“Si credere dignum est”: Crediting the Georgics from Browning to Hill
My paper explores the ways that three English poets—Robert Browning, C Day Lewis and Geoffrey Hill—have “credited” (i.e. both acknowledged and taken on trust) the expressive potential of the Georgics. I look in particular at themes of love, war and the work of poetry, relating them to the Latin text and to the English georgic tradition.
I begin with Browning, whose Virgil is more disturbing and more resistant to interpretation than is usual in Victorian modes of classical reception; the reader’s image and expectations of Virgil are unsettled by the indeterminacy of the dramatic monologue. I discuss the changing shape of the Georgics in The Ring and the Book (1868–69), where the sexual drama is played out through a pun on husbandman/ husband and through images from Virgilof ploughing and splicing, miraculous fertility and the sowing of wild oats. The poem’s various speakers graft the Georgics, sometimes movingly, sometimes perversely, into the construction of their self-image and the rhetoric of their testimony. A later poem, “Pan and Luna” (Dramatic Idyls, 1880), takes as epigraph “Si credere dignum est” and re-enacts Browning’s experience of reading the story of Luna in Georgics 3: “O worthy of belief I hold it was . . . No question”. Challenging Virgil to explain himself, Browning renders the three enigmatic lines of Latin text into more than a hundred of his own, re-imagining the encounter of Luna with Pan in brutal physical detail before dismantling his own version and surrendering it to its narrative essence: “Arcadia, night, a cloud, Pan, and the moon”. The strange legend is intuitively credible, even as its meanings remain open to question.
Translating the Georgics (1940) offered C. Day Lewis an insight into the work of the poet and his place in the community; Poems in Wartime (also 1940) explores the analogy between farming and poetry in an urgent contemporary context. Through the figure of the old Corycian gardener the future Laureate hopes to connect present contingencies with the remembered rhythms of the pre-war English countryside: “taking a leaf from Virgil’s laurel/ I sang in time of war the arts of peace”. I discuss this sense of continuity between the wartime present and the perennial work of the countryside and contrast it with the “interrupted Georgic” of the First World War which characteristically evokes the disruption and destruction of rural life. As a “watcher” (Day Lewis served in a look-out post) the poet both observes and takes part in the work of his village. Where Browning broke Virgil down into verbal fragments, Day Lewis re-integrates the elements of night, moon and landscape—“Image or fact”— into a microcosm of national and literary tradition.
Geoffrey Hill also confronts the Second World War through a reading of the Georgics. By a cruel irony “Operation Olive”, one of the grimmest phases of the allied forces’ Italian campaign of autumn 1944, was fought in the place idealised and praised in Georgics 2. 136ff. In a densely-allusive passage of Hill’s Odi Barbare (2012) Virgil’s landscape is transformed into a battleground: as the clear headwaters of the Clitumnus are trampled to a sea of mud the ritually-pure sacrificial oxen are metamorphosed into fire-breathing Panzers. I analyse the intimate and disturbing relation of Hill’s language and form to the Latin text; more broadly, I trace his longstanding engagement with Virgil and show how the Georgics remains a point of reference in his poems and for his critical writing.
A paper read at the conference New Perspectives on Virgil's Georgics, UCL, April 2014.
Purple Shining Lilies: Imagining the Aeneid in contemporary poetry
This chapter explores the presence of Virgil in contemporary poetry in English. I argue that writers today are less susceptible than their predecessors to shades and echoes and more precisely attuned to the possibilities of tone, and to the sound, form, texture and visual appearance of the classical text. Whether responding to a single image or re-imagining a whole scene, poets are invoking Virgil to accompany them on their own journeys and to illuminate the ambiguities of speaking and silence, attachment and loss. Readers, too, are discovering a range of interpretative opportunities, as they are invited to re-encounter the Aeneid alongside such poets as Fleur Adcock, Eavan Boland, U.A. Fanthorpe, Medbh McGuckian and Adrienne Rich.
Published in Living Classics: Greece and Rome in Contemporary Poetry in English, ed. S. J. Harrison (OUP, 2009).