Surprisingly often we talked about Vergil, usually about the Aeneid, but sometimes about the Georgics, and then with the wry sentimental fondness of old students who had been made, not quite willingly, to go to school to the poem. And during the plentiful longueurs of the Redskin games of the mid-1960’s, we would regret that so many traditional attractions of farm life had seemed to disappear along with our Latin. Then he would smile and say in his breathy ironic genteel Kentucky accent: “But we would make dreadful farmers, Fred, you and I.”
This was Allen Tate, who would spend Sunday afternoons at my home during his two-week teaching stints in Greensboro because I enjoyed watching television football with him. (“I admire the precision,” he said, “Machinelike.”) He maintained that poets should be only spectator farmers—doubting that Vergil had ever struck a lick with a hoe—and that when they became active husbandmen, they cut ridiculous figures or were unhappy and embittered. He was thinking of Jesse Stuart and Robert Frost and of Hesiod, and I thought of the bittersweet work of Wndell Berry.
It was partly because of his allegiance to the values of an agricultural society that he liked to describe himself as a “reactionary.” That was rather a belligerent term in the 1960’s (and must have been more so in the 1930’s when he developed his stance), and I was puzzled by it. Later I came to understand that for Mr. Tate, it meant something like “radical conservative,” and that he was pleased to align himself with Poe and John C. Calhoun equally. The more thoughtful attitudes are the harder to define, and his usage of “reactionary” was both ironic and earnest at the same time.
The ageless relationship between poetry and farming probably has always been sentimental and ironic; the two disciplines would seem to have mostly accidental requirements in common: patience, fatalism, renunciation, awe of nature, reverence for the earth. When we remind ourselves that our word verse came originally from versus, turning the plow at the end of a furrow, we must wonder what strange terrain the contemporary poet is tilling with his wildly staggered furrows. When we think of the small farmer supporting his agriculture by means of another job in factory or town, perhaps we think of all the American poets perched at insecure university posts. Othello’s occupation is not gone, not in our century; but Cincinnatus’ is—and maybe Vergil’s also.
It has never been possible to say where the poet fits in the basic economies of nations, but it has always been clear that the farmer lodges at the bottom, as the necessary and unchangeable foundation. The position may be necessary, but it is not glamorous. Scholars have faithfully diminished the old legend about the Georgics, that the poem was written at the suggestion of Augustus in order to lure farmer-soldiers back to the land after they had acquired a taste for plunder, luxury, and urbanity. (“How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”) But the legend did account for the double nature of the poem which, while it celebrates the grandeur of the land and the hieratic ceremoniousness of farm work, does not stint in pointing out the difficulties and dangers. The poet is careful to draw in the disasters of flood, fire, drought, frost, and crop failure; whoever they were, his intended audience was not naive.
On one side, then, the poem is acceptably realistic, but Vergil is also at pains to show that he stands at some distance from his subject, that his poem is a bookish poem. He pays direct tribute to some of his sources; Aristaeus, Hesiod, Cato the Elder, Aristotle. If the celebratory aspect of the poem is always brightened by a deliberate and artificial appeal to the myth of the Golden Age, the didactic passages are carefully informed by the best scientific knowledge of the time.
But that may have been a necessary mistake. Nothing quantifies so quickly as scientific knowledge, and our century, which has deceived itself into believing that it actually knows something about nature, may look upon the Georgics as no more than a curious compilation of ancient error. There are, for example, the long famous passages about bee society in which Vergil describes the control of the hive under the King Bee and gives an account of the spontaneous generation of the insect. My own copy of the Georgics is an 1816 reprint of the 1740 edition by John Martyn, then professor of botany at Cambridge, who differs from our contemporary scientists in his anxiety to vindicate Vergil rather than to refute him. When he must correct rather than support the information, he displays a pleasing diffidence: “The Poet’s account of the generation of bees is by no means consistent with the doctrine of the modern philosophers, who assert with great probability, that no animal, or even plant, is produced without a concurrence of the two sexes. However, the doctrine of equivocal generation was so generally admitted by the ancients, that it is no wonder our Poet should assent to it.” (Martyn’s phrase, “or even plant,” probably shows that he has but lately accepted the ideas of Linnaeus.) And on the matter of the King: “But the modern philosophers have been more happy in discovering the nature of these wonderful insects. The labouring bees do not appear to be of either sex; the drones are discovered to have the male organs of generation; and the king is found to be of the female sex.”
But our 20th-century scientists love pecking orders; they have arranged an inflexible one among their own disciplines, with particle physics at the top and sociology or maybe economics at the bottom. If they were asked to rank the poet as a purveyor of reliable knowledge, they might place him somewhere below a computer software salesman and only slightly above a political candidate. It was this sort of arrogance that most rankled John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, and they took up arms to defend poetry against it. Mr. Tate was very proud of his definition of poetry as knowledge carried to the heart, and on the several occasions when he quoted it to me, he underlined it with a significant glance.
That is a nifty and telling phrase, but it does not answer all objections. Can every sort of knowledge be fashioned into poetry and given such memorable emotional force that it is carried to the heart? T.S. Eliot denied the possibility of a modern counterpart to the Georgics, declaring informational didactic poetry dead as a form. But Eliot’s dictum probably points up a fact the contemporary poet does not like to admit, that for all its vaunted toughness, modern poetry simply cannot accommodate such masses of obvious and irreplaceable information as we find in Vergil’s lines. Even the current preoccupation with brutality and despair is only a symptom of preciosity. A poetry which can no longer rejoice in daily homely labor, which cannot—in Vergil’s phrase—honor the plow, will never be convincing in its continual wheedling about political injustice.
Nudusara, sere nudus. “Plow naked, naked sow,” Vergil tells us. The scientist will surely find this bit of advice characteristically silly, but the elder farmers I remember from my youth would know instinctively what it means—and Vance Randolph reports the practice carried on to the letter in remote spots in Arkansas even in the 1930’s. The words are there to remind us of the ceremonial, and ultimately religious, nature of farming; they remind us of the selfless rituals we must undergo in order to keep faith.
On the subject of this faith I could never do better than to quote John S. Collis on the potato:
When we eat a potato we eat the earth, and we eat the sky. It is the law of nature that all things are all things. That which does not appear to exist to-day is to-morrow hewn down and cast into the oven. Nature carries on by taking in her own washing. That is Nature’s economy, contrary to political economy; so that he who cries “Wolf! Wolf!” is numbered amongst the infidels. . . . What is an infidel? One who lacks faith. What creates faith? A miracle. How then can there be a faithless man found in the world? Because many men have cut off the nervous communication between the eye and the brain. In the madness of blindness they are at the mercy of intellectual nay-sayers, theorists, theologians, and other enemies of God. But it doesn’t matter; in spite of them, faith is reborn when anyone chooses to take a good look at anything—even a potato.
This passage is from Collis’ The Worm Forgives the Plough; his best book. While Following the Plough, is perhaps also the best—though unintended—commentary on the Georgics. It has been out of print for exactly 40 years.
But the question becomes, would our poets understand Vergil’s advice to plow and sow naked? The largest purpose of the Georgics is not to dignify, but to sanctify, honest farm labor. A reader who has not looked at it in a long time finds he has forgotten that the poem is full of stars. Even the smallest task must be undertaken in due season under the proper constellations. These prescriptions are not mere meteorology; they connect the order of the earth to the order of the stars. The farmer moves by the motion of the stars, and his labors determine the concerns of the government. The Roman State is not founded upon the soil, it is founded in the universe. And so were all the other civilizations which managed to endure for any length of time. If poets do not wish to study these matters and treat of them, they shirk their responsibilities and fail their society.
Yet I suppose that if a contemporary poet does not feel this responsibility, then it is not his. It is all too easy to sit in a self-appointed judgment seat and allocate responsibilities to one’s fellows. The impulse to do so may even proceed from Vergil, who had a very acute sense of responsibility. The Georgics and the Aeneid were his duties rather than his pleasures. An honorable tradition makes poetry secondary in his affections; he had more love of philosophy, and the passage of the second Georgic in which he speaks of his Lueretian ambitions is truly poignant:
And may the lovely Muses first of all (Whose priest I am, love-struck by poetry) Aeeept me; show me the roads of heaven, the stars. The various solar eclipses, works of the moon, Earthquakes, what forces make the high seas Swell and ruin the shores and once again Fall back, and why the suns of winter hasten To dive into the ocean, or what delay Obstructs the winter nights that move so slowly. But if my heart’s own cooling blood prevents Attaining to these properties of nature. Let me love the fields and valley streams. The unassuming woods and rivers. The meadows, Sperchius, Taygetus where the Spartan virgins Dance: there, or in the cool vale under Haemus, Let someone place me in broad shade of branches. That man was happy who could know the causes Of things and under his feet could trample fear, Unyielding fate, and the roar of greedy Acheron.
And there is a sense in which he has overfulfilled his responsibilities. It is credible from our perspective to find the largest fault of his rural poem in its enormous influence. The Georgics is the wishful cornerstone of the Jeffersonian Utopia, a nation of small landholders. If the poem contains enough realistic detail to be convincing, it is still a fairy tale at heart. There is no mention of slave labor in the Georgics, nor even of hired labor. The farmer is enjoined to be content with a modest farm that will just support his family. But three bad years in a row, or precipitous debtorship, will make beggars of this family. We read now with special sadness the lines in which security is named as the chief comfort of the farmer’s life:
The farmer divides the earth with crooked plow;
This the year’s whole labor: thus he sustains
His little family and his fatherland.
His herd of cows and his blue ribbon bulls.
“Perhaps it may still be possible,” we think, forgetting that Vergil places this idyllic picture in the mythic past, under the reign of aureus Saturnus, golden Saturn, before iron Jupiter seized the scepter.
Probably the poet was never the substantial friend the farmer was looking for. Still he has proved a better friend than the scientist and the government expert. He has generally shown admiration rather than contempt for the farmer’s personal capacities, and if his advice has not always been useful, at least it has not been deadly.
Mr. Tate was right, of course. Most poets would make better lutenists than farmers. But even the most inept of us still feel close kinship with the man in the fields, with his life of ordered observation and inspired patience. That is the one life besides poetry and natural philosophy that still touches an essential harmony of things, and when a civilization discards that way of life, it breaks the most fundamental covenant mankind can remember.