Saturday, October 31, 2015

Georgics: The Landscape of Intellectual Adventure

It is good to record how an intellectual adventure began, how the seeds were sown.

It was in someone else’s blog in early August 2005 that I came across lines from Boston poet David Ferry’s newly published translation of Virgil’s Georgics.

O greatly fortunate farmers, if only they knew
How lucky they are! Far from the battlefield,
Earth brings forth from herself in ample justice
The simple means of life, simply enjoyed…

“The simple means of life, simply enjoyed” – an apt phrase by Ferry, poetry in English no matter how the original Latin might read. My impression of what had previously seemed a minor work by the author of the Aeneid was on the verge of deepening. I felt lured by the peaceful mood created around Virgil’s ideal of the farmer:

His sleep at night is easy, his life knows nothing
About deceit or trickery, and his life
Is rich in many things: tranquillity
Of the broad fields, of grottoes, and of lakes,
Of cattle lowing while in the shade of a tree
The herdsman peacefully dozes…

Reading further in the passage from Book II of the Georgics, I got a glimpse into a kind of writing that I had not associated before with the Rome of the Caesars. No matter the pantheon in which Virgil situated himself as a poet, I felt invited into the landscape of his family, into its weathers and shadows, into stars and waves.

Why is it that the sun in winter hurries
To plunge itself into the sea and why
Is the winter night so slow to come to an end?
But if the blood around my heart's too cold
To gain me access to such mighty knowledge,
Then may I find delight in the rural fields
And the little brooks that make their way through valleys,
And in obscurity love the woods and rivers.
I long for such places…

I felt the urge to read more – and maybe not only this most recent translation. I wondered what it would be like to spend time with the Latin of Virgil again. I had last studied Latin in an organized way in high school, eventually translating substantial sections of the Aeneid as a student in Latin IV. Taking advantage forty years later of online Latin texts of the Georgics, I began to explore anew the language of this strangely paced poetry.

My curiosity led me to other websites where I began to explore what other people were thinking of the Georgics. I located recommendations for commentaries and surveys that throw light on the mythological and agricultural references teeming in Virgil’s lines. With the help of Google, I tasted the flavor of the international community of scholars dealing with the Georgiques, the Georgiche, or the Georgica.

In discovering something of the range and history of English translations of the poem, I became fascinated by the variety of situations in which people over the years have decided to sit down with the ancient text and attempt a new rendering. Assigned by my high school Latin teacher to read an English translation of the Aeneid, I had responded to the pull of this epic narrative as rendered by then British poet laureate C. Day Lewis. Decades later I was to learn that Lewis had also translated the Georgics.

An impulse purchase of a used copy of the Lewis translation from a book dealer in Tennessee brought the 1947 hardcover into my hands, still bookmarked with a yellowed Christmas gift-tag labeled “Rindges from Chapins.”

Something happened then. I began to sense myself sitting in the company of other readers of the Georgics. None of them were people I would ever likely meet, but all of us had been summoned on an intellectual adventure, invited into a landscape, its weathers and shadows, its stars and waves.

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