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Roman Poet

70-19 B.C.

A selection from

Narrated by John Lescault

Download mp3 file: Georgics

This file is 7.2 MB; running time is 15 minutes
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On Bees

Next will I advance to heaven-born honey, the gift of air, (let this likewise, Maecenas, share thy regard,) and tell thee of the wondrous show of a tiny state, of high-hearted princes, and a whole nation's ordered works and ways, tribes and battles. Slight is the field of labour; but not slight the glory, if but thwarting deities allow, and Apollo listen to prayer.

First of all a home must be sought for bees, and a post where neither winds may have entry—for winds hinder them carrying their forage home—nor sheep and butting kids tread down the flowers, or the straying heifer brush the dew from the meadow and trample the springing grass. Likewise let the bright scale-backed lizard be far from their rich folds, and the birds that come with the bee-eater, and the swallow, her breast marked with those blood-stained hands: for they spread universal havoc, and carry off the bees on the wing, dainty morsels for their fierce nestlings. But let clear springs be nigh, and ponds green with moss, and a thread of rill fleeting through the grass; and let a palm or tall wild-olive overshadow the entrance, that when the new kings shall lead forth their earliest swarms in the sweet springtime, and the young brood disport unprisoned from the comb, the bordering bank may woo them to cool retreat, and the tree meet and stay them in her leafy shelter. Amid the water, whether it stagnate or run, cast large stones and willow-boughs crosswise, that they may have many a bridge to stand on and spread their wings to the summer sun if haply a shower overtake them or a gust of wind plunge them in the watery realm. All round green casia and far-fragrant wild thyme and wealth of heavy-scented savory should bloom, and violet beds drink the channelled spring. Let thy hives moreover, whether they be stitched of hollow bark or woven from pliant osier, have narrow doorways; for the honey freezes in winter cold, and again melts and wastes in the heat. Extreme of either the bees dread alike; nor in vain do they eagerly plaster with wax the draughty chinks in the roof and stop up the rims with pollen of flowers, and for this very service gather and store their gum, stickier than bird-lime or pitch from Phrygian Ida. Often likewise, if the tale is true, they keep house in recesses scooped out underground, or are found deep in hollow sandstone or the cavern of a mouldering tree. Yet do thou smear smooth clay warmly round about their creviced chambers, and spread on the top a thin coat of leaves. Neither suffer the yew too near their house, neither burn crab-shells to redness in the fire, neither trust them where a marsh is deep or by a strong smell of mire, or where encircling rocks echo to a stroke and fling back the phantom of a call.

For the rest, when the golden sun has driven winter routed underground and flung wide the sky in summer light, forthwith they range over lawn and wood, and harvest the shining blossoms and sip lightly of the streams; then glad with some strange delight, they nurture their brood in the nest, then deftly forge the fresh wax and mould the clammy honey. Then, as looking up thou seest their armies swarming skyward from the hives and floating through the clear summer air, and wonderest at their dim cloud trailing in the wind, mark! ever they steer for sweet water and leafy shelter. Here sprinkle the odours ordained, crushed balm and lowly tufts of honeywort, and make a tinkling round about and clash the cymbals of our Lady; themselves will settle on the scented seat, themselves in their wonted way creep into the inmost covert of their nest.

But further, if they are gone forth to battle-for often high swelling discord rises between two kings, and at once and afar thou mayest foreknow the raging of the multitude and the hearts beating fast for war; for a note as of the hoarse brass of our Mars chides the lingerers and a cry is heard that mimics broken trumpet-blasts:—then they muster hurriedly together with vibrating wings, and whet their stings on their beaks and brace their arms, and crowd in mingled mass round their king and close up to the royal tent, and with loud cries challenge the enemy. So when they find the spring sky rainless and their field open, they sally from the gates; high in air the armies clash and the din swells; gathering they cluster in a great ball and come tumbling down, thick as hailstones through the air or the rain of acorns from the shaken ilex. The monarchs move splendid-winged amid the ranks, and mighty passions stir in their tiny breasts, stubborn to the last not to retreat, till weight of the conqueror forces these or those to turn backward in flying rout. These stormy passions and these mighty conflicts will be lulled to rest by a handful of scattered dust.

But when thou hast recalled both leaders from the battlefield, do to death him who seems inferior, that he be not a waste and barm; let the better reign in a clear court. One will be ablaze with spots of embossed gold; for there are two kinds, this the better, fair of feature and splendid in flashing scales; the other, rough-coated and sluggish, crawls meanly with his breadth of belly. As the two kings in aspect so are their subjects shapen; for some are rough and dirty, even as a traveller when he issues from deep dust and spits from his mouth the gritty soil, all athirst; others shine and sparkle in splendour, and their bodies blaze with evenly marked drops of gold. These are the choicer breeds; from their combs at the ordained season of the skies thou shalt squeeze sweet honey, and yet less sweet than crystal-clear, to soften the harsh taste of wine.

But when the swarms fly aimlessly at play in the sky, and despise their combs and leave their house to grow cold, thou shalt stop their light-minded and idle game. Nor is it much work to stop; tear off the wings of the kings; while they linger, not a bee will dare to set out on their aëry way or move standard from the camp. Let garden plots woo them with fragrance of their yellow flowers, and the watchman of thieves and birds, Hellespontic Priapus, keep them in guard with his hook of willow. Himself, the keeper of such, should plant about their houses broad belts of thyme and laurels brought from the hill heights; himself wear his hand hard with work, himself bed the soil with fruitful shoots and water them with kindly showers.

And truly, but that already nearing my task's final limit I furl my sails and hasten to turn my prow to land, perchance I might also sing of the care and keeping that deck the rich garden mould, and of the Paestan rosebeds with their double blossoming, and how the endive rejoices in drinking the rill and the banks are green with parsley, and how the curved gourd swells bellying along the grass, nor had kept silence of the late-flowering narcissus or the shoot of the curled acanthus and pale ivy-sprays and the myrtles that love the shore. For I remember how beneath the towered fortress of Oebalia, where dark Galaesus moistens his golden cornfields, I saw an old man of Corycus, who owned some few acres of waste land, a field neither rich for grazing nor favourable to the flock nor apt for the vineyard; yet he, setting thinly sown garden-stuff among the brushwood, with borders of white lilies and vervain and the seeded poppy, equalled in his content the wealth of kings; and returning home when night was late, would heap his table with unbought dainties. The first roses of spring, the first apples of autumn he would gather; and when even yet the frost of bitter winter cleft the rocks and laid an icy curb on the running waters, already he plucked the soft-tressed hyacinth, chiding the late-lingering summer and the west wind's delay. So likewise was he the first for whom the bees' brood overflowed in swarming multitudes, and the frothing honey drained from the squeezed combs; lime trees were his, and wealth of pine; and as many apples as had arrayed his orchard-tree in the fresh blossom, so many it carried ripe at autumn. He too transplanted into rows full-grown elms and the hard-wood pear, and the blackthorn with sloes already upon it, and the plane already yielding shade to the drinker. But this for my part, debarred by jealous limits, I pass by and leave to be told by others after me.

Now come, I will set forth the gifts wherewith Jove himself has dowered bees at birth, their wages when, following the musical cries and tinkling brasses of the Curetes, they fed the king of heaven in that low cave of Crete. Alone they have community of children and shelter of a confederate city, and spend their life under majesty of law; alone they know a native country and established gods of the household, and, mindful of winter's coming, they ply their summer task and lay up their gatherings in a common store. For some are diligent to provide food, and labour in the fields by ordinance of the league; others within their fortified houses lay the combs' first foundations with tear of narcissus and sticky resin of bark, and hang thereon the clinging waxen walls: some guide forth the grown brood, their nation's hope; others press down the pure virgin honey and brim the cells with liquid sweets. To certain of them falls the lot of guard at the gates, and in turn they keep watch on showers and cloudy skies, or take the loads of the incomers, or in ranked array keep the drones, that idle gang, aloof from the folds: the work is all aswarm, and fragrance breathes from the thyme-scented honey. And even as when the Cyclopean forgers of the thunder hurry on the ductile ore, some make the wind come and go in bellows of bull-hide, some dip the hissing brass in the trough; Etna groans under their anvils' pressure, as alternating they lift their arms mightily in time, and turn the iron about in the grip of their tongs: even so, if small things may be compared with great, are our Attic bees urged on each in her proper duty by inborn love of possession. The aged have the town in charge, and the walling of the combs and the shaping of the curious chambers; but the younger return weary when night grows late, their thighs laden with thyme, and pasture all abroad on arbutus and grey willow, on casia and the crimsoned crocus, and the rich lime-blossom and the rust-red hyacinth. For all is one rest from toil, work-time for all is one. With morning they stream out of their gates,; nowhere a lingerer; alike again, when evening warns them at last to quit their meadow pasture, then they seek their home, then they refresh their bodies; murmuring, they hum around the edges of the doorway. Thereafter, when now they are quiet in their cells, silence deepens with night, and kindly slumber overspreads their tired limbs. Nor indeed when rain threatens do they withdraw very far from their folds, or trust the sky when cast winds are on their way; but fetch water in shelter close round their city walls, and essay short sallies, and often lift pebbles, as boats take in ballast when they rock in the tossing surge, and poise themselves so among the bodiless clouds.

This custom approved of bees may truly waken thy wonder, that they neither delight in bodily union, nor melt away in languor of love, or bear their young by birth-throes; but straight from the leaves, from the scented herbage gather their children in their mouths, themselves keep up the succession of king and tiny citizens, and fashion anew their halls and waxen realm. Often moreover in wandering they crush their wings against flinty rocks and freely yield their life beneath the burden; such is their love of flowers and their pride in honey-making. Therefore although their own life be brief and soon taken to its rest—since to the seventh summer it lasts and no further—yet the race abides immortal, and through many years the Fortune of their house stands, and their ancestors are counted to the third and fourth generation.

Furthermore not Egypt and mighty Lydia, not the Parthian peoples or the Mede by Hydaspes so adore their king. Their king safe, all are of one mind; he lost, they break allegiance, plunder the honey-cells themselves have built, and break open the plaited combs. He is guardian of their labours; him they regard, and all gather round in murmuring throng and encompass him in their swarms; and often lift him on their shoulders and shield him in war with their bodies, and seek through wounds a glorious death.

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