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I flatter myself that there might be some interest in those books that made an impression on me this past year. I read seventy-four books in total. Recreational reading primarily consisted of poetry and philosophy, while my academic life led me to read a number of books ranging over history of science, philosophy of science, and biology. These latter I do not include here, though many were excellent. I offer below only those about which I have something to say, focusing on books of poetry, though I include some others of interest. Many are left out simply because I had no particular comments to make about them, even though I enjoyed them very much. Within the sub-categories, books are listed in the order read.

Poetry

Omar Khayyam, Ruba’iyat (trans. Avery and Heath-Stubbs) — For a time after reading this, I wrote ruba’iyat of my own, which are published on this blog here (the thirteenth is, in my view, the strongest). That it encouraged me to such activity is the highest recommendation I can give it. The translation is literal, which means that occasionally the poetry is lost, but the irreverent joy of the poems comes through as clearly as one could wish.

Pindar, Odes (trans. Bowra) — This book gave me great pleasure, and I will likely read it again in 2017. Pindar’s victory odes begin with the athletes whose immortality they ensure, but they expand to cover the entirety of that great question of being human. They celebrate human achievements, offer moral caution as to our limits (they are didactic with none of the flaws of didactic poetry), and question our place in the universe. Bowra’s translation offers to the reader such fine English wordcraft that I could read it, not as a degraded copy of an inaccessible original, but as I would any English poem, delighting in vivid descriptions and striking turns of phrase. In my own poetic work, Pindar ranks among my strongest influences.

Virgil, Aeneid (trans. Mandelbaum and Fitzgerald) — I need not say too much about this, as I have already written about it at length on this blog. Here I will only express my approval of both the Mandelbaum and Fitzgerald translations, both of which I prefer to the Fagles (the first translation I read). In reading each, I routinely had the following experience. While reading Mandelbaum, I came across an especially wonderful passage, went to check the corresponding passage in Fitzgerald, and thought, “Mandelbaum is clearly superior.” While reading Fitzgerald, precisely the same happened, only now Fitzgerald seemed the superior. (This may have even happened for the same passages.) Both are full of delights.

Virgil, Georgics (trans. Wilkinson) and Eclogues (trans. Ferry) — While I very much enjoyed both of these works (as evidenced here), I will want to read these works in other translations to get to know them better (I own the Ferry translation of the Georgics). Until then my relationship to them will remain subsidiary to my love for the Aeneid. At the same time, they capture aspects of life that the Aeneid does not, and so round out Virgil’s output nicely.

Geoffrey Hill, Without Title — This was my first exposure to Geoffrey Hill (who died while I was reading it), and thus far still my only serious engagement with his work (though I hope to dig much deeper in 2017). It was an often rewarding, often frustrating experience, but on the whole I felt that his poetry justified the difficulty. Behind the verbal wizardry and knotty syntax is real feeling, worth the effort of excavation. My thoughts on individual poems in the volume can be found here.

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red — I read this, took a week to recover, and immediately read it again. The only reason I haven’t read it a third time is that my copy is currently on loan to a friend. I had previously read Plainwater and more or less enjoyed it, but largely felt that it escaped me. Autobiography of Red convinces me I will have to revisit it, for this “novel in verse” fairly explodes with descriptions that are both startlingly unexpected and perfectly precise. (No easy feat: much of the early American poetry I have been reading is reasonably precise, but only because tame, while much of the contemporary poetry I read manages to be unexpected—or at least to convince me that it wanted to be unexpected—at the cost of failing to convey much of anything at all.)

Other

Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena — Kafka was a strange, wonderful man, and I delighted in being made privy to the oddball intensity of his relationship with Milena. Reading this book is like watching a Wong Kar-Wai film: Franz and Milena’s relationship is full of the kind of unique rituals and concerns that characterize relationships in Wong’s films (especially Chungking Express and Fallen Angels). For my own part, little gives me more pleasure, makes me feel more deeply that there is life to be found among humans, and that this life is good.

Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn — Literary criticism, in my view, has two aims: to make us better readers, and to make us better writers. This is a book that helped me to become a better reader. Brooks is an admirable close reader of poems, and that is what this book is, first and foremost. It is also, somewhat more incidentally, a polemic in favor of the view that what the poem says cannot be captured without loss in any other form than the poem itself. As a general defense of the “new criticism,” the book is not persuasive: the position it stakes out is obviously correct, but only because it is not very bold, and the position it attacks as its contrast is very nearly a strawman (though perhaps accurate enough at the time). But what does that matter? The criticism in this book is what determines its value, and the criticism is remarkable.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity — I read this with a friend (who for her part read some of Emerson’s essays on my recommendation). Both of us noticed the similarities between Emerson’s and de Beauvoir’s ideas, only where Emerson spoke of self-reliance and conformity, de Beauvoir preferred to use the language of freeing oneself from oppression. Our discussion of this was interesting: I preferred Emerson, her de Beauvoir. She suggested, I think correctly, that this likely stemmed from certain differences in our experiences: my life has been relatively privileged and comfortable, allowing conformity in various forms to stand as one of my greatest obstacles, while she has very recently freed herself from a much more material form of oppression.

Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, 1837-1861 — It is often said that Emerson’s notebooks are his true masterpiece. I do not think this is correct: the composition of his essays brings the scattered moods of his notebook entries into striking juxtapositions that the notebooks alone cannot match. But it might be fairly said of Thoreau, whose deliberately composed works I enjoy only from a distance. The notebooks, by contrast, bring me close to the man and his enviable solitude. With Thoreau (and Emerson), I share a faith that this solitude can be mitigated by friendships that span centuries, between people who have never met. To facilitate such friendship is one of the highest purposes of writing, and Thoreau’s journal (at least, the selection presented here) serves precisely that noble end.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World — My stated purpose, on beginning to read this, was to mine it for poetic material. It has certainly furnished that: I can think of at least three poems I wrote this year that would have been impossible without this book. But leaving such selfish uses aside, the book documents a journey through an environment harsh beyond measure. As a picture of human life in such an environment, it is valuable even to those who do not see it as a quarry to be mined.

Yoshida Kenkō, Essays in Idleness — The opinions of a miscellaneous man who lived half a world away several centuries ago, well expressed. This book is a treasure trove, by turns funny and wise. No more needs to be said.

Kamo no Chōmei, Hōjōki — Imagine Thoreau’s Walden, only dramatically condensed (my copy is but 18 pages), and, instead of presenting a definite vision of how life ought to be, rather turning inward to frank self-criticism: Chōmei sought to lose his worldly attachments by living a simpler, more isolated life, only to find himself attached to that very simplicity and isolation itself.

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop — My experience of this book, and the high regard in which I hold it, are well expressed in this post I wrote about it. Cather conjures up a world with this book, and that feat, more than any particular story told (though there is a story), lies at its heart.

William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs — I know little about the civil war or about the controversies that attached to Sherman’s policies. I do not know if, considering his actions by their consequences, he should be thought a good man or a bad. But, reading his memoirs, I grew greatly attached to him, the way he carried himself. In great events, one must choose, one way or the other—thus he says, and so he does. In one of the passages that most struck me in Thoreau’s journal, Thoreau condemns the one who fails to occupy any ground. Sherman occupied ground in every sense, and was willing to defend it.

Sicilian Muses, sing a nobler music,
For orchard trees and humble tamarisks
Do not please everyone; so may your song
Be of a forest worthy of a consul.

So begins Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, and while I cannot plausibly pretend it does not please me, still I wish to quarrel with one aspect of it. In so doing, I accept the risk that this may reveal nothing other than my own lack of a consul’s nobility.

The poem announces the onset of a new golden age that shall bring “freedom from / Earth’s bondage to its own perpetual fear.” The occasion is the coming birth of a child – once upon a time fatuously interpreted as Jesus – who will bring a total peace to the world.

It is with the description of this peace that I take issue. Here is a sample:

Dear child, there will be new little gifts for you,
Springtime valerian, and trailing ivy,
Egyptian beans, and smiling acanthus, all
Poured out profusely from the untilled earth.

The crucial word is ‘untilled’ (‘nullo’, in Latin). This is land that does not need to be disciplined by the farmer to pour forth its gifts. We are here very far away from the land of the Georgics, for which discipline is essential. In the Georgics, farming is portrayed as originating in an age before the age of Jove, the age of war, a remnant of a peaceful world. Yet that world is peaceful only in the sense of lacking human war. There is still conflict: the conflict of the farmer with the soil.

Not so the world envisioned in the fourth Eclogue. That world is one that will meet all of our needs without effort, that eliminates both the conflict of war and the conflict of farming. Even the minimally violent activity of dyeing clothes will be eliminated: “Out in the meadow the fleece of the ram will change / Of its own accord from purple to saffron yellow.”

And now the quarrel: this description leaves me cold. A world without conflict… I can scarcely imagine how I would begin to fill the hours. For neither better nor worse, since it stands behind all ‘better’ and ‘worse’, the human mind evolved in a world full of conflict as an adaptation to that conflict. Without conflict of one kind or another there can only be boredom. It is this necessary fellow traveler of utter peace that Virgil fails to sing. I must confess I find the Virgil of the Georgics wiser, the Virgil who described farmers as “lucky, if they know their happiness.” The Virgil of Eclogue IV has not yet absorbed this lesson.

The necessary instructional material, however, is there. For what does Virgil imagine himself doing in this placid world, should it come, should he live long enough to see it?

Oh, if I have long life and at the end
Have breath enough and spirit enough to be
The teller of the story of your deeds,
Then neither Linus nor Thracian Orpheus could
Defeat me in the singing contest, though
Orpheus’ mother, Callipoe, were there,
And Linus’ father, Apollo the beautiful;
And Pan himself, Arcadia the judge,
Judged by Arcadia, would admit defeat.

Competition – that is, conflict invented for its own sake – that is how Virgil would pass the time. Here is the seed of the mature Virgil, the one who, though he may lament this or that particular conflict, knows better than to lament conflict as such, knows that conflict alone is the soil of all our various happinesses.

Yet perhaps I do not quarrel with Virgil at all. Perhaps he recognizes the impossibility of his vision. For here is how his poem ends:

So, little baby, may your first smile be
When you first recognize your mother, whose
Long ten-months travail brought you into the world.
That child who has not smiled thus for his parents
No gods will welcome at their festive table
Nor any goddess to her amorous bower.

Note: Ferry’s translation, completely inexplicably, makes Virgil’s ‘decem… menses’ into ‘nine-months’. I have fixed this error on his behalf.

Further note: the Latin is so beautiful here, even to my Latinless ear, that I cannot resist providing it:

Incipe, parue puer, risu cognoscere matrem
(matri longa decem tulerunt fastidia menses
incipe, parue puer: qui non risere parenti,
nec deus hunc mensa, dea nec dignata cubili est.

The poem ends with joy, a baby smiling at his mother, but Virgil with clear eyes recognizes the precondition of this joy, the “long ten-months travail” of pregnancy.

Virgil’s Georgics exists in the shadow of war, and presents the alternative thereto, the rugged, difficult, intensely disciplined, yet bucolic life of the farmer. The life of the farmer is a welcome escape from that of war (and all the concerns of the city that lead to war). Happy they are, if only they consent to know their happiness:

How lucky, if they know their happiness,
Are farmers, more than lucky, they for whom,
Far from the clash of arms, the earth herself,
Most fair in dealing, freely lavishes
An easy livelihood. (Bk. II)

But it was not always such: there was not always war. Virgil tells of a time before the age of Jove:

And earlier still, before the Cretand king,
Dictaean Jove, held sway and an impious age
Of men began to feast on slaughtered oxen,
This life was led on earth by golden Saturn,
When none had ever heard the trumpet blown
Or heard the sword-blade clanking on the anvil. (Bk. II)

Such an age is no longer. Now war and farming coexist, removed from one another, yet not wholly removed.

At the intersection of these two lives is love, the animal side of it:

Indeed all species in the world, of men,
Wild beasts and fish, cattled and coloured birds
Rush madly into the furnace: love is common
To all. (Bk. III)

The farmer must control it in his animals, avoid it where harmful and use it deliberately where beneficial. Yet equally it lies behind war. Behind the Trojan war, Helen, and the men who desired her; behind the Latin war, Lavinia, and the men who desired her. We may wonder, given this connection, about the possibility of the age prior to Jove.

This is Virgil’s advantage over Homer: he captures the true antagonism. With Homer we have the Iliad, the great story of collective struggle in war, and the Odyssey, the great story of the individual struggle to return home. Virgil recognizes that these are one and the same story, and so combines them in the Aeneid. (He recognizes, further, that in a war-torn land we are exiles, lacking a home to which to return.) They do not form a true contrast. For that is needed an alternative to war and its destruction – and thus we have the Georgics.


This post relies on the Wilkinson translation of the Georgics (Penguin Classics, 1982).