« السابقةمتابعة »
VI. THE GEORGICS: LIFE
HE Georgics were, in the full sense, a labour of love. But their composi
tion was undertaken at the instance of, and even, as Virgil's own words haud mollia iussa 1 seem to imply, under some pressure from, Maecenas and the Imperial government. Virgil's fastidiousness had to be overcome, his absorption in endless study to be urged into the work of creation. The call was made on him to make the new poetry at once into an expression and a motive force of national life.
For a century, as we have seen, the Roman world had been subjected to shattering disturbance, political, economical and social. Foreign and civil wars had been almost continuous. An immense increase of wealth from the conquest or annexation of new territory had been followed and outrun by wasteful administration and profligate expenditure. The resources of the provinces were mercilessly exploited. The flower of the Italian population had been
drafted into the armies.
Agriculture, the staple industry of Italy and the foundation of its solid prosperity, had fallen into a deplorable condition. Much land was derelict and had relapsed into thicket or morass. The class of yeoman farmers whose industry, piety, and domestic virtue had made Rome great, was dwindling away. Many of them had perished in war; many more had a worse fate. Unable to face the competition of cheap foreign foodstuffs, raised by slave-labour, that poured in from all parts of the Mediterranean, and affected by the universal restlessness which had come over the world, they drifted into towns and became an unemployed and discontented proletariat, a loose ballast which was a constant danger to the ship of state as it laboured through the waves of political revolution. The corn-land, orchards and vineyards which had made Italy like one great garden, and had maintained a hardy and healthy peasantry, gave place to immense stretches of uncultivated pasturage, run by absentee proprietors who took no concern for them, and only inhabited by migratory troops of herdsmen and shepherds who were slaves and half savages. Discontent, and the craving for city life with its
idleness and excitement, spread through all classes.
To check this process, to reinstate agriculture, to anchor the nation afresh on the motherland, was one of the chief aims of the new government. The disbanded armies were settled all over Italy in agricultural colonies. Scientific farming was studied and taught. Small holdings were created and subsidized, and petite culture sedulously fostered. The extant treatise of Varro De Re Rustica, published about the time when Virgil set to work on the Georgics, was one among many books written then, primarily to give practical guidance in rural management, but also, as a matter of hardly less importance, to vindicate farming as the proper concern of the rich and educated class. This it did by making a moral as well as a material appeal. It recalled the immemorial national tradition; it emphasized the unceasing interest and unfailing pleasure, the virtue and happiness of rural life. According to the old Roman teaching, which still held good among the conservative elements of society, agriculture was the single form of "gain-getting " occupation which was worthy of a free Roman citizen, as it had in fact been the occupation
of the heroic figures in Roman history. The times when the Consul was called to office from the plough, and returned to the plough from office, were over. But their spirit lingered in memory, and could be recalled. Something more was yet to be done for this. To give further impulse and sanction to the movement, in a time when education was widely spread and literature had become a force in public affairs, the aid of poetry was invoked. Men's eyes turned for this to Virgil as already the recognized head of living poets.
It was a task which, difficult as it might be, appealed to all his instincts, and one for which he was peculiarly qualified. His love of nature was deep and impassioned. He was familiar from childhood with farm work and rural life. Prolonged study and constant practice had made him a complete master, not only of his chosen vehicle, the Latin hexameter, but of the whole technique of the art of poetry. The plan of the Georgics opened before him as a thing which neither in Greek nor in Latin had yet been done: to produce a poem of rural life which should be at once largely national and fully human. In it he embodied portraiture born of intimate knowledge and loving observa
tion, crowded with romantic association and literary ornament, heightened with motives of history and patriotism. Into it, with unequalled splendour of language, he infused his own deepest religious and philosophic thought, his brooding sense of an universal life, and that grave tenderness in which he stands even now alone.
To criticize the Georgics as though they were a technical treatise on husbandry, a handbook for farmers, is to miss their whole meaning. It is easy to point out that their descriptions and directions are (though extraordinarily accurate) neither systematic nor complete; that their wealth of allusion requires a highly trained reader to understand, much more to appreciate; that they pass beyond the literal scope of their theme to deal with nature and human life in their largest meaning. What they were designed to do, and what they did with triumphant beauty, was to embody in exquisite poetry an ideal, an imaginative vision, that of a life at peace with itself and in harmony with nature. They draw a living picture of a world of simplicity and industry, of hard work and true happiness. Virgil's "divine country" is not a fanciful Arcadian paradise.