David Cameron's "Georgic"
I suspect that much of the country -- the younger part at least -- was actually relieved to discover that David Cameron had joined in with his mates to enjoy a few youthful spliffs. It’s not a question of his school days being ‘private’. In fact I’m rather suspicious of the idea that anything you do before you’ve entered politics somehow doesn’t count. As if bullying, cheating, thuggery, assault would all be OK before you’ve plighted your troth to the Tory party.
More to the point is the fact that (as some estimates have it) at least 40% of young people have at some stage smoked dope. It’s surely preposterous to have political leaders selected only from the remaining 60% who (say they) haven’t.
My guess is that the cannabis will have surprised very few. What really will have puzzled most people who read the Cameron story is the punishment for his misdemeanor meted out by the Eton beaks. What was the ‘Georgic’ that was imposed on him? And what on earth did it have to do with Virgil’s Latin poem of the same name?
Well, the answer is simple. One of the forms of punishment dreamt up by the English public schools was a highly literary form of ‘lines’. We all know about the kids who were made to write out a hundred times ‘I will not talk in Mr Crowther’s lessons ever again’. A more upmarket version of this was to have them write out reams of Latin.
You find a nice example in that marvellous Victorian novel, Eric or Little by Little – written by a master at Harrow (and radical educational reformer) F. W. Farrar. Eric is a story of one boy’s struggles against the evils that surround him. On one occasion, unfairly persecuted by the ferocious Mr Gordon, he is set a ‘Georgic’:
“You will bring me the fourth Georgic, written out by Saturday morning, for your repeated disobedience.”
The fourth Georgic is the final book of Virgil’s poem on farming (‘Georgics’ mean ‘agriculture’ in Greek). It amounts to over 550 lines in Latin on the overall subject of bee-keeping. But it includes the famous long ‘digression’ on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. For it was when she was being chased by the mythical bee-keeper Aristaeus that Eurydice was bitten by the fatal snake bite; and it was then that Orpheus attempted his unsuccessful rescue of her from the underworld (he looked back when he had been told not to).
Why was this thought to be a suitable work to put under the noses of the disobedient boys? In part, one of the main themes of the Georgics as a whole is the virtue of hard work and honest toil. But the fourth book itself is largely about punishment and the dreadful things that happen if you don’t do what you are told: Aristaeus loses all his bees because of his attempt to get hold of Eurydice; Orpheus fails to rescue his beloved from the underworld because he disobeyed orders and turned round. The message must have been clear.
In time, of course, a ‘Georgic’ didn’t always mean literally a Georgic. It could involve copying out any chunk of Latin the mean-minded master chose. But it would be nice thought to imagine the young Cameron copying out the Orpheus and Eurydice episode in punishment for his brush with illegal substances. For Orpheus – the magical musician and enchanter – was also the ancient equivalent of the patron saint of ecstasy and transcendental states.