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The Farmer as Hero

Translated by David Ferry
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 202 pp., $30)

Translated by Janet Lembke
(Yale University Press, 114 pp., $25)  

IN VIRGIL’S AENEID, THE EPIC story of the founding of Rome, the Trojan foreigner Aeneas carries into battle a shield elaborately wrought by the divine craftsman Vulcan, a stand-in for the poet. On it the god has prophetically sculpted scenes of future Roman history. They culminate in the victory of Octavian Caesar, the future Augustus and first Roman emperor, over Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E., and the triple triumph that Octavian marked in Rome two years later, celebrating his and the city’s empire across the known world. Meanwhile, Aeneas’s opponent, the native Italian Turnus, carries a shield that depicts ... a cow. True enough, the cow is Io, a former mistress whom Jupiter transformed into a heifer because of his wife Juno’s jealousy, and the shield testifies to Turnus’s devotion to the goddess. But it is still a cow.

In a generally humorless poem, this is Virgil’s silent joke at the expense of the not-overly-bright Turnus and his rustic Italian followers, who are no match for their sophisticated foes from a once-great eastern city. Yet the joke has its serious side. The future greatness of Rome, the poem predicts, will be founded upon the marriage of two races and two cultures, a wedding of urbane civilization to the old-fashioned virtues of the Italian peasantry. Honest and poor, as earthy as the soil he cultivated, the farmer-soldier held a special place in Roman political mythology. The battle of Actium was won on the plowing fields of Italy.

These fields—and their cattle—are the ostensible subject of Virgil’s Georgics, the wonderful didactic poem that preceded the Aeneid. The Georgics might be said to wed together the artifice of Aeneas’s shield to the content of Turnus’s. Their refined verse and complex architecture contains a farming manual: the poem’s four books treat grain cultivation, vineyards and orchards, the raising of livestock, and beekeeping. According to ancient sources, Virgil spent seven years composing the Georgics and finished them in 29 B.C.E., when he gave a preview reading to Octavian himself. By then Virgil had moved into the poetic circle of Maecenas, Octavian’s political henchman and a great patron, to whom he dedicates each book of the Georgics. The poem ends with a strange myth in which a whole civilization—the miniature kingdom of the bees—is reborn out of a sacrificed steer. The fable seems to enjoin Rome itself to seek regeneration from its rural traditions.

Virgil’s Italy and its farms needed regeneration. The conquests by the Roman republic in Greek-speaking Asia enormously enriched her ruling senatorial class and raised the political stakes too high for the republic to last. The ensuing civil wars saw Roman generals fight as warlords over the spoils of empire and usher in one-man rule. Octavian’s victory raised hopes that the conflict was over, but was no guarantee. Book 1 abruptly ends with a chilling evocation of these fratricidal wars, with the prediction that future Thracian farmers on the fields of Pharsalus and Philippi will plow up the javelins, helmets, and bones of Romans who fought against Romans there. Italy’s own fields had been similarly ravaged by warfare, and victorious generals dispossessed farmers of their lands to reward them to returning veterans. Tradition has it that Virgil’s own family farm near Mantua was expropriated, and that the opening poem of his first major work, the Eclogues, retells how Octavian restored the property to him.

Quite apart from the upheaval of war, the small Italian farm was already under pressure as Virgil wrote. Enriched by the loot of conquest, senatorial families and members of the big business class, the so-called "knights," bought up huge estates that were farmed with slave labor. (Virgil does not mention slaves in the Georgics.) A whole century earlier, Tiberius Gracchus had addressed the Roman plebs in calling for land reform: "You fight to defend the luxury of the rich. They call you the masters of the world, but you have not a foot of ground you can call your own." The ensuing Gracchan reforms carried out by his brother Caius relieved the situation but did not reverse the trend, and the party politics that they inaugurated would fuel civil war.

Rich Romans bought up large estates not only for profit, but also to erect luxury villas that emulated the Hellenistic taste they found in the conquered provinces: mosaic floors, statuary, fish ponds, pleasure gardens. The frugal farmer and his austerity were all very well as a national myth, but who really wanted to live that way? The situation is familiar to Americans: the family farm and the virtues it fosters are regularly held up as a civic and patriotic emblem, while big agribusinesses replace them with the new indentured servants of migrant labor. A visitor to the ranchlands of the western United States will be struck by the new second homes and mansionettes dotting the range: fence me in, please.

THE GEORGICS MAY BE SELLING a return to a country life that had largely ceased to exist, but they are about more than that. They are certainly about more than instructions how to test soil or warnings to avoid roasting crabs in the vicinity of beehives. Virgil grew up on a farm, but his poem’s information derives from other books, and it is not always reliable. The naturalist Pliny the Elder happily pointed out the errors that the revered poet had made about cultivating olives and other matters. It is recorded that Virgil gave a public reading of the Georgics in Rome. When he came to lines, in imitation of the Greek poet Hesiod, that encouraged his farmer to strip naked—"plow in the nude, plant in the nude"—a heckler completed the line in perfect meter: "and you’ll catch cold and a fever."

The Georgics were, in fact, not written for farmers at all, but for an audience of poetry aficionados—for the same people who could afford the fancy villas. The poem is best understood as an amalgam of three poetic models: Hesiod, the Greek poetic school of Alexandria, and most importantly Lucretius, Virgil’s Latin predecessor. In emulation of Octavian’s own conquests in the East, Virgil announces that he is appropriating for Roman culture the Works and Days of Hesiod, a late eighth-century B.C.E. successor of Homer. This poem recounts two mythic versions (Pandora, the golden age) about how mankind has fallen into the iron age of work, and then sets out a kind of farmer’s almanac, indicating lucky and unlucky days of the month for planting and cultivation, as well as a series of maxims about justice and piety. Hesiod set the model for all the ensuing didactic poetry of antiquity, and Virgil, with high ambition, proposed to write a new classic.

But the aesthetic of the Georgics is not archaic. It belongs to the so- called "Neoteric" Roman poets, who took inspiration from Alexandrian poetic models, particularly from the work of the third-century B.C.E. Greek poet Callimachus. This poetry preferred shorter, sometimes miniature genres to epic, as well as intricate verbal patterns and structures; it was intensely allusive to previous literature, and self-conscious to the point of preciousness. Virgil intersperses "digressions," magnificent purple passages of mythology and patriotic praise, amid the didactic material of his poem, and he artfully arranges the four books so that they mirror and echo one another. The potential gap between highly wrought poetic surface and the humble or even trivial subject matter of farming would have been welcomed by an Alexandrian poet, for it set off the poet’s virtuosity to all the greater effect.

VIRGIL MARRIES HIGH ART TO serious content in the Georgics, to Roman gravitas rather than Alexandrian playfulness, and thus saves the work from turning into poetry for poetry’s sake. He does so by taking on the greatest Roman poem of the previous generation, De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius. Written in epic hexameters, this philosophical poem in six books teaches the tenets of Epicurean philosophy. It is a sublime and terrifying vision of a universe founded by chance collisions of atoms in the infinite void of space and doomed to eventual dissolution, of gods who have no care for humanity (and therefore, for practical purposes, do not exist), of the compulsive mechanics of sex, of the inevitability of death as sheer extinction and the folly of belief in an afterlife. Lucretius describes his method of putting doctrine into poetry with the famous image of the honeyed cup that allows the bitter medicine to go down. Just how bitter this teaching can be is spelled out in the episode that ends On the Nature of Things and is a kind of test for its reader: a clinical description of the plague that struck fifth- century Athens. Mass annihilation is hard to swallow.

Virgil pays homage to Lucretius by concluding Book 3 of the Georgics with a similar plague that sweeps away livestock and human beings, a pendant to the human disease of civil war that ends Book 1. But the endings of Books 2 and 4 of the Georgics produce a countervision of human culture—embodied in the work of the farmer—making a place for itself against the brute forces of nature that lie both outside and within the human individual. This is the great theme of the Georgics, and it is how Virgil responds to Lucretius, even as he acknowledges and in no way cancels out the latter’s dark vision. "Blessed is he who knows the causes of things," the narrator proclaims at the end of Book 2, praising the naturalist skeptic Lucretius or perhaps that poet’s own master Epicurus, but "fortunate also is he who knows the gods of the countryside."

The pious farmer suggests an alternative model for human happiness, not so different from the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia for which it substitutes, the withdrawal of the sage from worldly concerns into his private garden. The book closes with a vision of peacetime normalcy and self-sufficiency: the farmer seen in a rare moment of holiday relaxation, surrounded by his family, pouring a libation to Bacchus and, however fleetingly, re-living the golden age: "This is the way it was for golden Saturn,/Before the time when anyone had heard/The loud blare of a military trumpet/Or the clanging of a sword on the hard anvil."

Virgil quickly re-tells the fall from a Saturnian golden age toward the opening of the Georgics. Jupiter decrees an iron age of toil, and that is that. Two notoriously problematic lines declare the nature of things in this poem.

omnia vicit labor
improbus et duris urgens in rebus

work conquered everything
Persistent/wicked work and urgent
in hard times.

The meaning changes between the two run-on lines: where first we feel that work will overcome all vicissitudes, that human art will triumph over nature and necessity, the addition of the adjective and the second subject suggests something like the reverse. This doubleness accounts for the nostalgia for a golden age that can be briefly recovered as a respite from incessant labor. Hence the poet’s preference among plants for wild trees that do not need human care, among animals for goats that wander off on their own and still return with their udders filled with milk. Hence, too, the general movement of the four books from the intensive toil of agriculture and vineyards to more leisurely pastoral husbandry and finally to apiculture, where it is the bees who do the work.

Whether work is a blessing or a curse, whether the world is war and disease or culture and growth, whether the poem is pessimistic or optimistic about Octavian, about Rome, about life—these questions perennially debated by critics of the poem cannot be answered, because Virgil keeps the alternatives exquisitely balanced. That balance has made him, here and in the Aeneid, the most humane and perhaps the greatest poet of Western culture.

THE REMARKABLE FOURTH BOOK of the Georgics demonstrates this complicated sensibility in two episodes. Virgil interrupts his discussion of beekeeping, and his semi-satirical portrait of the bees’ anthropomorphic commonwealth and civil wars, to offer a contrasting vignette of an old Corycian man growing vegetables and flowers on otherwise unproductive soil near Taranto. In David Ferry’s translation:

But this old man
Carefully planted white lilies, vervain,
and poppies,
And different sorts of vegetables
for his table,
And thus he made for himself a
That was equal to the happiness
of kings, And when he came home at night
his feast was free.

This is the Virgilian version of the Epicurean garden, a garden that must be constantly tended by labor.

But it is complicated by the foreign identity of the old man and what he is doing in Italy. The ancient commentator Servius tells us that he is one of the Cilician pirates whom Pompey the Great had conquered thirty years earlier; Pompey re-settled the pirates rather than crucify them or sell them into slavery. The old gardener thus carries some of the poem’s political hopes as well as its ethical message. From a life of turmoil, he has settled into quiet usefulness and contentment, tamed by work and hardship, and even makes a thing of beauty in his flower garden, an analogue to the poem itself. But by now the figure of the happy farmer of Book 2 has been considerably reduced: there is no surrounding family, and this resident alien ekes out a subsistence living. Self- sufficiency is hard to distinguish here from existential loneliness—especially in contrast to the communal life of the bees. We can see in Virgil’s old man a literary ancestor of Wordsworth’s poor leech-gatherer.

The old gardener is the last real human figure glimpsed in the Georgics, which now turn to myth in their final section. Bees, too, it turns out, can sicken and die off, like the animals and the humans at the end of Book 3. A mythological fable now follows, a genre favored by the Neoterics, including the earlier Roman love poet Catullus. It explains the origins of the bugonia, a method for regenerating bees. At the loss of his bees, the rural demigod Aristaeus descends to his mother Cyrene’s realm, an underworld that is the common source of the rivers of the world. Cyrene sends him to the seer Proteus, from whom he learns that the death of his bees was the result of a crime that he must expiate.

In a story within the story, Proteus reveals that Aristaeus has caused the death of Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus. That archetypal poet went down himself to the underworld of Hades and got Eurydice back with his song, only to lose her again when, in a moment of mad love, he looked back on her before they could reach the world of the living. After he was subsequently dismembered by the Maenads he spurned, Orpheus’s head floated down the river Hebrus still mourning for and repeating the name of Eurydice. Cyrene now instructs Aristaeus to sacrifices eight cattle to Orpheus, and from their carcasses a new colony of bees is reborn. And with a brief envoi, the Georgics come to an end.

It is an episode of astonishing mythopoetic power, in which Virgil imitates Homer, his greatest predecessor, and points the way to the achievement of the Aeneid. At the heart of the contrasts suggested by its double plot is an opposition between the farmer Aristaeus, who travels to the wellsprings of life and restores a larger species, and the poet Orpheus, who cannot rescue his beloved from the waters of death. Life goes on, as the cycling of the seasons and the new spring celebrated in each book of the Georgics bear witness, but the individual perishes. Orpheus looks back for the unique named object of desire while anonymous nature moves inexorably forward. His love may be mad, but this capacity to know loss and not to accept substitutes defines the human. And poetry is defined by its giving a name to this loss and preserving it in song, the song that continues even beyond Orpheus’s own death.

The poet of the Georgics identifies himself with both Aristaeus the cultivator and with Orpheus the mourner, but he opposes the two in the work’s final simile, which describes Orpheus grieving for his second loss of Eurydice.

He sang as the nightingale sings from
the shade
of a poplar lamenting her lost chicks
that a hard-hearted ploughboy, spotting the nest,
has taken before they fledged;
she weeps all night and, perched on
a branch, repeats her sad
song, filling the night far and wide
with her sorrowful plaint.

"Durus arator": Janet Lembke softens the point by suggesting that this plowman is a heedless boy (Ferry unaccountably mistranslates it as "herdsman" and misses the point altogether), where Virgil gives us the normative farmerprotagonist of the poem. The cultivation of the fields—and in this we should see an emblem of all human culture—commits violence against nature, including human nature. And the poet’s task is both to partake in and to celebrate the work of culture and to register and to mourn its casualties, to take on the voice of nature.

The envoi to the poem suggests a different division of labor. Octavian is waging war by the Euphrates and giving laws to supposedly willing—volentes— foreign peoples. (American centurions, take note!) The poet is back home, disingenuously confessing to ignoble otium. While the soldiers were in the field, he has done nothing but write the Georgics! But Virgil has also been hard at work assessing the damage and the costs of empire: next on tap is the Aeneid.

THE AENEID IS VIRGIL’S GREATEST work, but the Georgics have long been regarded as his most perfect one: "the most complete, elaborate, and finish’d piece of all antiquity," wrote Addison in a preface to Dryden’s translation of the poem into rhyming couplets. Dryden’s version of 1697 is the gold standard among English translations of the Georgics, but a long line of renderings have tried to capture the poem’s middle, conversational style, which smoothly shifts between higher and lower subjects and poetic registers: Virgil famously sings the praises of the Italian earth in Book 2 and immediately gets literally down to that earth, classifying its different kinds of soil.

David Ferry is a noted poet; he and Janet Lembke are experienced translators of the classics. They offer two new looks at the Georgics in American, rather than British, vernacular. As Lembke remarks, "In with grain, out with the corn!" (Sure enough, an appealing British translation of the poem by Peter Fallon that has also come out in the last two years begins, somewhat freely, "What tickles the corn to laugh in rows....") Ferry and Lembke have each produced an attractive and serious translation that gives English readers a good idea of the Georgics. The Ferry translation includes Virgil’s text across the page for the reader with some Latin to compare, but the omission of line numbers impairs its usefulness. Lembke uses a longer line, with five stresses, and she uses the same number of verses as the original, and numbers the lines. She uses a great deal of alliteration to hold the line together, more than Virgil does, and that effect is more Anglo-Saxon than Latinate. Ferry translates into a loose iambic pentameter, and takes a much greater number of verses to unpack Virgil’s lines; even so, he is freer and more summary of details, chaster in diction and perhaps closer to our idea of the classical than Lembke.

Ferry makes a number of untrivial mistakes. I have referred to his "herdsman" for "ploughman" above; "Dodona," which refuses food in Book 1, refers not so much to the oracle there but to oak trees (the oracle was in an oak) and their acorns; he terms Octavian a "young prince" where Virgil carefully calls him a "youth," since kingship was just what Octavian did not wish to be claiming, even if no one was fooled—it was OK for Virgil in the same passage to suggest that he was a god; Achilles had a team of four individually named horses, not a pair; the threefold repetition of Eurydice’s name, much imitated in later poetry, becomes twofold, or fourfold, depending on how you count. Lembke bowdlerizes "plow in the nude" into "plow bare land," but is generally closer to the text and a better crib; her introduction and notes are much more extensive and helpful. One wishes that Yale had included a facing Latin text.

Here are two famous passages that give a sense both of the poem and the translations. First Lembke on a bull, defeated in mating combat, who bides his time and returns to the fray.

And he tests himself—
tackling a tree trunk, he learns
to gather his rage
in his horns; with repeated stabs
he assaults the wind
and practices for combat on sand
scattered by his hooves.
With energy collected and strength
restored, he takes up
the standards and races headlong
at his oblivious foe,
as when a wave begins to curl,
foaming white, out at sea,
it rises ever longer from the deeps
and, rolling ashore
tall as a mountain, crashes wildly
on the rocks
and collapses, but underneath,
the water boils up
in whirlpools and flings black sand
high in the air.

Every last species on earth,
man and beast alike,
the vast schools of the sea, the
cattle and bright colored birds
fall helpless into passion’s fire:
love is the same for all.

This is Ferry on the rationality of the bees.

some say
The bees have drunk from the light
of heaven and have
A share in the divine intelligence.
For the god, they say, is there in
In earth and the range of sea and
the depth of sky;
The flocks, the herds, and men,
all creatures there are,
At birth derive their little lives
from him,
And when they die their life returns
to him,
And having been unmade is made
There is, they say, no place at all
for death;
The life of being flies up to the stars
And finds its place there in the
heaven above.

Lembke’s long lines and enjambments capture the uncontrollable force of sexual energy that swirls up from below and redoubles itself, compelling beast and human alike. The bull’s metaphorical "standards" suggests that the madness of human warfare, too, has dark erotic foundations: in a kind of inversion, Virgil will re-utilize this passage in the Aeneid to describe the war-lust of none other than Turnus with his cow-emblazoned shield. Ferry’s unadorned cadences intone a serene, pantheistic hymn, along Stoic and Pythagorean lines, to the divine reason that informs the created world from above and denies the finality of death. Two very different versions of nature and of the human condition: the Georgics encompass both visions and structures of feeling, and find a poetry answerable to them.

FROM THE RENAISSANCE ONWARD, poets were tempted to imitate the Georgics. The heyday of English georgic poetry was the eighteenth century and its self- anointed Augustan culture. Its representative work was the immensely popular The Seasons (1728-1730, revised 1744) by James Thomson, a poem that extols the agrarian backbone of Britain (read: the landed gentry) and contrasts improved farming and rural virtue to urban sloth and vice. Such poetry could ally itself in a general way with "Country" opposition to Walpole’s political corruption. Still, as William C. Dowling has shown in an elegant study, it was in America that its full ideological implications could be explored. In the seven-part Greenfield Hill, in 1794, Timothy Dwight wrote the Georgics of the new republic. One of the "Connecticut Wits," Dwight would become a noted president of Yale College ("Pope Dwight") in the following year. The poem’s Virgilian clothing sometimes makes an awkward fit, as when Dwight transfers the Georgics’ praise of the happy farmer to the happy parish minister. But Dwight nonetheless ably captures Virgil’s shifts of tone, as when the sight of a black slave interrupts an idealized vision of the New England landscape divided into small landholdings, whose industry produces a comfortable "Competence," but not great wealth.

Unlike Virgil, Dwight does not ignore slavery, which he goes on to excoriate in a proto-abolitionist passage that acutely describes the psychologically destructive effects upon the slave and graphically pictures the sufferings of slaves in the West Indies, a stand-in here for the American South and its large plantations. This is a slap at the country gentlemen Jefferson and Madison. (Dwight mourns, but is more resigned to, the destruction of Native Americans.) The peaceful small farms of Connecticut are contrasted to their great southern estates and to the perpetuated feudalism of Thomson’s Britain, which they emulate, as well as to a despotic and war-mongering "East" that begins on the other side of the Atlantic.

See the wide realm in equal shares
How few the rich, or poor! how many
O happy state! the state, by
HEAVEN design’d
To rein, protect, employ, and bless
mankind; Where Competence, in full
enjoyment, flows;
Where man least vice, and highest
virtue, knows;
Where the mind thrives; strong
nerves th’invention string;
And daring Enterprize uplifts his
Where Splendour spreads, in vain,
his peacock-hues;
Where vagrant Sloth, the general
hiss pursues;
Where Business reigns, the universal
Where none are slaves, or lords;
but all are men:
No nuisant drones purloin the
earner’s food;
But each man’s labour swells the common good ...

Here shall they learn what manners
bliss assure;
What sway creates it, and what laws
See pride abas’d; the wolfish heart
Th’unfetter’d conscience, and
th’unpinion’d mind;
To human good all human efforts
No war insult, nor bondage anger,
No savage course of Eastern glory run;
Atchiev’d no conquest, and no realm

—The bee figure gives away the Virgilian provenance. These American Georgics offer a blueprint for a new Rome, for an infant republic, where Virgil’s poem coincided elegiacally with his republic’s end. Egalitarian, self-sufficient, and community-minded, averse to vain consumption and imperial aggression: without such georgic principles, perhaps no free republic, in America or elsewhere, can long survive.

David Quint is George M. Bodman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University and the author, most recently, of Cervantes’s Novel of Modern Times: A New Reading of "Don Quijote" (Princeton University Press). This article appeared in the March 20 & 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.