In the Georgics a great artist deals with the noblest of the arts- the cultivation of the earth. Virgil borrows from Hesiod, Aratus. Cato Varro; but he transforms their rough prose or limping lines into finely chiseled verse. He covers dutifully the diverse branches of husbandry- the variety and treatment of soils, the seasons for sowing and reaping, the culture of the olive and the vine, the raising of cattle, horses, and sheep, and the care of bees. Every aspect of farming interests and beguiles him; he has to caution himself to get on;
Sed fugit interea, fugit irreparabile tempus, Singula dum capti circum vectamur amore-
“But meanwhile time flies, flies irreparably, while we, charmed with love [of our theme], linger around each single detail.” He has a word about the diseases of animals and how to treat them. He describes the common farm animals with understanding and sympathy; he is never through admiring the simplicity of their instincts, the power of their passions, the perfection of their forms. He idealizes rural life, but he does not ignore the hardships and vicissitudes, the crippling toil, the endless struggle against insects, the torturing pendulum of drought and storm. Nevertheless, labor omnia vincit; there is in such toil a purpose and result that give it dignity; no Roman need feel ashamed to guide a plow. Moral character, says Virgil, grows on the farm; all the old virtues that made Rome great were planted and nourished there; and hardly any process of seed sowing, protection, cultivation, weeding, and harvesting but has its counterpart in the development of the soul. And out of the fields, where the miracle of growth and the whims of the sky bespeak a thousand mystic forces, the soul, more readily than in the city, perceives the presence of creative life, and is deepened with religious intuition, humility, and reverence. Here Virgil breaks into his most famous lines, beginning with a noble echo of Lucretius, but passing into a pure Virgilian strain:
Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas, atque metus omnis et inexorabile fatum subiecit pedibus strepitumque Acherontis avari; fortunatus et ille deos qui novit agrestis, Panaque Silvanumque senem Nymphasque sorores-
“Happy the man who has been able to learn the causes of things, and has put under foot all fear and inexorable fate, and the noise of a greedy Hell. But happy too he who knows the rural deities, Pan and old Silvanus and the sister Nymphs.” The peasant is right in seeking to propitiate the gods with sacrifice and enlist their good will; these exercises of piety brighten the round of toil with festivals and clothe earth and life with meaning, drama, and poetry. Dryden considered the Georgics “the best poem of the best poet.” It shares with the De Rerum Natura the rare distinction of being at once didactic and beautiful. Rome did not take it seriously as a handbook of agriculture; we do not hear that anyone, having read it, exchanged the Forum for a farm; indeed, as Seneca thought, Virgil may have written these rural ecstasies precisely to please an urban taste. In any case, Augustus felt that Virgil had performed Maecenas’ assignment marvelously well. He called the poet to his palace and suggested a harder task, a vastly larger theme.