Comparing Virgil’s Georgics with Hesiod’s Works and Days

I recently read through John Dryden’s impressive 1697 translation of Virgil’s Georgics, one of the great pastoral poems of the Latin tradition. Dryden translated the poem into a heroic couplet form, though the original was written in the didactic hexameter form.

The Georgics comes down to us from the Greek (georgika) meaning something akin to the “agricultural things.” Some have suggested it may have been Virgil’s second published work, after the Eclogues, in 29 BC and before the Aeneid, Virgil’s masterpiece. It has been suggested that Virgil drew heavily upon the works of Hesiod and also Lucretius in completing the Georgics. Naturally, we are drawn to compare Virgil’s poem with Hesiod’s Works and Days, as both share the same theme of the pastoral life (“pastor” coming from the Latin word for ‘shepherd’). Is the rural life to praised? Or even preferred? Or, on the other hand, is the rural life to be disdained as a life of hardship and toil?

Neither poem is an ode to Arcadian simplicity, but rather they both highlight the hard work of living a bucolic life. In Hesiod, he instructs his ne’er-do-well brother, Perses, to embrace an honorable life of Eris (“strife”). Hesiod asks him to focus first on himself and then his family’s interests, rather than brace resentment. In order to properly educate his brother, Hesiod invokes several myths, including an account of Prometheus and Pandora, as well as the famous “myth of ages” which was later replicated in Plato’s Republic. Hesiod, as a poet true and true, sees the best way to educate his squandering brother is by presenting a myth, a story or an account. He hopes to turn Perses’s head toward the noble things, and embrace a life of strife rather than trying to break the law and gain what he does not deserve. Hesiod’s primary objective is to educate his brother, by presenting a diatribe to him, and thereby hopefully educate the Grecians, as well.

Publius Vergilius Maro (“Virgil”), on the other hand, is focused on singing about the proper methods and ways of harvesting the land. Tradition holds that Virgil was raised on a farm in northern Italy before being educated in Milan and Rome, during the tumultuous years of the collapsing Roman Republic. Within this context of the violent civil wars, some have read the Georgics as a plea for a restored rural normalcy. As the wars had costed the cities greatly, the farmers had given up their farms to fight, and at the close of the civil wars, Rome sent its farmers back out into the country to repopulate grow the city’s food. Seneca later said the poem was not a true instructional account to farmers, but rather simply a pleasant read. Perhaps that may be true. Virgil was a political man, most of all, and he longed for an end to the disruptive wars of Rome. His patron, whom he calls out routinely in the Georgics was Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, a close advisor to Augustus and also a patron of Virgil’s contemporary, Horace. Through his political connections, he Virgil saw the importance of his poetry, and Augustus saw thwir importance, as well. He hoped to return to the glory of the Republic, believing Caesar Augustus (“Octavian”) to be the one to lead that trail. One might say Virgil was an early Epicurean and a late Stoic.

At any rate, Virgil’s poem is divided into four books, each one covering a different topic pertinent to agriculture – Book 1 speaks of a “golden age” of tilling and plowing the land, Book 2 addresses viticulture, vineyard tending and tree plucking (such as olive trees), Book 3 concerns animal husbandry and shepherding, and Book 4 concludes with a discussion of bees, emphasizing the importance of the hive and the need for worker bees to serve the greater good. The progression of the books, mirrors a certain natural philosophy, as well as a hidden political philosophy. Virgil yearns in the early books for a golden time, of simple farmer’s serving their farm, family, and nation. However, as the books progress, he compares the political society of man to a hive of bees, a necessity for the bees to serve the whole hive, though bees, unlike humans, lack the arts and sciences. Perhaps we can also see allusions to Lucretius’s “sweet honey” reference in De Rerum Natura. Each book praises his patron, Maecenas, as well as Augustus, the future political hope of Rome. This latter point is crucial to the nature of Virgil’s particular need for an esoteric teaching. The Georgics also echoes themes of a return to the rural life, also found in Virgil’s earlier work, the Eclogues. It was written not long after Augustus’s victory at Actium.

While Hesiod’s Works and Days is a letter directed to his brother to persuade him to pursue a noble farmer’s life, Virgil’s Georgics is a poem directed more broadly to the Roman public, to fulfill Virgil’s political obligations and aspirations. However, in the poem we glean Virgil’s praise of the rugged individual, the sole farmer who lives off the land, though in Book 4 he reluctantly admits a need for the hive of the bees. No man is like Polephemus, unto himself alone. Virgil’s poem highlights this tension, that is, the tension between city and country, urban and rural. Hesiod’s poem highlights the contrast between the moral but hard-working farmer, and the lazy and corrupt citizen. Virgil’s teaching is for farmers to pursue their own trade for the sake of the whole, for ‘Man is a political animal’ (Aristotle’s Politics) and thus part of the hive. In this way, both Hesiod and Virgil urge certain people to pursue the rural life, one for moral reasons, the other for personal as well as political reasons.

In conclusion, here are the closing lines of Virgil’s Georgics as translated by John Dryden:

Thus I have sung of fields, of flocks, and trees,
And of the waxen work of laboring bees;
While mighty Caesar, thundering from afar,
Seeks on Euphrates’ banks the spoils of war;
With conquering arts asserts his country’s cause,
With arts of peace the willing people draws;
On the glad earth the golden age renews,
And his great father’s path to heaven pursues;
While I at Naples pass my peaceful days,
Affecting studies of less noisy praise,
And, bold through youth, beneath the beechen shade,
The lays shepherds, & their loves, have played.

For this reading I used John Dryden’s classic translation of Virgil’s Georgics and Daryl Hine’s contemporary translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days.

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