Tuesday, 10 September 2019

O Ubi Campi!

"O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint
Agricolas, quibus ipsa, procul discordibus armis,
Fundit humo facilem victum justissima tellus!"

                       Virgil, The Georgics, Book II

I had a brief conversation with the Poet Laureate last night, which is not a boast that one often sees in wargames blogs. Simon Armitage was reading from and discussing his latest book 'Still: A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield'.  His 'poetic response' to the Somme was in fact a reworking of Virgil's Georgics, a poem first published in 29 BC on the theme of farming and animal husbandry. I will freely confess that his explanation of why he chose to do that and what it all means went completely over my head. Maybe it had something to do with the Roman road between Albert and Bapaume, maybe it was that Virgil's poem was really a celebration of the peace under the Emperor Augustus following years of civil war. You will get no enlightenment here.

What you will get from me, I suspect, is a series of poems about bees, starting for now with this translation of Book IV of the Georgics by Peter McDonald. My own interpretation of this is that it's a metaphor for how collective cooperation is the best way to run society, providing the most security for us all. Maybe I'm just seeing what I want to see. Bear in mind when you read it that, for reasons I have never understood, the Romans apparently believed that swarms of bees spontaneously generated from the carcasses of sacrificed cattle. 

The Bees 
When the last of the sunlight goes, and shadows stretching from the shade of trees and bushes, long hedgerows, join up together to invade wild grasses and the flat pasture, turning from shadow into night, then the bees, scattered far and near, take notice, and start on their flight back to those walls and roofs they know, beehives where their small bodies rest between dark and dawn; they go over the threshold, noisy, fast, massing in hundreds at the doors, and pour past into their close cells, cramming chambers and corridors while the last of the daylight fails: sleep silences the working hive and leaves it quiet as the grave.

For bees put no trust in the sky when storms come up with an east wind, and seldom venture far away from their stations when downpours impend: instead, they draw the water off and stick close to their city walls where any flights they take are brief; as the wind blows and the rain falls they steady themselves through turbulence by taking with them little stones (as frail boats, faced with violence of gales and tides, take ballast on), and hold their given course along the clouds, balanced, and balancing.

A wonder, how they reproduce: without courtship, or lovemaking, without letting their hearts unloose nerves and sinews like so much string, without the agony of birth, they gather offspring from the leaves and softer herbs, draw with each breath pollen and children for the hives, providing themselves with a fresh ruler, and tiny citizens, to take the place of some who crash against the earth, onto hard stones, brought level by their single love for flowers and honey-vintages (the glorious legacy they leave behind them, in trust for the ages), although the time that waits for them is short enough, and not beyond a seventh summer; yet the same nation and race will soldier on, deathless in spite of time’s attacks, in cells and palaces of wax.

All of these things have given pause to the bees’ watchers and guardians whenever they ascribe the cause to some influx, some influence over and above the natural, an exhalation from beyond or an element more ethereal than air itself - maybe the mind of God, that strengthens as it runs in earth and sky, or turns in deep acres of churning oceans, in herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, the wild beasts and the harmless beasts, in life that feels along a thread from its first movement to the last, finishing where it all started, and never reaching a true end; this keeps the bees away from death when, at the last, they all ascend into the skies they lived beneath,to fly between undarkened spheres in heaven, and the many stars.

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