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 Kenneth Cameron
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
It’s the rural poetry of Virgil: mainly the Eclogues and also the Georgics.
I enjoy delving into various classical writings:
myths for imagination: magical, deep, colourful, human
philosophy for thinking: inventive ideas, clear thinking, puzzle solving
history for story: stirring tales and interesting characters
But for comfort amid a busy life, it would be Virgil’s rural poetry. It’s very evocative of the countryside and conveys the peacefulness of being out in nature among the trees, fields and streams. The poetry even has quite a restorative effect, like being in the country.
When did you first come across the works of Virgil?
In my final year at secondary school in Scotland, when starting to explore the world of classical literature.
In Scotland, the most important exams are (or were in my day) the Highers in the penultimate fifth year; and in the sixth year, you had a lot of freedom to explore your main subjects. Having studied Virgil’s Aeneid for Highers, I then discovered his other works: the Eclogues and the Georgics.
Can you tell me a bit about these poems and their context?
To start with, I’d refer you to two previous and excellent Comfort Classics posts by Simon Pulleyn (No 35) and by Megan Bowler (No 135) which have already described the Eclogues and Georgics clearly and in detail.
Some general points:
Both the Eclogues and the Georgics are modelled on works of Greek literature: the Eclogues on the pastoral poems The Idylls by Theocritus; and the Georgics on the farming instruction poem Works and Days by Hesiod, just as the later Aeneid was modelled on Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. This was a common practice among Roman authors: the Greeks had established many strong literary genres; and the Romans were creating works in the same form in their own language and for their society.
The Eclogues are more gentle, dreamy and floating in character; the Georgics more practical and instructive, though with colourful passages.
The Eclogues are ten fairly short poems recounting dialogues, music-making and incidents in the lives of shepherds, set in the pleasant Italian countryside. They can be read as dreamy and gentle pastoral scenes, but a closer look reveals subtlety and complexity in moods and themes and quite varied content – the Eclogues are not really so simple. The shepherds have simple and secluded lives but also know ups and downs, sometimes serious, in their work and their loves. They are somewhat sheltered from the heavier tensions of the wider world – they don’t really know city life – but even these intervene occasionally, in the form of loss of land and livelihood. The fourth poem has very different content: announcing the birth of a child, bringing a new and better era for the world. The overall mood is one of agreeable restfulness, with pervasive longing and loss but also moments of relief, joy and celebration.
The Georgics are four medium-length poems, giving instructions on farming and covering in turn: crops; trees; animals; and bees. The title ‘Georgics’ means ‘works on farming’: ‘ge-orgos’ (earth-worker) is the ancient Greek word for ‘farmer’. There was an ancient tradition of setting out teaching in poems (called ‘didactic’) which is quite unusual for us moderns. The Georgics don’t actually tell you enough to do these farming practices, which demonstrates they’re poetic celebrations of farming, rather than practical handbooks. However, their real theme is praise of Italy and its countryside and reflections on the nature of life and work – key aspects of ancient Roman and Italian culture and society. And there are long passages on related themes such as the mythical ages of humanity, the struggle of work, with descriptive scenes of a storm and a plague and comparison between the societies of bees and humans – the bee theme leads into a moving re-telling of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Altogether, they are rich and complex works.
Virgil’s published output consists of three works: the ten Eclogues, the four Georgics and the twelve-book Aeneid, in that time order, with a clear and steady growth in scale and sophistication. Virgil was a learned and careful poet who wove many themes into his works, making them particularly rich and satisfying. He was a master of words and could evoke many moods, from bold and stirring to melancholic and moving.
Virgil originally came from north Italy, a rural area near Mantua, and it would appear this imbued him with a deep appreciation of the countryside. He later moved to Cremona, then Rome and Naples.
What is it about this poetry that appeals to you most?
It’s the gentle and pleasant mood of much of the Eclogues and the Georgics, the evocative descriptions of the countryside and the delightful portrait of the shepherds relaxing in the countryside and engaging in creative exchanges. That’s why they bring comfort and calm amid the stresses of everyday life, with themes of peaceful life, nature and art.
It links in with my interest in the country. I live in a city but often go for walks in the countryside, among rivers, fields and woods.
I grew up in Scotland and spent holidays at my grandparents’ small farm (croft) in a valley (strath) in Sutherland, which was quite idyllic and peaceful, involved work with crops and animals and with a small community of crofters. It was all rather like the Eclogues: many of the community had lived in the same valley most of their lives and on some evenings would gather to sing songs, recite poems and play the fiddle. One crofter was sometimes found during the day in a field playing on a pipe, like Virgil’s shepherds!
Here are some memorable lines from the Eclogues and the Georgics:
hic gelidi fontes, hic mollia prata, Lycori
hic nemus, hic tecum laete consumerer aevo
Here are fresh springs, here are gentle meadows, Lycori,
here is a grove: here with you I could happily spend an age (Eclogue 10. 42-3)
tale tuum carmen nobis, divina poeta
quale sopor fessis in gramine, quale per aestum
dulcis aquae saliente sitim restinguere aevo
Divine poet, for us your song is
like sleep for the weary in the meadow grass
like quenching thirst in the heat from a leaping stream of sweet water (Eclogue 5.45-7)
rura mihi et rigui placeant in vallibus amnes
flumina amem silvasque inglorius
May the country places and the well-watered streams in the valleys bring delight.
I would enjoy the rivers and the woods, in obscurity (Georgics 2.475)
o fortunatos, nimium si bona norint,
agricolas, quibus ipsa procul discordibus armis
fundit humo facilem victum iustissima tellus
Fortunate ones, farmers, more than fortunate if they knew what good things they had
– for them the most good earth itself, far from discordant arms,
pours out an easy livelihood. (Georgics 2. 458-60)
fortunatus et ille, deos qui novit agrestis
Panaque Silvanumque senem Nympasque sorores
Fortunate also is the one who knows the rural gods:
Pan, the old man Silvanus and the nymph sisters (Georgics 2.494-5)
Some particular favourites:
Eclogue 1 where shepherds compare their differing experiences in the vagaries of life
Eclogue 5 with two shepherds engaging in friendly poetic competition
Eclogue 6 recounting a memorable song of various myths sung by the satyr Silenus
Georgics 2. 458-540 praise of country life
I’m most familiar with the translation by Guy Lee in Penguin Classics, which is clear and dignified. It also has the Latin side-by-side with the English; a full introduction and extensive notes. And, finally, a mediaeval picture of Eclogue 5 on the cover. The Eclogues (penguin.co.uk)
The first Penguin translation called ‘The Pastoral Poems’ was by E V Rieu in 1949, who also did prose versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Virgil The Pastoral Poems: Amazon.co.uk: E.V. Rieu, Not Illustrated: Books
I usually read the L P Wilkinson translation (1982) in Penguin Classics, which is similar in style and content to Lee’s Eclogues but without Latin text. The Georgics : Virgil, : 9780140444148 : Blackwell’s
There are more recent translations:
by Peter Fallon (2009) in Oxford World Classics Georgics (Oxford World’s Classics): Amazon.co.uk: Virgil, Fantham, Elaine, Fallon, Peter: 9780199538836: Books
by Kimberley Johnson (2010) in Penguin Classics, entitled ‘The Georgics: A Poem of the Land’. The Georgics (Penguin Classics) by Virgil Published by Penguin Classics (1982): Amazon.co.uk: Books
Oxford World Classics publishes translations of both the Eclogues (1963) and the Georgics (1940) by C Day Lewis in a joint edition (2009). The Eclogues and Georgics – Virgil, C. Day Lewis, R. O. A. M. Lyne – Oxford University Press (oup.com)
The book ‘Poets In A Landscape’ (1957) by Gilbert Highet, a prominent mid-twentieth century classicist, explores the relationship between Roman poets and the countryside; and the second chapter addresses Virgil and his works. Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Highet | Waterstones
Some modern praise of the countryside
English literature has much poetry celebrating the countryside, such as Wordsworth, Clare, Crabbe and Edward Thomas. Margaret Drabble gathers all this together in the study: A Writer’s Britain: Landscapes in Literature (1979): A Writer’s Britain by Margaret Drabble | Waterstones
Keats’ poem ‘To One Who Has Been Long In City Pent’ has quite an affinity with the sense of countryside as idyll in Virgil’s Eclogues: To One Who Has Been Long in City Pent by John… | Poetry Foundation A difference is that the Eclogues’ characters are shepherds who know little of city life, whereas Keats is describing the city-dweller who enjoys the peace-bringing relief of escaping to the country.
Thomas Hardy’s novels are set in south-west England, which he calls Wessex, and feature extensive descriptions of countryside, in works such as Far From The Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, Under the Greenwood Tree and The Woodlanders. Thomas Hardy’s Wessex – Wikipedia
The film ‘A River Runs Through It’ (1992) about two brothers growing up in Montana, north-east USA, in the early 1900s, depicts rural life and the home valley . A River Runs Through It (film) – Wikipedia
Several English composers of the twentieth century celebrated the countryside, with works such as: ‘On First Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’ by Delius Frederick Delius – On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring – YouTube and ‘Variants of Dives and Lazarus’ by Vaughan Williams, drawing on a traditional folk tune: Ralph Vaughan Williams – Five Variants of Dives & Lazarus – YouTube
In rock music, Van Morrison’s album Veedon Fleece (1974) depicts elements of country life Veedon Fleece – Wikipedia and the spoken song Coney Island (1989) describes a perfect day trip in the country Van Morrison – CONEY ISLAND – YouTube ; while the album Astral Weeks (1968) is partly an Eclogue-esque mystical vision of the countryside and gardens, as well as quiet parts of cities. Astral Weeks – Wikipedia
The Wombles too are quite pastoral. They spend their time tidying up Wimbledon Common, and one of them, Orinoco, enjoys taking it easy, Dreaming In the Sun. Dreaming In The Sun Orinoco’s Song – YouTube As a friendly, easy-going bunch with a range of charming and quirky personalities, a bit innocent of the wider world, who have their ups and downs and occasional minor differences and who enjoy pottering around the countryside, the Wombles really are quite like the shepherds of the Eclogues. The Wombles Season 1 – YouTube
And finally… what do you do, outside of studying the ancient world, to cheer yourself up?
Well, not surprisingly, a major one is going for walks in parks and the countryside and enjoying nature. There hasn’t been much of that in the last year, so am looking forward to more rural walks as lockdown eases.
feature and drama films
pop, rock and classical music
art, mainly paintings
literature, mainly pre-1900
travel, mainly in Europe
Kenneth Cameron comes from the Scottish Highlands; and studied classics at St Andrews and Birkbeck, London. He lives in London and works in the Civil Service. Main classical interests are: myth, religion and poetry. Twitter: @HighlandReader
He writes notes on films, music, art and classics which can be viewed here:
The photos in this note were all taken by Kenneth, mainly in Scotland and England. The two pictures of farm buildings are from the open-air Skansen museum in Stockholm which preserves pre-industrial forms of Swedish housing: This is Skansen | Skansen The two book covers are by Penguin Books.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.