Notebook: David Ferry on Virgil’s “Georgics”, Williams’s “The Farmer”

virgil.jpg williams.jpg farmer.jpg

In David Ferry’s introduction to his translation of Virgil’s Georgics, he poses the long poem as “Virgil’s great myth of the fall of man” (xii); “it is not through man’s own fault, … but simply because this is how things are, and are going to be” (xii). It is also a poem about how human culture began and how it sustains. Ferry quotes the following lines from the poem: First, man “established the art of cultivation, / Sharpening with their cares the skills of men, / Forbidding the world he rules to slumber in ease” … “Then followed other arts; and everything / Was toil, relentless toil, urged on by need” (xiii). So far, this seems a pretty standard interpretation, though I do find that some of Ferry’s terms are provocative in their own right. Where it gets interesting, or what I thought might be interesting for That’s Not It, are two moments a little later which I think fit together cleverly and to which the wording of the early interpretation might have something to bring.

The first of these moments is when Ferry goes on to suggest:

Maybe Virgil was so interested in the skills of agriculture and animal husbandry and viniculture and beekeeping because he came from people who worked at such things, and also because they’re beautiful and touching and interesting in themselves. But it also has to be because these ingenuities and arts, still with us and still essential, are always, though present, still back there at the beginning, when we fell and nature became imperfect, and culture had to be constructed. (xv)

Again, the wording, mainly of the final two clauses, is rather provocative.

And finally, Ferry begins talking about English poets and poems which carry on the georgic tradition. The last poem mentioned is William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Farmer,” from which he quotes:

The farmer in deep thought
is pacing through the rain
among his blank fields, with
hands in pockets,
in his head
the harvest already planted.
A cold wind ruffles the water
among the browned weeds.
On all sides
the world rolls coldly away:
black orchards
darkened by the March clouds—
leaving room for thought.
Down past the brushwood
bristling by
the rainsluiced wagonroad
looms the artist figure of
the farmer—composing—

Now, to read this extract from Williams in light of what Ferry has just said about The Georgics seems rather fecund to the type of topic discussed on That’s Not It. To bring it all together: There is an artist/farmer, who is an antagonist (presumably to the earth and nature), staring at blank (though seeded) fields. Is he an antagonist because, as Ferry says, he “[forbids] the world he rules to slumber in ease.” Of Virgil’s “toil, relentless toil, urged on by need” Ferry says “the need for it [is] never exhausted” (xiii) and this seems to be tied to the fact that “nature became imperfect.” The way Ferry phrases the last line of the passage of his that I quoted, it almost insinuates a causal connection: “nature became imperfect” thus “culture had to be constructed.” Does the construction also create the antagonism? This would, in a way, make it an antagonism of imperfection.

To import this structure upon Williams’s turn “the artist figure,” the blank fields read as a blank canvas, and the antagonism is what then? This blank canvas in itself almost reads like Martin’s “empty” Tang dish (see Book Review: Agnes Martin, Writings), which is not imperfection but perfection. Yet despite this contradiction, the images seem complementary, perhaps precisely because both have this idea of antagonism between emptiness and construction. Williams’s compacting of the two figures, farmer and artist, is rather nice; imagine the farmer, rather than looking out over barren soil, but a vast plain of white porcelain. There is a sense of the sublime in this compact, and the interchangeability between perfection and imperfection (both being forms of blankness/emptiness) is an endearing feat. Is it the emptiness that is the need that relentlessly urges man to toil, or is it still the sublimity of perfection, that though lost, urges man to transcendence? In a different context, this duality is given by Ferry: “Pity is the context for the poem’s celebrations; admiration is the context for the poem’s commiserations” (xiii).

Can this interpretation carry all the way back to Ferry’s early statement that this is “how things are, and are going to be?” It would be an interesting notion.

David Feil

Virgil, The Georgics, trans. David Ferry, FSG, 2005, ISBN: 0374530319

The Georgics can also be read as an e-text through the Project Gutenberg website.


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