The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Megan Bowler
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
A number of classical texts spring to mind. Dipping into Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho is always very comforting. The Stoic philosophers are also full of wise words for staying resilient through lockdowns. There are so many ancient objects that can provide comfort, too (Minoan art is a favourite of mine as it reminds me of some of my first encounters with the ancient world!).
Recently, however, I’ve found I’ve taken comfort particularly in Virgil’s Georgics. Certainly, as Simon Pulleyn said in his contribution on the Eclogues, the Georgics is lofty and very complex – so perhaps not an obvious choice, although lockdown is a good opportunity to get to grips with difficult and allusive poetry! The Georgics can also be unsettling at times, prompting unease and even despair at the relationship between humans and the natural world. There are nonetheless some more heartening moments, including my favourite: a brief digression about a gardener.
When did you first come across this text?
In my Greats option on ‘Latin Didactic Poetry.’ I didn’t expect to like the Georgics as much as I did (I expected to enjoy the other two authors, Lucretius and Ovid, a lot more, but the Georgics actually became my favourite!). The text also holds fond memories of in-person teaching before the 2020 chaos began and having tutorials with Barney Taylor and my tute partner Chris in the lovely setting of Exeter College – it’s funny how literature can take you back to where you were when reading it.
Can you tell me a bit about the poem and its context?
The Georgics is a manual on farming and cultivation, but it’s full of thorny moral and philosophical implications too. There’s a huge amount of intertextuality going on – Virgil draws on Greek precedents for instructive poetry such as Hesiod and Aratus, different philosophical worldviews, more contemporary Roman authors, and also prose sources for the technical details about the care of animals and plants.
The poem reflects on agricultural work as a necessity that is both a curse and a blessing. Working the land is a constant struggle for survival against the considerable and sometimes insurmountable obstacles that nature poses (storms, bad harvests, and indeed plagues). Yet it can also be conceptualised as a benign divinity’s plan: devising challenges for humans so that we might overcome them with ingenuity and exertion. Virgil continues to draw out conflicts and ambiguities in this mixed lot: can we really put this positive spin on toil, given successes can be quickly overturned by further obstacles, even if we do everything right? Are humans empowered to create wonders from the natural world, or are they at its mercy? Is it altogether a good thing for humans to be battling and taming nature in this way? Virgil indicates a further tension in placing value on the pastoral and the poetic in the context of an ordered, profit-driven and militaristic society. Clearly there is much that is troubling rather than comforting in the Georgics, particularly from a 21st century environmental perspective, and it is elusive to interpret – whenever you think you’ve worked out what the Georgics is really getting at, Virgil soon complicates it again!
There is (I think!) something comforting, though, in the poem’s focus on what humans can do, in spite of the acknowledged reality that so much is outside of our control. And there are some very beautiful moments, such as this description of the Corycian gardener at Georgics 4.127-46:
“I saw an old Corycian, who had a few acres of abandoned countryside, not fertile enough for ploughing nor suited to flocks nor fit for a grape harvest. But as he planted herbs here and there among the thickets, and white lilies around them, and verbena and tapering poppies, it was equal to the wealth of kings in his opinion; after returning home late at night, he would load his table with unbought feasts. He was first to pick roses in spring and fruit in autumn, and when gloomy winter was still splitting rocks with its cold, and with its ice reining in the course of rivers, he was already cutting the delicate hyacinth flowers, chiding the slow summer and tardy west winds. And so he was also first to abound with young bees and a plentiful swarm, and to collect bubbling honey from squeezed combs. His limes and laurestines were the fullest; as many new blossoms set on his fertile fruit trees as those that kept in autumnal ripeness. He planted advanced elms in rows as well, hardy pears, sloe-bearing blackthorns, and plane-trees already offering shade to drinkers.”
What is it about this passage that appeals to you most?
This is a really endearing passage in itself – the language evokes the simple joys of gardens in bloom, and the satisfaction of seeing your efforts coming to fruition despite initially unpromising circumstances. The details about the types of flowers and trees, and the process of collecting honey, make for a very visual passage (good escapism when stuck indoors!). In contrast to the Georgics’ earlier emphasis on Roman industriousness, this Corycian engages in gardening for the sake of beauty rather than profit, lovingly transforming land that is neglected and unsuitable for agricultural production. Horticulture, associated particularly with the Epicurean school of the Garden, is aesthetic in essence and associated with leisure rather than labour, meaning the old man represents a lifestyle and ideal at odds from the pursuit of material achievements. He reminds me a little of the ideology of the Diggers in 17th century England, in that he lives self-sufficiently on what he reaps from the earth and does not seek further ownership and profit from it, existing outside of societal norms.
Of course, we can read this moment more cynically. Perhaps this kind of life and poetical relationship with nature is made to feel very out of reach by the sense of unreality in the way his garden seems to defy the hardships of winter. It pointedly jars with Romanitas, and even with the Georgics’ own purported focus on productive labour: Virgil recounts it in a praeteritio, saying he cannot deal with this theme at length despite its great appeal to him. But in a poem as multi-layered as the Georgics, it would be an oversimplification to insist that this imagery is only here to illuminate contemporary failings unconstructively. For me, the crux of this passage is “regum aequabat opes animis” – in his mind, the old man has the wealth of kings. We discover that his success is primarily a case of perspective. While others saw useless terrain, he saw potential for fulfilment. While others would deem his lifestyle humble and unsophisticated, and his flowers pointless, he sees ‘riches’ and ‘feasts’, and gains a sense of agency and purpose. He defines prosperity wholly on his own terms, and finds small joys easily!
Virgil in the Georgics instructs us to work hard and plan well, but also looks on with sympathetic horror at how fortunes can still change chaotically and undeservedly – he does not claim to have all the answers. I like how this passage does not set out to expound a singular worldview that can solve everything, but offers just a brief glimpse of a flourishing individual and garden, from which we might draw a little hope, comfort and inspiration.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Baking, mostly! Devising fancy cakes has kept me sane during lockdown (I suppose I share something of the satisfaction in homemade ‘unbought feasts’ that the Corycian has!). I sometimes attempt other crafts – I started lino-printing recently, which is very relaxing. Normally I love spending time in museums and art galleries, and have missed this during lockdown. On the plus side I’ve had a bit more time for reading fiction.
Megan Bowler (@meganlbowler) is a final-year Classics undergraduate at Oxford, hoping to continue with further study in Greek literature and philosophy next year. Recently, she has written a thesis on Plato and is currently writing another on the Sicilian comic poet Epicharmus. Megan is also interested in education policy (she wrote a report on Languages for the Higher Education Policy Institute last year) and supporting Classics outreach initiatives.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.