Virgil’s Georgics

Illustration to Virgil’s Georgics: The swarming of the bees, by Wenceslaus Hollar. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts.

“The best poem by the best poet”—so John Dryden declared Virgil’s Georgics. The title Georgics, in Latin Georgica, is really a Greek word (Γεωργικά) that simply means “agricultural matters.” It is formed from the Greek word for “farmer” (γεωργός). The Georgics are an example of a kind of poetry known as “didactic”—again, from a Greek word, which means “to teach.” So the poem should, at least the title implies, teach us about agricultural matters. We should learn from it how to farm. But if that were really Virgil’s purpose, the poem would be a total failure. What, then, is the point of this elaborate pretense?

A look at the poem itself suggests an answer. The fourth and final book of the Georgics is devoted to apiculture, the care of bees.

at liquidi fontes et stagna virentia musco
adsint et tenuis fugiens per gramina rivus,
palmaque vestibulum aut ingens oleaster inumbret,
ut, cum prima novi ducent examina reges
vere suo ludetque favis emissa iuventus,
vicina invitet decedere ripa calori,
obviaque hospitiis teneat frondentibus arbos.

But let clear springs and moss-green pools be near,
And through the grass a streamlet hurrying run,
Some palm-tree o’er the porch extend its shade,
Or huge-grown oleaster, that in Spring,
Their own sweet Spring-tide, when the new-made chiefs
Lead forth the young swarms, and, escaped their comb,
The colony comes forth to sport and play,
The neighbouring bank may lure them from the heat,
Or bough befriend with hospitable shade. (trans. J. B. Greenough)

Virgil’s instruction for creating and maintaining an apiary becomes an occasion for contemplating both the beauty of country life and the marvelous genius of these tiny creatures. Bees need “clear springs”—or at least clean water of some kind—for drinking, for making honey, and especially in the spring for making bee bread to feed their young. The added detail that there should be moss-green pools is not strictly relevant—the bees have no use for this—and yet the beauty of the scene attracts us. This apiary not only serves a useful function but charms with the beauty of its design. In calling the space before the entrance of the hive a “porch” (vestibulum), Virgil uses a term that belongs properly to a human abode, and thus begins a description of bee society viewed as a miniature version of the world of man. The adjective “new-made” (novi) reminds us of the constant rhythm of renewal in the cycles of the natural world. Finally, the scene invites us to consider how the deliberate toil of man can humanize the natural world. The tree, carefully placed by the farmer in the path of his bees, plays “host” (hospitiis teneat) to the little guests resting on its branches.

That the Georgics teaches how to farm is indeed a pretense. But when weighing the value of Virgil’s poem, we would do well to recall Sydney’s judgment that “of all sciences . . . is our poet the monarch. For he doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter into it.” No poet has ever given so sweet a prospect into this way as Virgil—all the sweeter for those who read the poem in the original Latin.