Culture | History | Poetry

The Force of Bitter Need

First he chipped fire
Out of the veins of flint where it was hidden;
Then rivers felt his skiffs of the light alder;
Then sailors counted up the stars and named them:
Pleiades, Hyades, and the Pole Star;
Then were discovered ways to take wild things.
In snares, or hunt them with the circling pack;
And how to whip a stream with casting nets,
Or draw the deep-sea fisherman’s cordage up;
And then the use of steel and the shrieking saw;
Then various crafts. All things were overcome
By labor and by force of bitter need.
– Passages from Virgil’s First Georgic, translation by Robert Fitzgerald

When you read something like this, what does it do to you? Most of us won’t ever experience the life or death struggles that our ancestors faced. Yet the force of bitter need echoes in how we live our lives today. As a student of history, it’s easy to treat the migration of humans across the globe as an academic exercise. To treat wars and conflict and the enslavement and genocide of large swaths of people as horrible footnotes in history. But the stories we tell ourselves that keep the world in order is all so very fragile.

This translation of Virgil is breathtaking to me, because it reveals our shared history, our overcoming of things, to survive another day and maybe build off that to create a generation after us to keep things going. Our human story is one of deep struggle, pain and labor. Of surviving despite the deck stacked against us. May we never forget how all that we’ve overcome as humans has shaped us. And shapes us still.


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