Reflections and New Perspectives on Virgil's Georgics ed. by Bobby Xinyue and Nicholas Freer
According to Italo Calvino, "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say." This certainly captures the view of Virgil's Georgics as approached in Xinyue and Freer's edited volume. The early reference to the "inexhaustible interpretive possibilities" (1) of the Georgics establishes the keynote of this wide-ranging and dexterously arranged book, which pays homage to the poem's elastic open-endedness as much it seeks to offer a crop of rich readings.
The Georgics does not want for scholarly attention, yet the editors make a virtue out of the bibliographical amplitude, and the orientation they provide in the introduction constitutes one of the book's many strengths. Inspired in part by overviews of the Virgilian landscape, such as Katharina Volk's Vergil's Georgics (Oxford 2008), they offer a taut summary of the secondary yield, before identifying several recent studies that best convey recent shifts in Georgics criticism, not least through their emphasis on instability over certainty. These scholarly trends then serve as the thematic glue and the springboard for a spread of essays that extend ambitiously across time and space.
The volume is divided into five parts, the first comprising a series of technical appraisals. Cowan innovatively applies theories from the field of narratology to Virgil's poem, focusing on the use of the second-person. By exploring the full spectrum of the multiple referents "you" implies, including "farmer" and "narratee," Cowan broaches the moot relationship between the act of composition and agricultural activity. Heyworth's chapter likewise blurs the distinction between literature and farming. Placing the first Georgic under the philological microscope, he contends that Virgil's advice on "beginnings" is as applicable to the poet as it is to the husbandman. If Heyworth problematizes the nature of this work's instruction, Thomas queries whether didaxis has any role at all. This chapter prioritizes the aesthetic qualities of the Georgics, suggesting that it is the pleasure and empathy they generate that lend meaning to the poem.
Part 2 is dedicated to religion and philosophy. Mackenzie unites a recent surge in awareness of Orphic texts with a growing interest in the cult of Bacchus in Augustan poetry. His account of several underexplored intertexts is a handsome enough offering, but he then moves on to assess the implications of Orphic expiation for the reign of Augustus, especially his apotheosis. Adventitiously in tune with a broader impetus for philosophical readings of Latin poetry, [End Page 238] Freer considers the Georgics' engagement with Epicureanism. Specifically, he contends that Virgil used his poem to generate a tension between two lines of thought within the Epicurean school concerning poetry's efficacy to teach.
While the previous section provided a foretaste of the contemporary compass of the Georgics, part 3 forcefully reinserts the poem into the political, cultural, and social dynamics of the Augustan Principate. Xinyue pursues further the issue of Octavian's divinization, positing that the Georgics functions as a meditation on the status and (diminishing) role of poetry at a time of unprecedented concentration of power in one man. Following neatly on, Giusti also considers the extent to which the poem serves as a commentary on Rome's transition from Republic to Principate. In this somewhat complex but ultimately rewarding chapter, Giusti maps the proem of the third Georgic onto the theatrical practices and foreign policies of the emerging empire. Stöckinger then persuasively interrogates Rome's political transition from the angle of gift-giving and reciprocity.
The remaining two sections mark a new direction, namely the poem's reception. Two splendid essays in part 4 represent the ancient reception. Myers addresses Columella's anomalous hexameter treatment of horticulture in a prose text. She observes how interpretation is at work as much as imitation in this gardening cold frame, which seems to respond directly to the Georgics' own paucity of horticultural coverage. Myers also draws attention to the purely literary rather than practical function of this excursus. A text of late antiquity forms the focus of Hunt's provocative chapter on Servius' commentary on the Georgics. Her contention that Servius' own preoccupation with religion has the potential to skew not only subsequent readings of the text but also our reconstructions of Roman religion is robustly marshaled.
Three examples of reception from the modern era are then fully contextualized, starting with Barton's discussion of the poetry of the French humanist, Marc Lescarbot. Barton makes the case for the profound influence of the georgic tradition on a vernacular text, at the same time showing how Virgil's poem was adapted to seventeenth-century concerns about the New World and the French wars of religion. In contrast to the early modern period, when the Georgics was the least imitated work of the Virgilian corpus, Earnshaw points to the popularity of the georgic mode in the Romantic movement. She argues that Shelley's English translation of the poem is far from a straightforward rendering, being itself in dialogue with Dante's reception of Virgil. Finally, Braund reviews adaptations and translations of the Georgics by female poets of the last century: Janet Lembke and Vita Sackville-West. She demonstrates how a deep love of the land undergirds their engagement with the Georgics, and questions whether Virgil's poem can elicit particular responses in women that it does not in men.
This volume achieves many things well. It informs, but never loses sight of the sheer joy of experiencing this poem. It reappraises well-tilled passages, such as the proem to book 3 and the Aristaeus epyllion, but also brings to the fore fringes of the field and ploughs new furrows. The essays leave the reader in no doubt about the polyvalence of the Georgics or its ability to function as a mirror, with each new generation "rewriting" the poem in its own terms. The volume stands as an important contribution to Georgics scholarship. [End Page 239]