Pen, plough and silence of the lambs

June 8, 2001

Stephen Bending surveys how writings on agriculture reflect broader human concerns.

"Behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep: there shall be a very grievous murrain." Exodus, 9:3

Often lumped together under the term plague, or murrain, the devastation wrought by contagious animal diseases has been known to man as long as he has farmed. In Exodus, it is a punishment sent by God to teach a proud and sinful pharaoh the error of his ways, and ever since, that spectre of divine retribution has hovered over contagion in animals or the failure of crops. So too, however, has the sense that man is no more than the plaything of the gods and that discord in heaven brings discord on earth. When, in Act II of A Midsummer Night's Dream , Titania accuses Oberon of jealously desiring the little changeling boy, she tells of how:

"The fold stands empty in the drowned field, And crows are fatted with the murrion flockI And this same progeny of evils comes From our debate, from our dissension."

As sinners against the one God or playthings of the many, these accounts of animal disease point to another noticeable aspect of such thinking: for all that they speak of animals, their focus is ultimately on man. In this, ancient stories of agricultural disaster continue to have a recognisably modern ring.

Foot-and-mouth disease may not have been diagnosed until relatively recently, but even in Virgil's day something like it was recognised and feared. In the "Georgics" (29BC), Virgil's highly selective account of agriculture, he advises the farmer that when faced with ulcerated sheep:

"The ready cure to cool the raging pain/ Is underneath the foot to breathe the vein." More ominously, however, he continues:

"But, where thou seest a single sheep remain In shades aloof, or couched upon the plain, Or listlessly to crop the tender grass, Or late to lag behind with truant pace; Revenge the crime, and take the traitor's head, Ere in the faultless flock the dire contagion spread."

For Virgil, the farmer is an everyman figure and the tribulations that face him are those of all men, a point that John Dryden was to emphasise when he continued his translation: "Nor do those ills on single bodies prey,/ But oftener bring the nation to decay,/ And sweep the present stock and future hope away."

Virgil's poem is a celebration of the rebirth of a nation and the re-establishment of an empire after years of civil strife; but the fearful murrain, on which Virgil dwells in Book III, inevitably challenges the pastoral idylls and easy panegyrics to a new Rome in which he elsewhere delights.

The point here, of course, is that agriculture is always in competition with nature, and the laborious taming of nature is part of the process of civilisation. What the plague episode highlights graphically is man's helplessness in the face of natural disasters, the frailty of human aspirations, and the knowledge that empires are tenuous at best.

With their insistence that labour and struggle are at the heart of man's relationship with nature, the "Georgics" set the tone for many of the literary accounts of agriculture that followed. They found a particular resonance in 18th-century Britain. Dryden's translation, at the dawn of the 18th century, is all too aware of Britain's own civil war, and it knowingly offers the murrain as an allegory of the nation in distress.

As the century progressed, however, the more positive aspects of Virgil's merging of agriculture, labour and imperial expansion found increasing favour with poets. Popular in their day, 18th-century Georgics looked not only to farming but to the much larger world of international production. Following Virgil's lead, they repeated and expanded Virgil's celebration of empire and found in "labour" a ready analogy for the rapidly expanding world of industry and trade. Agriculture was at once the foundation of imperial power and a mere cog in the vast world of global interaction.

In a Britain largely free from famine at home, disease mostly takes a back seat. We can find cures for animal diseases in John Dyer's "The Fleece" or Robert Dodsley's "Agriculture", and we can find the fearful effect of rabies in William Somerville's hunting poem, "The Chace", but mostly these poets are concerned with what we might call the connectedness of things, with the many forms of commercial activity and the intricate means by which all aspects of national and international economies are linked. Here, a robust British agriculture becomes part of a recognisably global system of commerce in which British trade will export British civilisation across the world.

If such poems seem to minimise the power of animal distempers, they are not able to banish the fear of disease. Poets such as James Thomson or Dyer celebrated the newly emerging world of globalisation, but that celebration was met by the fear that the real disease stemmed from global trade itself. For many 18th-century writers, it was not animal plagues, but the moral plague of luxury that was most to be feared, engendering false desires, false values and the destruction of social order. In part, this fear was articulated in terms of the age-old - but also very modern - country/city divide.

Indeed, as Britain's global power expanded, the division between country and city, between agricultural production and the products of trade, became acutely important. Debates in our own time find echoes in the 18th century: those who saw world trade as a modern disease also saw the very interconnectedness of things as an evil rather than a benefit. Then, as now, a heightened nostalgia for the purity of the countryside emerged, along with the city-dweller's patriotic but complacent love of the land they do not farm.

If the spectre of providential wrath continues to hang over pestilent visitations, we might still ask why the need for punishment? In Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd , Bathsheba Everdene's rejection of her rural roots is punished by the sickness that falls on her flock. What saves her is the old English values of the sturdy Gabriel Oak. However, in the Irish famine novels of the same period, it is not an individual but an entire class of people who are providentially punished, and punished because they impede progress. Like the novels of Annie Keary or Margaret Brew, Anthony Trollope's Castle Richmond may find sympathy for individuals who suffer and die in the wake of the famine, but the novel ends with a Malthusian belief that this large-scale starvation is the inevitable self-regulation of population vital to the progress of civilisation: old ways will die with the death of the people; a new world, and a bourgeois world at that, will take its place. A century and more on, Trollope's confidently Malthusian views of pestilence and progress may have fallen from grace, but this characteristic merging of morality, agriculture and empire has not.

Pestilence, progress and punishment has been the language of agriculture for more than two millennia. What changes, of course, is perspective. Virgil may offer us an agricultural everyman, struggling to protect his livestock and his crops while safe in his own moral health, but as foot-and-mouth disease and BSE have made clear, that image of the farmer as the representative of us all is far from secure.

In the 18th century, the farmer was recognised as a product of the city as well as the country and his labours supported not only himself but an expanding empire: if he stood for the purity of a native land, he was also inevitably implicated in the world of global trade. In famine-struck Ireland, the empire could shield itself from human suffering with stories of progress and the greater good of the nation. And in the 21st century, the farmer's plight is as divided as ever: is he the last guardian of Britain's rural heritage or the willing accomplice of a global agribusiness? Indeed, despite the distancing of the majority from the rural world, maybe we should ask whether our own desires for the luxury of affordable abundance make him truly one of us, an everyman for the modern age?

Stephen Bending is a lecturer in the department of English at Southampton University and co-editor of The Writing of Rural England , 1500-1800 , to be published by Addison Wesley Longman in early 2002.

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