Now a boar’s pissing in your stream?
What life were you trying to escape?
We’ve almost all heard of Virgil (70BC – 19BC), the Roman poet most famous for having been born in a ditch, written The Aeneid and having shown an Italian poet around Hell and Purgatory (in precisely that order), but I suspect that few of us have a first-hand — or second-hand, admitting the deficiency of our Latin — acquaintance with his work. Nate Klug’s translation of choice excerpts from The Eclogues, also known as The Bucolics, is most welcome then. Available from the Song Cave, it’s titled Rude Woods: Passages from Virgil’s Eclogues.
Far from the city, by the tinkling brook, under the rustling leaves, on the damp, cool earth, in the halcyon sunlight, away from the bustling marketplace, the shouting vendors and streaming crowds, you lie on the hillside, singing tunes, drowsing and chatting with your friends, shepherds you are perhaps, maybe drinking wine. That’s what the phrase pastoral means to me, and probably most of us — although it would be remiss not to mention here William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), where he posits that its constitutive feature is something else altogether.
But what this collection illuminates, and what I did not know before, is the extent to which the pastoral genre is staked less on the unitary, rustic ideal of country life, but rather on a dynamic tension between worldly cares and earthy joy, “a constant dialectic of fear and grief with joy and hope,” to quote W.R. Johnson. As Johnson underlines in the foreword to this volume, these poems were written during the last of Rome’s civil wars. (A link, perhaps to our bellicose, American contemporaneity — perpetual war, the chagrin ever upon our meddling nation like a laurel of leaves.) Accordingly are Virgil’s shepherds “torn between sorrow and hope. Some of them have lost their land and flocks, and those who have not have no reason to feel secure.”
It’s this subdued but dark undercurrent running through Rude Woods that surprised me when I read it, and that I now find most fecund and profound.
This pastoral life can’t cure my madness
or teach the god of Love softer manners.
Another joy is the directness and confidence of Klug’s translation. Shepherds speaking as intimates don’t demur, or hold back; they speak in colorful language, jibing one another. The language sounds natural, and modern.
If you’ve got any valentines for Phyllis,
or praise for Alcon, or shit to say to Codrus,
go right ahead and sing it, Mopsus;
Tityrus can watch your grazing kids.
Only in translations of Catullus’s poems, Virgil’s contemporary, do I remember hearing such a tone. There are other pleasures here, the bliss of grapes and sex and song, but it’s the unexpected ones which I savor the most.
Much thanks is due to the Song Cave for providing me with a copy of this book. And I would be remiss were I not to mention, in closing, that Klug’s own book of poetry, Anyone, was published last month by University of Chicago Press. It looks well worth a read, and perhaps informed by his work on ancient pastoral traditions.