Simile World

Denis Feeney

  • Virgil: Georgics translated by Peter Fallon, notes by Elaine Fantham
    Oxford, 109 pp, £7.99, July 2006, ISBN 0 19 280679 3
  • Virgil: The Aeneid translated by Robert Fagles
    Penguin, 486 pp, £25.00, November 2006, ISBN 0 7139 9968 3

Within a generation of Virgil’s death in 19 BC the trajectory of his poetic career had become iconic, with its apparently teleological progression from the slim one-volume collection of ten Eclogues to the more ambitious four-volume Georgics and finally to the 12 volumes of his imperial epic, the Aeneid. The progression could be seen as a poetic instantiation of rhetorical theory’s division of style into the low, middle and high; by the Middle Ages, Virgil’s path from pastoral through didactic to epic had become emblematic for theories of decorum and poetic style, and Milton’s career is the clearest example of the way Virgil’s successors could plot their poetic autobiographies into a hierarchy of genres.

As with all teleological narratives, however, the sheer unpredictable strangeness of the itinerary gets obscured. The Eclogues look humble and tentative in this story, yet at the end of the Georgics Virgil looks back in rueful wonderment at what he had achieved in his first revolutionary work, when he had been ‘bold in my youth’ (audax iuuenta, oddly miscued by Peter Fallon as ‘still a callow youth’). Again, it is amazing that the poet who embarked on the Aeneid had seven or eight years earlier published a poem in which his desire to write an epic was suavely depreciated by Apollo, the god of poetry. At the beginning of the sixth Eclogue, Virgil’s alter ego Tityrus is about to sing of kings and battles when Apollo tweaks his ear and tells him that a shepherd ought to feed up his sheep to be fat but keep his poems spare. Virgil here is adapting a famous passage written just over two centuries earlier by the Alexandrian poet Callimachus, the Ezra Pound of his day. Callimachus, too, says that at the beginning of his career Apollo warned him to keep his Muse slim, but Callimachus never ignored Apollo’s advice, and in all his works maintained an ironising pose in the face of claims to greatness. This abhorrence of bombast or cant is typical of modernising poetic movements, yet Virgil could not afford to make a career only out of avoiding bombast. His poetic predecessors in Latin, Catullus and his friends, had achieved wonderful things in the cause of Callimachean-style modernism, but Virgil wanted to be a classic as well as a modern. Catullus had been liberating in his time, but had painted his successors into a corner. Virgil refused to be contained, and in the process created masterpieces that defied the inherited terms of debate and showed that it was possible to make it new and be magnificent at the same time.

The nature of his ambition is evident in the Georgics. The title is Greek, ‘working the land’, and the most overtly acknowledged model is Hesiod, a poet of archaic Greece, working some seven hundred years earlier. Hesiod composed two related poems which inform the Georgics: the Theogony, on the origins of the gods and the current cosmic order, and the Works and Days, on the agricultural routine which is the human side of that order. For a long time, criticism of the Georgics was bedevilled by an inability to see Hesiod in the Works and Days as anything other than an earnest fellow who had a thing or two to tell unsophisticated people about practical matters. But once scholars started to take stock of ancient readings of Hesiod that took him to be a master of knowledge about contemporary human and divine order, then the way was open to appreciate the Georgics as a modern Roman counterpart.

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[*] Fagles mentions me in his acknowledgments, with characteristic over-generosity; I read his final draft and made a small number of suggestions.