Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.06.15

Virgil. Georgics. Edited with a commentary by R.A.B. Mynors; preface by R.G.M. Nisbet. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. Pp. xci, 345. ISBN 0-19-814445-8.1

Reviewed by Patricia A. Johnston, Brandeis University.

Sir Roger Mynors' new commentary on the Georgics will be an important point of departure for scholarly study of this poem hereafter. Mynors completed the commentary before his death in 1989, except for a preface and an index. R.G.M. Nisbet has supplied, in lieu of a preface, a few sentences from Mynors' drafts, as well as two additional items Mynors' full preface might have revealed regarding V. and his poem. Here, and throughout his commentary we glimpse Mynors' reluctance to make overly broad generalizations about the poem or about Vergil himself, whom he depicts as a poet of contradictions, with "a passionate love of country and hope for its future, not untinged with deeper questions about what we might call the value and destiny of the individual" (vi).

Mynors is equally cautious about much source criticism: "We cannot simply compile a list of V.'s reading, assume that he put together his material by selection, and award him a bad mark if he deserts his 'sources.' This is a false analogy from the way in which we have learnt to regard historians; a poet does not work like that. All his material, things read, things seen, things felt, goes into the cauldron of his mind, perhaps below the level of consciousness; and thence it emerges as the spirit wills, sometimes just as it went in, sometimes combined and changed beyond recognition" (vi).

All of which suggest that Mynors deliberately avoided offering the reader any broad interpretations, such as the one on the dust jacket, which claims that the "true subject" of the poem is "man and his place in nature and society." The commentary itself is meticulously thorough, particularly in explaining technical details, and therefore will be an immensely valuable reference text for the poem. Extensive literary or philosophical interpretations will have to be found elsewhere.

Mynors' commentary follows the text of the poem, taken from his Oxford Classical Text of Vergil's works. An "Appendix of Greek Material" (pp. 325-333), an "Index of Names appearing in the Georgics" (pp. 335-8), an "Index of Latin Words" (pp. 339-42), and a "General Index of Subjects and Names" (pp. 343-345) are also included.

From the outset of the commentary, one is struck by Mynors' unpretentious style. His commentary begins, "How should such a work begin?" He cites V.'s poetic precedents, surveys the deities of the prologues for each of the books, and concludes, "This tentative account of the Prologue is based on Wissowa 1917; Kroll 1918, Witte 1926, Cesareo 1931b, and Herzog-Hauser 1953 add very little" (p. 3).

Mynors apparently did not have much use for recent scholarship, particularly that which had a literary orientation. The bibliography contains few works more recent than the early 70's, and two of these (Thomas' commentary and Suerbaum's bibliography) were added by Nisbet. Even Brooks Otis, Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry (1963) is missing.

In fairness to the author, however, many of the current issues about the poem, such as the influence of Callimachus, seem to have been duly considered by the great scholar, and incorporated into his commentary, although these allusions can not be identified by checking the indices. The publisher would perhaps be wise to redo them. The General Index, for example, omits many of Mynors' citations of Callimachus, and does not even include a great many of the authors cited: Moschion, Menander, Theocritus, Catullus, Cicero, Pliny, and Ovid, to name a few, are among those omitted. Many of the listings refer only to citations in the Appendices; others, such as those for Empedocles, Callimachus, Theophrastus, Varro and Varro Atacinus, are somewhat random and incomplete. A work as dense as this, to do justice to its contents and to serve adequately as the fine scholarly work that it is, should have a more thorough General Index or, even better, an additional Index Locorum.

Mynors has included an "Appendix with Greek Materials," containing selections from Eratosthenes' Hermes, Aratus' Phaenomena, and books five and six of Aristotle's Historia Animalium. This assemblage (with translations) may strike the reader as eccentric, but Mynors' explanation reflects his apparent judgment that seeing these materials will convey more to the reader than merely reading about V.'s use of them. As he himself says in the fragmented prefatory notes cited in Nisbet's Introduction: "This appendix of selected Greek material will, it is hoped, make it easier for the reader to appreciate to what extent, and within what limitations, V. used what he derived from his reading -- not of course copying it in 'scissors and paste' fashion (that is not how poetry is made) but combining it with what he himself had seen and felt (which is beyond our grasp) in the production of something new"(p.325).

Mynor's method here of juxtaposing and interweaving the Vergilian loci with the Greek passages vividly illustrates his point. His comparisons to Aratus, where he greatly expands the passage usually cited as having influenced Vergil's weather signs in Book I, are particularly effective in this regard.

Mynors' style is unobtrusive, almost laconic in many places, yet it somehow conveys the quiet grandeur of the poem. Note, for example, his summary of 4.197-127, "Natural history on a more exalted level: Three paragraphs, each ending with a touch of grandeur: 197 Birth and death (but the community is immortal); 210 Loyalty to the Ruler; 219 Possible divinity. After which we shall resume our beekeeping business."

This is not to say that he does not occasionally bristle at discordant interpretations, as at 3.490, (felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas), which he identifies as an hieratic formula: "Munro on Lucr. 1.78 is probably right in thinking that it is Lucr. of whom above all else V. is thinking ... and Conington's later view that at this moment Lucr. is replaced by the faceless figure of a typical Epicurean has nothing to commend it." (p. 169) Again, on 3.1-3, he rejects the theory that V. is here sorting through Alexandrian themes, insisting rather that "the topics are expressed, as in 2.2, symbolically, by patron deities.... The myths are chosen for their familiarity; the fact that many are non-heroic and nearly all known from Hellenistic poetry tells us nothing; and those who expect them to be connected with the subject of this book must be satisfied with the knowledge that Pelops was a noted judge of horse-flesh and Hercules an expert cleaner-out of cow-byres" (p. 178-9).

On 1.16 (p. 181), rejecting the theory that V. here anticipates the Aeneid, he argues, "If this represents a future poem, we are, it seems, meant to think of an epic on Caesar with backward glances towards Troy, rather than the historical poem V. afterwards wrote, with its forward glances towards Caesar. At this stage, that is where we should expect the emphasis to lie."

In working through this vast piece of scholarship, which does honor to both Mynors and Vergil and will be a important scholarly text for years to come, one nonetheless has a sense of incompleteness. If Sir Roger Mynors had had the opportunity to write his Preface, and therewithal the need to make some broad statement about the poem, perhaps he would have been less dismissive of literary and philosophical approaches to the Georgics. Lingering questions, such as how he assessed the literary and philosophic influence of the Hellenistic writers, might have emerged more clearly. For without some interpretive commitment, this excellent commentary, as it now stands, does not fully support the claim on the dust jacket that the Georgics is more than "a didactic poem on agriculture."


  • [1] A parallel review, by Joseph Farrell, was published in BMCR 2.3 (1991) 149-50.