Ancient and modern

Virgil understood the great power of nature

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

‘Georgics’ are an ancient form of poetry about agriculture and the land. The term derives from Greek ‘land’ + ergon ‘work’ (cf. farmer George) and emphasises the necessity of working hard to counteract deprivation, build a nation and forge a civilised world. Virgil’s Georgics (29 bc) in four books are a supreme example of the genre and not without relevance to the modern ‘green’ agenda.

Its opening outlines the subject matter: field crops and tilling the soil, viticulture, and the care and skill required to tend cows, sheep and bees. Virgil then calls on the gods to aid his task, and finally asks the young Octavian (soon to become Augustus, the first Roman emperor) to smile on his poem in a world so recently torn by strife and civil war (Caesar against Pompey, 49 bc).

It rapidly becomes clear that farming is no joyride and the wise farmer must be guided by Nature’s signs. But Nature’s recent signs — volcanos, earthquakes, comets — turn out to be its own response to that bloody war and a world out of control, ‘where right and wrong change places’, a world swept along like a charioteer at the races tugging hopelessly at the reins of a ‘heedless chariot’. The social and political are also in play here. Nature warns: will man listen?

If he does, Virgil insists, the man who understands Nature will understand man. The natural world reflects human feelings: rivers feel the weight of boats; unfruitful trees can be taught, and will gladly learn, to mend their ways; ants scavenge ‘in fear of a lean old age’; the ox that drops dead at the plough (unyoked from its grieving mate) will no longer enjoy the clear streams, luscious meadows and shade of lofty trees that brought him such comfort. Bees exemplify a society working selflessly for each other in the communal interest, a model on which civilised human life can flourish.

One must read the poem to catch the raw, emotional power of Virgil’s glorious, kaleidoscopic vision of Nature’s interaction with man. Anthropomorphic tosh? Maybe. But given the interdependence between the two, the warning is: as you sow, so shall you reap.

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