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Mr Ford discusses Virgil at UCL

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

Professor Mac Gorain, Associate Professor of Classics at University College London, invited me to give a talk on my work on Virgil’s Georgics to two undergraduate classes. I have been working on a translation and commentary of Virgil’s poem of the land and agriculture, the Georgics, ever since joining Emanuel. It was, therefore, a wonderful opportunity to be able to visit UCL and share my work with a knowing audience.

I presented a section of Georgics Book 2, as requested by UCL, for discussion first in Latin and then in translation (see below for my rendering of the section). The students – first year and then third year students of Latin – and I discussed variations in the Latin texts, difficulties over readings and conflicting commentaries, and then compared a variety of translations, from Abraham Cowley’s (written in the 17th century!) right through to my own.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, one that allowed me not only to strengthen a few points of uncertainty in my notes but also to test out my translation. The students were most encouraging, criticising my choice of word here, commending my handling of rhythm there. Indeed the whole experience left me fired up to continue the herculean task (there are four books of the Georgics and I’m only half way through) and to venture forth in search of a publisher.

Mr Ford (Teacher of Classics)

Translation of Georgics 2.458-540

Those blessed few, beyond blessed, if they only

knew, the farmers, their advantage! Removed

from angst of arms, the fair, fair earth awards

them with an easy income. So what if

no great seat with proud entranceways spews

an endless throng of early callers from

all quarters, if no one gapes or gawps at

the tortoise-shell splendour of architects’

fretwork, at textiles laced with gold, at old

Corinthian bronzes? So what if wool

is white and is not dyed with eastern

corruption, or olive oil unspoiled

by cassia bark? Still this life is rich

in carefree quiet, in freedom from what’s

false, and offers wealth more varied; still there’s

time and space to enjoy the country, its

sheltered dens, spirited lakes, chill swards of

Tempe; there is no lack here of lowing

cattle, of dreams undisturbed beneath

dark trees; here forests hide quarry in rough

clearings, host a youth used both to work and

simple fare; reverence for gods lives here

with them, respect for elders too; among

these last earth-weary Justice walked, then flew.

For me, above all else I would that some

sweet Muse adopt me, wielding as I do

their sacred wand, rocked as I am by

such strong passion; my wish, she show these

secrets – the Heaven’s hidden tracks for

constellations; sun’s sudden defects, dark

phases of moon; why earth sometimes rumbles,

why sea swells double-sized from strangest

impulse and settles back once boundaries

lie disgorged; or why any daylight

during winter cannot wait to escape

into Ocean, what keeps and steeps in

darkness those long nights. If, however, I

am not by nature meant for such knowledge,

if a sangfroid constitution rules

me out, then let the land, let valley-

lapping streams bring me pleasure, let me pledge

my passion to what flows and grows in

woods, and be inglorious. Find me

rich green fields fed by Sperchëus, fetch

Taÿgeta mad with Laconian

maids! Set me down, someone, in the cool

of Haemus, its caverns; shelter me

in its vast over-foliate shade!

Divine the likes of him who can unlock

causes – he has kicked aside all fear

with ideas depending, such as Fate

being unbending, or that Acheron’s

din never dies. Blessed no less the kind

that counts as kin the gods of country – Pan,

old man Silvanus, and the Nymphs, his

sisters. Hardly is he swayed by city’s

rules, its fasces, nor by purple cloaks of

kings; he plays no part in unfaithful

brothers’ war-games, nor in Dacian threats

fomented on Danube’s shores; neither polls

at Rome nor dissolving kingdoms lure him;

he lives neither to weep for those who want

nor to wrangle those who have. Instead what

trees produce, what fields yield of a sudden

without his asking, these he picks and

reaps; all the while he’s blind to the lawcourts’

iron harshness, to the Forum’s insane

space, and townhall’s boredom. Some yearn to churn

uncharted seas with armadas, some jump

at the chance to unsheathe and wield the sword,

or weasel their way into kings’ inner

chambers; this one wishes cities torn to

pieces, hearths and homes upturned, that he might

drink from gem-encrusted trophies, drown

in sleep stained Tyrian red; this gathers

wealth and has it buried, dreams of hidden

gold; these become addicted to the

rostrum, crazed by the atmosphere; for these

it’s cheer, cascading down the rows – they

gape and gawk as high-born audience and

low demand encore; for some the only

smiling comes from squirming in brothers’

gore, from choosing exile, abandoning

their doors and doting wives, and seeking new

life, a new home, beneath an unknown sky.

The farmer? He has kept to his course,

forcing the earth with ploughshare: how he’s

gained – his year’s labour the homeland has

sustained, with growing children, kine and

worthy oxen. The work goes on: one year

alone brings apples in abundance, births

amongst his flocks, wheat’s shocks and sheaves; his

furrows burst with goodly produce, barns

overflow. And then comes winter – the loud

mills mashing Sicyon’s fruit, the feed-

gladdened pigs coming home from pannage, woods’

arbute yields; no less at autumn is the

goodness rich and varied – on sun-scorched slopes

of scree the vintage quickens on the vine.

Throughout the work his children cling to his

lessons, his kisses, while at home a fault-

less wife keeps blame locked out; cows in the fields

carry proud milk-white udders, grass-

plump kids bump horns on the playful sward.

He, stretched on that sward, in company of

friends and by lit fires, hosts festive days, crowns

the cups with garlands; he calls your name,

Lenaeus, even as he pours; he paints

spear targets on elms for sheep’s sergeants,

sees that bodies built of oak strip bare

for rustic bouts. Such existence once

the ancient Sabines led; so Remus and

his twin once lived; this life Etruria

bred, fed and honed; this life built Rome, most

magnificent of cities, uniting

seven hills with one sound wall. Even

before all that, before the ordered

sway of Dictaeus, before a godless

race of men set teeth to slaughtered ox, such

a life bright Saturn brought to earth; then

no one ever heard a bugle blowing,

so no one ever winced at metallic

din of manic anvil forging sword.

W. Ford, 2018