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  • Reading Virgil's Georgics as a Scientific Text:The Eighteenth-Century Debate between Jethro Tull and Stephen Switzer
  • Frans De Bruyn

Of all the literary works of classical antiquity, Virgil's Georgics, a didactic poem on the subject of husbandry written in the years 37-30 B.C., was deemed by eighteenth-century British writers an unparalleled model of literary perfection. John Dryden esteemed the Georgics "the divinest part of all [Virgil's] writings," and Joseph Addison judged it "the most Compleat, Elaborate, and finisht Piece of all Antiquity."1 The poem prompted a vogue of formal imitations (John Philips's Cyder [1708], John Dyer's The Fleece [1757], James Grainger's Sugar-Cane [1764], among others), but more importantly, it lent classical sanction to two defining trends in eighteenth-century poetry: its turn to description and to didacticism. The presence of the georgic was also registered in literary forms far beyond poetry, from travelogues, scientific treatises, and manuals of husbandry, to essays, novels, and conduct books. In an age that professed a via media in its ethics, enthusiasms, and allegiances, the georgic proved indispensable as a mode of literary and cultural mediation, reconciling pastoral ease and epic seriousness, sensory appeal and plain instruction, retirement and engagement, cyclical return and historical progress.

Recent literary scholarship has demonstrated the range of cultural work this most protean of literary modes was called upon to perform. We can read profitably of the georgic as the "landscape of labour," of the "imperial georgic" and the "female georgic," and of "English georgic and British nationhood."2 The dearest and often contradictory desires of the age, for mastery, for improvement (of one's mind, soul, or land or enterprise), for connection to place and landscape, for political and social justification, all found expression in the language and idiom of the georgic. A poem ostensibly dedicated to the dissemination of the art of farming resonated in the minds of its eighteenth-century readers with complex symbolic and thematic harmonies. In taking as his subject the self-reliant life of the Roman farmer, Virgil was understood to broach large philosophical questions, [End Page 661] such as the enabling conditions of virtue, the attributes of the good life, and the basis of a sound polity.

Yet a striking and often unremarked feature of the georgic revival in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is the debate Virgil's poemoccasioned about the scientific or technical merit of the agricultural instructions it conveys. Eighteenth-century readers were well aware of Seneca's critical judgment in the first century A.D. that "Vergil sought . . . not what was nearest to the truth, but what was most appropriate, and aimed, not to teach the farmer, but to please the reader."3 Still, it was widely held that the poet intended his farming advice to serve practical as well as poetic ends. According to a venerable critical tradition, Virgil put pen to papyrus at the request of his patron, Maecenas, as part of a campaign to repair the damage Roman agriculture had suffered during the protracted series of civil conflicts (49-29 B.C.) that presaged the end of the Roman republic. John Martyn, professor of botany at the University of Cambridge from 1732 to 1762, notes in his edition of the Georgics, "A great part of the lands in Italy had been divided among the soldiers, who had been too long engaged in the wars, to have a just knowledge of Agriculture. Hence it became necessary that the ancient spirit of Husbandry should be revived among the Romans." To this undertaking Virgil dedicated himself with zeal, producing, in Martyn's view, a precise set of instructions for the farmer. So well did he perform his commission that "it has been found by experience, that most of his rules may be put in practice, even here [in Britain], to advantage."4

One of the most passionate exponents of Virgil as a writer of serious scientific and technical pretensions, as a writer, indeed, whose opinions on agriculture merited careful scrutiny in the eighteenth century, was Stephen Switzer, a landscape gardener and nurseryman with an established reputation in the theory and practice of horticulture. Switzer's Virgil anticipated...


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