Bernard O’Donoghue, review of The Georgics of Virgil by Peter Fallon, in Times Literary Supplement (10 Dec. 2004)

Details: Bernard O’Donoghue, review of Peter Fallon, The Georgics of Virgil, in Times Literary Supplement (10 Dec. 2004) [q.p.]

Il faut cultiver notre jardin: in times of public despair, one strategy has always ostentibly been to fall back on agriculture as a private and uninjurious activity. So it is perhaps not surprisin g that them has been a strong fashion for bucolics in recent poetry, especially from Ireland and notably from Louis MacNeice, Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney.

At the end of the succinct and powerful “Afterwords” to his magnificent new translation of the Georgics of, the poet Peter Fallon notes that his most celebrated recent predecessor in providing an English verse translation, Cecil Day-Lewis, also “sang in time of war the arts of peace” when his version was published, in 1940. And Fallon tells us that he found it “a chilling experience” to be completing Book One with its apocalyptic description of the universal horrors that followed the killing of Caesar “while George W. Bush was rushing to war without UN backing: ‘Look here, the cast is up in arms; look there, hostilities. The whole world’s at loggerheads’”.

Fallon keeps this moral-drawing for the end, great as is its resonance for our times. The language of his version is at once wonderfully easy and energetic from the start, with the daringly cheery opening: “what tickles the corn to laugh in rows”. Current politics is less in the foreground of the Georgics than in Virgil’s earlier Eclogues, which was recurrently troubled by the political issues of land ownership. In the Georgics Virgil’s first model is Hesiod’s Greek Works and Days, but the lyrical farming section in Hesiod is only part of a strange mixture of practical advice on all matters including religion. Here Virgil keeps the practical advice to farming. This is not to say that the Georgics are in any way evasive: as Fallon puts it, “this glorification of peasant life and its responsibilities displays a deeper level of compassion and a broader comprehension of sickness, disease, time’s passing and death”. Farming in Virgil is far from uniformly idyllic: and the poet would go on next to his greatest, most serious and most political work, the Aeneid.

But, of course, the Georgics itself is about more than farming. As Day-Lewis said, the Roman reader who was really concerned with the practicalities of farming could read Varro. The four books of the poem are highly selective; as Day-Lewis also pointed out, there is a whole book (the last and traditionally the most popular) on bee-keeping, and nothing about chickens. Two of the four books, the first and the fourth, end with great ethical set pieces: the disruption of nature after Caesar’s death and Proteus’ great tragic account of Orpheus which finishes the whole work (and where Fallon is at his impressive best). Only Book Two maintains to the end the idyllic world-view conventionally associated with the form, ending its discussion of trees and the virtues of the Italian soil with a vision of cornucopia. The most devastating section of the whole work is the 100-line evocation of animal plague at the end of Book Three, sent by Tisiphone, the “pale-faced fury”. This too is wonderfully translated by Fallon, who captures perfectly the weight of this murrain which carries over - at least metaphorically - into the momentous genre of human plague, from Thucydides to Boccaccio, Defoe and Camus (as Book Four remarks “in fact, life brings to bees the same misfortunes as to us”). But Fallon’s countryman’s touch with animals retains its centrality:

Behold a bull, all hot and heavy, his shoulder to the plow,
how he collapses, drooling blood and foam and froth, and with a moan
heaves his last. The plowman goes with heavy heart
to untack his mourning mate, then simply walks away
and leaves his plow plonk in the middle of the field.

Fallon, the poet-farmer from County Meath, is the perfect translator for the Georgics, as is borne out on every page. But it is not only even primarily as farmer that he is equip for this task. He tells us he considered various other ways of dealing with the poem: in more traditional English poetic forms, or through high-point extracts. But, realizing that no work is all high points, he slowly developed a language to deal with the whole, and has done so with spectacular success. He achieves exemplary precision, as when he describes the testing of soil for richness: “toss it from hand and it won’t crack or crumble, / no, it clings to fingers just like pitch”. This, clarity produces memorable images: in winter, “in running rivers, the water grows a skin of bone” (as in the Anglo-, Saxon riddle) and “clothes harden on your back”. As the horse gallops, “his hooves resound as they eat up the ground and spit it out again”. The translator attains vividness and exuberance by a vernacular freedom, often from the rural Irish: “jizz them up”, “take a running jump”, “a thing of nothing”, “grabbed a hold of him” (Proteus), “a sup of water”, “weak with the hunger”. Put together like this, ,they could sound arch; but as one element in a brilliantly versatile language they seem, entirely right. This language is responsive to the different registers necessary for this extraordinarily various work. There are great, predecessors for this venture, from Dryden to Day Lewis; but Peter Fallon’s version will live, with the best.

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