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'works And Days' Post by :candy Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :3406

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"works And Days"

Some time or another, Apollo my helper, I would choose to write a new Works and Days wherein the land-lore of our own Boeotia should be recorded and enshrined for a season. There should be less practice than Tusser gives you, less art than the Georgics, but rather more of each than Hesiod finds occasion for. Though it is long since I read the Georgics, I seem to remember that the poem was overloaded with spicy merchandise. You might die of it in aromatic pain. As for Tusser, certainly he is the complete Elizabethan farmer; sooner than leave anything out he will say it twice; sooner than say it twice, he will say it three times. Nevertheless he was a good farmer; as poet, his itch to be quaint and anxiety to find a rhyme combine to make him difficult. He writes like Old Moore:


Strong yoke for a hog, with a twitcher and rings,
With tar in a tarpot, for dangerous things;
A sheep-mark, a tar-kettle, little or mitch,
Two pottles of tar to a pottle of pitch.


"Mitch" is a desperate rhyme, but nothing to Tusser. He gives you a league or more of that; all the same, I don't doubt he was a better farmer than Virgil. More of him anon.

Hesiod also was a better farmer than Virgil, and a poet into the bargain, though the Mantuan had him there. He prefers terseness to eloquence, is on the dry side, and avoids ornament as if he was a Quaker. Such adjectives as he allows himself are Homer's, well-worn and familiar. The sea is atrugetos, Zeus hypsibremetès, the earth polyboteirè, the hawk tanysipteros, and so on. They have no more effect upon you than the egg-and-dart mouldings on your cornices. His own tropes are more curious than beautiful, but I cannot deny their charm. The spring, with him, is always gray--(Greek: polion ear)--which is exact for the moment when the breaking leaf-buds are no more than a mist over the woodlands. You shall begin your harvesting--


When the House-carrier shuns the Pleiades,
And climbs the stalks to get a little ease.


The House-carrier is the snail, of course; and he shuns the heat of the ground, not the Pleiades. Here again is a maxim deeply involved in language:


When 'tis a god's high feast let not your knife
Cut off the withered from the quick with life,
Upon the five-brancht stock--


or, in other words, never cut your finger-nails on a holy day.

Hesiod, by birth an Æolian, was by settlement a Boeotian. He lived and farmed his own land on the slopes of Helikon, under the governance of the lords of Thespiæ, whoever they were. I have been to Thespiæ, and certify that there are no lords there now. I saw little but fleas and dogs of incredible savagery, where once were the precinct and shrine of Eros with a famous statue of the god by Praxiteles. It is not far from the Valley of the Muses, where or whereabouts those fair ladies met with Hesiod, and, as we are told in the Theogony, plucked him a rod of olive, a thing of wonder,


And breath'd in me a voice divine and clear
To sing the things that shall be, are, and were.


Also they told him to sing of the blessed gods,

But ever of themselves both first and last,
and he obeyed them. When he won a tripod at Chalkis, in a singing contest, he dedicated it to his patronesses,
There where they first instilled clear song in me.
So he was a grateful poet, which is very unusual.

In Works and Days he sang of what he knew best, the country round, and sang it as a poet should who was also a shrewd farmer and thrifty husbandman. It is full of the love of earth and of the ways of them who lie closest in her bosom; but it is full of the wisdom, too, which such men win from their mother, and are not at all unwilling to impart. There is a good deal of Polonius in Hesiod, who addresses his Works and Days to his brother Perses, a bad lot. Perses in fact had diddled him out of his patrimony, or part of it, by bribing the judges at Thespiæ; and the poet, who doesn't mince matters, loses no opportunity of telling him what he thinks of him. Indeed, one of Hesiod's reasons for instructing him in good farming was that thereby he might perhaps prevent him from spunging on his relations. So the injured bard got a sad, exalted pleasure out of his griefs, and something back, too, in his quiet way.

After a glance at the golden and other past ages he gets to work with a charming passage:


Whenas the Pleiads, Atlas' daughters, rise
Begin your harvest; when they hide their eyes,
Then plow. For forty nights and forty days
They are shrouded; then, as the year rounds, they raise
Their shining heads what time unto the stone
You lay your sickle's edge--


and that is your time for harvesting. But you must work hard; for the law of the plains, of the seaboard, and of the upland dales is the same:


You who Demeter's gifts will win good cheap
Strip you to plow and sow, and strip to reap--


and if you in particular, Perses, will do that, perhaps you won't need to go begging at other men's houses as you have begged at Hesiod's. But he gives you warning that you will get no more out of him--than advice.

The Pleiades, however, don't set till November, and before that there is October to be considered, the season of the rains. Get you into the woods in October and cut for your needs. And what might these be? Well, a mortar to pound your grain in, and a pestle to pound it withal; an axle for your wain, a beetle to break the clods. Then, for your plows, look out for a plow-tree of holm-oak: that is the best wood for them. Make two plows in case of accident, one all of a piece ((Greek: autogyon)), one jointed and dowelled. The pole should be of laurel or elm; the share must be oak. The (Greek: guês) is the plow-tree, and it is not always easy to find one ready-made--but get one if you can.


Two oxen then, each one a nine year bull,
Whose strength is not yet spent, the best to pull,
Which will not fight i' the furrow, break the plow
And leave your work undone. To drive them now
Get a smart man of forty, fed to rights
With a four-quartered loaf of eight full bites:
That's one to work, and drive the furrow plim,
Too old to gape at mates, or mates at him.


That precise loaf, with just that much bitage, is the staple in Boeotia to-day; but the (Greek: aizêos) of forty will not so readily be found. Elsewhere in his poem Hesiod recommends something more in accord with modern practice:


Your house, your ox, your woman you must have;
For she must drive the plow--not wife but slave.


The terms are synonymous in Greece to-day.

Plowing time is when you hear the crane in the clouds overhead. Be beforehand with your cattle.


When year by year high in the clouds the crane
Calls in the plow-time and the month of rain,
Take care to feed your oxen in the byre;
For easy 'tis to beg, but hard to hire.


That is in Tusser's vein, and no doubt comes naturally to rustic aphorists. A man may plow in the spring, too; and if Zeus should happen to send rain on the third day, after the cuckoo's first call, "As much as hides an ox-hoof, and no more," he may do as well as the autumn-tiller. In any case don't forget your prayers when you begin plowing:


You who in hand first the plow-handles feel,
Or on the ox's flank lay the first weal,
Pray Chthonian Zeus and chaste Demeter bless
The grain you sow with heart and heaviness.


Now for your vines. First, for the pruning, note this:


When, from the solstice sixty days being fled,
Arcturus leaves the holy Ocean's bed
And, shining, burns the twilight; when that shrill
Child of Pandion opens first her bill--
Before she twitters, prune your vines! 'Tis best.


No reasons at all: simply "(Greek: ôs gar ameinon)." That is like Homer. The stars continue their signals. Vintage time is when Orion and Sirius are come to mid-heaven, and rosy-fingered Dawn sees Arcturus. Then--


Cut your grape clusters off and bring to hive;
Show ten days to the sun, ten nights; for five
Cover them up; the sixth day draw all off--


That is the way of it, Perses, and much profit to you in my learning, you scamp.

Scattered up and down these frosty but kindly old pages are scraps of wisdom on all kinds of subjects--for life is Hesiod's theme as well as agriculture. He will tell you under what star to go to sea, if sail you must; but better not seafare at all. However, if you will go, choose fifty days after the summer solstice. That is the right time, the only pretty swim-time. If you must venture out in the spring, let it be when you see leaves on the fig-tree top as large as the print of a crow's foot--but even so the thing is desperate.


For me, I praise it not, nor like at all--
'Tis a snatcht thing--mischief is bound to fall.


Then there's marriage, certainly the greatest venture of all. Don't think of it until you are rising thirty, anyhow. And as for her:


Let her be four years woman, and no more;
In her fifth year take her, and shut the door
Till she is yours, enured to your good laws.
Take her from near at hand and give no cause
That neighbours find your wedding stuff for mirth:
Than a good wife no better thing on earth;
Than a bad one, what worse? Pot of desire,
That roasts her husband up without a fire!


That would make her sixteen or thereabouts. Poor child! But neither Homer, nor Hesiod, nor any Greek I ever read had any mercy on women. Hesiod in more than one page lets you know what he thinks about them. It comes hardly from one who in the Eoioe(if those apostrophes are his) was to hymn the great women of history and myth; but there, I think, spoke the courtier Hesiod, and not the husbandman.

Lastly come a mort of things which you must not do. Here are some--for some must be omitted from the decorous page:


Let not your twelve-year-old presume to sit
On things not to be moved. That's bad. His wit
Will never harden; nor let a twelve-month child.
Let no man wash in water that's defiled
By women washing in it. Bitter price
You pay for that in time. Burnt sacrifice
Mock not, lest Heaven be angry ... So do you
That men talk not against you. Talk's a brew
Mischievous, heady, easy raised, whose sting
Is ill to bear, and not by physicking
Voided. Talk never dies once set a-working--
Indeed, in talk a kind of god is lurking.


I regret to record the manner of death of the mainly pleasant old country poet, still more the supposed cause of it--but it may not be true. The Oracle at Delphi, which it seems he consulted after his triumph at Chalkis, warned him that he would come by his end in the grove of Nemean Zeus. He took pains, therefore, to avoid Nemea in his travels, and chose to stay for a while at OEnoë in Lokris, "where," says Mr. Evelyn-White, his editor in the Loeb Library, "he was entertained by Amphiphanes and Ganyktor, sons of Phegeus." But you never knew when the Oracle would have you, or where. OEnoë was also sacred to Nemean Zeus, "and the poet, suspected by his hosts of having seduced their sister, was murdered there. His body, cast into the sea, was brought to shore by dolphins, and buried at OEnoë; at a later date his bones were removed to Orchomenos." An unhappy ending for the instructor of Perses! But it may not be true. To be sure, these poets--I can only say that to me it sounds improbable, and so, I take it, it sounded to Alkæus of Messene, who wrote this epigram upon his dust:


When, in the Lokrian grove dead Hesiod lay,
The Nymphs with water washt the stains away.
From their own well they fetcht it, and heapt high
The Mound. Then certain goatherds, being by,
Poured milk and yellow honey on the grave,
Minding the Muses' honey which he gave
Living, that old man stored with poesy.


That, surely, bespeaks a happier end to Hesiod. It is an epitaph that any poet might desire.


(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: "Works And Days"

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