|'THE RETREAT 1745' This lettering on a doorway
in the north of England reflects the mood of the times
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
the Renaissance had a vast impact on British culture. It was
natural that writers on gardening and agriculture should join with
their contemporaries in looking to Italy for artistic and
scientific knowledge. They looked both to Renaissance authors, such
as Alberti , Palladio and Colonna, and to their Roman
predecessors, including Virgil ,
Vitruvius, Pliny and Columella. For practical advice the best
sources were Virgil's Georgics and Columella's De Re
Rustica. English writers on gardening found that the
Georgics and De Re Rustica contained a wealth of
advice on rural topicsincluding tillage, agricultural tools,
raising trees, pruning, caring for animals and the management of
bees. Columella loved county life and believed that agriculture is
'without doubt most closely related to and, as it were, own sister
greatest Roman poet, delights in practicalities but, though
'Georgic' means 'to do with agriculture' it was not the poet's sole
purpose to write an agricultural treatise in verse. His aims were
also political and philosophical. Like Horace, his contemporary in first century BC
Rome, Virgil delighted in the life style of rural retirement. The
two poets contrast the virtues of pastoral life with the civil war,
waste and political turmoil which plagued Rome after the
assassination of Caesar in 44 BC.
They dreamt of a new Golden Age embodying the virtues of peace,
productivity and continuity. In particular they pointed to the life
style of what Maren-Sofie Rostvig
has called the happy husbandsman. His life was one of rural
retirement and peaceful toil, free from the temptations of money,
power and political advancement. The Georgics often return
to this theme:
Blest too is he who knows the rural
gods,......... never pitied he
Him that hath not, nor envied him that hath.
What fruits the branches, what the willing earth
Freely afford, he gathers, nor beholds
State archives, ruthless laws and city broils.
Others may vex the treacherous firth with oars
And rush upon the sword; through palaces
And courts of kings their headlong course they hold...
Meantime the husbandsman with crooked
Has cleft the earth: hence labour's yearly meed,
Hence feeds he little child and father land.
Hence are milch-cow and honest ox maintained.
Earth never rests: either with fruit she flows,
Or with young lambs, or with the wheaten sheaf
Beloved of Ceres: increase the drills
And barns are overcome.
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|'Blest too is he who knows the rural gods...'
These words from Virgil's Georgics characterize the 'rural
retirement' theme which so appealed in seventeenth century England,
beset as it was by the Civil War and its associated troubles. The
wood cut is from a 1502 edition of the Georgics (Book IV). It shows
contented farmers looking after bee hives.
Although Virgil and
Horace are amongst the greatest poets
to have praised the virtues of rural retirement, Greek poets, were the originators of the theme. The
peacefulness of rural life was a favourite topic of Homer and Theocritus, upon whom Virgil and Horace
modelled their poetry. In Greece philosophy had long been
associated with gardens. Horace studied at the academy in Athens as
a young man and may have been taught philosophy in the garden, as
had been the custom of Plato and
Epicurus. Horace particularly
admired Epicurus' doctrine that happiness results from the
enjoyments of the mind and the sweets of virtue. He was offered the
job of private secretary to Augustus
but turned it down because he liked best the life of rural
retirement on his farm in the Sabine Hills:
Happy the man who bounteous Gods allow, With his
own hands Paternal Grounds to plough.
There he could live amongst happy husbandsmen
with cheerful faces engaged in pruning the vine, shearing lambs,
gathering fruit, ploughing the soil, and looking after bees. To
Virgil, Horace and all those who later admired their poetry, the
Age of Augustus was a golden age.