Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.55
David R. Slavitt (trans.), The Gnat and Other Minor Poems of Virgil. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2011. Pp. xvii, 66. ISBN 9780520267657. $21.95.
Reviewed by Holly M. Sypniewski, Millsaps College (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The poems of the Vergilian Appendix have curried little interest outside of small circles of Latinists. With his slender volume of fresh translations, David R. Slavitt seeks to bring many of these poems out of the shadow of Virgil’s opera maiora. Prior to Slavitt, the last English translation of the Appendix was Goold’s revision (2000) of Fairclough’s Loeb (1931).1 Slavitt’s collection fills a long-standing need for fresh translations of poems of the Appendix that are more accessible to a general audience. Slavitt’s skillful and contemporary style of translating Latin poetry is well known from his many previous volumes including, recently, Lucretius and Ovid.2
Readers seeking literal translations or a faithful reproduction of the entire Appendix, if we can even say such a thing existed, should not abandon Goold’s translations in the Loeb which offers the majority of the poems published in the 1966 OCT.3 Slavitt’s aim is to produce readable, enjoyable translations of the pseudo- Vergiliana which he thinks best and most approachable for contemporary readers: “The Gnat,” “The Barmaid,” “Curses,” “Lydia,” “Priapus Poems,” “Pesto” (Moretum), “The Good Man,” “Yes and No,” and “Budding Roses.” Slavitt presents interpretations of these Latin poems in a variety of verse forms that are designed to delight the reader rather than frustrate by obscure mythological references and literary in-jokes. He claims that “good poems, even good minor poems, are worth keeping alive” and not just for and by classical cognoscenti (p. xiv).
The introduction outlines Slavitt’s rationale for including or omitting poems that have been traditionally included in the Appendix. Provenance or attribution to a different author is of little interest. “Yes and No,” “Budding Roses,” and “The Good Man” are included despite attribution to Ausonius, one of Slavitt’s favorite poets (xiv). “Ciris” does not make the cut in part because Slavitt doesn’t like it, but largely due to its abstruse references that would require a spate of footnotes that would nullify the poet’s literary game. “Aetna” is also omitted as “an exercise in tedium” like what “Lucretius would have written if he’d had less talent” (p. xvi). Finally, Slavitt leaves out the collection “Catalepton” because he felt that the poems, as short as they are, would require lengthy explanations to clarify references and to convey jokes that are inaccessible in English.
The collection opens with “The Gnat.” Slavitt approaches the poem with a liberal eye toward the poem’s proem so that the reader grasps the tone and key tropes. He focuses on the invocation to Octavius (the young Augustus), the neoteric aesthetic for which the poet strives, and the effective praeteritio that puts off greater epic topics for a later work. To do this, Slavitt must necessarily flatten some of the Latin poetic language, but in this case it is for the best: not every image of refinement must be conveyed for the Latin-less reader to grasp the spirit of the introduction. In many cases, Slavitt’s decisions make the proem much clearer than any literal translation of the Latin original. In terms of the narrative progression of the poem, Slavitt nicely shows the reader how the poem moves from scene to scene and in and out of mythological digressions within scenes. The poem unfolds in three main episodes which Slavitt preserves: the shepherd’s morning musings as he pastures his sheep, his midday nap and encounter with a serpent in a numinous grove, the nocturnal visit by the spirit of the gnat who saved him from the serpent. Sign-posting, such as “That’s the scene” (p. 11), helps to ease the reader through what could be abrupt transitions. Other features of Slavitt’s translation include deepened psychological tension, more explicit connections between episodes or between inset myths and the narrative, and fuller explanations of mythological characters that are named only by epithets or patronymics. For example, Colchida matrem(l. 249) simply becomes “Medea.” Slavitt also adds explanatory phrases to clarify obscure figures, such as Pales whom Slavitt identifies as “the shepherds’ goddess.” In effect, Slavitt fortifies the tenuous connections between myth and narrative episodes and usefully does away with the footnotes that often accompany translations by clarifying the poem’s more obscure references. In doing so, he crafts a charming, readable and cohesive poem.
Slavitt follows a similar approach to translating the “Barmaid” (Copa) with the addition of end-rhyme in alternating verses. The setting and diction are made more contemporary without completely sacrificing all of the mythological and ancient literary tropes that pepper this “carpe diem“ poem. For example, the barmaid dances “to the sizzle of a tambourine” and “as the fiddle plays” instead of to castanets (p. 23). The catalogue of food served is simplified in terms of the number of items, while Slavitt freely adds some poetic color. A simple cucumber (pendet iunco caeruleus cucumis) is transported to the table: “On that wall, there are cucumbers to slice / and eat with a touch of salt perhaps on the plate” (p. 24). Some of Slavitt’s other liberties with the Latin add a more moralizing (or perhaps salacious) tone than the original bears. In the Copa, Priapus simply appears at the end of the catalog of foodstuffs as a staple of the garden landscape (est turguri custos, armatus falce saligna, / sed non et vasto est inguine terribilis, ll. 23-24). Slavitt brings Priapus to life as “the god of the house, offers advice / on what life is all about--although that great / member he has might frighten more than entice / women, except for the most degenerate” (p. 24).
Slavitt’s “Curses” offers a slightly compressed but emotionally rich translation of Dirae. Features of Slavitt’s rendition include pruning the imagery in some instances from several examples to one or a very few, using the same refrain throughout the poem (“O Battarus, friend, let this be and more!”) where the original offers variations with slight changes in meaning, and few unadulterated additions that heighten the emotional pathos of the poem. For example, two lines of Latin piscetur nostris in finibus advena arator / advena, civili qui semper crimine crevit (ll. 80-81) become “Let foreigners fish in shallow lakes that stand / in the place of fertile fields that are, like us, in exile / and hating those who have come to arrogate for themselves / what they never loved or deserved, not husbandmen but rapists” (p. 32). Adherents to literal translations may find Slavitt’s choices too extreme in some cases, but “Curses” effectively evokes the venomous tone and imagery of the original.
“Lydia” is the gem of the collection. Slavitt’s translation captures all the features of the original: pathos, pathetic fallacy, idyllic setting, mythological allusion and the tropes of Latin elegy. The translation is also more literal than many of the others in this volume but still fluent and engaging. The “Priapus Poems” allow Slavitt to flex his wit with plenty of double-entendre and phallic puns. He translates the three shorter Priapea that were commonly printed with or following the Catalepton and the longer, impotence poem attributed to Virgil in the Graz manuscript sometimes published separately as “Priapeum: ‘Quid Est Hoc Novi?’.” Slavitt renders all four of the ribald poems in vivid contemporary idiom. In particular, the impotence poem, rife with explicit sexual imagery and crude jokes, shows Slavitt’s talent for updating the Latin text.
The collection closes with Slavitt’s “Pesto,” or Moretum, and the three short Ausonian poems: “The Good Man,” “Yes and No,” and “Budding Roses.” As throughout the collection, Slavitt uses a variety of English verse forms to translate the Latin dactylic hexameters or elegiac couplets of these poems. Some explanation of these poetic choices would be welcome. We do not, however, expect poets to illuminate the relationship between the form and content of their work; the poetic translator deserves the same creative freedom. Students and scholars of Virgil may miss the minora that Slavitt chose to omit from his collection, but if one wants to read clever, well-wrought translations that do much to capture the spirit of much of the Appendix, then Slavitt’s translations hit the mark.
1. H. R. Fairclough, ed., Virgil: Aeneid VII-XII, Appendix Vergiliana, rev. by G. P. Goold. Cambridge, MA 2000. R. Giomini, ed. (Florence 1953) provides Italian translations in his critical edition of the Appendix Vergiliana. English verse translations may be found in J. J. Mooney, The Minor Poems of Vergil, Birmingham 1916.
2. Love Poems, Letters, and Remedies of Ovid, Cambridge, MA 2011; De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things): A Poetic Translation, Berkeley 2008.
3. The Appendix Vergiliana is an editorial creation of minor poems attributed to Virgil, based on lists by Donatus and Servius, an entry in a 9th c. catalogue of manuscripts, and editorial decisions by modern critics. Goold’s introduction to the Loeb edition provides a good overview of the history and problems of the collection and a list of the poems that were usually included: 1. Dirae and Lydia, 2. Culex, 3. Aetna, 4. Copa, 5. Elegiae in Maecenatem, 6. Ciris, 7. Catalepton, 8. Priapea, 9. Moretum, a. De Est et Non, b. De Institutione Viri Boni, c. De Rosis Nascentibus (2000, 370-381). Goold omits translations of the last three poems because of their attribution to Ausonius and inclusion in H. G. Evelyn-White’s Loeb volume, Ausonius, vol. II, Cambridge, MA 1921.