“What makes the corncrops glad, under which star
To turn the soil, Maecenas, and wed your vines
To elms, the care of cattle, keeping of flocks,
All the experience thrifty bees demand –
Such are the themes of my song.”
The opening lines of “the best poem by the best poet”, according to John Dryden. Virgil wrote The Georgics not long before the birth of Christ.
The Knife is feeling a bit weary, physically and mentally – the latter primarily due to his unhealthy interest in the mess of British politics. What better time could there be to turn to poetry? Not to the gimmicky tricks of Carol Ann Duffy, or to the mordant drivel of her predecessor, but way back, to the genius who took on the mantle of Homer, with The Aeneid and the extraordinarily beautiful Georgics.
Ostensibly a poetic treatise on ancient agriculture, in four books, it is a hymn to nature and the seasons, expressed through a mixture of vivid descriptions of folklore and farming techniques, with evocative references to mythology and the gods, and most strikingly, the brief allusions to the locale – “the wicked goose and those Strymonian cranes”, “the Pelusian lentil”.
An earth is created in the modern reader’s mind of fields, mountains, constellations, storms, animals, insects, and in the midst of teeming nature, man.
In the world of today we often get into our cars and drive to the edge of Virgil’s world, for a glimpse of the country, usually sanitised and transient. The Georgics brings it to the reader, with an astonishing power to conjure up the toils of man. Even beekeeping attains a peculiar nobility.
Many of the published versions have covers from medieval artists, which suggest that a thousand years later, little had changed. Looking around him today, The Knife – who lives on the edge of the countryside – can see Virgil’s themes and scenes everywhere. This timelessness is a key to the enduring appeal and freshness of The Georgics. It really is amazing how little has changed.
I can’t comment on the accuracy of the translations, and the appreciation of poetry is intrinsically subjective. However, the version of LP Wilkinson in Penguin Classics has a purity and spirit that is wonderful. This is a book that’s small enough to stick in a pocket, a briefcase or in a bathroom cupboard, to sample in small doses or large.
Not unlike an iPod, but cheaper. And much more enduring.