The truth is, no other place is proper for their work. One might as well undertake to dance in a crowd, as to make good verses in the midst of noise and tumult.
As well might corn as verse in cities grow; In vain the thankless glebe we plough and sow, Against th' unnatural soil in vain we strive, 'Tis not a ground in which these plants will thrive.
It will bear nothing but the nettles or thorns of satire, which grow most naturally in the worst earth; and therefore almost all poets, except those who were not able to eat bread without the bounty of great men, that is, without what they could get by flattering of them, have not only withdrawn themselves from the vices and vanities of the grand world (pariter vitiisque jocisque altius humanis exeruere caput) into the innocent happiness of a retired life; but have commended and adorned nothing so much by their ever-living poems. Hesiod was the first or second poet in the world that remains yet extant (if Homer, as some think, preceded him, but I rather believe they were contemporaries), and he is the first writer, too, of the art of husbandry. He has contributed, says Columella, not a little to our profession; I suppose he means not a little honour, for the matter of his instructions is not very important. His great antiquity is visible through the gravity and simplicity of his style. The most acute of all his sayings concerns our purpose very much, and is couched in the reverend obscurity of an oracle. [Greek text which cannot be reproduced]. The half is more than the whole. The occasion of the speech is this: his brother Perses had by corrupting some great men ([Greek text which cannot be reproduced], great bribe-eaters he calls them) gotten from him the half of his estate. It is no matter, says he, they have not done me so much prejudice as they imagine.
[Greek text which cannot be reproduced--translation below]
Unhappy they to whom God has not revealed By a strong light which must their sense control, That half a great estate's more than the whole. Unhappy, from whom still concealed does lie Of roots and herbs the wholesome luxury.
This I conceive to have been honest Hesiod's meaning. From Homer we must not expect much concerning our affairs. He was blind, and could neither work in the country nor enjoy the pleasures of it; his helpless poverty was likeliest to be sustained in the richest places, he was to delight the Grecians with fine tales of the wars and adventures of their ancestors; his subject removed him from all commerce with us, and yet, methinks, he made a shift to show his goodwill a little. For though he could do us no honour in the person of his hero Ulysses (much less of Achilles), because his whole time was consumed in wars and voyages, yet he makes his father Laertes a gardener all that while, and seeking his consolation for the absence of his son in the pleasure of planting and even dunging his own grounds. Yet, see, he did not contemn us peasants; nay, so far was he from that insolence, that he always styles Eumaeus, who kept the hogs with wonderful respect, [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], the divine swine-herd; he could have done no more for Menelaus or Agamemnon. And Theocritus (a very ancient poet, but he was one of our own tribe, for he wrote nothing but pastorals) gave the same epithet to a husbandman [Greek text which cannot be reproduced]. The divine husbandman replied to Hercules, who was but [Greek text] himself. These were civil Greeks, and who understood the dignity of our calling. Among the Romans, we have in the first place our truly divine Virgil, who, though by the favour of Maecenas and Augustus he might have been one of the chief men of Rome, yet chose rather to employ much of his time in the exercise, and much of his immortal wit in the praise and instructions of a rustic life; who, though he had written before whole books of Pastorals and Georgics, could not abstain in his great and imperial poem from describing Evander, one of his best princes, as living just after the homely manner of an ordinary countryman. He seats him in a throne of maple, and lays him but upon a bear's skin, the kine and oxen are lowing in his courtyard, the birds' under the eaves of his window call him up in the morning; and when he goes abroad only two dogs go along, with him for his guard. At last, when he brings AEneas into his royal cottage, he makes him say this memorable compliment, greater than ever yet was spoken at the Escurial, the Louvre, or our Whitehall.
Haec, inquit, limina victor Alcides subiit, haec illum Regia cepit, Aude, Hospes, contemnere opes, et te quoque dignum Finge Deo, rebusque veni non asper egenis.
This humble roof, this rustic court, said he, Received Alcides crowned with victory. Scorn not, great guest, the steps where he has trod, But contemn wealth, and imitate a god.