Tag Archives: Virgil

Taking a stick to the environment

John Dunmore Lang (1799-1878), Presbyterian minister, member of Parliament and author of An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, relates in that work an incident which occurred as he was travelling alone on horse-back from the Hunter River to Sydney in March 1830. He writes (pp. 205-206):

I was trotting along the side of a hill, when a black snake, of upwards of four feet in length, which had been basking in the sun on the bare foot-path—for such was the only road at the time for a considerable distance among the mountains—sprang out from among my horse’s feet, and tried to escape. As it is considered a matter of duty in the colony to kill an animal of this kind, when it can be done without danger or inconvenience, I immediately dismounted, and, breaking off a twig from a bush, pursued and wounded the venomous reptile.

He had struck it a few inches from the head. The snake turned and glared, and the part of its body between the head and wound swelled up, but it could not attack and tried again to escape, whereupon the traveller killed it with a few more strokes.

It is usual in such cases to leave the animal extended, as a sort of trophy, across the footpath, to inform the next traveller that the country has been cleared of another nuisance, and to remind him, perhaps, of his own duty to do all that in him lies to clear it of every remaining nuisance; that it may become a goodly and a pleasant land, in which there shall be nothing left to hurt or to destroy.

The last allusion recalls Isaiah 11:9 and 65:25. The snake-destroying cleric, thinking himself to have the best interests of humanity at heart, concludes his narrative with an elegant quotation from Vergil’s Aeneid, which gives (he says) a ‘beautiful and most accurate description of the appearance the snake exhibited when half-dead’ (p. 206 n. 2).

John Dunmore Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, from the Founding of the Colony in 1788 to the Present Day, 4th ed., vol. I, London, Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1875, pp. 205-206 [previous editions, 1834, 1837, 1852]; for the date of the incident see p. 203. ‘Pleasant land’ occurs in a number of Old Testament passages; ‘goodly and pleasant land’ perhaps combines ‘good and pleasant’ as found in Psalm 133:1 with ‘green & pleasant Land’ in the last line of William Blake’s poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ (which like the passages in Isaiah makes reference to Jerusalem). The OED (s.v.) records ‘twig’ as dialectal for a stout stick. Lang’s text of Vergil, Aeneid 5.273-279 corresponds to that in the Bibliotheca Augustana (which uses Mynors, 1969) except for nodos in line 279 (the BA has nodis) and punctuation differences. The passage describes a snake, wounded on the highway by a wheel or rock, glaring, hissing and twisting as it tries in vain to escape. D.W.A. Baker, ‘Lang, John Dunmore (1799-1878)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2, 1967, pp. 76-83, and online.

Vergil at the GPO

The pedestrian hurrying along George Street, Sydney, will  hardly have a chance to notice up high on the General Post Office, built in the nineteenth century, a quotation from the first-century BC Roman poet Vergil. Above an arch of the colonnade is a statuary group which combines a number of iconographic elements associated with the early history of New South Wales, including the Vergilian text sic fortis Etruria crevit.

The words, from the Georgics, Book II, line 533, have been variously translated. ‘Thus Etruria grew great’ seems more natural than ‘Thus great Etruria grew’, and parallels the sense of the next clause, ‘Rome became the finest city in the world.’  After describing the Golden Age, Vergil attributes the early growth and greatness of Etruria and Rome to the blessings which attend piety and productive labour. He is thinking especially of the life of the small farmer, whose contribution Romans traditionally saw as the basis of economic and social well-being.

The founding of the colony of New South Wales presented challenges both practical and philosophical. How would the colony survive and flourish, and in what intellectual context should its survival and well-being be framed? The decision to form the colony was motivated by expediency, not by the sort of high-sounding principles which drove pilgrims to the shores of America. A strong secular tendency in eighteenth-century thinking ensured that New South Wales derived its original ethos in part from the classical tradition of Graeco-Roman civilisation as well as from traditions of the church.

It seems evident that the official iconography of government in New South Wales developed in a somewhat informal and haphazard way. In 1788 Arthur Phillip sent some Sydney clay to Joseph Banks in England and from this Josiah Wedgwood produced a number of medallions at his Etruria factory (1789). The design has figures of classical type representing Hope, Peace, Art and Labour as inspiration for the new colonists and convicts. It is unclear to what extent the text beneath the figures, ‘Etruria / 1789′, applies to Wedgwood’s Etruria or to the new land and people in development. In any case in the Wedgwood tradition ‘Etruria’ stands for certain ideals, values and goals which should guide and inform one’s outlook and activities. This ‘Botany Bay medal’ or ‘Sydney Cove medallion’ became the basis for the original Great Seal of New South Wales (1790, first used in 1791), with its similar figures and motto from the Georgics concerning Etruria.

Vergilian echoes are clear in further development of the seal as seen in the first postage stamps of 1850. The four books of the Georgics concern four main aspects of rural life and industry: agriculture, arboriculture, animal husbandry and bee-keeping. Accordingly one can see, in the seal design on these ‘Sydney View’ stamps, the fields between town and ocean, trees on the hillside, an animal in the fields (possibly a sheep), and a hive near the main figure. Three other figures seem to represent those who have come ashore, including at least one convict, whose chain has broken away.

The chain motif reappears in the GPO statuary but here the chains are across the supporting kangaroo and emu. Does this signify official control of the land and its native inhabitants by the recently arrived, industrious colonists anxious to build a great and growing nation?

Cf. John Bernard and Colin Yallop, ‘Etruria in Australia’, Placenames Australia: Newsletter of the Australian National Placenames Survey March 2008, 5-6. GPO statuary group with Vergilian motto: cf. the description on the website of the NSW Government’s Heritage Branch, and its page on seals, badges and unofficial arms (an incomplete selection apparently because of lost evidence). Sydney Cove medallion: cf. the entry for an example in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of NSW. According to this entry the text on the obverse indicates the place and date of manufacture.

Spelling of Vergil: I prefer ‘Vergil’ in accordance with the Latin Vergilius but use the conventional ‘Virgil’ for classification purposes.