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Reviewed by:
  • Cultivating Peace: The Virgilian Georgic in English, 1650–1750 by Melissa Schoenberger
  • Courtney Weiss Smith
Melissa Schoenberger, Cultivating Peace: The Virgilian Georgic in English, 1650–1750 (Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 2019). Pp. 188; 5 illus. $34.95 paper.

Cultivating Peace is a fascinating book about Virgil's didactic agricultural poem The Georgics and the poetry and political thinking that it inspired in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England. Melissa Schoenberger recovers, from Virgil's poem, a distinctively georgic understanding of peace as mutable and contingent. Peace and war are made of the same stuff, involve the same energies: as Virgil showed, plowshares can and do turn to swords. Peace is not a permanent [End Page 525] state—it requires cultivation, constant laborious vigilance against the forces of disorder that it always threatens to dissolve back into. Cultivating Peace features exceptionally sensitive readings of these ideas and attitudes in English poetry by Andrew Marvell, John Dryden, Anne Finch, and John Philips. These poets turned to Virgil, even heightening the darker and more uncertain notes in his work, as they tried to make sense of their own political realities. Even as Schoenberger's is, then, a book about English poetry and classical reception, it is also about the complex contours of thinking about peace. I highly recommend it to scholars of the period's poetics and classical inheritances but also of the period's politics. As Schoenberger reminds us, Queen Anne herself invoked Virgil's understanding of war's close relation to peace, in her speech about the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713: peace is here, Queen Anne declared, so now let "the Arts of Peace . . . be cultivated" (1).

After an introduction that usefully outlines these ideas and their political contexts in both ancient Rome and late seventeenth-century England, the bulk of the book tracks these ideas at work in important English poems through beautiful, intensive, close readings. Chapter one explores Marvell's "Upon Appleton House," attending closely to its attitudes toward mutability and impermanence. Marvell's poem is not obviously georgic—it works within the conventions of country house poetry—but, Schoenberger argues convincingly, it operates in a georgic mode in ways more fundamental than the mere depiction of agricultural labor. Marvell learned from Virgil a way of thinking about the proximity of peace to war, an understanding of how easily the one can become the other. She explains, "By holding up and then rejecting various forms of ostensibly perfect peace, Marvell suggests that the stability of the estate, continuously made and maintained, offers the most viable form of lasting peace in a time of grave uncertainty" (38). Chapter two explores how Dryden's influential 1697 translation amplifies some of the complexities surrounding the idea of peace in Virgil's poem. Very much rooted in its own time and place, Dryden's translation of The Georgics recognizes both that the absence of war is not the same as peace and that a return to an idealized Golden Age peace is impossible. Dryden is suspicious of any peace imposed from the top, of a politicians' peace. Rather, with a muted kind of hope aware of all the problems, Dryden offers up only the farmer: transmuting the energies of war into cultivation, working hard to produce fruit from land still marked with battle scars. Chapter three—my favorite—focuses on Finch's georgic themes, showing that she took from Virgil an understanding that peace, productivity, and pleasurable retreat all require labor to achieve and are always subject to dangerous forces of chaos or destruction. Virgil had offered the image of the rower, working his way painfully upstream but swept backward the moment he rests. In Schoenberger's brilliant reading, this "sense of threat . . . undergirds the poem's didactic premise": refusing to make "promises about the chances of achieving a prosperous life as a farmer," Virgil "offer[s] only history and precepts—often couched in future-tense, subjunctive or imperative verbs—leaving open the question of whether anyone will heed them" (94, 104). Finch's "Petition for an Absolute Retreat" is not didactic but similarly offers subjunctives and imperatives to create both "a vision and a supplication" (93). And, keenly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 525-528
Launched on MUSE
2020-04-17
Open Access
No
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