What makes the cornfield thrive? When is the time
To turn the soil, and when to train the vine
Upon the elm? The husbandry of herd
And flock; the swarming of the canny bee –
These are my themes, Mæcenas. You, bright stars
That guide the sliding year across the sky;
You, Bacchus and Ceres, by whose gift the earth
Has changed sour acorns to plump ears of corn
And mingled water with wild-gathered grapes;
You Fauns, familiar gods of country folk,
With Dryads, tree-nymphs – all of you, draw near:
Your bounty is my song. And you, Sir Neptune,
For whom the earth, struck by your mighty fork,
Brought forth the snorting horse; you, Aristæus,
Whose snow-white cattle graze your island thickets;
And Pan, our shepherds’ friend, leave the high glades
Of Mount Lycæus, and grace us with your presence.
Minerva, too, who tamed the olive; you,
Triptolemus, who showed grown men the plough;
Silvanus, you who clasp the gentle cypress –
Gods and goddesses all who guard our farms,
Who give us fruits without our planting seeds,
And send abundant rain down from the sky;
You, Cæsar, above all, whose future role
In heaven is yet unknown: whether you choose
To care for town and field, and the wide world
Hail you as powerful god of crops and seasons,
Crowning you with ancestral myrtle leaves;
Or to return as god of boundless oceans,
Worshipped by sailors as far as distant Thule,
And rule the waves as Tethys’ daughter’s lord;
Or to add lustre to the summer stars,
Where between Virgo and Scorpio yawns a gap –
That fiery insect now retracts its claws
And leaves a fairer share of sky for you.
Whatever you choose – let Tartarus not hope
To make you theirs, nor you desire that realm,
However Greece may hymn the Elysian fields
And Proserpine ignore her mother’s calls –
Make my path easy, bless my enterprise,
Look kindly on these hapless country folk,
And, even now, prepare to hear their prayers.
When at first spring the snows melt from the mountains
And the clods crumble in the first warm breeze,
The lowing ox should be yoked to the plough
And new-bright ploughshares glint along the furrows.
The cornfield which has twice felt summer, twice
The frosts, will hear the thrifty farmer’s prayers:
His granaries will bulge with bumper harvests.
But when we plough up unfamiliar land,
We first must learn the winds, the shifting patterns
Of weather, local customs and conditions,
And which crop suits (or does not suit) each field.
Here cereal crops do well; there vines are best;
Elsewhere suits forestry, or is ideal
For grassland. Look – Tmolus exports sweet saffrons,
India ivory, effete Arabia incense,
The naked Scythians iron, Pontus its pungent
Beaver-oil, Epirus its prize mares.
Nature laid down these changeless laws of place
In the beginning, when Deucalion scattered
The unpeopled earth with rocks – from which sprang up
Our hardy human breed. So get to work:
Have sturdy oxen plough your richer fields
In early spring, that summer’s dusty heat
May parch the clods exposed to baking sun.
But where the soil is thin, all you need do
Is turn up shallow furrows in the autumn.
Thus fertile loam will not be choked with weeds,
Nor sandy soil be drained of precious moisture.
After the harvest, either leave land fallow,
And stiffen the topsoil with a year’s disuse,
Or else, where you have grown full-podded beans,
Or a crop of slender vetch, or a great rustling
Forest of bitter-flavoured lupin stalks,
Sow, at the proper time, with golden spelt –
Not flax or oats, nor the narcotic poppy,
For all these crops exhaust the soil too quickly.
Plant them every two years, and don’t be shy
Of mulching dry soil with well-rotted muck
And scattering ashes over tired fields.
By crop-rotation you refresh your soil;
And land left fallow is far from wasted land.
It also often helps a field, once cut,
To set the stubble alight with crackling flames:
This, for some reason, gives it hidden strength
And nutrients; perhaps the fire destroys
Diseases and sweats out unhealthy moisture;
Or maybe the heat opens invisible vents,
Encouraging the new crop’s sap to rise;
Or cauterises the soil and seals its pores
So that the driving rain, the scorching sun
And bitter winter winds cannot degrade it.
Best of all farmers is he who breaks the clod
With hoes, then hauls the wicker harrow – Ceres
Will keep a special eye on his affairs;
And he who, having ploughed, turns back again
And ploughs across the ridges he has raised,
Holds the land firmly under his command.
Farmers, pray for dry winters, and good rains
In summertime. “When winter’s dry”, they say,
“Thy corn grows high.” These are the very conditions
That give proud Mysia such amazing harvests.
The farmer who has hurled his seed, and now
Wields mattock hand-to-hand with the idle clod,
Has he dug channels to irrigate his crops?
For when they wilt, parched by the sweltering heat,
He should bring water from the nearby hill
To tumble downward, murmuring as it bubbles
Past rock and pebble, to cool his thirsty fields.
It pays, too, to trim seedlings when they reach
The furrow’s ridge, to stop the corn-stalks buckling
Under the ripe ears’ weight. On marshy ground,
Lay down dry sand to suck up surplus water,
Especially if, in spring or autumn, the river
Bursts from its banks, coating your fields with mud,
And forming pools which ooze out soggy moisture.
Yet all these well-tried skills, this tillage by men
And oxen, can be wrecked by greedy geese
And cranes, or choked by bitter chicory roots,
Or spoilt by shade. God himself did not want
Farming to be too easy. He first taught us
To till our fields, whetted our wits with worries:
Lethargy has no place in his dominions.
Jupiter armed the snakes with deadly poisons,
Set wolves to plunder and the seas to rage,
Shook honey off the trees, hid fire from men,
And stopped the streams of wine which then flowed freely,
So that by patient trial and error man
Might forge new skills – sowing and reaping grain,
And striking flints to extract their hidden fire.
Then rivers felt the alder hulls of dug-outs,
And sailors learned to map and name the stars –
Pleiades, Hyades, and the brilliant Bear;
Next, man discovered how to trap with snares
And birdlime, how to hunt big game with hounds.
Soon some beat casting-nets on the wide rivers,
While others put to sea and sank drag-nets.
Next came tough iron, and the shrill-bladed saw
(earlier, men had split their wood with wedges).
The other skills followed: relentless toil
Won through, driven by hunger in lean years.
Ceres it was who first taught men to use
The plough, when acorns, nuts and berries gathered
In virgin woodland could no longer feed them.
Soon, also, pests attacked the corn: foul blight
Gnawed at its stalks, and useless thistles bristled
In every field. Crops failed; weeds, burrs and brambles
Took the land over – where once were thriving crops,
Rank darnel and wild oats now held the field.
Unless you attack the soil with constant raking,
Scare off the birds with noise, cut back with sickles
The encroaching forest shade, and pray for rain,
You will gaze in envy at your neighbour’s granary
And shake down acorns to appease your hunger.
Now I must list the rugged farmer’s tools,
Without which crops cannot be sown, nor thrive:
The plough-share, the curved plough of solid oak,
The trundling ox-drawn carts (sacred to Ceres),
The threshing-boards, the sleds, the heavy mattocks,
And then the simple wicker implements:
Hurdles, and winnowing-fans (sacred to Bacchus).
All these must be provided well beforehand
To make God-given land fulfil its promise.
The elm sapling is slowly and forcibly bent
Into a plough-tail, curved to fit the plough;
To this a shaft is fitted, eight feet long . . .
translated by Giles Swayne