John Dryden.

The works of John Dryden, now first collected in eighteen volumes (Volume 14) online

. (page 2 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

description, and represents his countryman per-
forming the action in which he would instruct his
reader. Where the one sets out, as fully and dis-
tinctly as he can, all the parts of the truth which
he would communicate to us, the other singles out
the most pleasing circumstance of this truth, and
so conveys the whole in a more diverting man-
ner to the understanding. I shall give one instance,
out of a multitude of this nature, that might be
found in the Georgics, where the reader may see
the different ways Virgil has taken to express the
same thing, and how much pleasanter every man-
ner of expression is, than the plain and direct men-



tion of it would have been. It is in the Second
Georgic, where he tells us what trees will bear
grafting on each other :

Et scepe alterius ramos impnne videmus
Vertere in alttrius, mutatamque insita mala
Ferre pyrum, et prnnis lapidosa rubescere coma.
Steriles platani malos gessere valentes :
Castanecefagus, ornusque incanuit albo
flore pyri ; glandemque sues fregere sub ulmis.

. Nee Ion gum tempus; et ingens

Exiit ad c<zlum ramis felicibus arbos;
Miraturque novas Jrondes, et non sua poma.

Here, we see, the poet considered all the effects
of this union between trees of different kinds, and
took notice of that effect which had the most sur-
prise, and by consequence the most delight in it, to
express the capacity that was in them of being thus
united. This way of writing is every where much
in use among the poets, and is particularly practi-
sed by Virgil, who loves to suggest a truth indirect-
ly, and, without giving us a full and open view of
it, to let us see just so much as will naturally lead
the imagination into all the parts that lie conceal-
ed. This is wonderfully diverting to the understand-
ing, thus to receive a precept, that enters, as it were,
through a by-way, and to apprehend an idea that
draws a whole train after it. For here the mind,
which is always delighted with its own discoveries,
only takes the hint from the poet, and seems to
work out the rest by the strength of her own fa-

But, since the inculcating precept upon precept
will at length prove tiresome to the reader, if he
meets with no entertainment, the poet must take
care not to encumber his poem with too much
business, but sometimes to relieve the subject with
a moral reflection, or let it rest a while for the


sake of a pleasant and pertinent digression. Nor is
it sufficient to run out into beautiful and diverting
digressions, (as it is generally thought,) unless they
are brought in aptly, and are something of a piece
with the main design of the Georgic : for they
ought to have a remote alliance at least to the sub-
ject, that so the whole poem may be more uniform
and agreeable in all its parts. We should never
quite lose sight of the country, though we are some-
times entertained with a distant prospect of it. Of
this nature are Virgil's descriptions of the original
of agriculture, of the fruitfulness of Italy, of a
country life, and the like, which are not brought
in by force, but naturally rise out of the principal
argument and design of the poem. I know no one
digression in the Georgics that may seem to con-
tradict this observation, besides that in the latter
end of the first book, where the poet launches out
into a discourse of the battle of Pharsalia, and the
actions of Augustus : but it is worth while to con-
sider how admirably he has turned the course of his
narration into its proper channel, and made his
husbandman concerned even in what relates to the
battle, in those inimitable lines :

Scilicet et tempus veniet, cumfinibus illis
Agricola, incuroo terram molitus aratro,
Exesa inveniet scabrd rubigine pila,
Aut gravibus rastris galeas pulsabit inanes,
Grandiaque effbssis mirabitur ossa sepulcris.

And afterwards, speaking of Augustus's actions, he
still remembers, that agriculture ought to be some
way hinted at throughout the whole poem :

Non ullus aratro

Dignus honos: squalent abductis arva colonis;
Et curves rigidum falces conftantur in ensem.


We now come to the style which is proper to a
Georgic ; and indeed this is the part on which the
poet must lay out all his strength, that his words
may be warm and glowing, and that every thing he
describes may immediately present itself and rise
up to the reader's view. He ought, in particular, to
be careful of not letting his subject debase his style,
and betray him into a meanness of expression, but
every where to keep up his verse in all the pomp of
numbers, and dignity of words.

I think nothing, which is a phrase or saying in
common talk, should be admitted into a serious
poem ; because it takes off from the solemnity of
the expression, and gives it too great a turn of fa-
miliarity. Much less ought the low phrases and
terms of art, that are adapted to husbandry, have
any place in such a work as the Georgic, which is
not to appear in the natural simplicity and naked-
ness of its subject, but in the pleasantest dress that
poetry can bestow on it. Thus Virgil, to deviate
from the common form of words, would not make
use of temporc, but sic/ere, in his first verse, and
every -where else abounds with metaphors, Grecisms,
and circumlocutions, to give his verse the greater
pomp, and preserve it from sinking into a plebeian
style. And herein consists Virgil's master-piece,
who has not only excelled all other poets, but even
himself, in the language of his Georgics, where we
receive more strong and lively ideas of things from
his words, than we could have done from the ob-
jects themselv es ; and find our imaginations more
affected by his descriptions, than they would have
been by the very sight of what he describes.

1 shall now, after this short scheme of rules, con-
sider the different success that Hesiod and Virgil
have met with in this kind -of poetry, which may
give us some further notion of the excellence ofthe


Gcorgics. To begin with Hesiod : If we may guess
at his character from his writings, he had much more
of the husbandman than the poet in his temper : he
was wonderfully grave, discreet, and frugal : he lived
altogether in the country, and was probably, for his
great prudence, the oracle of the neighbourhood.
These principles of good husbandry ran through his
works, and directed him to the choice of tillage and
merchandize, for the subject of that which is the
most celebrated of them. He is every where bent
on instruction, avoids all manner of digressions,
and does not stir out of the field once in the whole
Georgic. His method, in describing month after
month, with its proper seasons and employments, is
too grave and simple ; it takes off from the surprise
and variety of the poem, and makes the whole look
but like a modern almanack in verse. The reader is
carried through a course of weather, and may be-
forehand guess whether he is to meet with snow
or rain, clouds or sunshine, in the next description.
His descriptions, indeed, have abundance of nature
in them ; but then it is nature in her simplicity and
undress. Thus, when he speaks of January, " The
wild beasts," says he, " run shivering through the
woods, with their heads stooping to the ground,
and their tails clapt between their legs ; the goats
and oxen are almost flayed with cold : but it is not
so bad with the sheep, because they have a thick
coat of wool about them. The old men too are bit-
terly pinched with the weather : but the young girls
feel nothing of it, who sit at home with their mo-
thers by a warm fire-side." Thus does the old gen-
tleman give himself up to a loose kind of tattle, ra-
ther than endeavour after a just poetical description.
Nor has he shown more of art or judgment in the
precepts he has given us, which are sown so very
thick, that they clog the poem too much, and arc


often so minute and full of circumstances, that
they weaken and unnerve his verse. But, after all,
we are beholden to him for the first rough sketch
of a Georgic ; where we may still discover some-
thing venerable in the antiqueness of the work :
but, if we would see the design enlarged, the fi-
gures reformed, the colouring laid on, and the
whole piece finished, we must expect it from a
greater master's hand.

Virgil has drawn out the rules of tillage and
planting into two books, which Hesiod has dis-
patched in half a one ; but has so raised the na-
tural rudeness and simplicity of his subject with
such a significancy of expression, such a pomp of
verse, such variety of transitions, and such a so-
lemn air irj his reflections, that, if we look on both
poets together, we see in one the plainness of a
downright countryman, and, in the other, some-
thing of a fustic majesty, like that of a Roman dic-
tator at the plough-tail. He delivers the meanest
of his precepis with a kind of grandeur: he breaks
the clods, and tosses the dung about, with an air
of gracefulness. His prognostications of the wea-
ther are taken out of Aratus, where we may see
how judiciously he has picked out those that are
most proper for his husbandman's observation ; how
he has enforced the expression, and heightened the
images, which he found in the original.

The Second Book has more wit in it, and a greater
boldness in its mclaphors, than any of the rest. The
poet, with a great beauty, applies oblivion, igno-
rance, wonder, desire, and the like, to his trees.
The last Georgic has, indeed, as many metaphors,
but not so daring as this ; for human thoughts and
passions may be more naturally ascribed to a bee,
than to an inanimate plant. He who reads over
the pleasures of a country life, as they are described


by Virgil in the latter end of this book, can scarce
be of Virgil's mind in preferring even the life of a
philosopher to it.

We may, I think, read the poet's clime in his de-
scription ; for he seems to have been in a sweat at
the writing of it ;

. .' qui me gelidis in vallibus Hapti

Sistat, et ingenti ramorwn protegat umbra /-rr

and is every where mentioning, among his chief
pleasures, the coolness of his shades and rivers,
vales and grottoes, which a more northern poet
would have omitted for the description of a sunny
fyill, and fire-side.

The Third Georgic seems to be the most laboured
of them all : there is a wonderful vigour and spirit
in the description of the horse and chariot-race.
The force of love is represented in noble instances,
and very sublime expressions. The Scythian win-
ter-piece appears so very cold and bleak to the eye,
that a man can scarce look on it without shivering.
The murrain, at the end, has all the expressiveness
that words can give. It was here that the poet
strained hard to out-do Lucretius in the description
of his plague : and, if the reader would see what
success he had, he may find it at large in Scaliger.

But Virgil seems no where so well pleased, as
when he is got among his Bees in the Fourth Geor-
gic; and ennobles the actions of so trivial a crea-
ture, with metaphors drawn from the most import-
ant concerns of mankind. His verses are not in a
greater noise and hurry in the battles of ./Eneas and
Turnus, than in the engagement of two swarms.
And as, in his JEnei's, he compares the labours of
his Trojans to those of bees and pismires, here he
compares the labours of the bees to those of the


Cyclops. In short, the last Georgia was a good
prelude to the ^Enei's, and very well showed what
the poet could do in the description of what was
really great, by his describing the mock grandeur
of an insect with so good a grace. There is more
pleasantness in the little platform of a garden,
which he gives us about the middle of this book,
than in all the spacious walks and water-works of
Rapin. The speech of Proteus, at the end, can ne-
ver be enough admired, and was indeed very lit to
conclude so divine a work.

After this particular account of the beauties in
the Georgics, I should, in the next place, endeavour
to point out its imperfections, if it has any. But,
though I think there are some few parts in it that
are not so beautiful as the rest, I shall not presume
to name them, as rather suspecting my own judge-
ment, than I can believe a fault to be in that poem,
which lay so long under Virgil's correction, and had
his last hand put to it. The First Georgic was pro-
bably burlesqued in the author's life-time ; for we
still find in the scholiasts a verse that ridicules part
of a line translated from Hesiod Nudus ara, sere
nudus: And we may easily guess at the judgment
of this extraordinary critic, whoever he was, from
his censuring this particular precept. We may be
sure Virgil would not have translated it from He-
siod, had he not discovered some beauty in it ; and
indeed the beauty of it is, what I have before ob-
served to be frequently met with in Virgil, the de-
livering the precept so indirectly, and singling out
the particular circumstance of sowing and plough-
ing naked, to suggest to us, that these employments
are proper only in the hot season of the year.

I shall not here compare the style of the Geor-
gics with that of Lucretius, (which the reader may
see already done in the preface to the second vo-


lume of Miscellany Poems,) but shall conclude this
poem to be the most complete, elaborate, and fi-
nished piece of all antiquity. The JEne'is, indeed,
is of a nobler kind ; but the Georgic is more per-
fect in its kind. The JEne'is has a greater variety
of beauties in it ; but those of the Georgic are more
exquisite. In short, the Georgic has all the per-
fection that can be expected in a poem written by
the greatest poet in the flower of his age, when his
invention was ready, his imagination warm, his
judgment settled, and all his faculties in their full
vigour and maturity.




The poet, in the beginning of this book, propounds the general design,
of each Georgic : and, after a solemn invocation of all the gods,
who are any way related to his subject, he addresses himself, in par-
ticular, to Augustus, whom he compliments with divinity; and, after,
strikes into his business. He shows the different kinds of tillage
proper to different soils; traces out the original of agriculture;
gives a catalogue of the husbandman's tools; specifies the employ-
ments peculiar to each season ; describes the changes of the weather,
with the signs in heaven and earth that forbade them ; instances
many of the prodigies that happened near the time of Julius Ccesar\
death ; and shuts up all with a supplication to the gods for the safe-
ty of Augustus, and the preservation of Rome.*

WHAT makes a plenteous harvest, when to turn
The fruitful soil, and when to sow the corn ;
The care of sheep, of oxen, and of kine,
And how to raise on elms the teeming vine ;

* The poetry of this book is more sublime than any part of
Virgil, if I have any taste. And if ever I have copied his majes-


The birth and genius of the frugal Bee,
I sing, Maecenas, and I sing to thee.

Ye deities ! who fields and plains protect,
Who rule the seasons, and the year direct,
Bacchus and fostering Ceres, powers divine,
Who gave us corn for mast, for water, wine
Ye Fauns, propitious to the rural swains,
Ye Nymphs, that haunt the mountains and the plains,
Join in my work, and to my numbers bring
Your needful succour ; for your gifts I sing.
And thou, whose trident struck the teeming earth,
And made a passage for the courser's birth ;
And thou, for whom the Csean shore sustains
The milky herds, that graze the flowery plains ;

tic style, it is here. The compliment he makes Augustus, almost
in the beginning, is ill imitated by his successors, Lucan and Sta-
tius. They dedicated to tyrants ; and their flatteries are gross
and fulsome. Virgil's address is both more lofty and more just.
In the three last lines of this Georgic, I think I have discovered a
secret compliment to the emperor, which none of the commenta-
tors have observed. Virgil had just before described the miseries
which Home had undergone betwixt the triumvirs and the com-
monwealth party : in the close of all, he seems to excuse the
crimes committed by his patron Caesar, as if he were constrained,
against his own temper, to those violent proceedings, by the ne-
cessity of the times in general, but more particularly by his two
partners, Antony and Lepidus,

Fertur equis auriga, neque audit currus habcnas.

They were the head-strong horses, who hurried Octavius, the
trembling charioteer, along, and were deal to his reclaiming them.
I observe, farther, that the present wars, in which all Europe, and
part of Asia, are engaged at present, are waged in the same places
here described :

Hinc movet Euphrates, illinc Germania, helium, <$c.
as if Virgil had prophesied of this age.


And thou, the shepherds' tutelary god,
Leave, for a while, O Pan ! thy loved abode;
And, if Arcadian fleeces be thy care,
From fields and mountains to my song repair.
Inventor, Pallas, of the fattening oil,
Thou founder of the plough, and ploughman's toil ;
And thou, whose hands the* shrowd-like cypress^
rear, /

Come, all ye gods and goddesses, that wear 1
The rural honours, and increase the year;
You, who supply the ground with seeds of grain ;
And you, who swell those seeds with kindly rain;
And chiefly thou, whose undetermined state
Is yet the business of the gods' debate,
Whether in after times to be declared
The patron of the world, and Rome's peculiar guard,
Or o'er the fruits and seasons to preside,
And the round circuit of the year to guide-
Powerful of blessings, which thou strew'st around,
And with thy goddess mother's myrtle crowned.
Or wilt thou, Caesar, chuse the watery reign,
To smooth the surges, and correct the main?
Then mariners, in storms, to thee shall pray; y
Even utmost Thule shall thy power obey ;
And Neptune shall resign the fasces of the sea. j
The watery virgins for thy bed shall strive,
And Tethys all her waves in dowry give.
Or wilt thou bless our summers with thy rays,
And, seated near the Balance, poise the days,
Where, in the void of heaven, a space is free,
Betwixt the Scorpion and the Maid, for thee ?
The Scorpion, ready to receive thy laws,
Yields half his region, and contracts his claws.
W'hatever part of heaven thou shalt obtain,
(For let not hell presume of such a reign ;
Nor let so dire a thirst of empire move
Thy mind, to leave thy kindred gods above ;


Though Greece admires Elysium's blest retreat,

Though Proserpine affects her silent seat,

And, importuned by Ceres to remove,

Prefers the fields below to those above),

Be thou propitious, Caesar ! guide my course,

And to my bold endeavours add thy force :

Pity the poef s and the ploughman's cares ;

Interest thy greatness in our mean affairs,

And use thyself betimes to hear and grant ourj


While yet the spring is young, while earth unbinds
Her frozen bosom to the western winds \
While mountain snows dissolve against the sun,
And streams, yet new, from precipices run ;
Even in this early dawning of the year,
Produce the plough, and yoke the sturdy steer,
And goad him till he groans beneath his toil,
Till the bright share is buried in the soil.
That crop rewards the greedy peasant's pains,
Which twice the sun, and twice the cold sustains,
And bursts the crowded barns with more than

promised gains.

But, ere we stir the yet unbroken ground,
The various course of seasons must be found ;
The weather, and the setting of the winds,
The culture suiting to the several kinds
Of seeds and plants, and what will thrive and rise,
And what the genius of the soil denies.
This ground with Bacchus, that with Ceres, suits :
That other loads the trees with happy fruits :
A fourth, with grass unbidden, decks the ground.
Thus Tmolus is with yellow saffron crowned :
India black ebon and white ivory bears ;
And soft Idume weeps her odorous tears.
Thus Pontus sends her beaver-stones from far;
And naked Spaniards temper steel for war:
JEpirus, for the Elean chariot, breeds
(la hopes of palms) a race of running steeds.


This is th' original contract ; these the laws
Imposed by Nature, and by Nature's cause,
On sundry places, when Deucalion hurled
His mother's entrails on the desert world ;
Whence men, a hard laborious kind, were born.
Then borrow part of winter for thy corn ;
And early, with thy team, the glebe in furrows |


That, while the turf lies open and unbound,
Succeeding suns may bake the mellow ground.
But, if the soil be barren, only scar
The surface, and but lightly print the share,
When cold Arcturus rises with the sun ;
Lest wicked weeds the corn should over-run
In watery soils ; or lest the barren sand
Should suck the moisture from the thirsty land.
Both these unhappy soils the swain forbears,
And keeps a sabbath of alternate years,
That the spent earth may gather heart again,
And, bettered by cessation, bear the grain.
At least where vetches, pulse, and tares, have stood,
And stalks of lupines grew, (a stubborn wood,)
The ensuing season, in return, may bear
The bearded product of the golden year : *
For flax and oats will burn the tender field,
And sleepy poppies harmful harvests yield.
But sweet vicissitudes of rest and toil
Make easy labour, and renew the soil.
Yet sprinkle sordid ashes all around,
And load with fattening dung thy fallow ground.
Thus change of seeds for meagre soils is best ;
And earth manured, not idle, though at rest.

Long practice has a sure improvement found,
With kindled fires to burn the barren ground,

* Dr Carey reads tar. I have not disturbed the text, thoughr
his conjecture is ingenious.


When the light stubble, to the flames resigned,
Is driven along, and crackles in the wind.
Whether from hence the hollow womb of earth
Is warmed with secret strength for better birth;
Or, when the latent vice is cured by fire,
Redundant humours through the pores expire ;
Or that the warmth distends the chinks, and makes
New breathings, whence new nourishment she takes ;
Or that the heat the gaping ground constrains,
New knits the surface, and new strings the veins ;
Lest soaking showers should pierce her secret seat,")
Or freezing Boreas chill her genial heat,
Or scorching suns too violently beat. 3

Nor is the profit small the peasant makes,
Who smooths with harrows, or who pounds with


The crumbling clods : nor Ceres from on high
Regards his labours with a grudging eye ;
Nor his, who ploughs across the furrowed grounds,
And on the back of earth inflicts new wounds ;
For he, with frequent exercise, commands
The unwilling soil, and tames the stubborn lands.

Ye swains, invoke the powers who rule the sky,
For a moist summer, and a winter dry ;
For winter drought rewards the peasant's pain,
And broods indulgent on the buried grain.
Hence Mysia boasts her harvests, and the tops
Of Gargarus admire their happy crops.
When first the soil receives the fruitful seed,
Make no delay, but cover it with speed :
So fenced from cold, the pliant furrows break,
Before the surly clod resists the rake ;
And call the floods from high, to rush amain
With pregnant streams, to swell the teeming grain.
Then, when the fiery suns too fiercely play,
And shrivelled herbs on withering stems decay,


The wary ploughman, on the mountain's brow,
Undams his watery stores huge torrents flow,
And, rattling down the rocks, large moisture yield,
Tempering the thirsty fever of the field
And, lest the stem, too feeble for the freight,
Should scarce sustain the head's unwieldy weight,
Sends in his feeding flocks betimes, to invade
The rising bulk of the luxuriant blade,
Ere yet the aspiring offspring of the grain
O'ertops the ridges of the furrowed plain ;
And drains the standing waters, when they yield
Too large a beverage to the drunken field ;
But most in autumn, and the showery spring,
When dubious months uncertain weather bring ;
When fountains open, when impetuous rain
Swells hasty brooks, and pours upon the plain ;
When earth with slime and mud is covered o'er,
Or hollow places spew their watery store.
Nor yet the ploughman, nor the labouring steer,
Sustain alone the hazards of the year :
But glutton geese, and the Strymonian crane,
With foreign troops invade the tender grain ;
And towering weeds malignant shadows yield ;
And spreading succory chokes the rising field.