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always delighted with its own discoveries, only takes the hint from the poet, and seems to work out the rest by the strength of her own faculties.
But since the inculcating precept upon precept will at length prove tiresome to the reader, if he meets with no entertainment, the poet must take care not to encumber his poem with too much business ; but sometimes to relieve the subject with a moral reflection, or let it rest a while for the sake of a pleasant and pertinent digression. Nor is it sufficient to run out into beautiful and diverting digressions (as it is generally thought) unless they are brought in aptly, and are something of a piece with the main design of the Georgic; for they ought to have a remote alliance, at least, to the subject, that so the whole poem may be more uniform and agreeable in all its parts. We should never quite lose sight of the country, though we are sometimes entertained with a distant prospect of it. Of this nature are Virgil's descriptions of the original of agriculture, of the fruitfulness of Italy, of a country life, and the like, which are not brought in by force, but naturally rise out of the principal argument and design of the poem. I know no one digression in the Georgics that may seem to contradict this observation, besides that in the latter end of the first book, where the poet launches out into a discourse of the battle of Pharsalia, and the actions of Augustus: but it is worth while to consider how admirably he has turned the course of his narration into its proper channel, and made his husbandman concerned even in what relates to the battle, in those inimitable lines,
Scilicet et tempus veniet, cum finibus illis
Grandiaque effossis mirabitur ossa sepulchris. And afterwards speaking of Augustus's actions, he still remembers that agriculture ought to be some way hinted at through the whole poem.
Non ullus aratro
Et curvæ rigidum falces conflantur in ensem. We now come to the style which is proper to a Georgic; and indeed this is the part on which the poet must lay out
all his strength, that his words may be warm and glowing, and that everything he describes may immediately present itself, and rise up to the reader's view. He ought in particular to be careful of not letting his subject debase his style, and betray him into a meanness of expression, but everywhere to keep up his verse in all the pomp of numbers and dignity of words.
I think nothing which is a phrase or saying in common talk, should be admitted into a serious poem ; because it takes off from the solemnity of the expression, and gives it too great a turn of familiarity: much less ought the low phrases and terms of art that are adapted to husbandry, have any place in such a work as the Georgic, which is not to appear in the natural simplicity and nakedness of its subject, but in the pleasantest dress that poetry can bestow on it. Thus Virgil
, to deviate from the common form of words, would not make use of tempore, but sydere, in his first verse; and everywhere else abounds with metaphors, Grecisms, and circumlocutions, to give his verse the greater pomp, and preserve it from sinking into a plebeian style. And herein consists Virgil's master-piece, who has not only excelled all other poets, but even himself in the language of his Georgics; where we receive more strong and lively ideas of things from his words, than we could have done from the objects themselves; and find our imaginations more affected by his descriptions, than they would have been by the very sight of what he describes.
I shall now, after this short scheme of rules, consider the different success that Hesiod and Virgil have met with in this kind of poetry, which may give us some further notion of the excellence of the Georgics. To begin with Hesiod; if we may guess at his character from his writings, he had much more of the husbandman than the poet in his temper: he was wonderfully grave, discreet, and frugal, he lived altogether in the country, and was probably for his
great prudence the oracle of the whole neighbourhood. These principles of good husbandry ran through his works, and directed him to the choice of tillage and merchandise, for the subject of that which is the most celebrated of them. He is everywhere bent on instruction, avoids all manner of digressions, and does not stir out of the field once in the whole Georgic. His method in describing month after month, with its proper
seasons and employments, is too grave and simple; it takes off from the surprise and variety of the poem, and makes the whole look but like a modern almanac in verse. The reader is carried through a course of weather, and may beforehand guess whether he is to meet with snow or rain, clouds or sun-shine, in the next description. His descriptions, indeed, have abundance of nature in them, but then it is nature in her simplicity and undress. Thus when he speaks of January;
“ The wild beasts,” says he, “run shivering through the woods with their heads stooping to the ground, and their tails clapt between their legs; the goats and oxen are almost flayed with cold; but it is not so bad with the sheep, because they have a thick coat of wool about them. The old men too are bitterly pincht with the weather, but the
young girls feel nothing of it, who sit at home with their mothers by a warm fire-side.” Thus does the old gentleman give himself up to a loose kind of tattle, rather than endeavour after a just poetical description. Nor has he shown more of art or judgment in the precepts he has given us, which are sown so very thick, that they, clog the poem too much, and are often só minute and full of circumstances, that they weaken and unnerve his verse. But after all, we are beholden to him for the first rough sketch of a Georgic: where we may still discover something venerable in the antiqueness of the work; but if we would see the design enlarged, the figures reformed, the colouring laid on, and the whole piece finished, we must expect it from a greater master's hand.
Virgil has drawn out the rules of tillage and planting into two books, which Hesiod has despatched in half a one; but has so raised the natural rudeness and simplicity of his subject, with such a significancy of expression, such a pomp of verse, such a variety of transitions, and such a solemn air in his reflections, that if we look on both poets together, we see in one the plainness of a downright countryman, and in the other something of a rustic majesty, like that of a Roman dictator at the plough-tail. He delivers the meanest of his precepts with a kind of grandeur, he breaks the clods and tosses the dung about with an air of gracefulness. His prognostications of the weather are taken out of Aratus, where we may see how judiciously he has pickt out those that are most proper for his husbandman's observation; how
he has enforced the expression and heightened the images which he found in the original,
The second book has more wit in it, and a greater boldness in its metaphors, than any of the rest. The poet, with a great beauty, applies oblivion, ignorance, wonder, desire, and the like, to his trees. The last Georgic has, indeed, as many metaphors, but not so daring as this; for human thoughts and passions may be more naturally ascribed to a bee, than to an inanimate plant. He who reads over the pleasures of a country life, as they are described by Virgil in the latter end of this book, can scarce be of Virgil's mind in preferring even the life of a philosopher to it.
We may, I think, read the poet's clime in his description, for he seems to have been in a sweat at the writing of it.
O quis me gelidis sub montibus Hæmi
And is everywhere mentioning among his chief pleasures, the coolness of his shades and rivers, vales and grottos, which a more northern poet would have omitted for the description of a sunny hill, and fire-side.
The third Georgic seems to be the most laboured of them all; there is a wonderful vigour and spirit in the description of the horse and chariot-race. The force of love is represented in noble instances and very sublime expressions. The Scythian winter-piece appears so very cold and bleak to the eye,
that a man can scarce look on it without shivering. The murrain at the end has all the expressiveness that words can give. It was here that the poet strained hard to outdo Lucretius in the description of his plague, and if the reader would see what success he had, he may find it at large in Scaliger.
But Virgil seems nowhere so well pleased, as when he is got among his bees in the fourth Georgic: and ennobles the actions of so trivial a creature, with metaphors drawn from the most important concerns of mankind. His verses are not in a greater noise and hurry in the battles of Æneas and Turnus, than in the engagement of two swarms. And as in his Æneis he compares the labours of his Trojans to those of bees and pismires, here he compares the labours of the bees to those of the Cyclops. In short, the last Georgic was a good prelude to the Æneis; and very well showed what
the poet could do in the description of what was really great, by his describing the mock-grandeur of an insect with so good a grace. There is more pleasantness in the little platform of a garden, which he gives us about the middle of this book, than in all the spacious walks and water-works of Rapin. The speech of Proteus at the end can never be enough admired, and was, indeed, very fit to conclude so divine a work.
After this particular account of the beauties in the Georgics, I should in the next place endeavour to point out its imperfections, if it has any. But though I think there are some few parts in it that are not so beautiful as the rest, I shall not presume to name them, as rather suspecting my own judgment, than I can believe a fault to be in that poem, which lay so long under Virgil's correction, and had his last hand put to it. The first Georgic was probably burlesqued in the author's life-time; for we still find in the scholiasts a verse that ridicules part of a line translated from Hesiod, Nudus ara, sere nudus-And we may easily guess at the judgment of this extraordinary critic, whoever he was, from his censuring this particular precept. We may be sure Virgil would not have translated it from Hesiod, had he not discovered some beauty in it; and indeed the beauty of it is what I have before observed to be frequently met with in Virgil, the delivering the precept so indirectly, and singling out the particular circumstance of sowing and ploughing naked, to suggest to us that these employments are proper only in the hot season of the year.
I shall not here compare the style of the Georgics with that of Lucretius, which the reader may see already done in the Preface to the second volume of Miscellany Poems; but shall conclude this poem to be the most complete, elaborate, and finished piece of all antiquity. The Æneis, indeed, is of a nobler kind, but the Georgic is more perfect in its kind. The Æneis has a greater variety of beauties in it, but those of the Georgic are more exquisite. In short, the Georgic has all the perfection that can be expected in a poem written by the greatest poet in the flower of his age, when his invention was ready, his imagination warm, his judgment settled, and all his faculties in their full vigour and maturity.