Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.08.16

Stephanie Nelson, God and the land: the metaphysics of farming in Hesiod and Vergil, with a translation of Hesiod's Works and Days by David Grene.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 1998.  Pp. xviii, 252.  ISBN 0-19-511740-9.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Brendon Reay, Wellesley College (
Word count: 2097 words

"Although [Hesiod and Vergil], in their lives, their times, and their temperaments, had little in common," Stephanie Nelson (N.) writes, "they shared a sense that it is in the grime of reality that its deepest metaphysical layers are found" (v). The Works and Days and the Georgics, N. argues, represent reality in its most basic terms: the dirt and dung, plants and animals, quotidian labor, seasonal rhythms, etc. of the farmer's world. It is precisely because farming is so elemental and indispensable that its representation poses basic questions about the relationships of human beings -- ancient and modern -- to the divine, to nature, and to one another. As N.'s brief methodological statement makes clear, she intends to draw a direct connection between the ancient poems and poets, and their modern readers: "My approach in this book is one I think of as modified reader-response or performance criticism. What I have tried to do, whenever possible, is to follow not only the text, but also the shifting moods of the text, treating the poem not as an argument or a logical presentation but as a work of art designed to call forth in us sometimes even contradictory emotions. As the poet modulates his voice it is, I believe the modulations of tone, even more than the literal statement of fact, that the poet expects us to respond to" (xii). By linking her readings of the Works and Days and the Georgics to the emotions and expected responses of modern audiences, N. proposes that both poems can be useful tools for thinking about modern farming and "the deeper questions of whether we feel ourselves alienated from the physical, moral, or spiritual world around us, or in harmony with it" (vi-vii). Alienation and harmony here correspond to rival modern visions of the relationship of farming, God, human beings and nature: on the one hand, the mechanized, chemically-dependent, Godless extortion of nature by agribusiness; on the other hand, a smaller, chemical-free practice in which the cooperation of human labor and nature are apiece with the farmer's relationship to God. God and the land, then, might be read profitably alongside the vivid portrayal of the extinction of the practice and values of the American family farmer in Victor Davis Hanson's Fields Without Dreams.

N.'s point of departure is her claim in the preface (x-xi) that recent criticism, having jettisoned the notion that the Works and Days and the Georgics were agricultural handbooks of genuine utility, has tended to ignore farming's structural and thematic importance in both poems. In Hesiod's case, the Works and Days' episodic organization has been taken as an indication of its lack of unity and the poet's minimal competence. Whatever the function or significance of the farming material is, then, its connection to the rest of the poem is neither obvious nor necessary. Discussions of the poem's religious and ethical dimensions have tended to mimic the poem's episodic organization (a circumstance that both reproduces and confirms allegations of the poem's lack of unity and the poet's minimal competence), and thus have tended to disregard farming altogether. In Vergil's case, the issue has not been the Georgics' lack of unity or the poet's minimal competence, but rather an abundance of both that has led scholars "to ignore the importance of farming to the poem altogether" and to view it as the poem's "ostensible topic" (xi), a dense and sophisticated metaphor, symbol, or allegory, etc. for reflection on a variety of issues. N.'s aim, then, is to direct our attention to the structural and thematic centrality of farming in both poems.

An introduction and six chapters constitute the core of the book. A preface, genealogical table, David Grene's note describing the challenges of translating the Works and Days and his responses to them, and his new translation of the poem open the volume; copious documentation (59 pages of notes, 14 of bibliography) and an index close it. God and the land is intended for two audiences: readers unfamiliar with the Works and Days and the Georgics, and professional classicists. More experienced readers may want to skip the introductory material (for Hesiod, 31-48, but note that 44-48 neatly encapsulate N.'s interpretation of the relationship of the Theogony and the Works and Days; for Vergil, 82-92) and head straight for N.'s more detailed discussions. Newcomers will find sufficient information about the poets and poems to orient themselves to the subsequent argument, although they may justifiably question why it is necessary to rehearse Hesiod's "biography" (36-39) if "It does not ultimately matter whether Hesiod was a farmer or not, any more than it matters whether the Theogony and the Works and Days were written by Hesiod, a poet or poets who adopted the persona of Hesiod, or by poets who accidentally came to be identified as 'Hesiod' " (37). All Greek and Latin is translated, and the inclusion of Grene's translation ensures convenient access to the Works and Days -- a boon for experienced readers and newcomers alike. The absence of accompanying translations of both the Theogony (upon which N.'s reading of the Works and Days depends) and the Georgics may frustrate newcomers, especially given the fact that N.'s recommended translation of Vergil's poem, C. Day Lewis', is out of print.

Chapter one, "The Composition of Hesiod's Poems," illustrates the episodic organization of the Theogony and the Works and Days, and the two compositional devices that work to unify them, repetition and ring-composition. N. shows how the two poems are flip sides of the same coin: the Theogony describes the evolution and supremacy of Zeus' power in the divine and cosmic spheres, the Works and Days illustrates the order of Zeus in everyday life. N. sees a natural division of the Works and Days into three sections: on myth (1-212), on justice and farming (213-694), and on taboos, and lucky/unlucky days (695-828). Three themes recur, and thus unify the poem: the need for perception, for right measure and due season, and for a balance of good and evil in life. The section on myth explains the hardship of Zeus' order, and the necessity of both work and justice; the next section shows Zeus' order in society and on the farm; the last section illustrates Zeus' order in its smallest details. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the poem's description of the farmer's year. Here, N. eschews the explanation that this section's purpose is genuine instruction, and argues instead that the combination of vignettes of the seasons and the didactic tone make us feel the reality and live the drama of the farmer's existence. "We are to experience farming," N. concludes, "from the inside. Only thus, to Hesiod's mind, can we see the inner truths that farming holds for human life.... [Hesiod] is teaching us what the cycle of the year, with its balance of summer and winter, of good and evil, of profit and risk, of anxiety and relaxation, implies about the will of Zeus" (57). Chapter two, "The Mythic Background," fleshes out the summary on p. 48 of the Works and Days' first section (1-212, on myth), and illustrates the mythical explanation of hardship, work, and justice.

Chapter three, "The Composition of the Georgics: Vergil's Farm", introduces the Georgics into the argument. N. observes that Vergil's poem does not describe the contemporary agricultural practice of his aristocratic readers -- the large, slave-powered operations of the dominus -- but instead illustrates the small-scale enterprise of the agricola. The fact that the Works and Days and the Georgics share this small-scale focus is crucial for N.'s argument, for, as Farrell especially has demonstrated, Vergil's allusions to and adaptations of his Hesiodic antecedent are confined primarily to book one. While the farm has remained the same, N. argues, the world has changed radically and the vision of the Georgics is correspondingly different. N. juxtaposes passages from books one and two to illustrate the poem's alternation of darkness and light, pessimism and optimism, an alternation that results in "ambiguity and ambivalence" (83). "For Hesiod," N. concludes, "the farm's contradictions reflect the complex and deceptive balance of an overarching whole. For Vergil, the contradictions are all there is" (88).

Chapters four through six fill out the distinction articulated in the first three chapters between, on the one hand, the Works and Days' vision of the "balance of an overarching whole" of farming, the divine, human beings, and nature, and the Georgic's vision of the whole defined by contradictions that coexist but do not resolve into balance, on the other hand. Each chapter treats the poems' different representations of the relationship of farming and the divine (chapter four, entitled "God"), human beings (five, "The Human Context"), and nature ("The Place of Nature"). In chapter four, N. returns to the Theogony and expands the argument at pp. 44-46 about the evolution and supremacy of Zeus' power, and the coherence of force and intelligence that enables it. In the Works and Days, Zeus' order is manifest in the multiplicity of the seasons, his first children; thus, the farmer's world is organized in its most fundamental aspect by Zeus' will. In the second half of the chapter, N. turns to the Georgics and argues that Jupiter, unlike Zeus, does not create harmony but division: the introduction of violence in the first book pits human beings against nature, and ultimately the farmer against Jupiter himself; the second book emphasizes the rift with its description of pre-Jovian harmony. N. tantalizingly observes that the absence of Jupiter and the abundant presence of Octavian in the opening proem intimates that he, not Jupiter, might provide the divine ordering center that the poem otherwise seems to lack.

Chapter five describes the Works and Days' vision of how the order of Zeus is a constant balancing act of work and justice, easy profit and injustice. "Injustice, a doomed attempt to find goods not tied to evil," N. argues, "and justice, a recognition of the necessity of hardship, both point to the ultimate fact of Zeus' order" (138). In the Georgics, justice has left the world; man-made justice, law enforced by Caesar's violence, is the means of achieving order. Book three of the Georgics joins the rift of the violence of the first book and the harmony of the second: here, human force creates order. What is at stake, N. argues, is not "what unites human beings, but whether anything can unite individuals, human or not" (141). N. argues that book three articulates an incompatible vision: on the one hand, the validity of the demands of the whole; on the other hand, the validity of the claim of the individual. Book four of the Georgics works to resolve this tension. The beekeeper's violence against the hive is beneficial to both parties: the one gets the honey, the other gets protection against enemies. The key shift from book three to book four is the disappearance of individual suffering, and N. concludes, then, that "Vergil has found an image of order and meaning in the world, but only in a place where the individual, whose suffering has throughout prevented such a vision, has disappeared. Community is possible within the hive, and between the hive and farmer, even though the bees may not see it. It may not prove possible in a farm, or a cosmos, populated by individuals" (150).

In chapter six, N. argues that the Works and Days presents a seamless whole of multiple parts -- society, farm, nature. The Georgics, on the other hand, offers two visions: human beings are either divorced from nature, and violently make nature 'unnatural'; or they are in harmony with nature. The epyllion that concludes the Georgics, N. argues, continues the poem's double vision of the world and crystallizes it: Aristaeus' success illustrates the gain that can accrue from being part of nature, Orpheus' failure shows what we lose. The chapter, and the book, conclude with the Works and Days' illustration of the balance of nature, how the farmer's observance of due season both confirms the presence of Zeus' order, and integrates the farmer within it.

God and the land, then, describes the relationship of the "grime of reality" and its "deepest metaphysical layers" in the Works and Days and the Georgics. Newcomers will find a detailed guide to the organization and some basic themes of the poems; more experienced readers, a challenge to think hard about why farming is at their center. And both audiences may find, as N. has, that the Works and Days and the Georgics are useful tools to think about their relationships to God and the land.

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