Virginia Georgics, by Herbert C. Lipscomb

Virginia Georgics

Herbert C. Lipscomb’s Essay, “Virginia Georgics”

Note: Born in Salisbury, Maryland, Herbert Cannon Lipscomb (1882–1973) was educated at Randolph-Macon College and Johns Hopkins University. For forty-four years he was Professor of Latin at Randolph-Macon’s Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, where the library was named in his honor, and he died in Ashland, Virginia. Lipscomb’s other publications include Aspects of the Speech in the Later Roman Epic (Baltimore, 1909); “Lurcretius and The Testament of Beauty,” in the November 1935 issue of The Classical Journal (vol. 31); “Rolfe Humphries, Classicist and Poet,” in the March 1944 issue of The Classical Journal (vol. 39); “Horace and the Poetry of Austin Dodson,” in the January–March 1929 issue of the Amercian Journal of Philology (vol. 50). The following article is taken from the July–September 1922 issue of The American Journal of Philology, (vol. 43), pp. 228–237.


By Herbert C. Lipscomb

In her recent study of the georgic as a type,1 Dr. Marie L. Lilly has confined her investigation to the literatures of England, France, and Italy. An additional contribution to the genre worthy of note has been hade by America in the Virginia Georgics;2 written for the Hole and Corner Club of Powhatan County by Charles Carter Lee, a son of Light Horse Harry and a brother of Robert E. Lee. As a work of art the poem, hastily composed in the summer and early autumn of 1858, is in no respect to be compared with Virgil’s masterpiece which Montaigne characterized as “le plus accomply ouvrage de la poësie.” And yet the poem of Lee is deserving of consideration, for it represents an interesting development of the Virgilian didactic type and also gives us insight into the ideals, interests, and practices of the cultured Virginia farmer in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the War between the States.

Just as Virgil, working in harmony with the agrarian policy of Octavius, wished to heal the wounds caused by a century of internal conflict, so Lee hopes to serve his country by aiding in restoring the pristine fertility of her soil now impoverished not by civil war but by the neglect and waste of her sons. He therefore harks back to the Golden Age which for him extends from the time of the creation through the period of the American Revolution:

How rich this earth in soil, how fair in face,
When the Creator gave it to our race!
How stored with game, how beautiful with birds,
And all its ranges filled with various herds:
.      .     
.      .     
.      .     
.      .     

Then what we have to do is, if me can,
To make the soil such as ’twas given to man:
This how to accomplish I shall try to show
By reasons wrought to rhyme, if rhyme will flow.

The author takes up his task inspired as was Virgil by a realization of its significance for the welfare and happiness of his country:

Therefore the way to make a nation strong,
To make it happy and be happy long,
To make it to each good and joy give birth,
Is to take care, of all things, mother earth.

The poem, numbering 2791 lines, follows the traditional division into four books. Part I gives general rules for the enrichment and restoration of the soil; Parts II and III are devoted to specific details of culture and to the raising of stock; Part IV contains precepts dealing with the garden, grounds, and building.

Though the theodicy of the Roman poet, the fundamental note of the Georgics, has had but slight influence upon the later work, yet the Virginia author in developing his theme makes use of many of the Virgilian conventions. In the first place, he is fond of casting his instruction in the form of maxims in which the farmer’s lore has been clothed from time immemorial. The burden of his teaching is carried in the words:

Till no land unless to have it rich,

while the doctrine of economy is proclaimed in such precepts as:

Never buy what you can raise at home;

Never sell wheat but in the form of flour.

The Virginian interested in the raising of cattle is reminded of the saying of the English “yeoman” Bakewell:

Breed the offal small,

and the importance of the garden is summed up in the lines:

For ’tis a mountain adage worth receiving,
That a garden makes one half your living.

In other cases well-known proverbs are given a specific application, as when the farmer battling with the weeds is told:

Of the truth of the old adage you may be sure,
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The Roman farmer engaged in sowing and planting his crops was urged by Virgil to place as implicit confidence in the guidance of the heavenly bodies as did the trader on the sea. In a very real sense the stars were the “timekeepers of the ancient world.” While they play a much less important part in the Georgics of Lee, still we find preserved in the practices of the Virginia farmer of the nineteenth century traces of the ancient customs, such, for example, as the habit of planting in the light and the dark of the moon:

’Tis for the punctuality it produces
That farming by the moon has its good uses—
Sow that whose fruit above the surface shows
While the fair moon to its full splendor grows,
But that whose precious growth the soil contains,
Plant while the moon from her round circle wanes.

The Virginia poet follows his classical model again in the custom of adorning a prosaic subject with mythological, literary, and historical allusions, thereby adding to the pleasure of the reader by reviving agreeable memories of his studies or of his travels. The indebtedness of Virginia to Commander Lynch and his gallant sailors recalls the honor paid to Europa; the inventions of Watt and Fulton rival the work of Vulcan who “won from his forge divinity”; praise of the horse calls forth the inevitable allusion to the

Brothers of Helen “famed for martial force,
One great on foot and one renowned for horse.”

Among the ancient authors alluded to by Lee, the first place is occupied by

          Homer, rhapsodist of Greece
Whose honors as the ages roll increase.

Homeric references employed to add dignity and interest to the subject include the comparison of the race of man to the leaves of the forests, the garden of Alcinous, the steeds of Achilles, the family of Ulysses, and Juno,

          bright queen of the Olympian skies
. . . famed for charming Jove with ox-like eyes.

From Virgil’s Georgics the author cites by way of contrast the description of the marks of the cow best suited for breeding purposes while the Roman poet’s picture of the last night of Troy furnishes an apt quotation as Lee warns his fellow-Virginians that

Unless a change come o’er us ere too late,
The hour when we must fall is fixed as fate—
The hour when o’er Virginia and her glory
“Was” must be written as o’er Ilion’s story;
“Fuit Ilium et ingens gloria Teucrorum”;
And States, once ruined, nothing can restore them.

Two lines from Horace’s first Satire are condensed and adapted by the author in condemning the farmers who drain from the soil its vitality and cling to the spoils system in spite of the hisses of their fellows:

Populus me sibilat, numero nummos et rideo.

Again he finds the precepts of the Ars Poetica as safe a guide for the farmer in setting out his garden as for the aspirant in the field of literature:

Of god taste, said a bard who disclaimed flattery,
“Fons ac principium,” in all things, is “sapere”—
Which means that Horace said with truth intense,
The fountain of good taste is but good sense;
And who neglect its rules just so far fail,
Whether in writing verse or raising kale.

The verses of Lee reveal an acquaintance not only with the classics but with the English as well. One meets allusions to the home of Macaulay, to the retreats celebrated by Pope, to the opinion of Byron in regard to the relation of dinner to the happiness of man, and to Samuel Johnson’s estimate of him whose heart remains unstirred upon the field of Marathon. In moralizing on the resemblance in the varied life of the world, Lee makes use of Milton’s comparison of the locks of Eve to the vine’s tendrils, and quotes from Paradise Lost verses to serve as a motto for his book containing the description of the garden and home:

          Though what if Earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to other like more than on earth is thought.

At other times the historical plays of Shakespeare furnish the needed literary allusion. Thus the poet in likening the charm of youth to the beauty of spring echoes the words of Constance addressed to the young prince, Arthur, and in the language of King Henry the Sixth at the battle of Wakefield, makes the old, old contrast between the luxury that palls and the happiness of the simple life:

Gives not the haw-thorn bough a sweeter shade,
(As Shakespeare’s almost sacred verse hath said,)
To shepherds gazing on their silly sheep
Grazing the vales, or on the hills asleep,
Than doth the rich embroidered canopy
To kings?

The author’s fondness for the Scriptures is indicated by frequent allusions, to the Old Testament especially. The references range from brief quotations such as Amos’ phrase for scarcity, “cleanness of teeth,” to summaries of famous biblical narratives. For example, in order to emphasize the honorable tradition of sheep-raising Lee calls to mind the famous pastoral figures of Old Testament history: Abel, Abraham, Jacob, and David. In like manner tribute is paid to the historic importance of the horse, as indicated by the story of Joseph recorded in the Book of Genesis:

Whence he first sprung no histories contain—
We meet him first on Egypt’s wondrous plain;
In the great famine, to supply their losses
Of grain, the people sold to Joseph horses—
And when his father would be buried far
From Egypt, in the cave of Machpelah,
Where Abraham, Isaac and Rebekah slept,
And where at Leah’s burial he had wept,
The pious son there bore the patriarch’s corse
In solemn pomp of chariot and of horse.

Whenever reference is made to the horse, Lee’s enthusiasm
is at once kindled. For this predilection he claims our indulgence:

Forgive if praise of the horse I too far carry,
For my own sire was famed as Light-horse Harry.

He therefore calls upon his knowledge of History as well to add to the prestige of his favorite animal and brings in review before us the Theban heroes going forth to war with their steeds and cars, Alexander taming Bucephalus, Napoleon on his horse at Austerlitz, Shakespeare’s Richard III crying:

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

Likewise in art the horse has been associated with great heroes, for—

What old world monument of time’s long course
Is fairer than Aurelius on his horse?
What new world monument hath honor’s meed
Like ours of Washington upon his steed?

The raising of cattle also is dignified by allusions to History. Witness the honor paid to Apis by the Egyptians and to the sacred bull of Seva by the inhabitants of India. And has not Daniel Boone testified to the fact that “the milch cow’s track” is the infallible sign of the march of civilization? History has other lessons as well to teach the tiller of the soil. The fall of Babylon and Nineveh, over whose ruins the nomad tribes graze their flocks, warn him that a nation’s life depends upon the development of her agricultural resources, while the farmer, Ruskin’s “Soldier of the Ploughshare,” in his battle with the destructive forces of nature, is urged to profit by Napoleon’s energy and promptness.

A further Virgilian convention is found in the presence of pictures of the social side of country life and of scenes depicting rural pastimes:

Besides, this occupation pleasure brings—
We must not make our labours dreary things.

Hence the farmer may vary the daily toil by hunting in the forests or find diversion along the banks of the river:

The seine on every summer’s day would pour
The river’s glittering treasures on its shore,
And through the winter scarce a dinner lack
The table’s richest treat, the canvas-back— . . .
Oysters, of course, for breakfast, dinner, supper,
Both cooked and raw, with vinegar and pepper.

After reading such passages, which might have been developed into Virginia Halieutica, we are ready to join in the author’s wish,—

Long the old hospitality remain,
Supplied, each season, from a richer plain!

Nor are these all the farmer’s pleasures; the horse “whirls on the carriage” and with its offspring delights both young and old:

The colt you raise in a domestic way,
Will in your children’s raptures fairly pay . . .
And the old man the good old mare may ride,
With children on her children by his side—
A double family circle, whose delights
Power may envy on its thorny heights.

The Virgilian precedent is followed again in the introduction of descriptions of nature which grow out of the subject and open the eyes of the farmer, in Shelley’s phrase, to “the hidden beauty of the world” and thus increase the joy which he finds in his daily pursuits. To the poet’s æsthetic sense a strong appeal is made by the garden where

          beds of violets will earliest bloom,
And March breathe softer for their soft perfume.

And just as Virgil finds delight in watching the snow-white swans floating on the waters of the slow-winding Mincius, so Lee loves to linger on the banks of the calm Virginia stream, for

Water-fowl of every exquisite kind
In its clear shallows plenteous feeding find,
And on the river flats outside the Creek
The glorious swans their water pastures seek.

His fancy is enchanted by the beauty of a field of growing corn:

In April planted, scarce a fortnight shines
Ere the ploughed land it streaks with verdant lines;
Before the moon of May hath filled her horns,
Not waving wheat the landscape more adorns—
June on the season as she warmer breathes
O’er all the field, its glittering blades unsheathes—
When the midsummer’s sun is flaming high,
Its tasseled head it tosses to the sky,
And at its ample bosom, filled with milk,
Its babies grow beneath their crowns of silk.

This love for characteristic scenes and favorite spots of his native state is noted everywhere in the poem of Lee. Now he dwells upon the charm of the estate of his ancestors on the Potomac where the

Tall Lombardy poplars in lengthened row
Far o’er the woods a dwelling’s signal show.

Now his memory goes back to his grandmother’s plantation on the James, “sweet old Shirley,” where as a child he watched the sturdy oxen drawing to the threshing machine the wagons heavily laden with sheaves of wheat. As he looks down the vista of the coming years he finds consolation in the hope that his sons and daughters will journey to the old home and tell their children’s children

how this garden he had made,
And decked with every charm of sun and shade,
And flower and fruit.

The patriotism of Lee is inspired not only by his love for such nooks which smile for him beyond all others, but also by his reverence for the great men of his native state. As Virgil, Lee is a “laudator temporis acti.” Both poets are fond of contrasting the evils of the present day with the virtues of the past and of pointing out the fact that the influence of the state in the future will depend upon the development of just such sturdy characters as were produced in bygone days amid rural surroundings. Lee is proud of the illustrious Virginians of the time of the American Revolution and calls upon the thirteen colonies to bear witness to their devotion to duty. He refers to the old seat of the Lees as “the birthplace of two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence” and tells of his joy that “he first saw the sunlight where the mover of Independence had his birth.” But it is to Washington that he points as the noblest “exemplar aevi prioris.” In every respect the Father of his Country is “the best of models.” Virginians are urged

         to nurture
The love and admiration of his virtue.

The very remains of the patriots of the Revolutionary period make hallowed the soil of their native state. To Lee Virginia was in very truth the “magna parens frugum, magna virum.”

Both Virgil and Lee were worshippers of Alma Pax. The Georgics, begun five years after the battle of Philippi and completed the year following Octavius’ naval victory off the promontory of Actium, reflects the Roman world’s weariness of war and longing for the restoration of peace:

Saevit toto Mars impius orbe.

The Virginia Georgics, written in 1858, bears witness to the state of unrest during this tempestuous period. The slavery question had been growing more acute. The enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in 1854 was followed three years later by the Dred Scott Decision. The Douglas-Lincoln Debates were taking place at the very time the last two of the Virginia Georgics were being written. Lee had heard “strange things of the Union’s fate.” The storm seems about to break and destroy the work established by the hands of Washington and his compatriots:

It seems to me that I could not alive remain
And see that glorious banner rent in twain!
But O, let me entreat, as from a brother,
Ye bannered stars smile sweet on one another.

The presence of such digressions is justified by the Virgilian precedent. The great episodes of the Georgics carry the message of the poet for his contemporaries and show the bearing of the poem upon the life of the nation. Lejay has aptly compared them to “les choeurs de la tragédie grecque.” As the Virginia Georgics lacks the unity of the Virgilian model the digressions are not given so artistic a rôle in the general scheme. They occur with far greater frequency; in fact more than one-half of the work is given up to the narrative episodes and to the poet’s philosophical reflections. Thus in discussing the grounds and building he moralizes upon the simplicity and harmony in nature or upon the importance of environment in shaping thought or moulding character. Among his compensations the farmer finds that

his toil still lifts his mind to heaven.

Each day as he works with the beasts of the field he may gain a deeper understanding of the dispensations of Providence:

For all the lower creatures of the earth,
All things He ordained when He ordained their birth;
To man He gave the dignity to choose
How all the blessings offered he might use;
Nay, an indulgent Father, let his choice
Extend to hearken not to His own voice!

In other passages the poet dwells upon man’s disregard of the Will of God or upon the Creator’s concern that nothing in nature be lost.

Such, in brief, are the main features of the Virginia Georgics conforming to the Virgilian conventions. The spirit and purpose of the whole poem may be summarized in the verses with which the author concludes the first section of his work:

It was a labour of love, for all I wrote
Was but our country’s interest to promote—
That of the farmer first, and then of those
Who on the farmer’s interests repose—
That is of all—for, either last or first,
All at this planet’s generous breast is nursed—
Repay the filial debt with liberal hand
And thus with good and glory crown the land.




1 The Georgic. A Contribution to the Study of the Virgilian Type of Didactic Poetry. By Marie Loretto Lilly, Ph.D., Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1919. “Hesperia. Supplementary Series: Studies in English Philology.” No. 6. Pp. viii + 175.

2 Virginia Georgics, Written for the Hole and Corner Club of Powhatan, by Charles Carter Lee, One of its Members, and Published by the Club. Richmond: James Woodhouse and Company, 1856.

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