BMCR 1994.06.12

Lucan, Pharsalia

, Lucan, Pharsalia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. xxix, 333 pages. ISBN 9781501731938. $17.95..

It never rains but it pours; and sometimes, like Danaë, we may enjoy a shower of gold. Until six years ago readers without the Latin or the stamina to read Lucan’s poem in the original had to rely on the prose versions of Duff (LCL 1928: plain but accurate) or Graves (Penguin 1956: elegant, inaccurate and unsympathetic to the poet). The climate has changed and in quick succession three verse translations have been published by practicing classicists, all with introductions, notes and glossaries: the vigorous six-beat narrative hexameters of P.F. Widdows, disadvantaged by a publisher not normally associated with the Classics and a prohibitive price (Lucan’s Civil War Indiana U.P., recently on sale at $15), followed by Susan H. Braund’s Oxford introduction, translation and notes (Lucan: Civil War Clarendon Press 1992, issued in paper-back 1993) and now Jane Wilson Joyce’s long awaited version with an introduction and notes of comparable merit. Given the high quality of all three versions it seems only fair to include in any review of Jane Joyce’s new version some consideration of the still available alternatives.

How does one judge a translation? When it is of a text likely to be taught in courses on epic, imaginative appeal is probably the primary concern, and this will largely but not entirely depend on the poetic quality of the English text. Here of course there will be reader preferences, and the twenty year old American student brought up on Whitman, Frost, Stevens and living US poets will have a different expectation from the retired English clergyman or scholar with a taste for Dryden, Pope or Tennyson. (I think here of H.D. Melville’s splendid versions of Ovid and Statius, which few of my students can enjoy). There is also the problem of glossing a learned text—incorporated in the version, or sequestered in a glossary? and the debatable choice whether to reflect the poet’s own idiosyncrasies—do we, for example follow Duff, expelling all or some apostrophes? If Lucan’s rhetoric is heightened and his pace rather unvaried, like a Brahms or Schumann symphony, should this be matched in the English text? All in all there are many issues of balance between adaptation and fidelity, but given the high standard of accuracy of all three translators, the reader is genuinely free to choose on an aesthetic basis.

But first let me note the academic merits of each text in terms of supplying background information. Both Joyce and Braund provide substantial introductions: if Joyce’s general introduction is brief, (Poet ix-xvii; Poem xvii-xxii; Translation, xxiii-xxv), she supplements it in the most helpful way with a detailed chronology, analytical introductions to each book, footnotes, bibliography and a glossary substantial enough to enable any reader to understand any historical religious and geographical references. Only maps are lacking. In her introduction, as in much recent scholarship, there is perhaps too much Ahlian emphasis on subversion and humor: (“anti-establishment politics …. political satire,” pp.xxi-xxii, oversimplifies Lucan’s strange combination of radicalism and revisionism, and implies a lightheartedness I do not find in Lucan’s grim sarcasm), but there need be no fear that the high poetic quality is offset by any lack of historical perspective.

Braund’s introduction (Lucan: his life and times xiii-xviii; The Poem: Content xviii-xxxix; and The Poem: Characteristics and Style: xl-l) is comprehensive and admirable: the bibliography and maps are enhanced by a hundred pages of endnotes, but a shorter glossary than Joyce’s, and one that assumes more familiarity with Roman Realien: thus both scholars offer ten lines on Sulla, but where Joyce has entries for Saturn, the Silvani and the Sibyl, and includes both Scipio Africanus and Metellus Scipio, Braund omits Africanus and the figures of Roman religion: in general Braund (with Classical Civilization students in mind?) both assumes and provides a more specialist knowledge of things Roman.

Widdows’ introduction is relatively brief (13 pp) and more concerned with stylistics and versification, Latin and English, than the historical background of the civil war, though he does justice to Lucan’s own world: he too offers a basic bibliography and essential maps of the shifting theaters of war.

I come now to the English verse-texts, not forgetting their impact on the page. All three translators rightly avoid English blank verse for a more running and flexible six beat line. But it stands to reason that modern readers—who will indeed read, not hear Lucan’s narrative—need some visual help in absorbing 250 pages or more of stichic verse. Braund is the least encouraging, using only spacing to offset thematic units on the page: Widdows offers both spacing and headings, while Joyce has made full use of typography and layout to diversify her text: Thus book one opens in normal font: Italics are used for some short passages of speech (with stress expressed by resort to Upper Case as in 4.195 ‘they know KIN!’). Italics also mark Lucan’s intervention to address his readers at 1.8-32 and elsewhere: as another device, the ambiguous dedication to Nero, the Gallic catalogue and subsequent excursuses are set out with split lines.

The three translators offer quite distinct texture of language. In general Braund’s verse feels more prosaic, less rhythmically compelling than either Widdows or Joyce. To my taste Widdows’ versification and idiom are varied, virile and satisfying, true to Lucan’s own eclectic register of vocabulary, and at ease with military narrative, but others may find his hexameter rhythms too marked. Joyce, on the other hand, is more imaginative—she is a poet in her own right—and delights in a vast range of vocabulary from everyday words like gripe and skitter, to images like “caves sweating a scanty dew” (this in a particularly powerful rendering of the suffering by thirst of Afranius’ Spanish force [4.291-318]).

The translator of Lucan must vary style to render vivid natural description, passionate speech, technical passages like Caesar’s moles at Brundisium, diverse gruesome types of death and occasional soaring philosophical flights. Here are samples of each mode in turn to convey the difference of language and versification.

Natural description : 2.715f—a passage full of assonance imagery and color in Lucan. Read these first without ascription.

(a) Now the eastern sky was changing color, a prelude
To the approaching dawn; the light began to be rosy,
Not yet white, and the stars low down were losing their fire.
Then the Pleiads dimmed, and the wain of the turning Bootes
Faded and coalesced with the pure complexion of daytime
No sign now of the larger stars, and Lucifer lastly
Fled from the heat of the sun….

(b) Now the changing colour
of the eastern ether warned that Phoebus was imminent, and
the light is white and not yet red, and steals their flames from the nearer stars,
and now the Pleiads grow dim, now revolving Bootes’ wagon
grows faint and merges into clear heaven’s face
and the greater stars disappear and Lucifer himself recoils
from hot day.

(c) Soon the altered color of eastern air
warns that Phoebus is on his way and, not yet white
the light reddens and steals their flames from nearby stars;
now the Pleiades dim: now wheeling Bootes’ Wain
fading, merges once more in the sweep of clear sky
The larger stars vanish, and the very Dawn-star flees
before the blaze of day.

Here we see both the economy and the vividness of (c) Joyce superior to either (a) Widdows or (b) Braund, despite nice touches like “the pure complexion of daytime.” And Braund has missed the point of albaque nondum / lux rubet in which the red is actual, colored by the flames stolen from the stars, and precedes the approaching white of day.

Passionate speech? Try Volteius exhorting to suicide (4.476-483):

Free for only the length of this little night! Lads,
take thought in these few brief hours for ultimate concerns.
No man’s life is too short if it affords him time
to contrive his own death. Nor does it diminish the glory
of suicide, lads, to select it when fate is upon you.
Since the tally of days yet to come is a mystery to all,
there is equal merit both in forfeiting years that you thought
would be yours and in snapping off the last second of life,
provided you die by your own hand.

Iuventus and iuvenes are obvious problems in modern English, “ultimate concerns” too formal, and the last sentence a challenge that Joyce despite the vigor of “snapping” has not overcome.

Widdows perhaps begins better:

Men, you are free for a space, the little space of a nighttime
use it to find the way to comport yourselves at your ending
Call no life too short that allows the time to deliver
death to yourselves…

and Braund too has a strong monosyllabic opening:

Soldiers, free for no longer than one short night
in this narrow time give thought to your final state…

Technical passages. Joyce seems to me to outclass her competitors in the rhythmic momentum and forcefulness of passages such as this from Caesar’s siege of Massilia (3.490-95):

And now the ram–whose heavy swinging rhythm
of blows augments its force–tried to jar the bulwark’s fabric
loose, to dislodge from the masonry one stone block.
But from above flames and chunks of the mighty parapet
a flurry of stakes, and blows from firehardened oak poles
pounded the mantlets…

Next, a sample Gruesome death, by Prester (9.789-96). Joyce offers:

But see! there looms a demise the reverse of seeping death
Numidius, plowman from a Marsian farm, is struck
by a hot lightning-snake. Fiery redness flares in his face;
swelling stretches his skin, blurring everything: features
vanish. Everywhere over his limbs—and they already
larger than his whole body, exceeding human scale—
corruption puffs, as the potent venom spreads.
The man disappears, sunk deep in his own bloated flesh.
His breastplate fails to contain the bulge of his distended chest

(Numidius is an odd lapse for Nasidius). Like the others she begins awkwardly, all three versions both Braund and Widdows rise to the last instalment of horror:

and swelling strains the skin, confounding all his features
their shape destroyed: now larger than his entire body
and exceeding human size, the pus is exuded over all
his limbs as the poison exerts its power far and wide;
the man himself is out of sight buried deep in bloated body,
and his breastplate cannot hold the swelling of his bursting chest…

Then the poison took hold completely and mastered the whole frame
Making it billow out beyond the bounds of a human
Shape. The man himself was buried somewhere inside this
Bloated mass, which spread beyond the control of the breastplate

Finally, for eschatology let me turn to Joyce’s account of Delphi (5. 86-96) and the problematic apotheosis of Pompey in 9.1-8 to illustrate both her philosophical and her lyrical mode:

Which of the Gods Above lies hidden here? What deity
forced from etherial realms, deigns to dwell in viewless caverns?
A God of heaven earthbound? Which of Them endures this,
keeping all secrets of every-flowing Time, telling
the world its future, ready to show Himself to our race,
to suffer the touch of man? A God mighty and strong,
one who sings our fate? or, if by His song He bids it,
one who creates it?
Perhaps, planted here to rule the world.
holding the globe aloft and poised in the void of space,
a large part of the Whole, of Jove, escapes through Cirrha’s
caves and is there inhaled, though knit to the heavenly thunderer

Despite the rhetorical/heretical use of Upper Case for the pagan deity this is powerful stuff. “To suffer the touch of man: a god mighty and strong” is exactly contactumque ferens hominis, agnusque potensque, “planted here to rule the world” terris inserta regendis: here Joyce is plainer and more compact—and more effective—than either previous translation.

Pompey’s soul is a different challenge, to manage the sublime and skirt potential absurdity—and Joyce does not fall short:

But his soul did not lie dead
in Egyptian embers.
Nor did meager ash
fetter his mighty shade:
he soared from the bone-fire,  (sic—a nice touch)
leaving behind half-charred limbs and
demeaning pyre both:
he seeks the dome of the Thunderer
Where black sky
is pinned to star-laden poles, in the space
that spreads
between Earth and the looping moon, there
halfway to godhood dwell souls
uncorrupted by life, fitted
by fiery Virtue to bear
ether’s lowest limits:
later, drawn up as Spirit
they join eternal spheres.
Never do those coffined in gold
or interred with incense
enter there!

Before the publication of Joyce, I had been happy with Widdows’ rendering, and impressed by Braund’s fine scholarship. These judgements still stand, but in her combination of artistry (and I believe accuracy) and sheer outreach to readers beyond our field Joyce’s version is to be preferred. Which does not in any way diminish the value of exposing students with or without Latin to all three versions in order to teach them more about Lucan, about poetry and the two languages, old and new.