BMCR 2021.01.19

Reflections and new perspectives on Virgil’s Georgics

, , Reflections and new perspectives on Virgil's Georgics. Bloomsbury Classical studies monographs. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. Pp. ix, 286. ISBN 9781350070516 $102.60.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

These original essays offer a welcome boost to study of the Georgics. I like best that they all begin with concise background information on the source of their “new perspectives”; most also append a “conclusion” or “implications.” Clearly the editors had a smart, active hand in shaping the volume. They also provide a good introduction, half of which surveys scholarship “in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” They mostly survey the material neutrally, but criticize the “fanciful” idea that Octavian “looked for solutions to the world’s problems by soaking up four books of poetry about farming” (5), and Batstone’s idea (in their words) “that the sole purpose of a didactic text is to teach its readers paradoxically the futility of attempting to understand anything,” which they term (oddly, to my mind) “counterproductive” (6).

The first essay, by Robert Cowan, is one of the best, using theory on the “second-person narrative” to examine the relationship between the speaker of the Georgics and its “spectrum of multiple audiences” (19). His results are limited, but he addresses larger interpretive questions about whether the poem offers or denies the possibility of success: he contrasts the speaker’s claim “you will keep” the gadfly away (acerbis 3.155), with the storm in book 1, an unavoidable third-person disaster that makes vain the second-person injunctions that precede it (26-29).

Stephen Heyworth’s chapter discusses two passages in Georgics 1. He claims that in the irrigation described at 1.108-109, ecce supercilio clivosi tramitis undam / elicit does not mean that the farmer draws the water “from the brow of the sloping track,” but that he raises his “eyebrow” to give orders. I do not understand his objections to the received interpretation. Heyworth also argues that in 1.43-83, the claim that a field responds best that has twice felt the sun and the cold refers to plowing that precedes the plowing that begins the passage.

Richard Thomas’ chapter on “Aesthetics, Form and Meaning in the Georgics,” begins with theory, then offers a tour de force of stylistic analysis. He argues that an earlier age’s notion of the Georgics as “as a straight didactic poem” (46) prevented full study of how it works aesthetically, and how that affects its political meanings. He looks at “mechanics of how the Georgics communicates its powerful aesthetic sense of empathy for those caught up in the world of Jupiter” (47); this didaxis “does not directly help us to get along in a world that is deeply problematic, but … impresses us and compensates us through its artistic and aesthetic qualities.” I cannot quite decide whether this is brilliant or too old-fashioned, but I lean towards the former. Thomas’ work on the Georgics will be familiar, but this theory of the function of poetry appears in his Dylan book: “Poetry and music are compensations for the pain that comes along with the human condition, and they are what can help us along.”[1]

Tom Mackenzie offers an excellent concise introduction to the fragments of “Orphic” poetry, many not well known, and argues that the Georgics often evokes Orphism, to show that mortals’ troubles result from a kind of original sin that we can expiate with proper instruction. This ties into larger critical arguments about the poem’s depiction of decline from a Golden Age; Mackenzie argues that the reader can use the poem’s instruction to achieve a kind of Golden Age or immortality. Thus the chapter argues for the effectiveness of didactic. This seems valuable and interesting; what keeps me from being fully convinced is the failure of Orpheus, and that Aristaeus’ bees are not “resurrected” (75) but replaced, and Octavian too is not a “resurrection of the previous, dead Caesar” (75) but a replacement.[2]

Co-editor Nicholas Freer’s chapter on the Georgics and Epicurean ideas about the value of poetry offers rich background information on Epicurus, Philodemus and Lucretius, and an excellent discussion of many passages.[3] One problem I have is that I do not believe an earlier argument on which Freer leans. Diskin Clay argued[4] that in Diogenes Laertius 10.6, where Epicurus says “launch your little boat and flee all culture,” παιδείαν δὲ πᾶσαν, μακάριε, φεῦγε τἀκάτιον ἀράμενος, there is a specific allusion to Odysseus and the Sirens in Odyssey 12. I do not buy this, since nothing in Epicurus points to the Odyssey, where Odysseus does not “flee” the Sirens but deliberately listens to them, and no “light boat” (ἀκάτιον) is “launched” (ἀράμενος). Still there is much that is interesting and stimulating on the function of poetry, on the Muses and inspiration, and on the speaker in Catalepton 5.8-14.

Co-editor Bobby Xinyue nicely argues that “the Georgics offers near-contemporary responses to and repeated meditations on the subject of the divinization of Octavian, the soon-to-be Augustus” (93). Xinyue posits a dynamic model of the Georgics, like that of Monica Gale who has argued that, in his words, “destabilizing or rendering ambiguous what at first appears to be an encouraging and unproblematic notion is typical of Virgil’s mode of writing in the Georgics.” He contrasts the initial request for Octavian as a god to exercise terrarum … cura (1.26) and have pity on farmers (41), with later passages in which the poet serves merely as “a chief-celebrant of the cult of Caesar” (99), or Caesar ignores his advice as he heads for heaven in the sphragis (100-102). The divinization of Caesar is interesting enough on its own,[5]but Xinyue relates it to broader questions asked throughout the volume: his Vergil “considers the effectiveness and relevance of not just didactic poetry, but poetic mediation more generally” (93). The verdict: not very effective.

Elena Giusti’s excellent chapter discusses the “painted” barbarians (intexti …Britanni 3.25) who both raise and are depicted on the curtains for the dramas in the imagined celebration of Caesar. She notes the early popularity at Rome of “Greek plays that dealt with barbarian themes” (106) and wonders whether “early Roman theatre” may have passed on messages about barbarians “while Rome was under threat of foreign invasion” (107).[6] In purpurea intexti tollant aulaea Britanniit is “the duty of enslaved barbarians to introduce the audience to the visual staging of their own defeat,” as “they are woven into the same curtain that they are forced to raise in glorification of Rome’s success” (109-110).

Martin Stöckinger’s chapter looks for examples of “social reciprocity” in the Georgics, as when Jupiter rewards the bees for nourishing him (118), although the poem offers “no in-depth discussion of material items being given, traded, or exchanged” (115). Stöckinger addresses “the vexed problem of who is to be regarded as the poem’s addressee and, related to that, the actual audience” (122), and asks whether the poem is unified or has more “disintegrating tendencies”–his skeptical term for Batstone’s reading. Stöckinger’s not fully convincing argument is that “it is difficult to imagine that a text could have been so attractive for different audiences within Roman society if it fell apart into different elements that could not form, or contribute to, a larger whole” (123). I suspect that Stöckinger is finding a kind of twentieth-century unity simply because he wants to.

Sara Myers’ chapter on Columella offers valuable arguments about ancient views of didactic. Because Columella discusses gardening in verse in De Re Rustica 10 and in prose in Book 11, he shows what he thought of didactic poetry: the “two treatments… demonstrate the superiority of prose for agricultural teaching” (131). Columella can be added to passages like Sen. Epist. 86.15 on Vergil’s aim to “delight readers rather than teach farmers,” and Cicero’s discussion at De Orat. 1.69 and De Rep. 1.22 of Nicander and Aratus.[7] She profitably compares Columella’s poetic book to poems in the Virgilian Appendix (134), and contrasts Columella with Vergil because of the former’s “drive for accumulation, collecting and cataloguing,” which explains the word “pulpy” in her title, for a kind of writing fond of excess in which “more is more” (137).

Ailsa Hunt’s chapter offers a useful warning about believing handbooks that trust fragments from untrustworthy sources like Servius; her case study is the list of rustic gods attributed to “Fabius Pictor” by Servius Auctus on Geo. 1.21 (Vervactor, Reparator, Imporcitor, etc.). But Hunt seems to live in a world very different from mine, in which “it is an irony of Servian reception that he now rarely attracts readers with a primary interest in Virgil’s text” (139), and in which few people are aware that much information in Servius is untrustworthy.[8] There are important ideas here about how “scholars of Roman religion have unwittingly become Servian readers of Roman religion,” (140) but I am not sure why Servius Auctus’ list should be suspect, except for Hunt’s assertions about Servius’ motives (“Servius often uses the text as a springboard for showcasing his own learning,” 144). Hunt does know that the commentaries represent “a particular academic tradition” (141) rather than one man, but she at times discusses “his” motives as though “he” were indeed one man. Oddly, there is no discussion of Servius’ source Fabius Pictor. Some might assume it was the third-century historian, but it seems more likely his grandson, who Cicero says wrote on “law, literature and the study of the past” (Brut. 81).[9]

To the three chapters on “Modern Responses” I bring no expertise, but I learned a lot from each. William Barton discusses Marc Lescarbot’s A-dieu à la Nouvelle-France (1609) as an attempt “the negotiate the socio-political challenges presented by European colonization attempts in the New World” (156). Barton’s Lescarbot believes in the didactic function of poetry, and that “didactic poetry should aim to teach in a real sense” (158). Katharine Earnshaw’s chapter is a real treat, a case study of a short, neglected piece, Shelley’s translation of Georgics 4.360-73, where Aristaeus travels to meet his mother. Earnshaw’s close reading shows that Shelley enriches the lines with allusion to Vergil’s and Dante’s descents to the underworld, and she makes the passage as metapoetic as the Georgics themselves. Susanna Braund’s chapter, which complements her recent co-edited book on Virgilian translations and more work-in-progress,[10] discusses the 2005 translation of the Georgics by “the American essayist, naturalist and translator Janet Lembke,” and the reception of the Georgics in Vita Sackville-West’s 1926 epic poem The Land, where Braund’s claims are interesting but perhaps not all fully convincing. Her concluding pages provide material for future study, and note that “it is somehow satisfying to see that it is outsiders to the white male British hegemony,” including a number of Irish poets, “who form the strongest connection with Virgil’s Georgics.”

Authors and titles

Introduction, Bobby Xinyue and Nicholas Freer
Part I – Reading the Georgics
1. The Story of You: Second-person Narrative and the Narratology of the Georgics, Robert Cowan
2. Clearing the Ground in Georgics 1, Stephen J. Heyworth
3. Aesthetics, Form and Meaning in the Georgics, Richard Thomas
Part II – Religion and Philosophy
4. Georgica and Orphica: The Georgics in the Context of Orphic Poetry and Religion, Tom Mackenzie
5. Virgil’s Georgics and the Epicurean Sirens of Poetry, Nicholas Freer
Part III – Politics and Society
6. Divinization and Didactic Efficacy in Virgil’s Georgics, Bobby Xinyue
7. Bunte Barbaren Setting Up the Stage: Re-inventing the Barbarian on the Georgics’ Theatre-temple (G. 3.1-48), Elena Giusti
8. From munera uestra cano to ipse dona feram: Language of Social Reciprocity in the Georgics, Martin Stöckinger
Part IV – Roman Responses
9. ‘Pulpy Fiction’: Virgilian Reception and Genre in Columella De Re Rustica 10, Sara Myers
10. Servian Readings of Religion in the Georgics, Ailsa Hunt
Part V – Modern Responses
11. The Georgics off the Canadian Coast: Marc Lescarbot’s A-dieu à la Nouvelle-France (1609) and the Virgilian Tradition, William Barton
12. Shelley’s Georgic Landscape, Katharine Earnshaw
13. Women and Earth: Female Responses to Virgil’s Georgics in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Susanna Braund


[1] Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters (HarperCollins. Revised Edition 2019) 30-31; cf. also 133, 310-11.

[2] Hunter H. Gardner, Pestilence and the Body Politic in Latin Literature (Oxford 2019) 114, Christine Perkell The Poet’s Truth: A Study of the Poet in Virgil’s ‘Georgics (Berkeley 1989) 77-79, 147-48.

[3] See Michael McOsker, On the good poem according to Philodemus (Oxford, forthcoming).

[4] Diskin Clay, “Vergil’s Farewell to Education (Catalepton 5) and Epicurus’ Letter to Pythocles,” pp. 25-36 in Vergil, Philodemus, and the Augustans, David Armstrong, Jeffrey Fish, Patricia A. Johnston, and Marilyn B. Skinner, eds. (Austin 2004).

[5] Cf. Zackary P. Rider, Caelum ascendit ratio: The divinizing role of knowledge in didactic poetry from Hesiod to Manilius. Dissertation, Chapel Hill 2016.

[6] The chapter complements her recent Carthage in Virgil’s Aeneid: Staging the Enemy under Augustus (Cambridge 2018).

[7] I would add Philodemus On Poems V. 25.30-26.11, who talks about how poetry “represents (or imitates) language which teaches useful things.” See David Blank “Philodemus,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.); T.H.M. Gellar-Goad, Laughing Atoms, Laughing Matter: Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Satire (Ann Arbor 2020) 5; McOsker (above n. 3).

[8] I note that there are surprisingly few references in this whole volume to the Servius-heavy reading of David O. Ross, Jr., Virgil’s Elements: Physics and Poetry in the Georgics (Princeton 1987).

[9] Cf. T.J. Cornell, The Fragments of the Roman Historians (Oxford 2013) 165.

[10] Susanna Morton Braund, Zara M. Torlone, eds., Virgil and his Translators (Oxford; New York 2018).