Thursday, June 02, 2016


A Fallacy

Richard Jenkyns, Virgil's Experience. Nature and History: Times, Names, and Places (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 313-314:
In considering the general character of the Georgics we should beware of being caught by an easy fallacy: that poets have a particular 'view of life' and that they express the whole of it throughout their works.

Now it may be doubted whether most people have a clear and consistent view of life. Almost everybody believes that life is good—suicide is reckoned to be the product of madness or sickness—but we are inclined to lay weight at some times upon life's hardships and at another upon its blessings. So too with artists: it is really not surprising or paradoxical that the same man should compose one joyful and one tragic symphony, or write both A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear. There is another consideration too: an artist, composer, or writer may 'try out' a particular view of things; one might contemplate Milton's pair of poems, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso. Even a work on the very largest scale may be a construction—an experiment—in this sense: Wagner's Ring creates an entire human and cosmic order which is evidently to its maker a fiction, an idea of how things might be, not of how they are. We could indeed reflect on how far even the Aeneid might be understood on these terms.

Even if an individual poem does proclaim a distinctive vision of life, it does not follow that this is expressed in every part of it.
Id., pp. 320-321 (footnotes omitted; bracketed reference added):
Some people see the subject of the Georgics as abstract: they suppose that the poem is about moral order, peace and abundance, or the hopes of such things, or (if they favour a pessimist interpretation) the frustration of these hopes. The Farmer, who may even be dignified with a capital letter, his work and his surroundings form (on this account) a metaphor or symbol by which these lofty matters may be represented. But this is to get the poem back to front; indeed, to mistake it fundamentally. For one thing, if the land and its work stood for some abstraction, we should have to suppose that the mass of often exact agricultural detail, which can certainly not be cashed out in metaphorical terms, was so much decoration, a diversion from the Georgics' central purpose—an incredible conclusion, and ruinous to the poem's value. Rather, Virgil writes about the real life of the real land; in one place he says directly that his subject is the earth, not fiction [2.45]. Now it might perhaps be argued that he has romanticized the Italian countryside and suppressed some unpleasant realities (latifundia is absent, and slavery almost invisible), and some may wish to go on from this to criticize him for complacency or disingenuousness. But whatever the merit or otherwise of such arguments, they have no bearing on the meaning of the poem as such, only on the modern reader's possible response to that meaning. Virgil does not take abstractions—political ideas or moral values—as his starting-point and proceed to exemplify them figuratively through the depiction of rural life. The whole movement of the poem, both in its general conception and, as we shall see, in individual passages, is in the opposite direction.

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