BMCR 2012.08.26

Virgil’s Garden: the Nature of Bucolic Space

, Virgil's Garden: the Nature of Bucolic Space. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. 204. ISBN 9780715638675. $80.00.

[The Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

With Virgil’s Garden, Frederick Jones has produced a valuable and insightful vision of the nature of bucolic space (his subtitle) in the Eclogues. The book is aimed resolutely at the graduate student as well as more experienced scholars. Thorough knowledge of the poems is assumed. It is a short, clear study offering important, new perspectives on readings of this poetry.

The layout of the book gives it at first glance the look of a work of reference. After a preface and an introductory-like chapter (on the “generic landscape and bucolic space”), there follow six chapters dealing with respectively: flora; fauna; places in and out of Eclogue-land; climate, time, geology, geography; human geography; and named people. There is then a final intriguing chapter on “containing reality: realisms and realities”, followed by a short conclusion.

A clear plan of approach, however, is not immediately evident. Jones outlines a methodology analogous to “Differential Diagnosis” in the preface, but this is not explicitly referred to again. The first chapter considers the generic position of the collection (i.e. that generic definition is not very stable) and the bucolic space the collection creates. Here we come closest to a summary of the intention of the book. Jones emphasises the doubleness of the Eclogues, and it is this aspect of them that informs his reading of the poems. The poems look both outwards and inwards. Jones puts a lot of weight on this inside-outside dichotomy throughout his book. It consistently appears to be a division that is undermined or blurred, and the terms he uses lose their purchase. Later in the book, however, Jones will provide illuminating answers to this impasse.

Regarding the nature of the bucolic space, on pp. 25-28 Jones sums up its overall content and will treat it in detail in the following chapters. It is going to be a geographer’s approach, as Jones calls it (p. 25), taking one aspect of the landscape at a time and analysing it: first the flora, then the fauna, and so on. Jones at several points labels this space “generally benign”. This description appears to neutralise the potential of his reading of the collection from the outset. With this label, he defuses any threat these poems might contain (to a stable subjectivity, for example, or a dominant semiotic system). He goes on to point out two of the ways in which the collection might refuse this benignity, but the reader will again have to wait until later in the book to see how this plays out.

The chapters that follow put interpretive questions to one side. As outlined above, these chapters deal with the various elements of the bucolic space of the Eclogues, and could easily be seen and usefully employed as a reference work. For example, readers interested in the different types of livestock and their uses in the Eclogues will find almost every reference to them catalogued in chapter three, ”Fauna” (pp. 39-42). Likewise, if they wanted to know what and how mountains appeared in Eclogue-land, this is to be found in chapter five (pp. 71-2). Jones works through these various elements that constitute the space of the Eclogues methodically but not monotonously. Their significance and placement, and the connections to their appearances in other authors, are drawn out with sensitivity and attentiveness.

Occasionally, Jones will conclude his observations with the comment that the various elements he has described “dramatise tension” (for example, p. 93). At first, these seem like evasive statements that aren’t informative to the reader. The conclusions in each section are also minor, but they do eventually combine cumulatively to create the particular bucolic space of the Eclogues of whose existence Jones is trying to convince us. He starts to build into these descriptions the ways in which they refuse the “benign” label he had given the collection at the outset. Rather than attempting to explain away inconsistencies, or fit them to a certain pattern, Jones begins to show that the very lack of pattern, the instability, is the point. His conclusions become inevitable and inescapable as he seamlessly moves from the simple to the complex.

The book thus comes alive towards the end as Jones begins to draw out the implications of the connections he has made in earlier chapters. In its simplest terms, here we begin to see the promise of the title of his book: a comparison between Virgil’s Eclogues and Roman gardens. Jones does not in the end try to explain away the discrepancies he has highlighted, but he describes how these discrepancies have parallels in art and Roman gardens. As he has shown through his methodical analysis of the various elements of bucolic space, “the complete book has a detemporised or synchronous existence”, very much like the Roman garden. Despite the difficulties of trying to pin down physical evidence from the exact period preceding the composition of the Eclogues, Jones is flexible in his approach and compelling with his arguments.

One of only a few criticisms is that this comparison between the Eclogues and the Roman garden does not take up as much of the book as it could and perhaps should. It is the original and interesting contribution of the work, and more space should have been devoted to it. Indeed, the most frustrating aspect of Jones’ book is that fascinating insights are often touched upon but not developed in detail. For example, there is an interesting but all too brief flirtation with the significance of the cognitive behaviour of a Roman child (p. 142). Is it possible that the structure of the Roman home and garden programmed their minds to think in certain ways? The full implications of such an analysis would be intriguing.

Elsewhere, some of the assumptions Jones makes are not fully explained or justified. For example, must all clear springs always be Callimachean? (pp. 35 and 40). With enough space and time it could be argued that they are, but these are perhaps the inevitable concessions to make in a book of this size.

There are also unfortunately many typographical errors, for which Jones is not solely responsible. Some of these are merely irritating, others more severe, and they occasionally make it difficult to unpick the sense of a sentence.

Nonetheless, it is a book whose short, clear structure belies its meticulous research and complex, engaging conclusions. Interestingly, throughout Jones’ book the reader will find that the Eclogues is a collection which repeatedly finds its limit in regards to Latin love elegy, an area ripe for further investigation. This book is invaluable in giving a new complexion to our understanding of the unreality of Eclogue-land; the synchronicity; the inconsistencies; the characters who are and aren’t Virgil; the politics that does and does not intrude; the landscape that is Sicily, Arcadia, and Mantua all at once; and the allusions that run backwards and forwards through the text.

Table of Contents

1. The Generic Landscape and Bucolic Space
2. Flora
3. Fauna
4. Place in and out of Eclogue-land
5. Climate, Time, Geology, Geography
6. Human Geography
7. Named People
8. Containing Reality; Realisms and Realities
9. Conclusion
Index of Passages
General Index