I love used book sales. If you’ve ever gone ‘garage sale-ing’, then you’re probably familiar with the types of pushy scavengers that you might meet at a used book sale. You’d almost think Dickens had these bibliophiles in mind for his caricature of Scrooge in the opening chapter of A Christmas Carol: “…a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, …secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Solitary, that is, until they catch the scent of a musty book in the air that could be had for a buck. Watching the doors open for a used book sale can cause you to lose faith in humanity. But as I said, I’m a used-book scavenger myself, and I only hope that my love for life ultimately outstrips my lust for books.
So what does this have to do with Virgil? Well, I found a book containing three of Virgil’s works at the last sale (with over a million books!…humina, humina), and I tucked it away on a bookshelf for a rainy day. Well my friends, that day came a week ago. Imagine, if you will, me deciding on a whim that I REALLY wanted to read some of Virgil, forgetting that I had the book on hand, scouring my shelves for the next book to read, and stumbling upon this little ruby. I AM! I actually wanted to read only the Eclogues and Georgics, not the more famous Aeneid, mostly because I’ve heard that the former were much more poetic than the adventurous latter. My plan is to read the whole of Dante’s Divine Comedy soon (I’ve only read the Inferno up till now), and for some reason it has always intrigued me that Dante, one of the most celebrated authors of all time, chose Virgil as his guide through Hades.
The Eclogues are pastoral (rural) poems and songs written in the tradition of a shepherd sing-off. Speakers take turns trying to ‘one-up’ their opponents in a friendly game of lyrical improvisation (freestyle rap battle!!) about the country life. I’m sure in the day they had their Eminems and Jay-Z’s, but this is hardly anything a 21st century man can relate to. Between the references to antiquated cultural traditions and the constant allusion to Roman mythology, I wasn’t able to make much of it. Unfortunately you’ll need a history/mythology buff to help break down the ‘thick accent’. It’s almost lost to all but a few super-conditioned readers.
The Georgics, on the other hand, were a different story altogether. I wouldn’t quite give it the accolade that was offered in the introduction of the Modern Library version: “…perhaps the most perfect work of Virgil…No one who reads the magnificent passage in the second book (lines 136-137) can fail to be thrilled with its patriotic fervor.” I beg to differ with you Charles L. Durham (whoever you are), I failed to be thrilled by almost all of it. Don’t get me wrong, I do sense the Shakespearean brilliance and perpetual poetry of every line crafted with the utmost care to extract the sweet wine of beauty and truth out of every word, but I must be a few millennia off. Doesn’t hit me quite the way Shakespeare does, I’m sure because I speak the same language and I’m in the same general epoch as the Man. There were a couple sublime verses that I could detect, however, like:
“The grasses dare in safety to trust themselves to spring rain.”
“Neither might things so delicate endure this their toil, except such space of calm passed between the cold and the heat, and earth were cradled by an indulgent sky.”
“Lost to fame, let me love stream and woodland.”
“But we have crossed a boundless breadth of plain, and now is time to loosen the necks of our steaming horses.”
Overall, I considered this worth my time. If nothing else, it’s a piece of history and some of its poetry remains translucent for us. I hope to read the Aeneid sometime in the future, and even sooner I plan on picking up The Divine Comedy to be reunited with this Dante’s dubious choice of a guide.