April 24, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
“If you observe the hot-foot sun and the moon’s phases,/ To-morrow will never cheat you” – Virgil, Georgics, Book I
In celebration of poetry this month, our April Quarterly Discussion focused on Virgil’s Georgics, Book I, and a selection of poems from Wendell Berry’s Farming: A Handbook. Not only do these readings align with National Poetry Month, but also, Earth Day. While they celebrate man’s role in nature, they also review the burden of stewardship placed upon humans. Moreover, these selections participate in a conversation that spans over 2000 years.
In about 37 B.C.E., Virgil drew attention to agricultural lifestyles as a way to highlight the benefits of life outside of Rome, which he felt had become focused on conquest and greed. Virgil’s poems not only transfer knowledge of agriculture, but also valorize their effort. More importantly, he directly addresses Caesar in his poem, indicating a disconnect between the populous Rome and its surrounding rural areas. The end of “Georgic I” reads:
Long since the courts of heaven
Begrudge us thee, our Caesar, and complain
That thou regard’st the triumphs of mankind,
Here where the wrong is right, the right is wrong,
Where wars abound so many, and myriad-faced
Is crime; where no meet honour hath the plough;
The fields, their husbandmen led far away,
Rot in neglect, and curved pruning-hooks
Into the sword’s stiff blade are fused and forged.
Euphrates here, here Germany new strife
Is stirring; neighbouring cities are in arms,
The laws that bound them snapped; and godless war
Rages through all the universe; as when
The four-horse chariots from the barriers poured
Still quicken o’er the course, and, idly now
Grasping the reins, the driver by his team
Is onward borne, nor heeds the car his curb.
In this section, Virgil indicates that Rome has been overtaken by a greed which overwhelms its virtue while the husbandman rots in neglect. In other words, the government pays no heed to those that it depends upon for food. Even more boldly, the last line suggests that, in not taking care of all of its citizens, Caesar has lost control of the people.
Why did Virgil write a poem about agriculture in which he describes both its beauty and its harsh reality? He writes, “The great Sire himself/ No easy road to husbandry assigned,/ And first was he by human skill to rouse/ The slumbering glebe, whetting the minds of men/ With care on care, nor suffering realm of his/ In drowsy sloth to stagnate.” In other words, man has been made to labor in the fields for his own food, unable to slow or stop. This serves as a reminder to those back in Rome who profit from the food and taxes of an agricultural life, but do none of the work. Not only do the people of Rome do nothing, they judge and satirize the rural life.
Virgil’s Georgics couple nicely with Wendell Berry’s Farming: A Handbook. Berry praises the patience, solitude, and attention of the farmer. He explains how a farmer must attend to everything, even seemingly slight details. In “The Man Born to Farming” he writes: “The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,/ whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,/ to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death/ yearly, and comes back rejoicing.” Finding divinity in nature, Berry’s poem “The Farm” describes the work of the farmer as a “Dear opening between/ what was and is to be.”
Both Virgil and Berry celebrate the work of the farmer whose days are spent laboring in private, whose efforts remain largely hidden. Virgil’s instructions guide a farmer with knowledge and experience of previous generations, while Berry simply notes the amount of attention that is required for good health. Their words are bound to a place in the land, but also, transcend place. Both feel immense peace and health in any place that demands labor in return for survival. In fact, they intimate that attention to the land is an antidote to wars and strife. Near the end of “The Farm,” Berry writes, “In time of hate and waste,/ Wars and rumors of wars,/ Rich armies and poor peace,/ Your blessed economy,/ Beloved sufficiency/ Upon a dear, small place,/ Sings with the morning stars.”
Both Virgil and Berry indicate the cyclical nature of survival. This makes it sound as if redemption is always accessible. If everyone were to pay attention to life in a different way, in a microscopic way, attend to their home and land with thoughts of its inestimable resource, then we can, at once, begin to live for real. While they might not ask that everyone begin to farm, I think both poets would say that we should be grateful for the farmer’s interest in and ability to understand the natural world.
Thanks to those who spent time preparing for discussion and walking through these works with me. I am also always grateful for feedback! And if you are interested in future discussions, consider joining a discussion of the Federalist Papers in July. To send feedback, or for more information, contact as****@hm*.edu.
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