The Georgics

By Virgil, Betty Radice

1,563 ratings - 3.85* vote

A eulogy to Italy as the temperate land of perpetual spring, and a celebration of the values of rustic piety, The Georgics is probably the supreme achievement of Latin poetry.

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Book details

Paperback, 160 pages
November 25th 1982 by Penguin Classics

(first published -29)

Original Title
Georgica
ISBN
0140444149 (ISBN13: 9780140444148)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Fergus

GOD PERVADES ALL THINGS -
EARTH AND SEA’S EXPANSE,
AND HEAVEN’S DEPTH.
Virgil, Fourth Georgic

INTENSE CONFLICTS, IF RESOLVED SUCCESSFULLY, LEAVE BEHIND THEM A SENSE OF SECURITY AND PEACE WHICH IS NOT EASILY DISTURBED.
C.J. Jung

Many Early Christian apologists at the height of the Roman Empire - in view of the awful Roman Genocide of Roman Martyrs in the first centuries after their Divine Advocate taught and was crucified - see Virgil as the forecaster of their Faith.

As, also, is the case with his Aeneid (check out my review).

Why? This work is in fact a bucolic Roman farmer’s manual, isn’t it?

Not really...

This long poem, written as a Paean to the Emperor Augustus, also works - like all great literature - at a secret, subconscious level. And at that level, said Carl Jung, we are dealing with universal, subconsciously shared myths.

As in Joseph Campbell’s epochal book The Masks of God...

Dr. Campbell says the story of a Risen Saviour is common to all primitive religions. And C.S. Lewis knew that fact as a young man, using it as a building block to his own Christian Faith.

If the ancient myths said THAT, Lewis reasoned, perhaps, then, they prefigure the life of Jesus.

As the Georgics do also.

Aristaeus (O nobly-born - As the Buddha might say) is a Roman beekeeper.

But all his bees are gone. In intense anguish, he pleads his case to Cyrene, the Demi-goddess who bore him to the god Apollo. She tells him he must ask Proteus the reason - but must first keep that monster quiet -

For he is a mythic figure who can continually change his form.

(C.J. Jung would say Proteus is a symbol of the Shadow - our Dark Self or Daemon.)

So Aristaeus goes to Proteus’ lair. He tries, forcefully, to get him to speak and reveal the crime for which he is being punished through the banishment of his bees.

Virgil says, “when you hold him with chains or fetters, he will confuse you with many forms of wild beasts.” Such are Cyrene’s words.

Thus, driven by his own Daemon, Aristaeus succeeds and chains Proteus. Proteus then spills the beans...

He tells the young beekeeper of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (recently popularized by Virgil’s friend Ovid in The Metamorphoses) and tells Aristaeus, “YOU killed Eurydice, and must pay!”

Turns out one of his stray bees BIT her, while evading Aristaeus’ lustful advances...

To atone, now, and restore his bees, Aristaeus must in penance sacrifice one of his best bulls, beat the carcass, and place the remnants in a pen.

Naturally, he does this faithfully. In other words he KILLS his own primitive shadow, and buries the body.

And, lo - from the dead body, swarms a reborn colony of BEES.

See the meaning of that?

In order to be reborn, like Jesus, we must SACRIFICE our primitive Self and rise again, TO NEWNESS of Life.

Not an easy task, by any means...

But this is what Virgil has done with his Dark Side.

At the end of this cycle of poems, we leave Virgil alone, in Peace, while Augustus heaves his sword in faraway wars.

Augustus gets his share of praise, of course -

And Publius Maro Virgilius? -

“Et in Arcadia ego...” I sit alone in Paradise...

Enjoying the Spoils of Victory over his Old Self.

Buck

The Georgics is a long, didactic poem about agriculture. It is not sexy. In fact, it’s almost defiantly unsexy, like a bull dyke in flannel. But it doesn’t care what you think. It has nothing in common with you. It doesn’t watch home makeover shows. It’s not down with your favourite bands. It’s a supremely humane and civilized poem written at a time when your ancestors and mine were still painting themselves blue and grunting over a fire. So don’t tell me it’s not cool. It isn’t, but that’s not the point. And don’t tell me it’s boring. It is, but only in the way that everything’s boring if you don’t understand it. Mozart’s boring too if your highest conception of musical genius is Nickelback.

As long as I’m being an asshole, here’s another obnoxious pronouncement: don’t even bother reading the Georgics in translation. Total waste of time. I’ve checked out a good half-dozen versions and they’re all excruciating. I don’t blame the translators; I blame the English language. If Latin is a demure and delicate brunette (which is how I like to think of her), then English is a big, blowzy, prolix blonde who drinks too much and sweats a lot. Don’t get me wrong: I love the old broad, but expecting the grace and clarity of Virgil to come through in English is like asking Dame Judi Dench to play a willowy ingénue.

Let me stop speaking in this annoying, ex cathedra manner and try to show you what I mean. The facing translation in my edition of the poem is by David Ferry, who’s probably the best of a bad lot as far as translators go. He avoids most of the lyrical wankery of his predecessors and captures some of the toughness of the original. But even he gives in to the sheer sprawl of English idiom, routinely stretching out two of Virgil’s lines into three or four of his own. So when Virgil writes:

tum pingues agni et tum mollissima vina,
tum somni dulces densaeque in montibus umbrae.


what this literally means is something like:

Then [in spring:] are plump lambs and mellow wines,
Then are sweet sleep and dense shadows on hills.


But that sounds odd to an English ear, so Ferry pads it out:

Spring is the season when lambs are plump,
The season when wine is mellowest,
The time of year when sleep is sweetest of all,
And the shadows on the hills are at their softest.


Notice that Ferry needs 34 words to say what Virgil says in 14. That doesn’t necessarily prove Virgil is better, but take my word for it, he is—much, much better. (And since I’m geeking out here, what the hell happened to Ferry’s iambic pentameter in the last line? Looks like it got into some of that mellow wine and went all flaccid.)

I don’t know whether it’s age or what, but I’ve reached a point where most of the stuff I read strikes me as bullshit (little of this gets reviewed because I fling it away after a page or two). I have an abiding prejudice against abstract ideas (bullshit); I loathe most forms of “fancy” writing (bullshit); approximately 90% of poetry makes me retch (bullshit). Virgil is a lot of things, but he isn’t bullshit. I read him and think: here’s a man who spent a lot of time just walking around, looking at the world, being alive. His images—his simple, homely images—still quiver with life after two thousand years: the panicked swallows flying in circles around their pools before a storm, the plough blade polished to a shine by the abrasion of the soil, the old housewife skimming the foam out of her boiling pot with leaves. None of this means anything beyond itself; it’s not symbolic. It’s there because it’s there, just as the world is there.

See, I’ve almost talked myself into loving this poem. The truth is, I’ve only read the First Georgic and I’m planning to take a break from Virgil, being pretty much Lattined out (hence the lack of a rating). But I have a feeling I’ll be dipping into the Georgics for the rest of my life—not every day or anything; just whenever I have an urge to sluice off some of the bullshit. Virgil’s refreshing that way.

Daniel Chaikin

This was much easier on me than the Eclogues. I could follow at the sentence level, and could follow the general themes, and, occasionally, get the references. And there is a nice story at the end on Aristaeus (a god I had never heard of), that includes a wonderful take on Orpheus and Eurydice, and that somehow made the whole book better. But, on the other hand, reading without notes (and reading a public domain translation without even knowing the translator), I was constantly lost. Names and nicknames and place names all passed me by, and somewhat odd English didn't help. Sometimes I would read a sentence several times until concluding that I just didn't understand enough of the words to make any sense of it.

About halfway through this I was able to get a translation by L. P. Wilkinson from my library. So the first half I read very slowly, struggling the whole way...and still mostly missing whatever points there were. The second half I steamed through, thinking I'll just re-read through Wilkinson. Oddly, that worked better for me...or maybe I just really liked Orpheus.

I'm finding this difficult to review without thinking on the introduction by L. P. Wilkinson in his translation, which I read after I read this.... in brief Virgil was doing a lot of things here, but mainly he is playing off Hesiod's Works and Days, and heavily under the influence of Lucretius's epicurean manifesto - The Nature of Things (which I haven't read). The four books of poems form a romantic notion of farm life. Noxious things, like absentee landlords and slaves, aren't mentioned. This is about an idealized farmer running his own farm, and it's very much a celebration of this kind of life. Each book covers a topic - Book 1 farms and fields, Book 2 trees, Book 3 livestock (first large, then smaller), and Book 4 beekeeping. From Hesiod is the idea of giving advice directly to a person on farm management and from Hesiod, somewhat, is the method of how Virgil presents it. Book 1 takes heavily from Hesiod. From Lucretius is a love of extensive details and description - and this is where Virgil excels. The Georgics is considered the first descriptive poem.

It's not, however, a very good farm manual. One might kindly call it a simplification as it lacks critical detail, while giving some ridiculously fanciful advice. Virgil likely grew up on a farm, but he didn't go out and study farming, he studied literature. And it seems almost all his ideas come from the literary pool, as he references freely. That seems to be an important point. But the sense within the descriptions and the charm of them seems to be mostly Virgil's own, and maybe reflects his own experiences.

I read this while thinking about how Virgil might have related to his childhood farms and how, in the Eclogues, he openly mourned the farmers who lost their land. That is, after different stages in the various Roman civil wars, farmers were evicted from their land, and it was handed over veterans in reward for their service. This happened in the exact area, near modern Mantua, where Virgil was from. I like to think that Virgil saw these new comers coming in and taking over land they didn't know and thinking how they must be trying to figure out how to work this land. Could he, perhaps, have thought to give them a book of facetious and obvious advice, sometimes ridiculous, to sort of mock their ignorance of their poorly acquired land? Just my own silly idea....probably better left unsaid.

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71. The Georgics by Virgil
composed: 29 bce
format: 92 page Kindle public domain e-book (translator unknown)
acquired: from amazon in November
read: Nov 27 - Dec 3
rating: ??

M.L. Rio

I love how much Virgil loves bees.

Caroline

Warning: long review. Poem itself first, then different translations.

A 75 page poem about farming? You’ve got to be kidding. No, I’m not. Beautiful poetry, a window into ancient times, and ideas to ponder.

From my home in the central valley of California, I choose:

And he, who having ploughed the fallow plain
And heaved its furrow ridges, turns once more
Cross-wise his shattering share, with stroke on stroke
The earth assails, and makes the field his thrall… (Dryden translation, Book 1)

And

The farmer’s labor circles back on him
As the seasons of the year roll back around
To where they were and walk in their own footsteps.
And just as soon as the year’s old leaves have fallen
And the cold North Wind has shaken loose the lovely
Foliage of the autumn trees, the vigilant
Farmer will set himself to work preparing
For the year to come, cutting and pruning and shaping
with his curved Saturnian blade… (Ferry translation, Book 2)


I read three translations of the poem, trying to find which one I preferred. The analysis of the translations is below the review of the poem itself. I would highly recommend reading at least two translations. I got more out of the poem each time, and I could see different ways to interpret it. It’s not just about furrows and forelocks.

First of all, Virgi’s farmers weren’t staring at their phones all day. They needed to watch the sky and the world around them every second. The clouds, the moon, the birds, the animals. Much of the first book treats the signs that tell the farmer what’s ahead: is it time to plant? to breed horses? to scrape the honey from the hive? To harvest? Is there a storm coming? What kind of wind? how long?

Who sends the signs? The gods, of course. In a world ordered by Jupiter, who inexplicably eradicated the easy long-gone life of rivers of wine and lazily gathering food where it lay. The father of the gods has instead imposed a life of ceaseless toil and uncertainty, disasters we may be able to avert if we react to omens.

So maybe we ought to look up and pay attention to what’s happening around us, in real life.

I picked up the Georgics because I’m in a book group that is reading Paradise Lost over the summer, and Virgil’s work is often referenced in commentary. And indeed:

For Father Jupiter himself ordained
That the way should not be easy. It was he
Who first established the art of cultivation,
Sharpening with their cares the skills of men,
Forbidding the world he rules to slumber in ease.
Before Jove’s time no farmer plowed the earth;
It was forbidden to mark out field from field,
Setting out limits, one from another; men shared
All things together and Earth quite freely yielded
The gifts of herself she gave, being unasked.
It was Jupiter who put the deadly poison
Into the fangs of serpents; commanded the wolf
To seek and find its prey; ordained that the storm
Should cause the sea to rise and flood the land;
Stripped from the leaves of oaks the dewlike honey
That made them glisten there; hid fire from man;
Turned off the flow of wine that everywhere
Ran in the streams; all this so want should be
The cause of human ingenuity,
And ingenuity the cause of arts, (Ferry translation, Book 1)


Virgil is writing just as Augustus is defeating Anthony and finally consolidating his status as single ruler of the Roman Empire. The passages that describe battles of bee colonies, or insecurity in general, reflect many years of actual civil war. Virgil celebrates the retired life of the farmer (although he didn’t choose it for himself) but he notes that even in the countryside conflict affects your life.

Virgil has accepted the burden of hard work and occasional losses. He is a Roman. He instructs, and he celebrates the satisfaction of well crafted tools, well plowed fields, well-bred stock, well-tended vines, well-grafted trees.

The poem is a somewhat odd mix of generalist show-off and specialist-prescriptions. By treating all topics Virgil displays his wide expertise (some of which even his contemporaries disputed) . But he also warns that the farmer must first assess his land and climate, and plant accordingly. Don’t try to raise grapes in land suited to goats. In his long celebration of the bee in Book 4, he spells out the task for each bee according to age and condition. The colony depends on mutual support, community responsibility for raising children, and attention to your assigned job, be it building cells or gathering pollen.

Intermixed with these sober explanations of how to mind your farm are diversions where the poetry shifts from an easy didactic tone to flights of artistry as Virgil leaps to myths, Rome’s destiny, and political events that reveal his eagerness to achieve renown in epic poetry. The greatness of the poem lies in Virgil’s ability to make both modes equally accomplished and engaging.

Think of the shining cities and the accomplishments of men,
towns created by such effort on steepling rocks
with rivers rumbling underneath their ancient walls….
Hers are the most intrepid men--fierce Marsians, and Samite stock;
Ligurians, misfortune’s friends; Volscian lancers…
You who, already champions of Asia’s furthest bounds…
Hail to thee, Italy, holy mother of all that grows,
mother of men… (Fallon, Book 2)


As much as Virgil is writing to show off his knowledge and his art, he is also urging men to accept that life is hard and must be met every day with stamina, attention, acceptance of class and station, reverence for the gods, and sheer relentless work. Little wonder that centuries of schoolteachers used this as a text in Latin class. But with this acceptance of the rigor of the established order and its rules, came an understanding of exactly what your tenants were doing in order to pay their quarterly rents. That every day was work, and disaster could strike the best husbandman through no fault of his own.

So then, which translation into English to choose? This is a make or break decision. One translation I abandoned early in dismay, a second put me to sleep, and three I read through, enjoyed greatly, and deal with here.

So how does it start off? Note that Virgil is writing the poem for his patron, Maecenas.

Virgil:
Quid faciat laetas segetes, quo sidere terram
Vertere, Maecenas, ulmisque adiungere vites
Conveniat, quae cura boum, qui cultus habendo
Sit pecori, apibus quanta experiential parcis,
Hinc canere incipiam.

[My one year of Latin is totally insufficient: Google Translate is little better: ”What God will do (make?) the crops joyous, beneath what star the earth, render the words, Maecenas, and wed vines to elms, the fourth is the care of the oxen, of the worship of those who ought to have of the flock, and all the skill the thrifty bees, on the one side and to praise, I will begin. “

So much for machine translation. Any readers: please pitch in in the comments with a better literal. I include Google in part to indicate that the ‘joy’ in the first lines below is not translator license.]


John Dryden:

What makes the cornfield smile; beneath what star
Maecenas, it is meet to turn the sod
Or marry elm with vine; how tend the steer;
What pains for cattle-keeping, or what proof
Of patient trial serves for thrifty bees--
Such are my themes."

David Ferry:

What’s right for bringing abundance to the fields;
Under what sign the plowing ought to begin,
Or the marrying of the grapevines to their elms;
How to take care of the cattle and see to their breeding;
Knowing the proper way to foster the bees
As they go about their work; Maecénas, here
Begins my song.

Peter Fallon:

What tickles the corn to laugh out loud, and by what star
To steer the plough, and how to train the vine to elms,
Good management of flocks and herds, the expertise bees need
To thrive—my lord, Maecenas, such are the makings of the song
I take on myself to sing.

L P Wilkinson
I don’t have it any longer, donated it although I read a good chunk. Too Victorianish and wordy.

David Slavitt:
Also donated after ten pages. In Slavitt’s version, Virgil starts off in a casual manner, with what seems a bit of a sneer, as if he’s at a Roman banquet thrown by Maecenas where each guest has drawn a piece of paper with a topic for a poem on it, and he had the rotten luck to get ‘agriculture.’ Not at all my reading of Georgics.

So, I would read Ferry as a first go (with Fallon a good second choice). Importantly, Farrar, Straus and Giroux have included the Latin. Ferry captures what I vaguely grasped as the direct, somewhat plainer feel of the Latin, and its strong forward motion. The poem moves right along. There is plenty of beauty in his English, but it flows naturally. Ferry’s forward is light on the academics. Instead, it shares his love of the poetry and what it says to him: “Everywhere in the four books of the poem there are ecstatic and tender celebrations of the very life in things.” A glossary helps with all of the names.

One thing the en face version gives you is an appreciation of the economy of Latin. Even clean-cut Ferry needs half again as many lines as Virgil.

Then I would read Dryden. Absolutely beautiful.

Then Fallon. This Irish translator knows farming, and he knows the effort of healing a country after the Troubles, as he mentions in his introduction. In many passages he equals the other two; you can enjoy the Irish love of language in the passage above. Close attention will reveal lovely details like ‘steering’ the plow in the first sentence, above. It is certainly a version that will prompt you to pull more from the poem. My only quibble is that perhaps Ferry is closer to Virgil’s tone. Fallon’s introduction is also useful in providing context, both political and poetic, for the poem. He also has a precis of each of the four books, and more notes, although Ferry’s glossary covers much of the same material.

Prescription: Enjoy with a glass of Falernian and some olives.

Daniel Chaikin

A very different experience then the public domain translation I read earlier. Wilkinson was just really helpful. He has what I thought was a great introduction. And his translation is easy to follow. When I read the other version I spent all my effort just trying to understand the sentence I was reading, and I had a lot of trouble seeing the bigger picture. In this translation suddenly it was all really very clear, and I could spend more time entertained that Virgil would spend stanzas on soil types or other seeming mundane things (along with plagues, and many calls to mythology, some quite wonderful.) There is some cost to this clarity, something of the poetic affects are lost. But, well worth it, I think.

For more on the content, see my other review HERE

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73. The Georgics by Virgil, translated by L. P. Wilkinson
composed: 29 bce
translation 1982
format: 160 page hardcover
acquired: library
read: Dec 4-9
rating: 4

Ana

Politics and agriculture, an interesting mix especially when it comes to the topic of animal husbandry.

Jon

This is an excellent translation of Virgil's Georgics (the four poems he wrote just before the Aeneid), describing and praising the life of the farmer. The translator, Janet Lembke, is somewhat unique in that she's an American, her father was a farmer, and she is a naturalist as well as a classicist. So she avoids the usual Britishisms (corn, where we Americans would say grain) and manages to be elegant, accurate, and clear. These are the poems that Virgil-lovers tend to praise most highly. Most of the time he is describing the precarious life of the subsistence farmer; but always implicit is that everybody's life is precarious, especially in times of violent political turmoil (he was writing just as Octavian was finally defeating Mark Antony and beginning to consolidate power after years of civil war.) When he describes all the natural signs indicating that a storm is brewing and remarks that a truly observant farmer will never be surprised, he isn't just talking about the weather. Any more than Bob Dylan was when he said "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

Sara

This was recommended in the newsletter of a farmer I follow on social media, and I'm glad I picked it up. It was a quick read, but can also be read in small sections.

I thought it was gorgeous, funny, horrifying, a nostalgic (for Virgil!) tour of rural Italy back when farming was very much manual labor. Observations of stunning specific beauty and philosophical remarks alternate with detailed descriptions of how to test soil using a sooty basket as a filter, how to care for bees, train a pair of oxen, breed racehorses, choose land for various kinds of crops. The only stretch that seemed dull to me was a passage of praise for the gods and his patrons. One of my favorite parts was his statement that Jove made life hard for the human race so that we would become creative (not because we were bad).

Nick

Allow me to clarify those stars you see above.
I love Virgil, with all of my heart. His depth is devastating and his verse, in the original Latin, is uncanny. Before Shakespeare he was the definition of greatness. And I love the Georgics. For some people, the Aeneid will always be the end of the discussion on epics. But for me, no other large poem in the ancient world compares to the Georgics. I honestly believe that the West had to wait for Dante before it got another masterpiece of this magnitude. I hope that all this praise has made it clear that those two stars were not for Virgil, who surely deserves seven.
David Ferry is a great scholar and clearly understands the Georgics as well as anybody. His opening discussion, while suffering from too many text quotations, overflows with his love for and insight into this great poem, and serves as a fine introduction for those who haven't ever heard of it. But unfortunately, in this case Ferry fails as a poet. The Georgics asks a lot of contemporary English-speaking translators. It is a poem about farming, but not really. It's a poem about Roman society, but not just Roman. It's a poem about the gods, the ones that Virgil didn't necessarily believe in. 21st-century English speakers don't have an easy set of tropes to describe these things as slickly as Virgil did. What's more, we cannot, by the nature of our language, pack as much detail into as small a space as the Latin poets could. The pacing of our poetry is just vastly different. How does Ferry tackle this task, and capture the virtuosity and density of the original text?
With clumsy, inconsistent verse. The vocabulary is a strange, mixed bag of high severity and casual slang. Ferry employs iambic pentameter (with anapests), which is the natural English equivalent to Latin dactylic hexameter and which should bind the poem together. Instead, it seems to bind Ferry's poetic sensibilities. Virgil's verse seems to have been born into a perfect set of Dactyls and Spondees. Ferry's, on the other hand, often betrays agonizing labor. There are awkward, twisted, agonized lines such as this:

The ululating howls of wolves were heard,
echoing in the streets of high hill-towns.
Never were there more times when lightning struck
down from a perfectly cloudless sky, and never
were there more terrible comets to be seen. (Book 1, page 41)

and even worse, this:

From Lydian Timolus, don't you see,
our fragrant saffron comes, from India
our ivory, from soft Arabia
our Frankincense...(Book 1, page 7)

or this:

And every second season let the land
be idly fallow, so that what happens happens;
or, under a different constellation, sow
the seeds for a crop of yellow barley, having
uprooted and carried away the wild pulse with
its quivering pods shaking with laughter...(Book 1, page 9)


Is Ferry's translation accurate? Absolutely. I know the poem fairly well, and have translated large portions of it myself. But, as you'll gather from my (rather glowing) review of David Hinton's translation of Li Po, I strongly believe that a poetic translation cannot simply transplant idioms and devices from one language into another. The translation must be good poetry in the new language. This poetry is clumsy and awkward, mostly, I think, because of Ferry's desire to be quite literal.
I would like for a moment to be picky about Ferry's attempt to capture mood. When Ferry reads a line such as "unde prius laetum siliqua quassante legumen..." (whence prior, the bean pod shaking with gladness...) he understands how it sounds and operates in the original Latin. But he fails to make the further step of reproducing that feeling and meaning in English. There is a wonderful, enchanting series of sound repetitions in the Latin. Notice the frequent "l" sounds, and most stunningly the immediate repetition of the "qua" syllable in "siliqua quassante." What tribute does Ferry pay to this virtuosity? These are liquid, bubbling, joyous sounds. When I read the original, I am inclined to believe that the beans really are happy. When I read Ferry's translation, I am more inclined to believe that the beans are mentally ill.
I know it is a bit much to ask of any poet to try to reproduce Virgil's uncanny skill, but this is an especially poor attempt. My search continues for a great contemporary translation of this poem. Until that time, I will gladly settle for James Rhoades' 100-year-old attempt, which was unbearably archaic even in its own time.

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