BMCR 1991.02.15

Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil

, , Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil. Virgil. Georgica. (Slavitt). London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. xxiv, 144 pages. ISBN 9780801841118.

The book under consideration is a reprinting of the 1971/72 edition, originally published by Doubleday, with a new preface. This adaptation of Vergil’s Eclogues and Georgics, in which the author describes himself as playing “fast and loose with Vergil,” is interesting as a reminder of ideas, modes of expression, and issues familiar from the late 60’s/early 70’s. Reading the “Preface to the 1990 Edition,” however, one feels that the views on Vergil’s poetry expressed therein might well have been formulated at that time as well.

First the preface (ix – xxiv). I find much of Slavitt’s brief introduction questionable. In addition to making all sorts of sweeping and dubious statements (e.g., “The Georgics is probably the most literary work of all classical poetry” [xix]) and even dismissing the Aeneid as an “austere, almost bitter text” that has been “force-fed to young scholars who have studied it in order to pass examinations” (xi), Slavitt’s prefatory remarks evince no awareness—or at least no understanding—of the Hellenistic tradition in which Vergil wrote. Few will agree with Slavitt’s assessment of Theocritus’Idylls, in comparison with Vergil’s Eclogues, as “paler Greek poems that more or less mean what they say” (xii), and his claim that their landscape is “a venue for innocent expression of simple emotions and, by implication, an emblem for innocence itself” (xiii). The allusions to literary theory of Theocritus’ time and the use of rarified Homeric vocabulary by the Greek shepherds and goatherds militate against such a reading of Theocritus’ pastoral verse. Other comments on the Eclogues reveal a general unfamiliarity with Hellenistic poetry (e.g., the “collapsing conceit” he discovers in the eclogue book (xiii-xiv) is a technique that is easily paralleled among the Alexandrians). The same criticism can be leveled against his remarks on the Georgics. In dealing with the intertextuality of the poem (xix) he avers that for other poets allusion was a “trivial practice of salon poetry,” and that Vergil was the first to provide an “integral function to the literary references” (xx). Such use of imitative language and adaptation long antedates Vergil not only in Greece, but also in Italy, even beginning with Ennius. I could mention other related problems.

On the positive side, Slavitt is correct, I believe, in pointing out that the theme of the failure of art is central to Vergil’s pastoral book, and in underscoring the importance of the theme of labor in the agricultural poem, about which he states “Work is what we are, and it is by our work that we assert ourselves and defend ourselves, if only temporarily, against the chaos and emptiness of the universe.”

Now the translation. First, Slavitt does not translate either the Eclogues or the Georgics in our usual understanding of the word. You will not find Vergil’s Latin words and phrases faithfully accounted for in this rendition. Instead of Vergil, we encounter Slavitt and his own poetic response to the Eclogues and Georgics, very much colored, I would add, by the times in which these adaptations were conceived and composed. For example, in Eclogue 1, which he calls “Tityrus,” Slavitt has envisaged Tityrus as a young poet “dressed up as a farmer,” who, like Vergil (mentioned directly here and often elsewhere in the “translation”) “went to Rome … hung around, / stood in the elegant waiting rooms, went to parties …”. In this way Tityrus (and by extension Vergil) “got to see the man who shafted him.” Slavitt then sighs, “What else do you think happens to farmers, to poets / to country boys who haul their tender asses / into a City to save the lives they know? / So back he comes to the farm, reamed like an apple, / figuratively, literally—who cares / when either way it hurts?” At issue in Slavitt’s very personal view of the poem is the degradation that one experiences in an appeal such as Tityrus’. Meliboeus is seen as understanding this, and “Being a country boy, / he cannot profit from that city shame / he did not endure himself. / Or he will not, / because there is something different about Tityrus. / You don’t come back the same way you went to Rome.” Slavitt has thus focused on only one feature of this poem, one aspect of what Tityrus’ venture to Rome entailed, and from there creates a completely different poem by studying, as he says in the poem, “what Vergil leaves out of the story / because we know it, because we have been there too…”.

Before turning to the Georgics, I would call attention to just a few of the more striking diversions from the original. Eclogue 2 (“Alexis”) begins: “The beautiful shepherd, Corydon ardebat—/ ardently loved. ‘Ardeo here acquires a transitive signification and takes the accusative.’ / But does it? There is nothing transitive here.” In Eclogue 4 (“Pollio”), Slavitt mentions some of the babies who turned out not to be the one whose birth is mentioned in the poem, including Julia, “who grew up to be / the notorious whore Tiberius had to banish.” It is not surprising that Slavitt has chosen to eliminate the first 12 lines of Eclogue 6 (“Silenus”) given his apparent lack of appreciation of the influence which Hellenistic literature had on Roman poets including Vergil, while of equal note are the concluding lines of his own version, so reminiscent of the late 60’s: “Make poems, make love, / make anything important with wine flowing, / the world’s lifeblood, its anodyne, its ink.” Slavitt’s eclogue book ends with the following lines: “Thus would Gallus say, / and I should have to agree, ‘Let’s go then, friend. / This shade is bad for poetry. Our throats / are dry. Let’s go home.’ In such a way, / I’d bring the pastoral to its natural end. / We could go together, herding the fucking goats.”

In his version of the Georgics we find the same free hand at work, much that is Slavitt, and little of Vergil. The poem begins: “Okay, Maecenas, whatever you say; farming / it is: hints for happier cornfields, “The Compleat / Plowman’s Calendar”; “Your Vines and Mine”; / something on flocks—”Herding Together,” or “How / Now, a Cow”; and “Bees in Your Bonnet” or maybe / “Going Apiary.” This does not quite capture the august overture of the original. Similarly, the famous lines on labor ( G 1.145-146 ) have a decidedly different feel: “But the hell with it. / It isn’t true. It sounds fine, but lies / often do. What shall I tell them, Maecenas? / That honest labor conquers everything? Labor vincit omnia [ sic ]? It won’t / wash, you know. Our hands may be womansoft, / but our heads don’t have to be.” The poem’s conclusion likewise is barely recognizable: “A difficult doctrine, Maecenas, but what can I tell you? / That is how it is! Poetry won’t save Rome, / and piety, your best bet, is a long shot. I’m not happy either. / Scribbling verses / here in my semitropical paradise / south of Naples … / It’s been pleasant enough, / but we get the papers. All this time, the war / has been dragging on. / I thought for a while, the work / was, in itself, a piety. Who knows? / Mostly, it’s luck, to be able to do … / Tityrus, / that young poet I was … / Where is he now?” Given the original date of publication, mention of newspapers and a continuing war in these lines calls to mind the Vietnam War.

Upon receiving this book for review, my immediate response was to dismiss it in a few words. First of all, the bizarre cover (quasi-florescent tangelo margins framing a chartreuse, off-centered panel in which there is a flower, a bee, and a cow’s head with a large cowbell) makes a frightening impression. Secondly, Slavitt’s colloquial and often precious rendering of the Eclogues and Georgics often does not reflect the basic gist, let alone the highly formal nature or serious tone of Vergil’s poetry. I can see many admirers of Vergil becoming furious with what Slavitt has done to their poet. Yet there is something to be said for this unusual book. In quoting Slavitt’s verse, I do not intend to hold up his poetic vision of Vergil’s poems to ridicule, as one might suspect, but rather to bring out the idiosyncratic and dated quality of his adaptation of Vergil’s originals. There are ancient and modern precedents for such free translations. The Latin versions of Aratus’Phaemonena that survive—a fair amount of Cicero’s Aratea, and the Arati Phaemonena of Germanicus and Avienus—each reflect the literary interests and styles of their ages and the poetic visions of the individual artists; the latter two are indeed so different in tone and content from the original that they could well be considered poems in their own right. The free translations of Ezra Pound and Dudley Fitts, to the latter of whom this book is dedicated, are familiar to many. And so despite my overall negative impression of Slavitt’s ideas about, and handling of, Vergil’s poetry, there is, I would argue, a place for such a book. Whether or not this one needed to be reprinted, and by a university press, I leave the reader to decide. One may not like Slavitt’s rendering of the Eclogues and Georgics—I find it weird, but interesting as a reminder of a past era—insofar as it is a vehicle for expressing his own peculiar slant on poetry when he was 20 years younger. Nonetheless, it is crucial that from time to time we reevaluate literary works not only from a scholarly, but also from a poetic perspective. Since we always discover or rediscover a reflection of our own aspirations, successes, or failures in the great works of literature of all ages, cultures, and languages, it is important that in doing so we find our own voice and our own medium to express what we find there.