Our book today is a pretty little volume the J. Paul Getty Museum put out in 1998 – it’s called A Garden of Roman Verse, and it features snippets from dozens of different Roman translations, each set in attractive typeface and accompanied by full-color reproductions of ancient Roman paintings or mosaics recovered from the entombed cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The book’s title guarantees that you’ll be meeting Virgil, Horace, Catullus, Ovid and the rest inside, but nevertheless the title is a bit misleading. This isn’t really a garden of Roman verse so much as it’s a garden of English verse.
It’s no less pretty for all that, as even a casual dabbler into the vast translation-literature of English poetry could attest. First flowering in the Age of Elizabeth and continuing in an unbroken tradition to the 19th century (it limped into the 20th and has died almost utterly in the Twittering 21st), the efforts of English poets and classicists to render the ancient greats in contemporary verse were unrelenting. It was the favorite pastime of procrastinating dons, the most predictable route to publication for aspiring poetasters, and a sublime alternate voice for the greatest masters of the various British eras.
The singular charm of this little volume is that it touches on all of those various exponents. This isn’t just Alexander Pope’s Greatest Hits, although of course he’s in here, hilariously letting his ‘numbers’ get the better of him, as in this rather verbose rendering of a mere two lines from Virgil’s 7th ecologue:
Some god conducts you to these blissful seats,
The mossy fountains and the green retreats!
Where-e’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade,
Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade,
Where-e’er you tread, the blushing flowers shall rise,
And all things flourish where you turn your eyes.
And in an undertaking such as this one, where there’s Pope, there must be Dryden! Here’s here a few times, never more felicitous than in this bit from Virgil’s Georgics:
Wet weather seldom hurts the most unwise,
So plain the signs, such prophets are the skies:
The wary crane foresees it first, and sails
Above the storm, and leaves the lowly vales:
The cow looks up, and from afar can find
The change of heaven, and snuffs it in the wind.
The swallow skims the river’s watery face,
The frogs renew the croaks of their loquacious race.
I love that almost tactile use of ‘snuffs,’ and the subtle echo of ‘croaks’ in the first syllable of ‘loquaious’ accurately but not pedantically reflects the ‘veteram’ and ‘querelam’ of the original. Dryden was never better than when he was quietly trying to match wits with somebody this way – it’s when he has the poetic stage to himself that he sometimes gets into long-winded trouble.
Long-windedness isn’t a problem for the famous adventurer Sir Walter Ralegh, who here gives us a portion of the soles occidere of Catullus very nearly as taut and pointed as the original:
The sun may set and rise:
But we contrariwise
Sleep after our short light
One everlasting night.
But it’s not just the mighty and famous you’ll find in this volume (if you can find this volume at all – I presume it’s available online, like everything else) – the editors have seen fit, charmingly, to include a small sample from “the young gentlemen of Mr. Rule’s Academy at Islington.” This is a bit of the parcius iunctas of Horace, published in 1766:
Horace is also represented by the volume’s only selection from a woman, this portion of the solvitur acris done by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:
Sharp winter now dissolved, the linnets sing,
The grateful breath of pleasing Zephyrs bring
The welcome joys of long desired spring.
The galleys now for open sea prepare,
The herds forsake their stalls for balmy air,
The fields adorned with green approaching sun declare.
In shining nights the charming Venus leads
Her troops of Graces, and her lovely maids
Who gaily trip the ground in myrtle shades
And sadly, there are names here that lack the glitter of either Lady Mary or her arch-nemesis (every writer should have one) Pope, though not from wanting it badly. Foremost here must be our sad old acquaintance Branwell Bronte, the alcoholic failure dreamboat brother of those super-talented Bronte sisters. There’s a snippet of his work on the sunt quos curriculo of Horace – showing, it must be admitted, a bit of strain:
Many there are whose pleasure lies
In striving for the victor’s prize,
Whom dust clouds, drifting o’er the throng
As whirls the Olympic car along,
And kindling wheels, and close shunned goal
Amid the highest gods enroll
And naturally no such anthology would be complete without that most Romanesque of all the Romantics, Lord Byron. His translations form the Romans were, you should pardon the expression, legion – we’ll never known how many he consigned to the fireplace, but what we have is almost universally choice. And really, could there readily be a better latter-day candidate to do justice to the passionate mood-swings of Catullus? We’ll let them both have the last word here:
Equal to Jove, that youth must be,
Greater than Jove, he seems to me,
Who, free from jealousy’s alarms,
Securely, views thy matchless charms;
That cheek, which ever dimpling grows,
That mouth, from which such music flows,
To him, alike, are always known,
Reserved for him, and him alone.
Ah! Lesbia! though ‘tis death to me,
I cannot choose but look on thee.