Instruction and its Limits

As the above list suggests, the georgic flourished by seeking new subjects for attention. Poets such as John Gay and Jonathan Swift extended it to the new urban scene: hence Gay's Trivia; Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716) burlesques, or perhaps reinvents, the georgic by transferring it from the country to the city. Sometimes the mode could survive without being attached to a main location at all, as we can see in the physician-poet John Armstrong's The Art of Preserving Health (1744), with its confident assumption of a "prescriptive" Virgilian form. But whatever its subject matter, the formal or prescriptive georgic is "unabashedly factual" (De Bruyn 1997: 63) and "relies on . . . the credibility of an expert speaker" (Rothstein 1981: 146). When John Gay revised Rural Sports (1713) in 1720, his introduction of new prescriptive sections warranted the change of subtitle from A Poem to A Georgic. Sir Roger Mynors's commentary on the Georgics (Virgil 1990) illustrates the "hands-on" approach of eighteenth-century georgic, which posits practical soundness as an essential condition. Yet more is involved than getting the facts right. While the idiom of instruction must be soundly based, it invariably serves a literary purpose. Sometimes the poet merely affects a grave didactic instructiveness to allow scope for flights of speculation or wit, or to introduce digressive episodes. Smart's Hop-Garden includes a vignette of domestic life in which the ivory-handed Dorinda unexpectedly finds "a negro's nail" among the raisins for her Christmas pudding (ii. 222—32). The raisins are recycled from wine grapes trampled by Malagan slaves. The fact that this episode has a genuine agricultural basis (Mounsey 2001: 76) complicates its didactic import. Is the poet's main concern to remind English hop-packers to wear slippers when treading hops into sacks? Seneca's point that Virgil "wrote not to teach farmers, but to delight readers" (Wilkinson 1969: 15) was not lost on eighteenth-century poets and their audiences. No georgic has ever been intended to be read primarily as a manual. While many manuals, like georgics, fall short of being entirely systematic or comprehensive, what distinguishes georgic verse is the poet's selectiveness on aesthetic grounds. Even Grainger, the poet who places the highest premium on the informative value of his own georgic, asserts in his review of The Fleece that "such precepts ought only to be delivered, and such objects painted, as can be represented to the imagination in agreeable colours" (Grainger 1757: 329).

As Grainger's statement suggests, georgic was understood as an essentially descriptive mode. Its didactic value derives from its mimetic functions on many levels, not only from its preceptive component. Thus Thomson's The Seasons is rightly classed among British georgics — indeed, it is the richest and most influential work in the Virgilian tradition — despite its general avoidance of practical instruction. Thomson's more purely "philosophical" approach ultimately reflects the inspiration of Virgil's master Lucretius (c. 99—55 bce), whose scientific epic De Rerum Natura represented, despite its provoking insistence that the gods do not intervene in human affairs, the classical benchmark for the more ambitious kinds of scientific and didactic verse produced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For eighteenth-century readers, Joseph Addison's "Essay on the Georgics" (1697) captured the spirit of the mode. Addison and Wilkinson (1969) both stress the importance of variation as a basic compositional principle, and consider the representation of variety itself to be one of georgic's main achievements. Variation is a rhetorical principle that points beyond itself. For Addison it reflects the plenitude of the Creation, and thus satisfies a providential predisposition of the human mind to roam freely (Spectator, nos. 413—14). Georgic variety should, he thinks, be presented, as in landscape gardening, by "concealing the bounds": precepts, for instance, "shou'd all be so finely wrought together into the same Piece, that no course Seam may discover where they joyn" (1987: 146).

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