« PreviousContinue »
nent 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 throughout 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 every thing he de
scribes 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 bétray him into a meanness of expression, but every where 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 every where 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 every where 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
whether he is to meet with snow or rain, clouds or sunshine, 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 clapped between their legs; the goats and oxen are almost flay ed 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 pinched 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 so 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 dispatched in half 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 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 elods 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 picked 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 Haens
Sistat, et ingenti rumorum protegat umbra! And is every where mentioning among his chief pleasures, the coolness of his shades and rivers, vales and grottoes, 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 subliine-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 no where 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 Æneïs, 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 Æneïs; 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
The first Georgic was probably burlesqued
put to it.