These delightful poems—by turns whimsical, beautiful, and vulgar—seem to have primarily survived because they were attributed to Virgil. But in David R. Slavitt’s imaginative and appealing translations, they stand firmly on their own merits. Slavitt brings to this little-known body of verse a fresh voice, vividly capturing the tone and style of the originals while conveying a lively sense of fun.
The Gnat and Other Minor Poems of Virgil
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My dear Octavius ... But do I forget myself?
No, on the contrary, I remember, as you do, too,
those old days when we fooled around, just starting out,
each on his own path, but good friends then and now.
Back then, as baby spiders sometimes do, I made
the frail and tiny webs that you would not think could hold
any kind of prey. But how else can they begin?
Let me return to that playful making of miniatures
that can be, I think, endearing, and are able to sustain
more than one might suppose. A plot! The speeches of heroes,
allusions to gods and all the Muses' elaborate stagecraft.
The bass notes will come later, but for the moment let us
turn our attention to this, the narrative of a gnat.
Will critics carp? I defy them! Their views are of even less
weight than the gnat would claim. All they want is uplift
and sound ideas. The poet has other, more important
business he must transact-as you so well understand.
This may be a jeu d'esprit but it can claim your attention
because its inspiration comes from Phoebus Apollo,
the golden child of Zeus and Latona and source of my song.
Let him inspire me with riffs on his harp that sound
like Xanthus' babble coming down Mt. Chimaera's slopes
to pass the town of Arna. Or better yet, imagine
the Castalia's steady murmur high on Parnassus' ridge
between the two rocky cliffs that appear to be great horns.
There the Naiads dance, thronging about the god,
while Pales, the shepherds' goddess, blesses her devotees
with increase in their flocks and keeps the woodlands green.
Tend those who tend the beasts, that I may roam the glades
taking whatever I can of their cool green inspiration.
And you, my dear Octavius, you also deign to bless
my efforts and to inspire, by your manifest merit,
the confidence I need for any such undertaking.
My lines will not sound the clangor of battle and bloody fighting,
and I shall not speak of war. The gigantomachy at Phlegra
that crimsoned the brown duff with the blood of the dying giants
is not what I have in mind. The Lapiths' brawl with the Centaurs
demands a recklessness that both you and I might question.
The Persian assault upon Athens with Xerxes' digging a channel
through Athos' foothills, and then later their ruinous flight
would make for the kind of splendid piece one dreams of writing,
but not until the wisdom-whatever there is-of age
supports the prosodist's craft with its bittersweet understanding.
Let's put that off a little, when the thirst for fame may prompt
ambitious undertakings for you of course, but for me,
too, in my own way. These are the tender shoots
of the flowers of early spring when Phoebus comes to wake
the long- slumbering earth with the warmth of his attention.
Let us wander barefoot as the young know how to do
on the almost velvety greensward. The holy youth I knew
was not yet burned by fame that waits upon you now
but I suspect you knew that it would one day arrive
as you know now that your place in heaven's abode is secure
from which your glistening presence will pour its blessings down
to inspire men and let them know of the joys of the good.
The sun has just risen up from its underground lair to shine
in the eastern sky and scatter its gift of golden rays,
and Aurora yet again has set the Darkness to flight
when a herdsman comes on the scene, driving his goats before him
and climbing the mountainside on his way to the happy pastures
where the grass still wet with the dew covers the gentle slopes.
The animals wander here and there, as if they have
a program they follow, but, no, it's just a series of promptings
of this attractive thicket, that delightful knoll,
and they crop the grass and nibble, composing as they do so
a picture of contentment for which we, in the city,
sometimes feel a yearning. Look at the rocky hollows,
the vines, the trailing arbutus, the delicate weeping willow
where the animals amble or sometimes, for no apparent reason,
caper and run, or then, as arbitrarily, rest.
Why should it be so pleasing to watch as a nanny goat stretches
her neck to take the delicate new leaves of the alder
that overhangs the stream, with no idea whatever
of the landscape she's in that sets her utter concentration
into a context of ease, tranquility, and peace?
Which of us has never thought of becoming a herdsman
and accepting the invitation of that pastoral scene? We dream
of power and wealth, of achievement, and are taught to feel disdain
for the poor man's bare-bones existence. But who in the city can claim
the happiness goatherds must feel at moments and settings like this?
The luxuries around us weigh us down with cares
as they whet our appetites for ever greater indulgence
so that our hearts are never at rest but always questing
to satisfy those whims that swirl around in our heads.
How fine to have our fleeces vividly double-dyed
in bright Assyrian colors, but can this satisfy?
Not all of Attalus' booty or gold-leaf glints from the ceiling
can sate the greedy soul, relentless in its craving.
Handsome paintings, gaudy jewels, the golden goblets
of an Alcon or a Boethus cannot quench such thirst
that burns as if from a fever. But there in that pleasant meadow
with a heart that is free from guile, the herdsman lies down happy,
stretched on emerald grass highlighted with dewdrops
where spring puts pastel accents of blossoms wherever he looks.
He stretches out his hand to pluck a reed from the river
and with it makes simple music, sweeter than our soirées
can ever provide in a salon abuzz with envy and hate.
This is the kind of playing Tmolus judged and enjoyed,
and sometimes the goats pause, look up from their grass and stare,
pleased at the sound they take to be that of some nearby bird.
With leaves and vines, goat milk, spring water, fruits and flowers
and all the gifts of Pales nourishing flesh and spirit,
where in his full heart can greed find a place to invade?