music all the day.

We broached a cask but lately; our busy little stream

Will gurgle softly near you the while you drink and dream.

Chaplets of yellow violets a-plenty you shall find,

And glorious crimson roses in garlands intertwined;

And baskets heaped with lilies the water nymph shall bring-

White lilies that this morning were mirrored in her spring.

Here's cheese new pressed in rushes for everyone who comes,

And, lo, Pomona sends us her choicest golden plums.

Red mulberries await you, late purple grapes withal,

Dark melons cased in rushes against the garden wall,

Brown chestnuts, ruddy apples. Divinities bide here,

Fair Ceres, Cupid, Bacchus, those gods of all good cheer,

Priapus too-quite harmless, though terrible to see-

Our little hardwood warden with scythe of trusty tree.

"Ho, friar with the donkey, turn in and be our guest!

Your donkey-Vesta's darling-is weary; let him rest.

In every tree the locusts their shrilling still renew,

And cool beneath the brambles the lizard lies perdu.

So test our summer-tankards, deep draughts for thirsty men;

Then fill our crystal goblets, and souse yourself again.

Come, handsome boy, you're weary! 'Twere best for you to twine

Your heavy head with roses and rest beneath our vine,

Where dainty arms expect you and fragrant lips invite;

Oh, hang the strait-laced model that plays the anchorite!

Sweet garlands for cold ashes why should you care to save?

Or would you rather keep them to lay upon your grave?

Nay, drink and shake the dice-box. Tomorrow's care begone!

Death plucks your sleeve and whispers: 'Live now, I come anon.'"

Memories of the Neapolitan bay! The Copa should be read in the arbor of an osteria at Sorrento or Capri to the rhythm of the tarantella where the modern offspring of Vergil's tavern-maid are still plying the arts of song and dance upon the passerby.[4]

[Footnote 4: Unfortunately the evidence does not suffice to assign the Moretum to Vergil, though it was certainly composed by a genuine if somewhat halting poet, and in Vergil's day. It has many imaginative phrases, and the meticulous exactness of its miniature work might seem to be Vergilian were it not for the unrelieved plainness of the theme. Even so, it might be considered an experiment in a new style, if the rather dubious manuscript evidence were supported by a single ancient citation. See Rand, loc. Cit. p. 178.]

There are also three brief Priapea which should probably be assigned to this period. The third may indeed have been an inscription on a pedestal of the scare-crow god set out to keep off thieving rooks and urchins in the poet's own garden:

This place, my lads, I prosper, I guard the hovel, too,

Thatched, as you see, by willows and reeds and grass that grew

In all the marsh about it; hence me, mere stump of oak,

Shaped by the farmer's hatchet, they now as god invoke.

They bring me gifts devoutly, the master and his boy,

Supposing me the giver of the blessings they enjoy.

The kind old man each morning comes here to weed the ground,

He clears the shrine of thistles and burrs that grow around.

The lad brings dainty offerings with small but ready hand:

At dawn of spring he crowns me with a lavish daisy-strand,

From summer's earliest harvest, while still the stalk is green,

He wreathes my brow with chaplets; he fills me baskets clean

With golden pansies, poppies, with apples ripe and gourds,

The first rich blushing clusters of grapes for me he hoards.

And once to my great honor-but let no god be told!-

He brought me to my altar a lambkin from the fold.

So though, my lads, a Scare-Crow and no true god I be,

My master and his vineyard are very dear to me.

Keep off your filching hands, lads, and elsewhere ply your theft:

Our neighbor is a miser, his Scare-Crow gets no gifts,

His apples are not guarded-the path is on your left.

The quaint simplicity of the sentiment and the playful surprise at the end quickly disarm any skepticism that would deny these lines to Horace's poet of "tender humor."

During this period the poet seems also to have traveled. Maecenas enjoyed the society of literary men, and we may well suppose that he took Vergil with him in his administrative tours on more than the one occasion which Horace happens to have recorded. The poet certainly knows Italy remarkably well. The meager and inaccurate maps and geographical works of that day could not have provided him with the insight into details which the Georgics and the last six books of the Aeneid reveal. We know, of course, from Horace's third ode that Vergil went to Greece. This famous poem, a "steamer-letter" as it were, is undated, but it may well be a continuation of the Brundisian diary. The strange turn which the poem takes-its dread of the sea's dangers-seems to point to a time when Horace's memories of his own shipwreck were still very vivid.

There was also time for extensive reading. That Vergil ranged widely and deeply in philosophy and history, antiquities and all the world's best prose and poetry, the vast learning of the Georgics and the Aeneid abundantly proves. The epic story which he had early plotted out must have lain very near the thres

hold of his consciousness through this period, for his mind kept seizing upon and storing up apposite incidents and germs of fruitful lore. References to Aeneas crop out here and there in the Georgics, and the mysterious address to Mantua in the third book promises, under allusive metaphors, an epic of Trojan heroes. Nor could the poet forget the philosophic work he had so long pondered over. Doubts increased, however, of his capacity to justify himself after the sure success of Lucretius. A remarkable confession in the second book of the Georgics reveals his conviction that in this poem he had, through lack of confidence, chosen the inferior theme of nature's physical and sensuous appeal when he would far rather have experienced the intellectual joy of penetrating into nature's inner mysteries.[5]

[Footnote 5:

Me vero primum dulces ante omnia Musae,

Quarum sacra fero ingenti percussus-amore,

Accipiant, caelique vias et sidera monstrent-

Sin, has ne possim naturae accedere partes,

Frigidus obstiterit circum praecordia sanguis,

Rura mihi et rigui placeant in vallibus amnes.

Georgics, II. 475. ff.

Was this striking apologia of the Georgics forced upon Vergil by the fact that in the Aetna, 264-74, he had pronounced peasant-lore trivial in comparison with science?]

Though we need not take too literally a poet's prefatorial remarks, Vergil doubtless hoped that his Georgics might turn men's thoughts towards a serious effort at rehabilitating agriculture, and the practical-minded Maecenas certainly encouraged the work with some such aim in view. The government might well be deeply concerned. The veterans who had recently settled many of Italy's best tracts could not have been skilled farmers. The very fact that the lands were given them for political services could only have suggested to the shrewd among them that the old Roman respect for property rights had been infringed, and that it was wise to sell as soon as possible and depart with some tangible gain before another revolution resulted in a new redistribution. Such suspicions could hardly beget the patience essential for the development of agriculture. And yet this was the very time when farming must be encouraged. Large parts of the arable land had been abandoned to grazing during the preceding century because of the importation of the provincial stipendiary grain, and Italy had lost the custom of raising the amount of food that her population required. As a result, the younger Pompey's control of Sicily and the trade routes had now brought on a series of famines and consequent bread-riots. Year after year Octavian failed in his attempts to lure away or to defeat this obnoxious rebel. At best he could buy him off for a while, though he never knew at what season of scarcity the purchase price might become prohibitive. The choice of Vergil's subject coincided, therefore, with a need that all men appreciated.

The Georgics, however, are not written in the spirit of a colonial advertisement. In the youthful Culex Vergil had dwelt somewhat too emphatically upon the song-birds and the cool shade, and had drawn upon himself the genial comment of Horace that Alfius did not find conditions in the country quite as enchanting as pictured. This time the poet paints no idealized landscape. Enticing though the picture is, Vergil insists on the need of unceasing, ungrudging toil. He lists the weeds and blights, the pests and the vermin against which the farmer must contend. Indeed it is in the contemplation of a life of toil that he finds his honest philosophy of life: the gospel of salvation through work. Hardships whet the ingenuity of man; God himself for man's own good brought an end to the age of golden indolence, shook the honey from the trees, and gave vipers their venom. Man has been left alone to contend with an obstinate nature, and in that struggle to discover his own worth. The Georgics are far removed from pastoral allegory; Italy is no longer Arcadia, it is just Italy in all its glory and all its cruelty.

Vergil's delight in nature is essentially Roman, though somewhat more self-conscious than that of his fellows. There is little of the sentimental rapture that the eighteenth century discovered for us. Vergil is not likely to stand in postures before the awful solemnity of the sea or the majesty of wide vistas from mountain tops. Italian hill-tops afford views of numerous charming landscapes but no scenes of entrancing grandeur or awe-inspiring desolation, and the sea, before the days of the compass, was too suggestive of death and sorrow to invite consideration of its lawless beauty. These aspects of nature had to be discovered by later experiences in other lands. At first glance Vergil seems to care most for the obvious gifts of Italy's generous amenities, the physical pleasure in the free out-of-doors, the form and color of landscapes, the wholesome life. As one reads on, however, one becomes aware of an intimacy and fellowship with animate things that go deeper. Particularly in the second book the very blades of grass and tendrils of the vines seem to be sentient. The grafted trees "behold with wonder" strange leaves and fruits growing from their stems, transplanted shoots "put off their wild-wood instincts," the thirsting plant "lifts up its head" in gratitude when watered. Our own generation, which was sedulously enticed into nature study by books crammed with the "pathetic fallacy," has become suspicious of everything akin to "nature faking." It has learned that this device has been a trick employed by a crafty pedagogy for the sake of appealing to unimaginative children. Vergil was probably far from being conscious of any such purpose. As a Roman he simply gave expression to a mode of viewing nature that still seemed natural to most Greeks and Romans. The Roman farmer had not entirely outgrown his primitive animism. When he said his prayers to the spirits of the groves, the fields, and the streams, he probably did not visualize these beings in human form; manifestations of life betokened spirits that produced life and growth. Vergil's phrases are the poetic expression of the animism of the unsophisticated rustic which at an earlier age had shaped the great nature myths.

And if Vergil had been questioned about his own faith he could well have found a consistent answer. Though he had himself long ceased to pay homage to these animae, his philosophy, like that of Lucretius, also sought the life-principle in nature, though he sought that principle a step farther removed in the atom, the vitalized seeds of things, forever in motion, forever creating new combinations, and forever working the miracles of life by means of the energy with which they were themselves instinct. The memorable lines on spring in the second book are cast into the form of old poetry, but the basis of them is Epicurean energism, as in Lucretius' prooemium. Vergil's study of evolution had for him also united man and nature, making the romance of the Georgics possible; it had shaped a kind of scientific animism that permitted him to accept the language of the simple peasant even though its connotations were for him more complex and subtle.

Finally, the careful reader will discover in Vergil's nature poetry a very modern attention to details such as we hardly expect to find before the nineteenth century. Here again Vergil is Lucretius' companion. This habit was apparently a composite product. The ingredients are the capacity for wonder that we find in some great poets like Wordsworth and Plato, a genius for noting details, bred in him as in Lucretius by long occupation with deductive methods of philosophy,-scientific pursuits have thus enriched modern poetry also-and a sure aesthetic sense. This power of observation has been overlooked by many of Vergil's commentators. Conington, for example, has frequently done the poet an injustice by assuming that Vergil was in error whenever his statements seem not to accord with what we happen to know. We have now learned to be more wary. It is usually a safer assumption that our observation is in error. A recent study of "trees, shrubs and plants of Vergil," illuminating in numberless details, has fallen into the same error here and there by failing to notice that Vergil wrote his Bucolics and Georgics not near Mantua but in southern Italy. The modern botanical critic of Vergil should, as Mackail has said, study the flora of Campania not of Lombardy. In every line of composition Vergil took infinite pains to give an accurate setting and atmosphere. Carcopino[6] has just astonished us with proof of the poet's minute study of topographical details in the region of Lavinium and Ostia, Mackail[7] has vindicated his care as an antiquarian, Warde Fowler[8] has repeatedly pointed out his scrupulous accuracy in portraying religious rites, and now Sergeaunt,[9] in a study of his botany, has emphasized his habit of making careful observations in that domain.

[Footnote 6: Carcopino, Virgile et les origines d'Ostie.]

[Footnote 7: Mackail, Journal of Roman Studies, 1915.]

[Footnote 8: Warde Fowler, Religious Experience of the Roman

People. p. 408.]

[Footnote 9: Sergeaunt, Trees, Shrubs, and Plants of Virgil.]

This modern habit it is that makes the Georgics read so much like Fabre's remarkable essays. The study of the bees in the fourth book is, of course, not free from errors that nothing less than generations of close scrutiny could remove. But the right kind of observing has begun. On the other hand the book is not merely a farmer's practical manual on how to raise bees for profit. The poet's interest is in the amazing insects themselves, their how and why and wherefore. It is the mystery of their instincts, habits, and all-compelling energy that leads him to study the bees, and finally to the half-concealed confession that his philosophy has failed to solve the problems of animate nature.

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