The Buzz on Vergil

(for Trevor Thoms)

I can’t close out our week of bees without sharing what is possibly my favorite poem, The Georgics, by the Roman poet Vergil. I know, this might strike you as a stodgy and obscure choice, but believe me when I tell you The Georgics is beautiful and uplifting (mostly) and delightful. Translator David Ferry asserts, “The poem is one of the great songs, maybe the greatest we have, of human accomplishment in the difficult circumstances of the way things are.” It’s about life. Amid the lyrical delight, in other words, it has something to say. “The Georgics,” Ferry says, “is the fundamental poem.”

I speak specifically about the last section of the work, Book 4, which concerns beekeeping. Vergil was born near Mantua, Italy, in 70 B.C.E., the son of a landowner, and probably grew up in the countryside. He knew about bees, and, more importantly, he loved them, as he loved nature itself. Here’s a sample:

When the golden sun has driven winter back down
Under the earth and opened up the sky
With the radiance of summer, then the bees
Fly everywhere through all the groves and glades,
Gathering from the beautiful flowers and lightly
Imbibing from the surface of the streams.
It’s thus that, motivated by some joy
I know not how to name, they go about
The caring for their offspring and their nests; . . .
And so when you look up and see the swarm,
Emancipated from the hive and floating
Up to the starry sky through the summer air, . . .
Take heed, for there they are, on the hunt for leafy
Shelter near sweet water.

The poet then instructs the reader/farmer to scatter fragrant, healing herbs to attract the bees to a shelter designed for them.

The bees will settle, of themselves, upon
The scented settling places you’ve prepared
And of themselves will hide themselves within
The inner recesses of their cradling home.

I have to restrain myself from quoting further.

I can’t remember when I first encountered The Georgics. I took a Vergil course at Kent State, but I remember only The Aeneid, Vergil’s massive epic about the founding of Rome, which I also read in a high-school Latin class. My fondness for The Georgics derives mostly from teaching sections of it at Cleveland State. One particular class seemed to be as moved and delighted by the bees as I was, hence the dedication above to Trevor, one of those students, who sadly passed away last year.

The “uplifting (mostly)” in the first paragraph above alludes to a horrific passage in Book 4 about creating a new swarm of bees if yours has died by ritualistically beating to death a young bullock; ancients believed that new life literally grew out of the old, and that a swarm of bees would arise from bull’s carcass. I can’t stand to read that section and can’t square it with the sweetness of the Vergil I love. But I had to warn you about it in case you pick up the poem. I recommend, as you can tell, David Ferry’s translation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). It features the Latin original on the left side of every page, so you can exercise your possibly atrophied Latin muscles by following along.

The Georgics is too little known and studied these days. Unfortunately, Cleveland State University has eliminated Latin classes as of this year, and had done away with advanced Latin courses a few years ago. CSU no longer gives students the chance to read one of the great works in its original language. John Dryden’s assessment is certainly a Western-centric exaggeration, but when he finished his own translation of The Georgics around 1697, he called it “the best poem by the best poet.” Pick up The Georgics of Vergil translated by David Ferry and decide for yourself.

Favorite poems? Let us know!

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4 Responses to The Buzz on Vergil

  1. Kathy says:

    Obviously not smarter.

    Your Scriptural and farm observations are apropos. The ancients had reason to think that the bees (+ other insects) spontaneously arose out of dead critters.

  2. Kathy says:

    Trevor’s husband Kyle posted this on Facebook in the spring: “Friends of Trevor, this is Kyle, Trevor’s husband with devastating news.
    Trevor suffered a stroke in his brain stem on March 28th and passed away today, April 8th, 2022. He was 55 years old.”

    I received a note from Kyle more recently with further details. If I can find it, I’ll share it with you. Sorry you had to find out like this.

  3. Roger Talbott says:

    I so love having friends who are smarter than I am. Never heard of the Georgics, although I, too, read some of the Iliad in high school.
    Your observation about the dead bullock attracting/creating a swarm of bees reminds me of Samson’s riddle in Judges 14. It also reminds me of seeing bees swarm around dead animals when I was growing up on a farm.

  4. Bill says:

    Dear Lord, I didn’t know about Trevor. I ordered the work to read with him.

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