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The Georgics – Virgil

 
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Posted September 3, 2016 by

The Georgics – Virgil – 29 B.C. 

Reviewed by: Michael Sympson           Date: 15 September 2001

Dryden’s labor of love, part II.

Virgil had set out to create the perfect poem and he succeeded! Unfortunately we no longer use to speak his language. As the millennia pass by we lose rapport with a culture, which had made a science of oratory and banked its entire stock in learning and political persuasion on the fine art of oral delivery. Inevitably we lose out on Virgil’s greatest asset – his incomparable melos of sustained oratory and the onomatopoetic effects highlighting the semantics. It comes with an uncanny grip on the significant nuance and with a choice of words which provoked some of his ancient critics to berate Virgil for his “inappropriate” language. Virgil was felt to have a fondness for the ordinary vocabulary of common people. In fact this extremely shy man spoke with a rustic accent. To pillage the museum of archaic and rare words and add to it a Miltonian accent, is therefore not the way to translate Virgil’s exceptional qualities. However Mandelbaum and Humphries are living examples for how hard it can be to avoid the opposite extreme of a limp prosiness.

A modern reader probably associates something nostalgic and sentimental with this kind of poetry, a hypocritical invocation of good old times and conservative values, but Virgil was never sentimental and the inevitable eulogies on the Imperial regime never exceed a peasant’s noncommittal deference. Virgil had been indebted to the former triumvir for his intervention in the eviction procedures of Virgil’s paternal estate and this poem was meant to repay the favor. Virgil’s wry smile under a heavy brow however betrays the epicurean, even if his line of work demanded more than the occasional nod to the mythological pattern. But the gods up there remain aloof and detached from human interest, although, as a farmer’s son, Virgil had never lost an affectionate regard for the crowd of genies and minor deities who protect the soil, spray sparks from the cooking-fire, and guard the lintel. Call it superstition, but it is a world cocooned in spiritual comfort. However we would misunderstand Virgil’s entire outlook, if we ignored his admiring familiarity with Lucretius’s poem “The Way Things Are.”

Dryden’s popularization of the heroic couplet introduced into English prosody a new, slightly ironical, and highly conversational idiom of almost unlimited flexibility. Great poets, like Alexander Pope, could completely specialize on the couplet and drag a living out of it. In the end the 18th century went out of favour, but the saccharine pseudo-lyricism by Romantics, Victorians, and Eduardian poets failed to educate the public’s taste for something better than candy for the ear. No wonder that Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot felt as if on a mission. However Eliot couldn’t bring himself to pick up where the Augustean’s had dropped Apollo’s quiver. This would have placed him close to the later Byron, and everybody knows how much Eliot detested Byron. Besides, Dryden’s and Pope’s tone was conversational and of an almost impolite lucidity. For Eliot’s taste their irreverent humor lacked the oracular exuberance of the so called “metaphysical” poets. The romantics had felt the same way, but had managed to fudge the issue and to supplant the old and, in their view, outmoded set of ethical decorum, with J.J. Rousseaus’s constipation of the heart and early forays into hard-core nihilism. Indeed, in such company, Virgil’s “Georgics” must look like a party crasher from outer space.

Yet the greatest miracle in Virgil’s poem is something that remains invisible. It originally ended with an eulogy addressed to M. Ælius Gallus. At the time of composition (27 BC.,) Gallus had been Augustus’ commissioner for Egypt but for some reason fell from grace and was recalled and bullied into committing suicide. So Virgil took out the entire passage from his poem and replaced it with the narrative of Orpheus’ quest for his wife at the gates of Hades. I don’t know whether the reader can appreciate what that means: according to my calculation we look in the final edition at some 380 lines rewritten and seamlessly dovetailed to the tightest knit structure of leitmotifs and cross-references ever done in any poem; a little more than 15% of the entire thing. This is not just surgery, this is heart surgery, because it took Virgil seven years to compose altogether 2,188 lines. If purity of style was his ambition, then Virgil is one of the purest poets of all times. Text and context totally absorb the means of expression without flaunting the poet’s versatility, something I find sorely lacking in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

So Dryden had every reason to put as much effort into his translation as Virgil had put into his composition. And he did. Across the millennia this cooperation of two of the greatest poets has created one of the marvel’s of Augustean prosody; a poem, easily on a par with Eliot’s “Quartets.” It contains everything a poet would want to tell, as he celebrates life, the seasons, and why it is good to be here, even if it is a hard and unsentimental life under a blazing sky. The Georgics are incredibly rich in content, outlooks and insights, they open unexpected and intriguing perspectives on every page. In a handful of lines Virgil manages to create an entire cosmos. It even contains the original topography for Dante’s “Hell.” Lesser poets would need a lifetime to cover that much ground and it would take them a whole library of three-decker tomes to do so. I think I just have found the book to take with me, if a little briefcase and a T-shirt should be my only possessions left.


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