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The Georgics of Virgil: Bilingual Edition
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The Georgics of Virgil: Bilingual Edition

by Virgil, David Ferry (Translator)

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John Dryden called Virgil's Georgics, written between 37 and 30 B.C.E., "the best poem by the best poet." The poem, newly translated by the poet and translator David Ferry, is one of the great songs, maybe the greatest we have, of human accomplishment in difficult--and beautiful--circumstances, and in the context of all we share in nature.

The Georgics<


John Dryden called Virgil's Georgics, written between 37 and 30 B.C.E., "the best poem by the best poet." The poem, newly translated by the poet and translator David Ferry, is one of the great songs, maybe the greatest we have, of human accomplishment in difficult--and beautiful--circumstances, and in the context of all we share in nature.

The Georgics celebrates the crops, trees, and animals, and, above all, the human beings who care for them. It takes the form of teaching about this care: the tilling of fields, the tending of vines, the raising of the cattle and the bees. There's joy in the detail of Virgil's descriptions of work well done, and ecstatic joy in his praise of the very life of things, and passionate commiseration too, because of the vulnerability of men and all other creatures, with all they have to contend with: storms, and plagues, and wars, and all mischance.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“David Ferry's translation of the enchanting Georgics is for poetry lovers like a drink of water from a country spring on a summer day. It's refreshing, invigorating, almost intoxicating in the pleasure of discovery it offers.” —Anthony Day, Los Angeles Times

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Bilingual Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.18(h) x 0.59(d)

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The Georgics of Virgil

By David Ferry

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2005 David Ferry
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-53031-0



    What's right for bringing abundance to the fields;

    Under what sign the plowing ought to begin,
    Or the marrying of the grapevines to their elms;
    How to take care of the cattle and see to their breeding;
    Knowing the proper way to foster the bees
    As they go about their work; Maecénas, here
    Begins my song. You brightest lights of the sky
    That shepherd the year as it moves along its way;
    O Liber, O generous Ceres, if by your favor
    The earth exchanged the acorns fallen from oak trees
    For ripening ears of grain, and blent the newly-
    Discovered grape with the waters of Achelóus;
    And you, O Fauns, you presences of the fields
    (O Fauns and Dryads, come and dance together!),
    I sing to praise the blessings of your gifts.
    And you, O Neptune, you whose mighty trident
    Struck the earth and the nickering steed was born;
    You, guardian of the groves, because of whom
    Three hundred snow-white cattle peacefully browse
    The rich Ceáean glades; and you, O Pan,
    The keeper of the flocks, consent to come
    From your Lycáean woods and thickets and
    From Máenalus that you love; Minerva, you,
    Inventrix of the olive; and Triptólemus,
    Who taught us how to use the crooked plow;
    And you, Sylvanus, carrying in your hand
    A cypress tree uprooted from the ground;
    You gods and goddesses all, who with such kindness
    Watch over our fields and vineyards and who nurture
    The fruits that seed themselves without our labor,
    And all the crops, with rain that falls from heaven;
    And you, O Caesar, although we know not yet
    What place among the councils of the gods
    Will be your place, whether you choose to be
    The guardian supervisor of our cities,
    Caretaker of our lands, your temples bound
    With the myrtle wreath of Venus your goddess mother,
    So that the whole great world acknowledges you
    The author of our bounty and lord of seasons,
    Or whether you come as god of the immense
    Unmeasurable sea, the god all sailors
    Pray to, the god that Ultima Thule swears
    Subjection to, and Tethys offers her waves
    As dower for your marriage to her daughter,
    Or whether you'll appear in the autumn sky,
    A new zodiacal star in the place between
    The Virgin and where Scorpio will retract
    His claws to make a place in the heavens for you —
    Whatever it be (the Underworld would not
    Dare hope for you as ruler, and may the dread
    Desire of kingship there never be yours —
    Though Greece fell under the spell of Elysian Fields
    And Proserpina when her mother called her home
    Was reluctant to return to the fields above),
    Grant me the right to enter upon this bold
    Adventure of mine, grant that I make it through,
    Pitying me along with those farmers who need
    To be taught to find their way, and grant that we
    May come into your presence with our prayers.

    * * *

    When spring begins and the ice-locked streams begin
    To flow down from the snowy hills above
    And the clods begin to crumble in the breeze,
    The time has come for my groaning ox to drag
    My heavy plow across the fields, so that
    The plow blade shines as the furrow rubs against it.
    Not till the earth has been twice plowed, so twice
    Exposed to sun and twice to coolness will
    It yield what the farmer prays for; then will the barn
    Be full to bursting with the gathered grain.
    And yet, if the field's unknown and new to us,
    Before our plow breaks open the soil at all,
    It's necessary to study the ways of the winds
    And the changing ways of the skies, and also to know
    The history of the planting in that ground,
    What crops will prosper there and what will not.
    In one place grain grows best, in another, vines;
    Another's good for the cultivation of trees;
    In still another the grain turns green unbidden.
    From Lydian Timólus, don't you see,
    Our fragrant saffron comes, from India
    Our ivory, from soft Arabia
    Our frankincense, our iron ore from the naked
    Chalýbian tribes, from Pontus castor oil
    From the testicles of beavers, and from Epírus
    The mares that are the mothers of the horses
    That are born to win Olympic victories.
    Nature apportioned it thus to diverse places;
    So it has been from the very beginning of time,
    When Deucalion threw the stones into the empty
    Landscape and thus created stony men.
    So, if the soil of the field you're getting ready
    Is rich and fertile, set your oxen to work
    In early spring to turn the earth, and then
    Let it lie waiting for summer's heat to bake it,
    So as to keep the weeds from flourishing
    And interfering with the joyous grain;
    But if the soil is sandy, leave it alone;
    In early September it will be enough,
    Just as Arctúrus rises in the sky,
    To rake it lightly, trying to keep what little
    Moisture that may be there from drying out.
    And every second season let the land
    Be idly fallow, so that what happens happens;
    Or, under a different constellation, sow
    The seeds for a crop of yellow barley, having
    Uprooted and carried away the wild pulse with
    Its quivering pods shaking with laughter, or
    The pods of the slender vetch, or the rattling stalks
    Of the lupine plant. Flax scorches the earth; oats too;
    And poppies suffused all through with the sleep of Lethe.

    By alternating crops you make toil easy.
    And don't be ashamed to saturate the soil
    With the rich dung of beasts, and scatter the sooty
    Ashes left from your household fires last winter.
    Changing the crops is restful for the fields;
    Sometimes they're not ungrateful not to be plowed;
    They need to rest. Sometimes it's a good idea
    To torch the empty fields and let the flames
    Burn the stubble away: maybe the earth
    Thus takes into itself rich nourishment
    And secret power, or it may be that the heat
    Bakes away taints in the soil, or that it gets rid
    Of undesirable moisture by sweating it out;
    Or that it opens up new avenues
    And hidden passages by which the juice
    Will make its way to the new young leaves that need it;
    Or, on the contrary, maybe it narrows the veins
    And hardens the earth around them, affording them
    Protection from the violent pelting rain
    Or from the heat of the sun, or winter cold.

    And in addition the farmer does well for the land
    Who uses his hoe to break up the clotted glebes
    And drags the wicker harrow over them;
    Not without cause does golden Ceres look
    Benignly down upon him from the height
    Of Mount Olympus. And he does well who drives
    His plow obliquely crosswise back across
    The ridges that he raised when he plowed before
    And breaks them down. It's thus he disciplines
    And trains the soil he works, and gives it order.
    Farmers, pray for summers with lots of rain,
    And winters with lots of sun; the grain is pleased,
    The fields are pleased, when the soil is dry in winter.
    Thus Mýsia and Gárgara, exultant,
    Will glory in the harvests that come in.

    How shall I tell of the man who flings down the seeds,
    And then attacks the field, lays low and levels
    The heaped-up sandy soil that gets in the way
    And induces water to flow down from a brook
    Through channels toward his planting, and when there's drought
    And the field is parched and scorched and the little plants
    Look like they may be dying, behold, there's water?
    You can hear the muttering guttural sound of the water
    Moving down through the smooth stones of the channels
    And gushing into the fields to quench their thirst.
    And how shall I tell of the man who, when the stalks
    Are on the verge of being overburdened
    By the weight of the growing ears, summons his sheep
    To graze the ebullient plant back down to where
    The tender leaves and the furrow's top are equal?
    Or the man who uses sand to drink up water
    Collected in marshy places when a river
    Overflows, and the lowland hollows steam?

    * * *

    But though both men and cattle do their work,
    And do it well, there are the mischievous geese
    And Strymonian cranes, and choking fibrous weeds,
    And overshading trees, to trouble the crops.
    For Father Jupiter himself ordained
    That the way should not be easy. It was he
    Who first established the art of cultivation,
    Sharpening with their cares the skills of men,
    Forbidding the world he rules to slumber in ease.
    Before Jove's time no farmer plowed the earth;
    It was forbidden to mark out field from field,
    Setting out limits, one from another; men shared
    All things together and Earth quite freely yielded
    The gifts of herself she gave, being unasked.
    It was Jupiter who put the deadly poison
    Into the fangs of serpents; commanded the wolf
    To seek and find its prey; ordained that the storm
    Should cause the sea to rise and flood the land;
    Stripped from the leaves of oaks the dewlike honey
    That made them glisten there; hid fire from man;
    Turned off the flow of wine that everywhere
    Ran in the streams; all this so want should be
    The cause of human ingenuity,

    And ingenuity the cause of arts,
    Finding little by little the way to plant
    New crops by means of plowing, and strike the spark
    To ignite the hidden fire in veins of flint.
    Then rivers began to sense that hollow canoes
    Were floating upon their waters; sailors began
    To count the stars in the sky and give them names:
    Pleiades, Hýades, Arctos, starry child
    Of Lycaón. And then they learned to snare
    Wild beasts in traps and fool song birds with lime;
    Here one man lashes the river with his line,
    Seeking the depths; and there another drags
    His dripping fishnet through the ocean waters.
    Then came the hardness of iron and then the shriek
    Of the sharp blade of the saw as it made its way
    (For earlier men used wedges to cleave their wood);
    Then followed other arts; and everything
    Was toil, relentless toil, urged on by need.

    There came a day when in the sacred wood
    The acorns and arbutus began to fail
    And the oracle of Zeus denied men food.
    It was then that Ceres first taught how to turn
    The soil with iron instruments, as trouble
    Came to the grain, the evil rust-blight eating
    Into the stems, the sluggish hairy thistle
    Prospering in the fields, destroying crops,
    And in their place a thorny undergrowth,
    Caltrops, goose grass, and other burry things.
    Among the smiling cultivated plants
    Darnel and tares and sterile oat-grass thrive.
    Therefore unless you take up your hoe, attacking
    The enemy weeds over and over again,
    And over and over again shout at the birds
    To scare them away, and use your pruning knife
    To keep on cutting back the overgrowth
    That threatens your plants with shade, you will, alas,
    End up, defeated, staring at your neighbor's
    Granary full of corn, and in the woods
    You'll shake the oak tree, frantic for something to eat.

    * * *

    Next I must tell about the weapons the farmer
    Needs for sowing his seeds and raising his crops:
    The plow blade in the curved plow's wooden frame,
    Ceres' lumbering wagon, the heavy carts
    And the heavy threshing-sledge, the ponderous hoes,
    The wicker hurdles and all the other tools
    That Céleus of Eleúsis thought of,
    And Íacchus's mystic winnowing-basket.
    You have to have all these for when you need them,
    If you want to win the glory the land can offer.
    A young elm in the woods is bent by the force
    Of the will of muscle to make the beam or stock
    That takes the curving shape of the plow they're making.
    To the end of this is attached an eight-foot pole,
    Fitted with "ears" that shape and mold the earth
    As the plowing proceeds, and a double crosspiece that functions
    So as to be a socket for the share.
    Then, too, in the woods, a little linden tree
    Is felled to make the yoke, and a beech for the handle
    With which to steer and turn the chariot plow.
    But before they can be used, the linden wood
    And beech wood must be cured by hearth-fire smoke.
    I could tell you many old sayings and many maxims

    (Unless you're unwilling to hear such trivial things).
    First, you have to level the threshing ground
    With a heavy stone roller, and after that, with your hands
    You must bind the soil together with sticky clay
    So it becomes solidified and makes
    A kind of floor. This is to keep the weeds
    From coming up from under, and keep the soil
    From drying out and crumbling into dust,
    Opening holes for pests to get up through
    And make a fool of you. The little mouse
    Builds his house and storehouse under the ground.
    The mole, down there, digs sightlessly through the earth
    To make his chambers. Toads are found in holes,
    And many other monsters the earth begets.
    The weevil can ravage almost all your grain,
    And ants are ravagers too, fearful of being
    Poverty-stricken when they get to be old.

    Consider this too: if in the woods the almond
    Lavishly blooms so that her boughs bend low,
    Fragrant with blossom, then too the crops will be
    Lavishly rich as well, with the great heat
    Of the great exultant threshing following on;
    But if the tree be overburdened with leaves
    And therefore over-copiously shady,
    The frustrated thresher will thrash and beat the stalks
    And chaff will be the only riches they yield.
    Many's the time when I myself have seen
    The farmer treating seedpods with the black
    Oil of olive lees, or else with nitre,
    Then simmer them over a gentle fire, trying
    To soften the deceitful husks and make them
    Yield more fully than they otherwise might.
    I have seen seeds, no matter how carefully
    Selected and with many pains examined
    To be the best, degenerate nevertheless,
    Unless, year in, year out, over and over,
    Men labor to find the largest seeds again.
    All things by nature are ready to get worse,
    Lapse backward, fall away from what they were,
    Just as if one who struggles to row his little
    Boat upstream against a powerful current
    Should but for a moment relax his arms, the current
    Would carry him headlong back again downstream.

    * * *

    And furthermore we must observe the stars
    And where they are and at what time of year,
    Arctúrus, and the Goats, and the bright Snake Star,
    Just as the sailor must, when making for home,
    Braving the stormy seas past Pontus coast,
    And Abýdos, at the jaws of the Hellespont.
    From the time of the autumnal equinox
    When light and shade divide the world between them,
    And sleep and waking are equal, oxen and men
    Must set themselves to work, planting the barley,
    Until the time when the rains are about to come,
    And winter the intractable begins.
    Autumn is also the time to plant your flax
    And Ceres' poppy seed, and not too late
    For bending over the plow, while the earth is dry
    And the clouds still high, the rains still holding off.
    Spring is the season for planting beans, and the time
    When the loosened furrows will accept the clover,
    And the millet newly planted every year,
    As snow-white Taurus with his golden horns
    Comes up in the springtime sky and Canis falls,
    Yielding his annual place to his opposite star.
    But if it's a crop of wheat, or maybe spelt,
    Or corn you're tilling the ground for, wait to plant
    The intended seeds in the furrows that you've plowed,
    Entrusting your yearly hope to the grudging earth
    Till the Pleiades take their leave of the morning sky
    And till you no longer can see the bright stars shine
    In the crown of Ariadne. Many have sowed
    Before the departure of Maia, and they have found
    That the crop they expected has fooled them with empty husks.
    But if you're not above the wish to plant
    Vetch, or kidney beans, or Egyptian lentils,
    Boötes as it sets will send no signs
    Prohibitive to this; you may plant them then,
    Or any time before the winter's frosts.

    To govern all this and give it order, the sun
    Traverses the fixed divisions of the heavens,
    Making his golden journey through all twelve
    Zodiacal constellations of the skies.
    Five zones partition the universe of things.
    One glows for ever with the scorching heat
    And flashing light for ever of the sun;
    To the right and left, at the farthest extremes of the world,
    Two zones of ice and stormy dark for ever;
    Between these two and the central sunlit zone
    Are two the gods allow to mortal men,
    And between these two a heavenly ellipsis
    In which the turning signs may be observed.
    To the north our world steeply ascends to the high
    Riphaean cliffs of Scythia, and then
    To the south sinks down to the sands of the Libyan desert.
    One pole is always high above our heads;
    The other is far far down below our feet —
    Only black Styx and the Shades of the Dead can see it.
    There in that sky the constellation Snake
    Slides forth and slithers its riverine coils around
    And in between the Bears that fear the water
    And never descend to feel cold Ocean's touch;
    Down there, they say, there is unchanging darkness,
    And endless silence, there, is everywhere.
    Or else, they say, the Dawn returns down there,
    Bringing them back the light of our previous day;
    Or when we feel the breath of the morning sun,
    Brought back to us by his panting horses, then
    Vesper, down there, is shining in their sky.

    Thus, though the sky is changeful, men can predict
    The seasons as they change and what they bring:
    The time for harvest, the time for planting seeds,
    The time to brave the unfaithful sea with oars,
    The time to bring the warboats down to the water,
    The time to fell the pines with which to build them.
    It's not without reason that we've learned to watch
    The rising and the setting of the stars,
    Marking the equal seasons as they change.


Excerpted from The Georgics of Virgil by David Ferry. Copyright © 2005 David Ferry. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Ferry is the translator of Gilgamesh (1992), The Odes of Horace (1998), The Eclogues of Virgil (1999), and The Epistles of Horace (2001), winner of the Landon Translation Prize--all published by FSG.

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