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Ancient botany for the 21st century

Vergil’s Green Thoughts: Plants, Humans, and the Divine by Rebecca Armstrong, 2019. Oxford University Press.

When I first heard about Vergil’s Green Thoughts by Rebecca Armstrong, I was eager to obtain a review copy since it seemed to me to deal with matters of plants and people relevance, which deserved to be shared and promoted on this blog site. Pleasingly, the book’s sub-title, Plants, Humans, and the Divine hinted at all manner of intriguing plant-and-people associations, both natural and supernatural. And, furthermore, it wasn’t just people, but ancient people – principally the Romans – which I thought would make a nice contrast to the more modern-day texts I’d been reading in the last few years. And it does do that – but only ‘sort of’…

Not a conventional plants-and-people text

The first sign that things weren’t going to be straightforward was the book’s publisher’s site stating that Vergil’s Green Thoughts “Contributes to the newly emerging category of environmentally-engaged literary criticism, bringing the natural world to the foreground and illustrating how reality, imagination, and cultural assumptions combine”. Ecocriticism * is an established discipline. It has at least one web site (e.g. European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture, and Environment [EASLCE]), journals (e.g. Journal of Ecocriticism, Green Letters, and Ecozone@), and books (e.g. Plants in contemporary poetry: ecocriticism and the botanical imagination and this selected bibliography) devoted to its practice. Although Ecocriticism is not a subject I know much about, I have few doubts that Vergil’s Green Thoughts – whose author is Associate Professor in Classical Languages and Literature at the Faculty of Classics of the University of Oxford, and Mary Bennett Fellow and Tutor in Classics at St Hilda’s College https://global – is a valuable addition to that genre. And I can appreciate how “this volume joins the growing field of nature-centred studies of literature, looking head-on at Vergil’s plants and trees to reveal how fundamental they are to an understanding of the poet’s outlook on religion, culture, and mankind’s place within the world”. Undoubtedly, Armstrong provides a very detailed evaluation of the role and meaning of plant references in Vergil’s three major works. And this is a worthy endeavour, but, for those of us – me definitely included here! – whose interests in plants-and-people are more basic and practical-oriented, Vergil’s Green Thoughts is rather too detailed.

It’s quite a tough read

To give you a better idea of the thrust of the book – and a hint at the level of investigation and analysis undertaken by Armstrong, here’s a selection of section headings: Habitarunt di quoque siluas: gods and woods in the Eclogues; Present and absent numen in the woods of the Georgics; Religio dira loci: the Aeneid‘s woodland numen; Plants and divine metonymy; The locus amoenus and other harmonious habitats; Grain and other field crops: shared endeavour and shared suffering; Too much of a good thing? Farming as restraint of nature; Farming as violence; Vines and violence. ‘Challenging’ is the word I’d use to describe many of the book’s sections.

But there are some positives

Having just been a little negative about the book, what are some of things I did like? I found the nearly 50 pages of Introduction probably the most useful chapter of the book because here Vergil’s views on many aspects of plants-and-people – which are expanded upon in the rest of the book – were neatly summarised. Thus, subjects such as: Gods and plants; Plants and everyday religion; Plants as symbol and metaphor; Plants and politics; and Poetic plants were covered, and gave some of the hoped-for plants-and-people insights. Usefully, there are overviews of the section’s purpose at the beginnings of the book’s 3 main sections. Apart from the rather obscure section headings [mentioned above], others are far more ‘down-to-Earth’, e.g.: Gods’ Special Species – Oak (aesculus, quercus, robur, and ilex), Poplar (populus), Pine (pinus, picea), Olive and wild olive (oliua, oleaster), … Ivy (hedera); The borderline divine: magical and medicinal plants; Useful trees; Flowers and bees; and Flowers and people: beauty, sex, and death. Those gave some insights into the role and relevance of plants in the everyday lives of ancient Romans, and therefore delivered more of what I was expecting from a plant-and-people point of view.

However, even the positives were somewhat negated…

But, in order to tease out those bits of information there was a lot – an awful lot! – of Latin text (and its translations into English) to wade through. And once the translation had been supplied there was Armstrong’s intricate, intimate, detailed semantic scholarship to tackle – in which the meanings of the Latin words used were analysed. And sometimes that involved rather technical examination of such matters as the reasons why one tense was used rather than the more usual or expected one. Important as such distinctions no doubt are, those minutiae of the ancient language didn’t really do that much for this reader. For, as interesting and illuminating as such insights can be, they suffer from the fact that they are at best modern-day interpretations of Vergil’s original words, written 2000 years ago. Words which, in their turn, are made more difficult to understand because they are the original author’s thoughts often conveyed in a poetic way as opposed to a more straightforward factual account. And interpretations of the original text depend upon deep understanding of the different philosophical theories around at the time Vergil was writing – and which Armstrong does take account of – and how they might have influenced his work.

Thus, although Vergil’s words are the subject of this book, the views and interpretations of other authors are considered and discussed where deemed appropriate as they inform Vergil’s views and our present-day views of Vergil’s words. Additionally, Vergil also appears to wear different ‘hats’ depending upon what he’s writing about. And which particular hat he’s wearing on any occasion is to some extent the essence of what Rebecca Armstrong tackles in this book. There is, therefore, a lot of speculation in this book. There’s nothing wrong with that (provided you are aware of it), but a recognition of the dangers inherent in reading classical texts with a 21st C mind-set is important for those who are tempted to read Vergil’s Green Thoughts – which might be more accurately, if somewhat mischievously, entitled Rebecca Armstrong’s thoughts on what Vergil probably meant

And that’s the real issue; it’s the age-old problem of trying to get into the mind of another and what they meant by the words they used. It’s the same problem one has today in trying to understand what a modern-day poet actually means by the words and imagery s/he’s used. Only in Vergil’s Green Thoughts the task is made much more difficult by the intervening 2000 years of evolving views of science and nature, and the ancient and – to most of us – foreign language used. In many respects it may be better to view Vergil’s Green Thoughts as a forensic botanical language essay. **

Notwithstanding my issues with the book, I do recognise how important it is that there are those among us who have not only the interest but also the ability to interpret the writings of older commentators for a modern-day audience that is not versed in the Classical languages of Greek and Latin.

Which plant species are meant..?

Even if one looks beyond the challenge of the linguistic interpretations in the book, in some cases it’s not clear what plant species Vergil is talking about. As Armstrong acknowledges, Vergil’s words can be imprecise(!). For example the Latin word pinus is used by Vergil to cover Pinus Haleponsis [sic., presumably P. halepensis – (Aleppo pine), P. pinea (stone pine), and P. sylvestris (Scots pine). Whilst such semantic imprecision may not really matter from a poetical allusion/reference point of view, from a botanical ‘what species is which’ viewpoint it’s rather frustrating.

However, it was quite satisfying to see how close modern names of genera are to the original Latin names of the species – and great to be able to recognise the plants within the Latin texts (even if I had little idea of the meaning of the entirety of the passage). Which goes to show that knowledge of the scientific names of plants can help one understand a little of an ancient language, and is another of the unexpected bonuses of studying Botany.

An opportunity to increase your word power…

Another feature of the book is the number of ‘new’ – to me, at least – words that I encountered, e.g.: demiurge; numinous; synecdoche; aediles; metapoetical; divine metonymy; enjambment; immanent; elide; adumbrated. Whilst such words and terms may well be the stock-in-trade of Latin commentators – and goodness knows we Botanists have more than enough technical terms! – their number didn’t help my reading of the text; and they certainly disrupted any narrative flow. And there weren’t any pictures to break up the text – with its more than 1300 footnotes.

Who is Vergil?

A major assumption in Vergil’s Green Thoughts – and which omission leads me to think that the book is really intended for specialist readers rather than generalists such as this blog item’s writer – is that you know who Vergil is. I didn’t have much idea of who or what he was before I started to read the book. I did know he was an ancient Roman writer whose works had survived, but little more than that. There’s no biographical information about Vergil anywhere in the book. Having now done a bit of ‘Googling’, and for the benefit of others, here are a few links to the man and his literary output. Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Vergil (and/or Virgil) in English, was a Roman “Epic and Didactic Poet” who lived from 70 – c. 19 BCE. Of relevance to Vergil’s Green Thoughts are his three major works Eclogues, Georgics, and the Aeneid.

The Eclogues [] – also known as the Bucolics [] – was published in 38 BCE, and is a series of 10 short pastoral poems on rural subjects. The Georgics [more here, and here]consist of 2,188 hexametric verses divided  into four books and is a didactic – i.e. primarily instructional poem. Completed in 29 BCE, it extolls the wonders of agriculture, “portraying an idyllic farmer’s life and the creation of a golden age through hard work and sweat”.*** The Aeneid [more here, and here], “an epic poem glorifying Rome and the Roman people”, was unfinished at his death in 19 BCE.

In terms of Vergil’s contributions to botany, I read on p. 78 in AG Morton’s History of Botanical Science that his Georgics remains unique, being a “supreme artistic creation … it contrives also to convey a wealth of practical farming instruction“. Hardy and Totelin in page 11 of their book Ancient Botany also state how important Vergil is, citing his Georgics as the “most famous ancient poem” on plants. That work names 164 plant species, and deals with such subjects as cereals and weather signs, vine and fruit trees, animal husbandry, and horticulture, and demonstrates “a certain first-hand knowledge of botany”. Although, they acknowledge that much of Vergil’s ‘knowledge’ derives from the writings of mostly Greek predecessors.

I’m in two minds about this book…

Rarely have I come across a plant book that’s caused me so many problems in evaluating it. Given the importance of Vergil to our understanding of ancient Botany, Armstrong is right to produce this tome; clearly Vergil is an important Roman writer who has much to say about the role and relevance of plants to people and the affairs of humankind. However, the ambivalence I have towards this book is neatly encapsulated in Armstrong’s words (p. 15): “Vergil the author veers between the poles of tree-hugger [more on this term here, here, and here] and tree-cutter.” I’d prefer to know about the practical-oriented latter without the complications introduced by Vergil in his guise as the poetically-minded former. I want ‘facts’ rather than ‘feelings’. Perhaps I’m ‘too much of a scientist’ and require evidence-based material rather than the primarily literary which relies so much on speculative interpretation [albeit, informed by years of study] that Armstrong provides.

So, maybe we need to wait for the interpretations to be finalised and a more general-botanical-user-friendly account of plants-and-people in Vergil’s texts. Until then, a freely-available book that deals with a more ‘traditional’ utilitarian plants-and-people theme in Vergil’s writings is John Sargeaunt’s 1920 book The trees, shrubs, and plants of Virgil. Or, for information more widely on ancient botany, there is Hardy and Totelin’s Ancient Botany.

Summary – caveat emptor

In Vergil’s Green Thoughts Rebecca Armstrong provides a very detailed evaluation of the role and meaning of plant references in Vergil’s three major works – the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid – based upon critical reading of his Latin texts and by reference to the philosophies and ideas of the times in which they were written, approx. 2000 years ago. As the publisher’s suggest, Armstrong’s book is much more of an ecocriticism appraisal of the botanical in Vergil’s writings than I was expecting. So, if you want ‘traditional’ plants-and-people fare, Vergil’s Green Thoughts isn’t the book for you. But, if you’re interested in the ways in which humans have written and thought about plants in days long gone, and insights into the issues and difficulties in interpreting ancient Latin into English for those with a 21st Century mind-set, then there’s plenty for you here.

In other words, Vergil’s Green Thoughts is one for the specialist, not the generalist botanist. However, and regardless of your categorisation, you’ve got to admire the awesome scholarship that’s gone into it!

* Ecocriticism, “a new subfield of literary and cultural enquiry that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, devoted to the investigation of relations between literature and the natural world and to the rediscovery and reinterpretation of ‘nature writings’ … and the poets of Romanticism … in the light of recent ecological concerns”, “a rapidly emerging field of literary study that considers the relationship that human beings have to the environment”.

** Although Vergil’s Green Thoughts deals with many more passages of ancient text than a short Hebrew phrase as in David Moster’s Etrog: How a Chinese fruit became a Jewish symbol.

*** Apparently, and one for the ‘Latin trivialists’/pub quizzers, the Georgics is the original source of the popular expression “tempus fugit” (“time flies”).

Written by Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and was a full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK) until 31st July, 2019. As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ (until March 2019). He remains a botanist and is now a freelance plant science communicator who continues to share his Cuttingsesque items with a plant-curious audience. In that guise his main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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