Some Penguin Classics aim for the unreachable, bless their hearts, and a good case-in-point is Guy Lee’s edition of Virgil’s Ecologues, which was brought out in the Penguin Classics line in 1984. Lee opens his Introduction by promptly admitting that the 20th Century had seen no shortage of English translations of Virgil’s career-making debut verse collection. But he says his own has a distinction that sets it apart from the rest: Virgi’s versification, he tells us, is strict, not free – it’s hexameter lines of six metrical stresses, no more and no less, and his translation of Virgil, he claims, has as its goal to “reproduce that regularity” in English.

penguin ecologues - jan 2013He then immediately starts telling his readers why that can’t be done. First, he’s chosen to use the English Alexandrine as his medium – which (as any nearby English-major grocery clerk might be able to tell you) is iambic, whereas Virgil’s lines are dactylic. Which scotches the whole ‘reproduce that regularity’ business right at the get-go. Lee is ready for this objection:

… first, that in English poetry blank verse (iambic rhythm) is the commonest medium, just the dactylic hexameter is in Latin; secondly, that in practice the English dactylic hexameter offers more syllables than are normally needed to render its Latin equivalent, whereas the blank verse line contains too few.

“These considerations point to the Alexandrine, or twelve syllable iambic line, as the natural representative in English of the Latin hexameter,” he tells us, but he’s not done quite yet: “provided that a feminine ending and certain substitutions be occasionally allowed in order to increase the number of syllables available, and conversely that now and then a trochaic line be admissible.”

In other words, there isn’t really any prosodological reason for this version – or any version – of the Ecologues, but it’s just possible this one will come in handier than most as a kind of student trot – a metrical version in which the reader will “be able to recognize every word of Virgil’s Latin.” The pages that follow have the Latin on one side and the English on the other (the whole thing followed by Lee’s superb, mercifully concise notes), and that’s where the real test comes in: regardless of metrical niceties, has our translator actually given us a version of these famous verses – the fount and school of so much Western verse – that’s actually good to read?

True to Penguin Classic form, he has. By sticking as close as he could to Virgil’s Latin, he actually is able to simulate some of the master poet’s peculiar mix of jangle and melody. In the much-imitated second Ecologue, he catches almost perfectly the way Virgil has poor lovelorn Corydon over-intellectualize his unrequited love for the beautiful Alexis:

‘O cruel Alexis, have you no time for my tunes?

No pity for us? You’ll be the death of me at last.

Mow, even the cattle cast about for cool and shade,baby reading virgil's ecologues

Now even green lizards hide among the hawthorn brakes,

And Thestylis, for reapers faint from the fierce heat,

Is crushing pungent pot-herbs, garlic and wild thyme.

But I, while vineyards ring with the cicadas’ scream,

Retrace your steps, alone, beneath the burning sun.

– and the rest of the versions are equally involving, to the point where even the Latinless reader can see why all of Rome would have been captivated by this new voice in its midst. That captivation took many forms, and later translations of the Ecologues have gone much further in displaying the flexibility and versatility of these poems. But Guy Lee’s Penguin Classic volume does exactly what he wanted it to do: it gives readers a perfect place to start.

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