Monday, 15 May 2017

Book Notes: "Eclogues" and "Georgics" by Virgil

Eclogues and GeorgicsEclogues and Georgics by Virgil

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book of pastoral poems is a classic, and therefore difficult to dismiss off-handedly. What I found interesting were other reviews on Goodreads. One stated: "I have hardly any clue what I actually read". Virgil reads like Shakespeare, although the work is translated from Latin, so I share the sentiments of the other reviewer! It took me some time to read the poems, as I had to research the various characters and Greek and Roman gods to make sense of it. Even then, the background story of the civil wars and political instability in Rome is difficult to discern simply from the poems' text. The imagery of the text is evident in Naomi Mitchison's book Cloud Cuckoo Land, but the difference between Roman and Greek ideals about pastoral life are significant. While Virgil applies Greek imagery to the Italian landscape, the images belie the true story. In Virgil's time, rich Roman families dominated the farms and used slave labour to operate them. According to David Quint, writing in The New Republic, it was the Roman equivalent of what has happened in agribusiness in the United States, where the virtues of the rural life on the family farm persist, yet 'big business' owns most of the farms. The Georgics are didactic in that they provide guidance for farming, interspersed with metaphors for the birth of Rome. I found Georgic IV, which concludes the book, to be inspiring. We are hoping to keep bees, and bee-keeping is the subject of the poem (if one puts aside the birth-of-Rome metaphor). So there is some joy to be found for the virgin reader, much like one might find in a Shakespearean sonnet. However, without the background information, one might read and not absorb a word of what one had read. This brings me to this particular Dover Thrift Edition. I enjoy the size and price of this series, but sometimes I wonder whether a more substantial text with notes would be useful. Of course, there is the tendency, like in the Penguin version of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, to have longer notes than the actual work, and this can be worse. Nevertheless, this reading was useful as I steel myself for tackling Homer, Milton, and Dante.

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