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Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Vergil’s Georgics. Edited by 
KATHARINA VOLK. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. 
281. Paper, $49.95. ISBN 978–0–19–954294–9.

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This anthology of contemporary criticism on the Georgics consists of an 
introductory chapter, which presents an overview of scholarship between 
1970 and 2007; ten essays chosen from the same period; and a bibliography 
and index of passages cited. The readings have the dual aim of representing 
diverse approaches to the poem and covering the passages and methodologies 
that have been most important to contemporary research on the Georgics. 
Originally a single volume was to cover both the Eclogues and the Georgics, 
but the project was later split into the present volume and its companion, 
Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Vergil’s Eclogues, also edited by 
Volk in 2008. Taken together, these volumes constitute the second anthology 
of criticism on the Eclogues and Georgics in ten years, following Philip 
Hardie’s four-volume Virgil: Critical Assessments of Classical Authors 
(Routledge, 1999), which covers 100 years of scholarship on all three of 
Vergil’s works. The renewed effort is justified both by the high cost and 
relatively low circulation of Hardie’s collection, and by Volk’s 
narrower chronological focus and overview of recent scholarship.

Volk is a thorough and knowledgeable editor. Her doxographical introduction 
is broad and current, surveying literature in German and Italian as well as 
English, and continuing as late as 2006. Pursuing her stated goal of 
variety, she opts for breadth over detail in her discussion. This approach 
may frustrate the student encountering the Georgics for the first time (one 
group this series is aimed at), but as Volk points out, it is in keeping 
with recent trends in scholarship, since the “lack of consensus in 
Vergilian scholarship has—especially in recent, poststructuralist 
times—been viewed as a positive thing, with the inherent openness and 
polysemy of Vergil’s works being regarded as indicative of their 
quality” (p. 2). But although Volk’s introduction shows familiarity 
with even very recent scholarship, her selection of readings, by contrast, 
gives the impression of stagnancy in the scholarly debate, since only three 
of her selections are newer than 1987, and none is more recent than 1995. 
This bias for older works is natural in an anthology, since it takes time 
for a piece to emerge as influential, and much recent work on the Georgics 
has been in monographs rather than articles. Nevertheless, one misses, for 
example, a representative of the “metapoetic turn” Volk’s 
introduction (p. 6) identifies in recent Vergilian studies.

The first four selections in the anthology take methodological approaches 
to the entire Georgics, while the last six discuss specific passages of the 
poem. Of the four general pieces, the first two can be read as a 
contrasting pair, emphasizing non-literary and literary aspects of the 
poem, respectively. In “Agriculture in the Georgics,” M.S. Spurr takes 
on the well-established notion that Vergil’s agricultural precepts are 
worthless (a judgment at least as old as Seneca), [[1]] arguing instead 
that Vergil, like Lucretius, should be seen as honeying the cup of serious 
didactic. Whether or not one agrees with this latter position, Spurr mounts 
a compelling defense of Vergil’s technical know-how, and his article is 
valuable for its insistence that any legitimate symbolism must work in 
concert with the poem’s literal, agricultural meaning. The second piece 
is by Richard Thomas, whose extensive and important work on the Georgics 
has emphasized the poem’s literary nature and its intertextual 
relationship with Hellenistic poetry. In “Prose into Poetry: Tradition 
and Meaning in Virgil’s Georgics,” Thomas discusses five patterns of 
Vergilian adaptation that allow the poetry of the Georgics to rise above 
the prosaic nature of its technical sources (a feat not accomplished by, 
e.g., Aratus or Nicander).

Two further general approaches to the poem are found in pieces by Richard 
Rutherford and Monica Gale. In “Authorial Rhetoric in Virgil’s 
Georgics,” Rutherford uses rhetorical analysis to study the ambiguous 
relationship between poet and audience in the Georgics (an approach close 
to Volk’s own in her 2002 Oxford monograph, The Poetics of Latin 
Didactic). Gale’s “Myth and Allusion in the Georgics” was a 
preliminary study for her own Cambridge (2000) monograph, Vergil on the 
Nature of Things, and was in fact reworked in two chapters of that book. In 
both the article and the book, Gale argues two main points: that Lucretius 
is Vergil’s main intertext in the Georgics, and that the worldview of the 
Georgics is intentionally unstable and shifting. Among critics of the 
Georgics, Gale is a conspicuous proponent of the polysemy Volk mentions in 
her introduction, and in this regard her article is a good representative 
of her important book.

The remaining six selections discuss specific passages and their bearing on 
the interpretation of the Georgics generally. Articles by Richard Jenkyns 
and Michael Putnam represent somewhat older ideological approaches to the 
Georgics, with readings that are “optimistic” and “pessimistic,” 
respectively (both terms have been problematic for more recent 
scholarship). In “Labor Improbus” (1993), Jenkyns argues that the 
aetiology of labor at Geo. 1.118–59 takes a basically positive view of 
the reality that mankind must work constantly in order to survive. The crux 
of this passage is the interpretation of the phrase labor improbus, [[2]] 
which Jenkyns translates “hard work, dammit,” but which many critics 
have seen as pessimistic. Although Jenkyns makes good observations—e.g. 
that the passage runs to line 159, not 146 as in some editions—and is 
sensitive to the urbane wit of Vergil’s tone, his own tone is dogmatic 
and he sometimes exaggerates the strength of his evidence. On the other 
side of the spectrum is Putnam, who argues in “Italian Virgil and the 
Idea of Rome” (1975) that apparently positive passages like the praises 
of Italy (Geo. 2.136–76) are in fact ambiguous in ways that expose them 
as hollow. As a pair, Jenkyns and Putnam should be compared with Gale, 
whose emphasis on shifting perspective offers one way out of the critical 
impasse between optimists and pessimists.

Selections by Philip Hardie, L.P. Wilkinson and Richard Thomas discuss 
programmatic passages in the center of the poem, where Vergil places 
programmatic passages in the Eclogues and Aeneid as well. Hardie’s rich 
“Cosmology and National Epic in the Georgics” (a chapter from his 
Oxford (1986) monograph, Virgil’s Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium) shows that 
Vergil uses the same complex of terms and ideas to recuse himself from 
cosmological didactic at the end of Geo. 2 (475–94) and to embrace the 
future composition of national epic in the proem to Geo. 3 (1–48). In 
“Pindar and the Proem to the Third Georgic,” Wilkinson argues that 
Pindaric epinician has been overlooked as a major influence on the opening 
of Geo. 3. Thomas rejoins in “Callimachus, the Victoria Berenices, and 
Roman Poetry” that the primary influence here is not Pindaric but 
Callimachean epinician, namely the Victoria Berenices (published from 
papyrus in 1977), which likewise introduced the third book of a four-book 
poem, the Aetia. This is an important article that repays repeated close 
attention and deserves its place in this anthology (although the squabble 
over Pindaric/Callimachean influence—on which see p. 9 of Volk’s 
introduction—is not in itself very interesting).

Finally, in “The Fourth Georgic, Virgil, and Rome,” Jasper Griffin 
argues that the bees in Geo. 4, with their conspicuous lack of poetic or 
artistic attributes, resemble Rome before the second Punic War, and that 
they find contrast in the Neoterically-styled tale of Orpheus. Griffin’s 
article is useful not only for its sound treatment of Geo. 4 but for its 
“whirlwind doxography” and its judicious, appended discussion of the 
laudes Galli, which according to Servius once occupied the second half of 
Book 4 (Serv. ad Ecl. 10.1, Geo. 4.1: probably a mistake). Like many other 
selections in this book, Griffin’s piece admirably mixes close reading 
with broader attention to the Georgics and to Vergil’s whole corpus.

All in all, Volk has done a very capable job representing 37 years of 
scholarship on the Georgics (including its blemishes). No one, of course, 
will be fully satisfied with her selections. Aside from the desiderata 
mentioned above (recent work, metapoetic approaches), I would like to have 
seen Scodel and Thomas’ important one-paragraph article, “Virgil and 
the Euphrates” (AJP 105 (1984) 339), which would have cost little to 
include but is absent even from Volk’s bibliography. But Volk provides a 
great convenience by assembling this diverse group of readings from diverse 
sources (five of them unavailable through JSTOR). And the bibliographical 
fullness of her introduction compensates for the necessary selectivity of 
her anthology. If the two parts are consulted together, this volume will 
indeed “be helpful to students … while serving as a reference work for 
more seasoned scholars” (back flap).

Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies
Rome, Italy

[[1]] Sen. Ep. 86.15, ut ait Vergilius noster, qui non quid verissime, sed 
quid decentissime diceretur aspexit, nec agricolas docere voluit, sed 
legentes delectare.

[[2]] Geo. 1.145–6, labor omnia vicit | improbus et duris urgens in rebus 

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