Virgilii amor

A sixth former was captivated by Virgil’s love of Italy as expressed in Georgics II, 136-176. He read these particular lines so many times that he found he knew them by heart:

hic ver adsiduum atque alienis mensibus aestas:
bis gravidae pecudes, bis pomis utilis arbos.       150
at rabidae tigres absunt et saeva leonum
semina, nec miseros fallunt aconita legentis,
nec rapit immensos orbis per humum neque tanto
squameus in spiram tractu se colligit anguis.
adde tot egregias urbes operumque laborem,     155
tot congesta manu praeruptis oppida saxis
fluminaque antiquos subterlabentia muros.
an mare quod supra memorem, quodque adluit infra?
anne lacus tantos? te, Lari maxime, teque,
fluctibus et fremitu assurgens Benace marino?   160

  Here is perpetual spring, and summer in months not her own:
twice are the cows in calf, twice the tree furnishes her fruit.
But ravening tigers are absent, as is the savage brood of lions,
nor do nightshades trick the poor fruit-gatherers,
not immense are the coils a scaly snake whisks over the ground
nor by pulling such great length does it gather into a spiral.
Add to this so many excellent cities, and the labour of their making,
and so many towns built up by hand on sheer crags,
and the rivers that glide beneath their ancient walls.
Should I mention the sea that washes it above and the one below?
Or such great lakes? You, Larius, the greatest—and you,
Benacus, rising up in waves with a roar like the sea?

149  The prosody here is performative: no cæsura, expressing the continuity of these seasons.

150  This phenomenon is mentioned by both Varro and Plny the Elder.

152  aconita: there is dispute about this. RD Williams* renders it ‘nightshade’, but John Sargeauntmakes it the pale yellow monk’s-hood, which was almost unknown in Italy.

153-4  There are countries that have never had snakes—Ireland, Iceland, New Zealand—but Italy is not one of them. Virgil is not denying their presence, but saying Italy has no snakes of the size found in countries he has mentioned as not being the equal of Italy: Media, Lydia and others further east. The key word is tanto.

157  This four-word line seems to express the rivers’ serene movement.

158  The seas that wash Italy above and below are the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian.

159-60  Larius is the modern Lago di Como, and Benacus is the Lago di Garda, from which flowed the River Mincius into the countryside of Virgil’s boyhood.  These lakes, and Virgil’s home, were in the province of Cisalpine Gaul, which did not become part of Italy till 42BC, five years before Virgil began the Georgics.
Virgil’s mention of them here recalls Julius Caesar’s incorporation of his province into Italy, and could be taken to set the seal on it.

160  The onomatopoeia in line 160, and especially the elision just before the fourth foot cæsura, seems to make it memorable.

 

* R.D. Williams ed., Virgil, The Eclogues and Georgics, St Martin’s Press, 1979

John Sargeaunt, The Trees, Shrubs and Plants of Virgil, Blackwell, 1920