American Georgics: Old and New
Plowing It Under; Thomas Hart Benton, 1934
To start off the week, I’d like to point folks toward a recent review published in The Englewood Review of Books by Art of the Rural Contributing Editor Rachel Reynolds Luster. American Georgics: Writings on Farming, Culture, and the Land is the latest title in the Yale Agrarian Studies Series published by Yale University Press, and it features a roster of writers who will be well-known to our readers, but also some folks new to us.
Here’s the introduction to “For Farmers, For Landowners, For Citizens and Neighbors:”
American Georgics: Writing on Farming, Culture, and the Land, offers readers a concise and well-heeled collection of agrarian thought and writings from the founding of our Republic through the current wave, including speeches, essays, excerpts from novels, and poems. The writings in this volume trace the evolution of “the economic, political, social, and ecological dimensions of agrarianism” (372). Some of the authors will be most familiar to readers of agrarian writing including James Madison, Henry David Thoreau, and Wendell Berry; others, such as Jesse Buell, Louisa May Alcott, and Nate Shaw (Ned Cobb), will come as delightful surprises. The collection is rich in many ways but one of its greatest strength comes from the variety of perspectives offered but perhaps the most striking aspect of reading American Georgics is its undeniable relevance to our current political, economic, and agricultural moment.
Georgics, as a poetic form and sensibility, can be traced back to Virgil. Unlike his Pastorals, these poems merge considerations of mythology and poetics with elaborate descriptions of agricultural practice. I heartily recommend David Ferry’s translation of the Georgics; folks can hear his reflections on the poem and its translation on the excellent ThoughtCast site.
John Dryden once called Virgil’s Georgics “the best poem by the best poet.” Here’s an excerpt from the Third Georgic, as translated by Mr. Ferry:
If raising sheep for wool is your concern,Be sure to avoid pasturing where the grassGrows high, and you must keep your pasture clearOf caltrops, burrs, and other bristling growth.From the beginning be sure to choose for your flockOnly the sheep whose fleece is soft and white;But no matter how white the ram, if there are veinsOf black on the underside of his moist tongue,Reject that ram and look for another one,So that the newborn lambs won’t be dark-spotted.O Moon, it was with a lure of pure white woolThat you, if what we’re told is true,Were captivated by Pan, Arcadia’s god,Calling you to the innermost forest glade,
And, so it is said, you did not spurn his call.