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Virgil on the Nature of Things: The Georgics, Lucretius, and the Didactic Tradition (review)
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American Journal of Philology 123.2 (2002) 301-305

Monica R. Gale. Virgil on the Nature of Things: The Georgics, Lucretius, and the Didactic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiv + 321 pp. Cloth, $64.95.

The difficulties that face those looking for the key to unlocking the secret of Virgil's richly varied and ever shifting moods are among his poetry's chief charms, and few are his constant readers who do not sometimes flatter themselves that they have found it. The solutions to those difficulties proposed by Monica R. Gale, who confronts them in the Georgics in their most beautiful and most maddening forms, are as detailed and complex as they are plausible and original. Where many of the poem's recent students have opted to emphasize either its message of hope or its intimations of disorder, piously robbing the one version to pay the other, or where, more recently still, some of its readers prefer to concentrate on the pure sheen of its formal mechanisms (15), as if its generic games and intertextual pleasures were ends in themselves, Gale focuses on the poem's pervasive inconsistencies and indeterminacies, on Virgil's "shifting perspective" (72) and his "complex, polyphonic interaction with the work" of his "three major predecessors in the didactic tradition"—Hesiod, Aratus, and Lucretius (157). By careful examination of key moments in this intricate dialogue between Virgil and his models/mentors, she is able to discover the shape and patterns of his debate with the didactic tradition he inherited and to conclude that "what is distinctly Virgilian about the Georgics is precisely its refusal to take up a well-defined position: it enters the didactic tradition as a critical response to the certainties expressed in earlier poems, and invites the reader to question rather than to accept a particular world-view" (273).

After an introduction in which she sketches both the status of the debate over the Georgics as she sees it and the methods she intends to employ in contributing to it, in chapter 2 Gale analyzes the poem's "proems and finales" and, giving special attention to how they contrast with their Lucretian counterparts, offers a compelling picture of the shadings of their dialectic movement of hope and fear. In chapter 3, "the ambiguities and tensions inherent in Virgil's handling of the relationships between gods, human beings and their natural environment" are shown to emerge from a text in which Hesiod, Aratus, and Lucretius are each permitted to voice their views on how men and gods and nature interact while Virgil, "orchestrating their different voices in such a way as to emphasize the differences between them" refuses "to produce a homogenous, unified whole" from their discourse (58). "The poet of the Georgics . . . eschews both the doctrinaire certainties of both Lucretian Epicureanism and Aratean Stoicism, and puts nothing definite in their place" (112), even as he endorses the value of rural pieties (without guaranteeing their efficacy). Chapter 4, "Virgil's Metamorphoses: Mythological Allusions," building on Gale's earlier demonstrations in Myth and Poetry in Lucretius (Cambridge 1994), investigates how Virgil goes about remythologizing what Lucretius had demystified, using the tools of Lucretius to deconstruct the De Rerum Natura, and thus positioning himself to call into question "the Epicurean faith in the ultimate triumph of reason over passion and superstition" (142). Virgil's reformulations of traditional theodicies in chapter 5, "Labor improbus," combine with his reassertion of the essential place of labor in the traditional Roman value system to shape a complex refutation of the Lucretian denial of benevolent predestination; nevertheless, here as in chapter 2, in this dangerous world, the comforts of theodicy are found to be tinged with uncertainty and the claims of optimism often seem no less dubious than those of pessimism.

The Lucretian insistence that only the truth of atoms can explain the workings of reality encounters its severest denial in chapter 6, "The Wonders of the Natural World." In place of that scientific awe (divina voluptas atque horror) that Epicurean physics at once inspires and chastens in Lucretius, Virgil evokes an almost mystic exaltation, one generated by the splendor and mystery of a universe in which Agricola-Everyman discovers...

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