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The Georgics: A Poem of the Land (Penguin Classics)
The Georgics: A Poem of the Land (Penguin Classics)
Virgil
Penguin Classics, 2011
224 pp., $15.00

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Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics)
Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics)
Sappho
Penguin Classics, 2009
160 pp., $15.00

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Martial's Epigrams: A Selection
Martial's Epigrams: A Selection
Garry Wills
Penguin Books, 2009
224 pp., $15.00

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Brett Foster


Something Old, Something New

Three ancient poets in fresh translations.

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But he, consoling love's agony with his hollow-shell lyre,
sang you, sweet wife, you to himself on the lonely shore,
you with the rising day, you with the day's decline.

What you're hearing is Virgil raising not only the lyrical stakes but the narrative stakes as well, as he presses from the existing tale greater emotion from the details.

he stopped, and upon his own Eurydice, already at the very edge of light,
forgetful alas! and his judgment overthrown … he looked back. Instantly
all his labour fell apart, broken the pitiless tyrant's pact,
and thrice thunder sounded over the pools of Avernus.

Virgil's retelling here is the first to mention that terrible detail—that Orpheus' glancing back upon his beloved Eurydice, as the pair ascended from Hades, caused his rescue to fail. The detail, and Virgil's precise eye—notice that Eurydice is "at the very edge of light," almost safe!—make this story of a "wife twice snatched away" even harder to bear.

For all the high poetry, though, Johnson's sure-handed use of colloquial speech is the greater reason for the Georgics' readability here. "Plus, they browse the woods and heights of Lycaeus," or "But sure, when at the Zephyr's summons," and so on. The speaker's a chatty imparter, eager to share his many kinds of instruction. It's no surprise that Johnson's Virgilian voice can span that range, for such versatility and virtuosity mark her own poetry as well. Consider how mystic vision collides with roadhouse show in her poem "Sweet incendiary":

give me a shotgun angel
to shuck me in the back

of his chariot and break
for the state line, shack up, rip
the veil, and show me the shining

undeniable face of God.

Sometimes this mixed diction exists in single lines, as in these describing autumn sunsets from "Crepusular," which recently appeared in The New Yorker: "It falls against the sidewalk like a slab / of meat, like a mugging the passersby pass by. / The church bells bang hollow vespers."

As will be clear by now, the Georgics is one strange barnyard animal. Johnson's introduction helpfully summarizes both Virgil's life and the status and sources of this particular poem. The title derives from the Greek words ge (for earth) and ergon (labor). The poem ostensibly catalogues "earth work," and its successive sections give advice on grain crops, wine and olive cultivation, and herds, flocks, and bees. Is this mainly an Ag-School poem then? Hardly. As Mark Thorne said on the night of our Virgil discussion, "The one thing that we know for sure is that this is not a poem about agricultural methods." Johnson agreed, adding that this poem about tending the ground in fact foregrounds the work of interpretation: "the Georgics' most persistent instruction," as she observes in her introduction, involves the "task of interpretation." Considering that Virgil composed the poem during a time of multiple Roman civil wars and eventual consolidation by Augustus, many have treated the Georgics as a screen for dramatizing political controversies, particularly the commandeering of lands to reward soldiers.

Although this edition is reader-friendly, and thereby typical of the Penguin Classics series, it is a rare title in this series in featuring the original text on facing pages, and the back pages include numerous translator's notes and a detailed glossary. Johnson insisted on the facing-page presentation because she set the high challenge for herself of translating Virgil's poem line-by-line (Latin poetry's powers of compression usually require larger numbers of English lines), and even attempts in her English "to replicate the syntactic experience of reading Virgil's Latin." The Latinists who recently assembled for that Virgil discussion (no easy audience) were impressed with this new Georgics volume, finding the language vigorous while still scrupulously following the original. At one point they considered the opening lines of various renderings: "What makes happy crops" is a trotting translation of Virgil's "Quid faciat laetas segetes," and for a fairly straightforward passage, there are many options. "What makes a plenteous Harvest," is John Dryden's 17th-century version, and he brings out the senses of flourishing and amplitude that laetas can possess. A more recent version has "What tickles the corn to laugh out loud," which gets at a different sense of laetas, but perhaps more cartoonishly than Virgil would ever have intended. Johnson's version is sharp: "What cheers the grain, beneath what star to turn / the soil, Maecenas, when to wed vines / to the elms, [… /—] here I begin my song." It belies her own memorable description of the poem as "a chunky text that nevertheless dazzles you."

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