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This chapter examines representations of American land and labour in the late nineteenth century as a complex engagement with the georgic mode. US writers used georgic representations of economic, technological and imperial expansion to promote widely divergent visions of the ideal citizen and worker, from the virtuous husbandman of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) to the bean-hoeing intellectual of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854). Although the georgic mode represents themes central to US cultural history, it is not merely a celebration of industry and labour; like Virgil’s Georgics, which holds out the promise of progress in a fallen world but shows the human and environmental costs of the hard work it seems to promote, US adaptations of georgic illuminate the destructive aspect of agricultural labour and the moral ambiguities of imperial expansion and racialized labour.
The georgic in English is often said to have receded after the 1770s. This chapter argues that in the Romantic period the georgic does not disappear, but assumes a new form: the ‘rural complaint’, a lyrical lamentation on social conditions in the countryside. Georgics in a more conventional didactic and descriptive form continued to be written, such as Robert Bloomfield’s The Farmer’s Boy and James Grahame’s British Georgics, but these incorporated rural complaint interludes. At the same time, standalone rural complaint poems, following Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, consistently alluded to, and situated themselves within, a classical and neoclassical georgic tradition. Understanding the Romantic rural complaint as a form of georgic (rather than, or in addition to, pastoral) sheds light on the generic choices of poets such as Charlotte Smith, William Wordsworth and John Clare.
Virgil promises a calendar of times and tasks in his Georgics, yet the temporal leaps in his poem take us far from steady calendrical form. This essay asks how his English inheritors have evoked repeated annual cycles while also expressing idiosyncratic understandings of time and local particularities of work. The first section argues that the medieval iconography of the ‘labours of the months’ provides an important and neglected context for study of georgic writing, and enquires into the parallel influence of another iconographic tradition: that of illustrations to Virgil. Subsequent sections focus on writers (including Thomas Tusser, Mary Collier, William Cowper and Ford Madox Ford) who develop literary forms for their calendrical material and in doing so question the very shape and meaning of rural life. Where are the year’s pivots and culminations, does it take different form for men and women, does it begin or end?
This chapter positions Thomas Hardy, and to a lesser extent his Wiltshire-born contemporary, Richard Jefferies, as case studies by which to assess broader environmental crises in the final decades of the nineteenth century. My central concern is with how the georgic sensibility, far from a passé or patrician enthusiasm in late-Victorian literature, has, in Hardy’s view, great analytical power and relevance. It allows him – especially in The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Woodlanders – to probe moral attitudes towards, and economic theories about, manual toil in an age of capitalist accumulation. In these novels Hardy interprets georgic motifs, values and sources through his portrayal of the pugnacious ‘corn king’ Henchard and the introverted yeoman Winterborne, respectively. In both texts, I contend, Hardy documents an indigenous land-worker’s increasingly fraught dispute with, and gradual supplanting by, a more ruthlessly hard-headed arriviste.
This chapter explores georgic writing that appeared during the second half of the seventeenth century, with special attention to engagements with civil war and its aftermaths. The discussion also attends closely to Virgilian strains in English georgic writing and to the significances of literary imitation and translation. Authors covered include Andrew Marvell, John Evelyn, Abraham Cowley, John Milton, Joseph Addison and John Dryden, as well as the ancient writers Hesiod and Virgil.
This chapter re-visits Raymond Williams’s imagined journey in ‘Three around Farnham’, from The Country and the City (1973), to explore the meanings of georgic in a period of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. It suggests that William Cobbett might be read as a writer engaged with the georgic mode and shows how his writings on rural England contain recognisably pastoral and georgic themes, tropes and rhetorical strategies. It examines Cobbett’s attempts to inhabit the rural ideal through his various farming ventures before reading Rural Rides (1830) as a work in the georgic mode, realised through Cobbett’s detailed mapping of the English countryside. This parallels Cottage Economy (1821–1822), an attempt to take georgic away from elite literary culture and down to the level of the cottage. Finally, the chapter demonstrates how Cobbett’s later tours of industrial Britain imagine a union between agricultural and industrial workers as the only possibility for political reform.
This chapter looks at a selection of diaries written by British farmworkers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It falls into two parts. The first is a broad overview that seeks to define the farm diary and draw attention to some recurrent characteristics. The second explores how rural work and landscape, and the relationship between them, are represented in eight contrasting farm diaries. In concluding, I will consider how a survey of farm diaries affects our understanding of Georgic and Pastoral, and the adequacy or otherwise of these lenses for looking at the representation and experience of rural work and landscape. The gap between rural labour and its representation is less in farm diaries than in any other kind of georgic. Typologically, then, the farm diary could be regarded as the most basic, even foundational, form of georgic writing. What comes through most strongly in studying farm diaries is the depth of engagement of those who wrote them with land and landscape.
This chapter provides an account of the georgic in modern and contemporary poetry. It begins by illuminating the georgic qualities, however implicit or accidental, in Ted Hughes’s Moortown Diary, and proceeds to trace the influence of Hughes’s farming poems on the work of his literary contemporaries and successors, including poets such as Geoffrey Hill, Alice Oswald and Sean Borodale. Locating the georgic in the margins and tattered edges of poems – and the working landscapes they describe – it argues that the agricultural and horticultural poetry of these writers represents if not a georgic revival then at least evidence of its survival in the wake of profound changes in agriculture and the British countryside. The particular strain of the georgic that is sustained by these poets is characterised by a documentary style which remains alive to the haphazard circumstances of outdoor work – a style which is as adaptable as it is enduring.
This chapter argues that the East Anglian Fens, a 1,500-square-mile diamond of flat, low-lying land given over largely to agriculture, are a perfect test case for thinking about georgic at the level of landscape. An ancient landscape that seems to forbid organic metaphor, the Fens can seem like perpetually un-reclaimed literary ground. Yet since Caryl Churchill’s Fen (1982) and Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983) contemporary authors have found a more involving territory there than in more conventionally literary landscapes in the Lakes, the Yorkshire Moors or the Wessex uplands. The history of the Fens places often remote and lonely agricultural lives in a setting shaped by mighty human efforts against huge natural forces, especially those of river and sea. In the fens it is easy for georgic writing to lose its human scale. Here both farmer and writer must make a reckoning with everything that the landscape has excluded.
This introductory chapter is a headland to the larger field of the history of English georgic writing. It is set aside for a general survey of English georgic viewed through the contexts of agrarian history in the British Isles and of non-literary agricultural writing published over the last five centuries. The aim is to draw out some historical patterns and to fill in some of the literary gaps between chapters. It begins with three contemporary snapshots of British writers demonstrating some of the formal resources the georgic tradition can afford today. Six further sections survey about a century of georgic writing each.
Torn between Georgic and Pastoral, the British Weald is a landscape regarded as embodying ‘Englishness’, but also geographically ‘on the edge’ of the nation. Richard Jeffries revered the downs and Weald. W. H. Hudson was an evocative depicter of a romanticised version and guidebooks including E.V. Lucas’s The Highways and Byways of Sussex (1904) and Arthur Beckett’s The Spirit of the Downs (1909) coaxed city-dwellers to countryside that was not ‘too country’. The Georgic-Pastoral was treated parodically by Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (1932) offering a subversive deflation of rural narratives. Despite this, the continuing appeal of landscape narratives is evident in the success of James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life (2015). Drawing on Hudson’s similarly titled book, he locates shepherding within a history of landscape suggesting that images of ‘Englishness’, encapsulated in familiar livestock and gently turning seasonal rhythms, serve a purpose in imagining a national identity poised between Georgic and Pastoral.
The interconnected themes of land and labour were a common recourse for English literary writers between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, and in the twenty-first they have become pressing again in the work of nature writers, environmentalists, poets, novelists and dramatists. Written by a team of sixteen subject specialists, this volume surveys the literature of rural working lives and landscapes written in English between 1500 and the present day, offering a range of scholarly perspectives on the georgic tradition, with insights from literary criticism, historical scholarship, classics, post-colonial studies, rural studies and ecocriticism. Providing an overview of the current scholarship in georgic literature and criticism, this collection argues that the work of people and animals in farming communities, and the land as it is understood through that work, has provided writers in English with one of their most complex and enduring themes.
British nature writing is a conflict-ridden mode that speaks to contradictions in the modern condition, and a crisis-ridden mode that addresses the modern crises of the environment, of representation and of the alienated self. It returns repeatedly to problems of mimesis and the non-transparency of language, and to the slippages between ecological facts and the cultural imagination. ‘Nature writing’ is a problematic category, and classifications of earlier literature as such must be qualified, recognising the historical overlapping of environmental literature with natural history and other genres. Although British nature writing grew in dialogue with its American equivalent, it has always been less concerned than the latter with the wilderness, addressing more cultivated environments in which wildlife intermingles with human social and economic activity. The genre has long sought spiritual renewal and significance in wildlife and engaged in conservation movements, although its environmentalist ethics have not been consistent. British nature writing has also been deeply shaped by the pastoral and georgic traditions, causing it to waver between the foci of leisurely contemplation and laborious activity.
The chapter begins by differentiating between two English preconceptions of the American environment, wilderness and waste, and characterizes first-generation colonization as a pastoral retreat supported by English georgic assumptions and practices. The chapter then compares puritan and Algonquian conceptualizations of the natural environment, notably including differing conceptions of property, and discusses the influence of puritan justifications of colonization on John Locke’s theorization of land as alienable property. The chapter goes on to trace environmental changes wrought by colonization, including transformations effected by nonhuman agents as well as human agents, and locates these transformations in the climate context of the Little Ice Age. Domestic animals created environments in which certain English plants flourished while indigenous plants declined. Because English grain crops did not prosper in New England, however, the colonists adopted the indigenous grain, maize, and scaled up the indigenous forest-fallow cultivation system to unsustainable levels. Unsustainability in turn invited frontier expansion. The essay concludes by briefly investigating the tension in puritan thought and practice between worldly engagement and spiritual transcendence on both a national level, where it is evident in millennialism, and an individual level, where it shaped puritan poetics.
This chapter examines some of the Market Hill poems, which Swift wrote during bouts of intense creativity while in semi-retirement in the north of Ireland in the late 1720s. A subseries of poems written to, and in the guise of, the author’s hosts explicitly turn away from such famous works as Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ or Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ by moving inward: whereas the ideal poem in this mode celebrates a grand home as the material manifestation of the owner’s impeccable qualities, Swift instead voices the hostess as a trainee vexer, the host as a cruel dullard, the staff as aggravated upstarts, and even himself, in the character of an unwelcome if noteworthy houseguest. The gentrified British pastoral gives away to Irish realism. The satirical panegyrical ode has become a vehicle of self-critique. In markedly different ways, whether risibly or aggressively, the Market Hill poems deal with the Dean’s uncertain legacy as a Hibernian Patriot, a hard-worn but easily dashed image. This chapter ends with an examination of a shortlived but excessive verse war conducted with a rival cleric poet from Dublin who sought to tarnish Swift’s reputation.
After his return to Ireland, Swift mixed with brash younger clerics such as Thomas Sheridan and Patrick Delany. Daniel Jackson’s large nose proved to be the unlikely source of profound ekphrastic pieces written by the group. Jovial bagatelles aside, ‘To Mr Delany’ displays a mid-career poet querying his craft. In ‘The Progress of Poetry’ urban hacks and farmer’s geese alike have grown fat and shrill. ‘Advice to the Grub-Street Verse-Writers’ ironically advises how modern hacks might trick a real poet – Pope – into writing original works into the margins of their books. Swift continued to rework British and Irish georgic and pastoral poetry with extraordinary inventiveness in the 1720s, whether in drolly dreary hospitality poems or pseudo-prophecy verses in the voice of St Patrick himself. Swift found new ways to insult his friends, including his hostess Lady Anne Acheson (‘The Journal of a Modern Lady’, ‘Death and Daphne’) and Matthew Pilkington (‘Directions for a Birth-Day Song’), as well as emerging poets for whom he had little taste. Such insults were couched within the unlikely genres with which he engaged, from the Ovidian courtship tale to the royal ode.
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