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Review of Virgil in English edited by K. W. Gransden
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Virgil in English belongs to the new Penguin series of Poets in Translation, which (alleges the back cover) “offers the best translations in English, through the centuries, of the major classical and European poets.” For the common reader, and even for the not-so-common reader, it is hard to imagine a more attractive project than that. If it were rightly executed, a volume of the kind promised would present at least three very great benefits. A reader who did not know the language used by the poet concerned would here be brought as near as he could hope to get to the singing voice of the master, and to those all-important imponderables that a literal prose translation can hardly supply—the mood, the atmosphere, the variations of tone and pace. A lifelong student of the poet, as well as an amateur, would find pleasure here, and insight too: since any really sensitive translation will bring out details, if not entire dimensions, that the reader has missed before. Finally, such a book would constitute an enjoyable mini-anthology of poetry in English, given unity by the common focus on a single foreign poet and yet full of shocks and surprises, bringing to light unknown poems and juxtaposing poems never before seen on the same page. If humanism has something to do with a deeper feeling for the powers of one’s own language, and at the same time a wider awareness of the richness of other epochs and other nations, then here—or so one would hope—we have the humanistic textbooks for our time.
These expectations are in fact largely fulfilled by the remarkable Horace in English in the same series, which has already been reviewed in these pages. Horace, it must be admitted, was an outstandingly suitable subject for such an anthology; for over the last four centuries an astonishing number of persons who mattered in literature or even in politics, from Queen Elizabeth I through Aphra Behn to President John Quincy Adams and beyond, have felt the urge (which can be overpowering) to translate one Horatian poem or another, often with unexpected felicity. Virgil, from this point of view, is a very different matter. Through the ages he has proved something like a Mount Everest to translators or imitators— the most towering and treacherous peak of all, scarcely to be attempted except by the heroic or the unwise. For this is that Virgil whom the Emperor Severus Alexander called (in a phrase that almost seems too good to have been thought up by a Roman dynast of the Low Empire) “the Plato of the poets.” This is he before whom Dante, of all people, abased himself as his master in style. This is the poet who haunted—it is a curious fact that anyone who talks about Virgil lapses at some point into the vocabulary of the supernatural—who haunted the literature of the Western world without a break from the reign of Augustus to the reign of Victoria. Yet for some reason Virgil has been hard to imitate even in his own language, let alone in any other. “You could sooner filch his club from Hercules than a line from Virgil,” said a wise Roman critic. The problem of translating him into a modern language was neatly formulated by Samuel Johnson in his Life of Dryden:
The discriminative excellence of Homer is elevation and comprehension of thought, and that of Virgil is grace and splendour of diction. The beauties of Homer are therefore difficult to be lost, and those of Virgil difficult to be retained.
To “grace and splendour of diction” most admirers of Virgil would add something that Johnson probably took for granted, and that is the music of his verse. There is a case for thinking of him as the Beethoven, as well as the Plato, of the poets.
Whether or not for these reasons, it seems to be the fact that no really outstanding poet of the English-speaking world has ever dared to translate Virgil’s works as a whole, except John Dryden. In our century two fine poets, Cecil Day Lewis and Robert Fitzgerald, have translated, respectively, the complete works and the Aeneid. The volume under review also includes the work of a number of other fine poets who attempted only bits and pieces of Virgil, for example the Earl of Surrey, Denham, Godolphin, Fanshawe, Cowley, Addison, Wordsworth, and Seamus Heaney. Finally, it includes a long train of versifiers who were not primarily poets by vocation but are known only, or mainly, for their translations from the classics. These are indeed a diverse lot, ranging in quality from Bishop Gavin Douglas, whose Scots Aeneid (composed about 1513) is a major poem in its own right, down to certain professional classicists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who—as we shall shortly see—had the misfortune to translate into a poetic idiom decades or even centuries earlier than their time, or into no poetic idiom at all.
Thus anyone who set out to form an anthology of verse translations from Virgil would have a rather limited pool to choose from, even if he took account of some competent, or more than competent, versions that do not appear in this volume; for example, the mid-eighteenth-century Aeneid by Christopher Pitt, which Samuel Johnson actually bracketed with Dryden’s (“the two best translations that perhaps were ever produced by one nation of the same author”); or the Georgics by the versatile William Sotheby (1800), or the Eclogues and Georgics by R. C. Trevelyan (1944), or the Aeneid of the gifted contemporary translator C. H. Sisson (1986). But an anthologist of the best translations of Virgil, the kind of translations that this series explicitly promises, would be very much more restricted in his choice, and would almost certainly have to come up with a slimmer volume than the one before us. I would invite the reader to bear in mind Virgil’s stature as a verse craftsman (“Wielder of the stateliest measure/ ever moulded by the lips of man”) while he or she pronounces aloud the following gruesome specimens of English style and versification, all from Virgil in English. James Henry (1853) gives us Aeneas and the sibyl among the monsters at Hell’s gate:
Or here is John Conington (1867) with the image of the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus on the shield wrought by Vulcan for Aeneas:
R. D. Blackmore (1871) renders the farmer’s problems from Georgics I:
C. W. Brodribb (1928) attempts the opening of the passage in Georgics III that, taking its start from the farmer’s need to repress the sex drive in horses and cattle, becomes a great hymn to the universal power of love. The English lines are meant as dactylic hexameters:
All the above versifiers were distinguished classical scholars, with the exception of Blackmore, who has a better title to fame in Lorna Doone. And to each of them Mr. Gransden allots not just a few specimen lines (which might have served as warnings, or for comic relief), but several pages. It is in general hard to make out what principles, if any, have guided him in deciding which translators to include in the collection, or the relative lengths of the extracts from each of them. We should be grateful to him for the good translations of Virgil that he here restores to public view (the Georgics of Thomas May from 1628, for instance; or Sidney Godolphin’s superb Aeneid IV, published in 1658; or William Morris’s archaistic but powerful Aeneid of 1876), but the trouble is that they are given almost equal time and space with mediocre verses (Luke Milbourne’s Aeneid I of 1688, or Joseph Warton’s Eclogues of 1777) and verses that can only be rated as candidates for a future edition of The Stuffed Owl (see the extracts from the Classical Essays of F. W. H. Myers, 1883).
It is equally hard to make out any system in the selection of the Virgilian passages to be reproduced in translation. Some parts of Virgil are represented repeatedly; for example, Mr. Gransden has us plow through three translations, none of them specially noteworthy, of the second eclogue (“that horrid one,” as Byron called it, “Beginning with Formosum pastor Corydon”). On the other hand, the fourth, “Messianic,” eclogue, the most famous of them all, is given to one translator only, and that the least fitted by temperament to bring across its eerie beauty, namely John Dryden. And the episode of Orpheus and Eurydice from the end of Georgics IV, which to many has seemed the ultimate in all tragic poetry and in all verbal music, is represented only by the perfectly competent version of Smith Palmer Bovie. I cannot help thinking that the young Wordsworth’s unfinished but moving version (1788) of the same episode might at least have deserved a mention. But alas, the only Wordsworth included in this anthology is taken from his version of parts of the Aeneid—a version which the poet himself (in a letter to the Philological Museum, which published it in 1832) gloomily characterized as “an experiment—for it was nothing more—and I now think it a less fortunate one than when I first named it to you,” and never reprinted. Yet here it is anyway, in this volume, supposedly among “the best translations in English.”
The extracts of the translations are annotated more or less at random. Some receive no footnotes at all, others are thickly encrusted with notes, many of them beginning “Cf.” (a favorite expression of the editor) but containing no more than unadorned line-references to the Latin texts of Virgil’s works. The footnotes, especially, make one wonder whether the editor ever paused to consider what kind of reader he was addressing. Whoever this strange being is, he apparently needs to be told that parlous means “perilous” and that to divine means “to guess,” and that Remus was Romulus’s brother; while at the same time he needs no explanation of the words theave or queachie, or any help in identifying persons called Hippotades or Aeolides.
Sometimes help comes, but comes too late; the editor has a curious habit of explaining words or names at their second appearance in a given extract, or even later. For example, the word but as a preposition meaning “without,” which occurs five times in the extract from Gavin Douglas’s magnificently vital Aeneid (“A sword but help about hym beltis he”—i.e. the aged Priam at the sack of Troy) may well puzzle many readers at first glance; only by the time one has worked it out for oneself, that is just one line before the end of the extract, does Mr. Gransden come to the rescue. The assumed reader, though not knowing who Remus is, at least knows his Latin well enough not to require a translation when a Latin passage is quoted at him, as on pages 41 and 237; but he might have some trouble on page 64, where the Latin as quoted makes no sense (read quis instead of Mr. Gransden’s quid). The English poetic texts, too, are deformed by some tricky misprints in half a dozen passages. I will mention only one instance, where it almost seems as if an archaic long s has been misread as an f. It is at the opening of “Lycidas,” where Milton wrote:
but Virgil in English prints the end of the second line as “Ivy never-fear.”
I would end, however, with the one feature of the book that can be praised more or less unreservedly, and that is the series of poems scattered through it that are inspired by Virgil, not translated from him. Together these remind us vividly that almost every English-speaking poet of any consequence, from the time of Chaucer to the time of Auden, went to school with Virgil. The selection offered is satisfactory, though I for one could cheerfully do without the five pages devoted to part of a rather awful pastiche of the Eclogues by Ambrose (“Namby Pamby”) Philips:
Strangely, it is among this series of poems that the English-speaking reader might obtain his clearest sense of the Virgilian qualities that have really excited and awed the ages (though the editor gives him no hint of this). The straight translations—even the eccentric selection of them that is contained in this book—will of course tell him something about the contents of Virgil’s work, but very few of them seem to carry across anything like that “grace and splendour of diction,” or that perfect control of verbal music, or those nocturnelike ambiguities of color and outline, that distinguish Virgilian poetry. Four of the poems here, in particular, might take the reader some way toward an understanding of this side of Virgil.
To me, one of the book’s most delightful surprises was The Land, by Victoria (“Vita”) Sackville-West, a poem composed in full consciousness of the Georgics and viewing, as it were through Virgilian eyes, not the Italian but the southern English countryside. The other poems are fairly obvious choices, but good ones. Tennyson’s ode on the nineteenth centenary of Virgil’s death must be known to most English-speakers who know of Virgil himself, yet the judgment of so fine a verbal craftsman is always worth hearing again. And anyone tempted to label either the Augustan or the Victorian poet as a mere drum-beating imperialist may be surprised at the contrast between Tennyson’s lyrical praises of the poems of peace, the Eclogues and Georgics, on the one hand, and his somber reflections about the Aeneid on the other; he seems to capture perfectly the chiaroscuro, the shadowy ambiguities, of Virgil’s own vision of Roman history:
Finally, two other poems in this group can almost be left to speak (or sing) for themselves. “The Second Pastoral” by Alexander Pope, though youthful work and perhaps not very rich in content, seems to come as near as our language can to the sheer tunefulness of Virgil’s Latin. And Milton’s “Lycidas,” while second only to Pope’s poem in its control of sound, succeeds in conveying something that no heroic couplets, whether by Pope or Dryden or anybody else, can ever convey: the momentum of the mature Virgil’s periodic style, rising from peak to even higher peak across ten or a dozen lines of poetry.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 November 1996, on page 58
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