Christine G. Perkell, The Poet’s Truth: A Study of the Poet in Virgil’s Georgics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989. Pp. xi + 210. ISBN 0-520-066323-6. US$30.
University of Tasmania
The late 1970s and the 1980s witnessed a major revival of critical interest in Virgil’s Georgics. Whereas in the 1960s it seemed to Williams that `very broadly one may say that the Eclogues and the Georgics must be taken on eighteenth-century terms or not at all’, in the ’70s and ’80s the Georgics (and the Eclogues for that matter) were decisively reclaimed for twentieth century readers and readings. Although Wilkinson could rightly claim that his book was the first in English to be devoted to this poem alone, he largely refrained from interpretation. For Wilkinson the choice of Orpheus to conclude the poem remained `a matter for speculation’ and speculation was something that he eschewed. The ’70s and ’80s, by contrast, saw the appearance of Boyle’s collection of articles devoted to the poem, of the books of Miles and Putnam and the commentaries of Mynors and Thomas. It is in this context of renewed interest and understanding that Perkell’s book needs to be understood. Like other contemporary critics of the poem, she views the Georgics not so much as a versified agricultural handbook, but as a meditation upon the moral and political dilemmas confronting Virgil’s generation. Perkell’s view of the poem has much in common with those of the critics I have just named. On the other hand, she comes to the poem with her own distinctive point of view.
Perkell’s introduction begins with Virgil’s biography and contemporary conditions, in particular the civil wars. She then goes on to discuss a number of important methodological issues, the relationship between the Georgics and earlier texts, different critical responses to the poem in the twentieth century, and the poem’s ambiguity. Perkell has important and interesting things to say on all these questions but I shall concentrate on her discussion of methodology.
Unlike many critics, Perkell is led by her account of Virgil’s life and times to state that `one might well suppose that experience of such unstable times and bloody events would result in a deeply pessimistic vision, in fear of loss, and in anxiety for the future’ (p. 3). Such a conclusion is not only sensible, but, given the usual facile conclusions drawn from the `facts’ of Virgil’s life, refreshing.
Perkell then discusses the widely varying critical responses to the Aeneid, contrasting the contemporary (and largely American) tendency to emphasise the `costs of victory’ and `the emotional and moral failures of Aeneas’ with the earlier (and largely European) stress on `the awesome achievement that Rome represents’ (p. 4). With these varied readings she associates particular verses. With the `American’ view she associates sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt (1.462) and with the `European’ view tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem (1.33). Perkell then argues that `the critical challenge for readers of the Aeneid must be to incorporate both of these verses and what they suggest about the poem into a truer vision of what the poem does. Since Virgil wrote both these verses, to privilege one to the exclusion of the other is surely to falsify the poem’. This argument seems to me fundamen- tally flawed. It is possible to argue that one verse (or indeed one passage) in a poem should be privileged over another. When Anchises presents a particular view of the nature of Rome’s achievements (6.756-846) and links that with a command to Aeneas to act in certain ways (6.847-853) and when Aeneas conspicuously fails to act in accordance with that command, for he spares not one single suppliant during the war in Italy (and note that Turnus, in particular, quite explicitly fits the category of a subiectus, for he is both humilis and supplex in 12.930), then the reader is entitled to doubt the value and validity of Anchises’ view of the nature of Rome’s achievements. Experience as presented by the poet must be privileged over interpretations suggested by the poem’s characters. Hence, I do not agree that `there is, in fact, no “solution” to the Aeneid, for there is no resolution of its conflicts’ (p. 7). Aeneas’ behaviour, in my view, gives the lie to Anchises’ injunctions. But if such an approach fails to work for the Aeneid, it does not follow that it fails to work for the Georgics. Indeed I think it suits the poem very well. Perkell’s view that `the Georgics is a deliberately ambiguous poem’ (p. 17) seems to me correct.
Chapter 1 is entitled `The Figure of the Poet’. Perkell begins by relating the Georgic poet to Orpheus and the farmer to Aristaeus. She points out that each pair has `different values, aspirations, and sensibilities’ (p. 26) and summarises these as follows: `while, overall, the farmer’s relationship to nature is one of domination and control in which he compels nature to ends that are productive to man, the poet’s relationship to nature is characterized by harmony, song, and play’ (pp. 26f.). The contrast is, moreover, `a constituitive polarity of the text and central to its meaning’ (p. 27).
Perkell begins by examining the farmer. The farmer is, naturally enough, `the normative figure in a georgic poem’. He also represents Man and, more specifically, Roman man. The farmer’s symbolic significance is underlined, Perkell points out, by Virgil’s use of certain unrealistic details (p. 28f.). In particular, Virgil makes no mention of the importance of slavery in contemporary agriculture and no reference to the profit motive: `the effect of the anachronistic representation of the farmer, to the degree that it is of no practical use, is precisely to support the paradigmatic, symbolic value of the farmer as an individual, facing on his own the larger terms and conditions of mortal experience’ (p. 29). This is an important observation and a useful counter to the older view that the Georgics is a didactic poem in the conventional sense.
Like all contemporary commentators on the Georgics, Perkell is well aware of the military metaphor which pervades Virgil’s description of the farmer’s work. What is distinctive about her discussion is her interpretation of the motif: `My thesis is that the military activity of the farmer, analogous as it is to war, suggests the moral ambiguity and tension of the human condition as it is epitomized in the farmer’s experience, where material progress is pitted against humane value in man’s relationship both to nature and other men’ (p. 37). The ambiguity arises because `despite its characteristic military quality, it is also sometimes sustaining’ (p. 37). There is an ambivalence about the farmer’s work in the Georgics. In book 1 the farmer is presented overwhelmingly as engaged in some kind of military activity. There is very little emphasis on the helpful or productive side of the farmer’s work. The farmer is presented as a soldier and the book climaxes with soldiery in action, with Rome’s civil wars. It is in book 2 that we are presented with a different aspect. It is here that Virgil stresses the fruitful side of the farmer’s activities and this book climaxes with an idealised vision of country life. Virgil’s vision of the farmer is indeed fundamentally ambiguous.
For Perkell the poet represents the antithesis of the farmer: `the poet values useless song, is in harmony with nature and even nurtured by it’ (p. 45). He is inclined to `gratuitous and selfless pity’ (p. 46), an emotion the farmer cannot afford to indulge. This pity ennobles the poet but also makes his work negligible in the political world. This much we can agree with. But Perkell goes on to argue that `the gratification that pity provides to the pitier is cheap and easy, almost a kind of play’ (p. 55). To prove this she cites Virgil’s use of ludere at 4.565: carmina qui lusi pastorum. But ludere here has nothing to do with pity and everything to do with the pose adopted by neoteric and pastoral poets. The case is hardly strengthened by citing Euripides and Augustine.
Perkell’s discussion of Aristaeus and the technique of bougonia is particularly valuable. She argues convincingly that for the ancients `bougonia is not a precept of verified and routine value’ and applies Buchner’s rule that `the less the practical value of praeceptum, the greater is its symbolic value’ (p. 75). Few will doubt that bougonia is intended to be of symbolic significance. What is important then is Perkell’s interpretation of that significance. Whereas others see implications of resurrection or rebirth, she rightly sees `an exchange of death for life’ (p. 76). After all bougonia does not restore life to the hive. Rather, it creates a new one. Moreover, it entails the destruction of a calf by particularly repulsive means. This enables Perkell to argue that Aristaeus `embodies the moral ambiguity of the Iron Age towards nature and other men’ (p. 80). By contrast, Orpheus’ restoration of Eurydice, had it succeeded, would have represented a genuine resurrection of a unique individual. Orpheus desires Eurydice, not just a new wife. His achievement is, however, spoiled by his own dementia (488). Both Aristaeus and Orpheus are flawed human beings.
Chapter 2 is entitled `The Poet’s Vision’. Perkell begins with the concept of the golden age which she views (rightly, I think) as a means of focusing `the reader’s attention upon the disparity between the present, as the poet sees it, and an ideal vision of alternative moral values’ (p. 90) and not as a programme for Roman renewal. Virgil’s first account of the golden age (though Virgil does not use the term) occurs at 1.125ff. That era is defined both in its own terms (absence of agriculture, absence of private property, primitive communism, natural abundance) and by contrast with the subsequent Jovian age (serpents became poisonous, wolves ravenous, the sea restive, leaves honeyless, fire hidden and wine absent from flowing rivers). Virgil’s description makes it plain that not only was the earlier period morally superior to that of Jupiter, but that Jupiter’s intervention has brought about the present adversarial relationship between man and nature (p. 97). It is not surprising then that Perkell questions the god’s benevolence (p. 96, n. 12).
In her discussion of some of the most optimistic passages in the poem, the praises of Italy, spring and country life (all of which are contained in book 2), Perkell emphasises their ambivalence towards Roman values. She notes the reference to Italy’s cities in the Laudes Italiae (2.155ff.) and links that with the denunciation of city life at the book’s close (2.503ff.) and the description of the sea’s protestation at the construction of the Portus Julius and the martial qualities of the Italian peoples. It is in the praise of country life, however, that Virgil’s ambivalence is most plain. Virgil’s ambivalence is underlined by reference to the departure of Justice from this world (2.473f.) and by the allusion to Romulus and Remus (2.533), whose fraternal strife was for the Romans an archetype of civil war.
In books 3 and 4 concern with the golden age continues. Georgics 3, the grimmest of all the poem’s books, may seem a strange place to seek descriptions of the golden age, but in the descriptions of the life of the Scythians and of the Noric plague we find perversions of the ideal, for the Scythians lead a life of leisure, but one that is devoid of feeling for fellow creatures, while the plague produces a kind of mock golden age. By contrast, in book 4 we find not travesties of, but approximations to the golden age. Perkell considers the society of bees and the old man of Tarentum. The bees require critical attention firstly, because it was once customary to see in them and their renewal a model for Octavian’s regeneration of the Roman republic and, secondly, because Virgil devotes more space to them than we might expect in a truly didactic work. That Virgil has more than apiculture in mind is plain from the fact that he describes the bees in a manner which suggests not only human beings in general (4.3ff.), but Romans in particular (43, 155, 201). But Perkell rightly stresses those aspects of the bees’ society which make it impossible to view them as possible or even desirable paradigms for Roman renewal. Firstly they are militaristic little creatures and secondly they lack sexual desire. The Corycian gardener, on the other hand, is decidedly human. For Perkell he represents `a poetic ideal’ (p. 131); he is a `Golden Age figure’ (p. 132). This is an attractive notion, for Virgil does place great stress on the beauty which results form the gardener’s work. On the other hand, to assert that `in growing flowers, the epitome of superfluous beauty, the gardener pursues (like the poet) an aesthetic and spiritual ideal that ignores material function or profit’ (p. 132) is to go too far. Given that the gardener grows vegetables, herbs and fruit (4.120ff., 134) as well as producing honey (4.139ff.), and given that he actually lives off his few acres (seraque reuertens / nocte domum dapibus mensas onerabat inemptis, 4.133f.), one can hardly say that the purpose of his work is solely aesthetic, that he ignores `material function’ entirely. Perkell wishes to view the old man as a foil to both Orpheus and Aristaeus. The view that I am advancing actually suits her case better than her own, for in my view the old man combines the best qualities of both. He is concerned with both beauty and productivity, but he lacks Aristaeus’ heroic aspirations and Orpheus’ passion.
The third and final chapter bears the same title as the book itself: `The Poet’s Truth’. Here Perkell argues that `there is a tension within the poem, most clearly reflected in the poem’s final book, between two types of knowledge and value. The one is materially useful and real, the farmer’s knowledge. . . . The other knowledge, the poet’s, is not aimed at material usefulness, but, embodied in myth and mystery, it adumbrates a vision of the quality of human experience’ (p. 139). This is perhaps the most original portion of Perkell’s book. She sees bougonia as emblematic of this dichotomy: `the bougonia is unreal but true. The carcass of a calf, no matter how treated, will not yield bees; but bougonia as an image, as a representation of the poet’s vision of Iron Age existence – with its message of the brutality of success, of the cost of survival, of the pathos of loss – is true and thus reveals the limitations of the merely real’ (p. 140). Perkell advances her thesis by restating her earlier argument concerning bougonia, namely, that the ancients were sceptical about the process and that we should therefore view it symbolically. She then turns to the prayers which open and close book 1. By asserting the need for prayer and by praying, Virgil acknowledges `the reality that technology is not, in fact, in complete control’ (p. 149).
Next comes an account of Virgil’s scientific explanations which aims to demonstrate `the primacy of mystery and the inadequacy of praecepta‘ (p. 153). In particular she cites the cases of the portents which followed Caesar’s death and the plague in Noricum. The signs associated with these events are unique and hence incapable of rational explanation. Such signs have no scientific value. Virgil also suggests the inadequacy of the scientific method by his use of plural causes. Lucretius regularly suggests alternative causes for unusual phenomena, but Virgil, argues Perkell, differs in that he suggests contradictory causes. Indeed, she says, Virgil employs vagueness as a means of reducing our confidence in scientific method `by illuminating the pervasiveness of mystery in our experience’ (p. 172). This portion of the argument I find implausible. Virgil may not profess to know the physical causes of certain phenomena, but he does have the courage to offer physical explanations. He does not simply throw up his hands in despair and declare the phenomena incapable of all explanation. To be contrasted with science is myth. Myth is used both in connection with natural events and as a model of human experience. Myth may be in one sense false but it is the poet’s primary medium for addressing the mysteries of existence. Whatever the truth concerning Virgil’s views of the value of science, there can be no doubt that it is through myth that Virgil confronts us most directly and most powerfully with the dilemmas of human existence. The issues dealt with indirectly in the first three and a half books are made pressing and concrete when presented in the persons of Aristaeus, Orpheus and Eurydice.
This is a short book. It will by no means revolutionise our understanding of the Georgics, but it does make a valuable contribution to a continuing debate.