translating virgilVirgil's Georgics

Virgil's hexameters are a particular difficulty, and no English form quite captures their sonorous beauty. The problems are apparent in contemporary translations of the Georgics, here just the opening section of Book One.

Free Verse

Free verse is a beautiful but exacting medium, and the examples which follow are not entirely the real article — indeed read better when the faculties by which we enjoy verse are switched off. Nonetheless, that which calls itself free verse today commonly ranges from variations on a metrical base to a 'chopped up prose' where metrical phrasing is downplayed or absent. In Georgics translations, the range is from:

P. Fallon and E. Fantham 2009

What tickles the cornfield to laugh out loud, and by what star

to steer the plough, and how to train the vine to elms,

good management of flocks and herds, the expertise bees need

to thrive — my lord Maecenas, such are the makings of the song

I take upon myself to sing.

                                        Sirs of sky,

grand marshals of the firmament,

O Liber of fertility, and Ceres, our sustaining queen,

by your kind-heartedness earth traded acorns of Epirus

for ample ears of corn, and laced spring water with new wine,

and you, O Fauns, presiding lights of farming folk

(come dance, O Fauns and maiden Dryads,

your gifts I celebrate as well); {1}

Leaving aside the sheer silliness of the rendering (Virgil does not suppose horticulture tickles cornfields, or ploughs are steered by stars, etc.) the verse has a pleasing momentum and integrity, the departures from strict meter neatly emphasizing the poem's argument.


C. Day Lewis 1940/83

What makes the cornfields happy, under what constellation

It's best to turn the soil, my friend, and train the vine

On the elm; the care of cattle, the management of flocks,

The knowledge you need for keeping frugal bees:—all this

I'll now begin to relate....

You too, whatever place in the courts of the Immortals

Is soon to hold you — whether an overseer of cities

And warden of earth you'll be, Caesar, so that the great world

Honour you as promoter of harvest and puissant lord

Of the seasons, garlanding your brow with your mother's myrtle {2}

'Slangy' was the term sometimes applied to this rendering, which was popular in its time. There are problems with the diction — happy is flat, my friend too colloquial, and I'll now begin to relate is prose — but the chief shortcoming is limited integration of phrase into the main body of the work. The garlanding your brow with your mother's myrtle is rough-hewn blank verse — not at all bad, but standing apart from the metrical flow.


J. Lembke 2005

What makes the crops rejoice, Maecenas, under what stars

to plough and marry vines to their arbor of elms,

what care the cattle need, what tending the flocks must have,

how much practical knowledge to keep frugal bees —

here I start my song. You, brightest luminaries of sky's

vast world who lead the onrolling year through the heavens,

you old Plater God, and you, generous Ceres, if earth

by your gift exchanged wild acorns for plump grains of wheat

and mingled ancient river waters with her first-ever grapes;

and you, guardian Gods of Fields and Folds, always present

in the countryside (step lightly, dance, Gods and Tree Nymphs!):

I sing your gifts. {3}

A modern translation, with the argument made plain and proper names rendered in their literal meaning. The verse is loose, however, failing to place the words in any aesthetic order, and the attempt at a sensible rendering that communicates with a modern audience sometimes (in later sections) forgets the decorum of Latin verse.


L.P. Wilkinson 1982

What makes the corncrops glad, under which star

To turn the soil, Maecenus, and wed your vines

To elms, the care of cattle, the keeping of flocks,

All the experience the thrifty bees demand —

Such are the themes of my song.

                                        You brightest lamps

That lead the year's progression across the sky;

Liber and nurturing Ceres, since your grace

procured the earth should change Chaonia's acorns

For the rich ears of wheat and grapes be found

For lacing cups of Archeloüs' water;

You, too, the present help of farmers, Fauns

(Come Fuans and Dryad maiden, dance together:

yours are the gifts I sing); and you for whom

The earth, smitten with your great trident, first

brought forth the champing horse, Neptune; and you,

Hunter of woods, for whom in Cea's brakes

Three hundred snow-white bullocks crop rich pasture; {4}

L.P. Wilkinson was a noted Virgil scholar, and his several books {5-6} display a keen ear for the beauties of Latin verse. In this translation the 'loose, predominantly five-beat, metre which often streamlines itself into blank verse but which admits of variations such as the "sprung" rhythm of Hopkins' is rarely successful, however, verging for long stretches on the prosaic.


A.S. Kline 2001

I'll begin to sing of what keeps the wheat fields happy,

under what stars to plough the earth, and fasten vines to elms,

what care the oxen need, what tending cattle require,

Maecenas, and how much skill's required for the thrifty bees.

O you brightest lights of the universe

that lead the passing year through the skies,

Bacchus and kindly Ceres, since by your gifts

fat wheat ears replaced Chaonian acorns

and mixed Achelous's water with newly-discovered wine,

and you, Fauns, the farmer's local gods,

(come dance, together, Fauns and Dryad girls!)

your gifts I sing. {7}

Tony Kline's version makes few concessions to the ear, indeed the opposite, but the rendering is intelligent, informed and faithful, sometimes closer to the original than better-known translations.

Such renderings no doubt serve their intended audience well enough, those non-classics students who need the prose sense and want to get through their reading lists as speedily as possible. But they have precious little poetry, and none of Virgil's 'physical beauty and majestic sonority of the verse [which] is everything, or nearly everything'. {9} But before leaving free verse, I suggest we take a leaf out of Ezra Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius and draft rhythmically-contained phrases of varying length, generally iambic, but with wide differences in pace and phrasing:

What makes the cornfield joyful,

and beneath what star we turn the earth,


How may vines be fastened to the elm?

What husbandry to manage cattle,

breed the ox?

What knowledge have the thrifty bees?

With such I start my song.

And you,

O radiant lights

that lead the seasons in their fruitful dance,

and you,

both Liber and propitious Ceres,

who have turned Chaonian acorn lands to thick-sown fields of wheat

and mixed in drafts of Archeloüs new-made wine;

and Fauns,

you rustic deities who serve for local powers -

so dance you Dryad girls and gods-

your gifts I celebrate.

To these we shall return after looking at more formal verse measures.

Blank Verse

Blank verse was the preferred choice in translations from the classics until 'free verse' became the norm.

J. B. Greenough 1900

What makes the cornfield smile; beneath what star

Maecenas, it is meet to turn the sod

Or marry elm with vine; how tend the steer;

What pains for cattle-keeping, or what proof

Of patient trial serves for thrifty bees;—

Such are my themes. O universal lights

Most glorious! ye that lead the gliding year

Along the sky, Liber and Ceres mild,

If by your bounty holpen earth once changed

Chaonian acorn for the plump wheat-ear,

And mingled with the grape, your new-found gift,

The draughts of Achelous; and ye Fauns

To rustics ever kind, come foot it, Fauns

And Dryad-maids together; your gifts I sing. {8}

An excellent version, often featuring on university Latin sites, though content has to be excluded to fit the shorter pentameter line. We could write something similar, with a more modern diction, but the content will remain a little clipped:

What gladdens cornfields, and beneath what star

Maecenas, are we made to turn the earth?

How may the vine be fastened to the elm,

or cattle tended, and the ox be bred?

What knowledge is possessed by thrifty bees? -

such are my themes. Celestial lights that lead

the seasons in their fruitful dance. How Bacchus

and propitious Ceres brought Chaonian

acorn lands to thick-sown fields of wheat,

and formed of Acheloüs new-made wine.

And Fauns, you gods of country folk-so dance

you Dryad girls and gods-your gifts I praise.


R.C. Trevelyan 1944

What makes the cornfield glad, beneath what star,

Maecenas, it is well to turn the soil,

And wed the vine to the elm, how to tend oxen,

For nurturing flocks and hers what care is needful,

For keeping thrifty bees what knowledge, now

Shall I essay to sing. O ye most glorious

Lights of the universe, that lead along

Through heaven the gliding years; and you, Liber

And kindly Ceres, by whose bounty earth exchanged

Chaonian acorns for the rich ear of corn,

And blended with pure water from the stream

And new-found grape; and you Fauns, present deities

Of country folk (draw together, Fauns

And Dryad maidens), it is your gifts to men

I sing. {9}

R.C. Trevelyan, a distinguished translator and the author of well-regarded works of popular history, avoided such compression by rendering ten of Virgil's hexameters by twelve English pentameters. Strangely, the result was not a success. The verse lacks the phrasing, cadences and extra graces so vital to blank verse, and something like half the lines are limp or clogged with unnecessary obstructions.

Heroic Couplets

John Dryden 1697

What makes a plenteous harvest, when to turn

The fruitful soil, and when to sow the corn ;

The care of sheep, of oxen, and of kine,

And how to raise on elms the teeming vine ;

The birth and genius of the frugal Bee,

I sing, Maecenas, and I sing to thee.

Ye deities ! who fields and plains protect,

Who rule the seasons, and the year direct,

Bacchus and fostering Ceres, powers divine,

Who gave us corn for mast, for water, wine

Ye Fauns, propitious to the rural swains,

Ye Nymphs, that haunt the mountains and the plains,

Join in my work, and to my numbers bring

Your needful succour ; for your gifts I sing. {10}

So early Augustan verse with its balance and rugged good sense. Again, we can write something similar, with a more contemporary diction:


What gladdens cornfields, and what star inclines

us turn the earth, Maecenus? How may vines

be trestled by the elm? Or flocks be cared

for, oxen bred? What qualities prepared

the bees for hives? And you, celestial lights

that lead the seasons in their fruitful rites,

with Lider and kind Ceres, you who meet

to turn the acorn lands to thick-sown wheat,

and mix with Archeloüs new-made wine.

You Fauns the rustics bless with wayside shrine —

so dance you Dryad girls and gods — your source

I celebrate.

Yet there are three reasons for not adopting the heroic couplet. First is its structure, which boxes up the content, packaging it into sections that deny the phrase by phrase expressiveness of Virgil's orginal. Second is the difficulty in capturing all the content. Third is Dryden's translation, which is still immensely readable.

True Hexameter

A true hexameter, with Latin verse structure replicated, cannot be written in English, but an approximation forms the medium of Longfellow's Evangeline, {11} one of his more popular poems.

In the Acadian land, on the shores of the Basin of Minas,

Distant, secluded, still, the little village of Grand-Pre

Lay in the fruitful valley. Vast meadows stretched to the eastward,

Giving the village its name, and pasture to flocks without number.


Dikes, that the hands of the farmers had raised with labor incessant,

Shut out the turbulent tides; but at stated seasons the flood-gates

Opened, and welcomed the sea to wander at will o'er the meadows.

West and south there were fields of flax, and orchards and corn-fields.


The difficulty, as Highet {12} pointed out, is that the style pleases no one. To English readers it sounds rather prosaic, each line unnecessarily hobbled with a final disyllable. English generally lacks spondees, and to classicists the disyllable pressed into service hardly matches what a quantitative language provides.

Something more than a careful quietness is difficult to achieve with this form, and it seems not to have been used to translate the Georgics.

Hexameter: Free Form

Here the only requirement is that the verse be a strict iambic, and that the lines invariably consist of six feet. The hexameter is a difficult form, however, and requires a good ear for phrasing and wordchoice even to get the following, which has a natural but perhaps not very pleasing rhythm (from the Aeneid, by the classics translator of a generation back):

Patric Dickinson

There are others assuredly I believe,

Shall work in bronze more sensitively, moulding

Breathing images, or carving from the marble

More lifelike features: some shall plead more eloquently,

Or gauging with instruments the sky's motion

Forecast the rising of the constellations:

But yours, my Roman, is the gift of government,

That is your bent — to impose upon the nations

The code of peace; to be clement to the conquered,

But utterly to crush the intransigent. {13}


If we now return to the earlier free verse drafts, we find that simply aggregating the earlier free verse phrases makes a pleasingly-varied hexameter, and one that conveys the original content practically line for line.


What makes the cornfield joyful, and beneath what star

we turn the earth, Maecenas? How may vines be fastened

to the elm? What husbandry will manage cattle,

breed the ox? What knowledge have the thrifty bees?

With such I start my song. And you, O radiant lights

that lead the seasons in their fruitful dance, and you,

both Liber and propitious Ceres, who have turned

Chaonian acorn lands to thick-sown fields of wheat

and mixed in drafts of Archeloüs new-made wine;

and Fauns, you rustic deities who serve for local

powers-so dance you Dryad girls and gods-your gifts

I celebrate.


For a more detailed discussion of translation issues, the complete Latin text and facing English rendering of Virgil's Georgics, readers may like to download the free pdf version published by Ocaso Press.

Notes and References

1. Fallon, P. (trans) and Fantham, E. (intro). Georgics (Oxford World's Classics) O.U.P. 2009.

2. Lewis, C. Day. The Eclogues: The Georgics. C.U.P. 1940/1983

3. Lembke, J. Virgil's Georgics. Yale Univ. Press. 2005.

4. Wilkinson, L.P. Virgil: The Georgics. Penguin Classics. 1982.

5. Wilkinson, L.P. The Georgics of Virgil: a Critical Survey. C.U.P. 1969.

6. Wilkinson, L.P. Golden Latin Artistry. C.U.P. 1966.

7. Kline, A. Virgil: The Major Works: Georgics.

8. Greenough, J.B. P. Vergilius Maro, Georgics. 1900. text:1999.02.0058

9. Trevelyan, R.C. Virgil: The Eclogues and the Georgics Translated into English Verse. C.U.P. 1944.

10. The Works of John Dryden Now First Collected in Eighteen Volumes. Illustrated with Notes, Historical, Critical and Explanatory and a Life of the Author by Walter Scott, Esq. eng/walter-scott/the-works-of-john-dryden-now-first-collected-in- eighteen-volumes-volume-14-ala/page-2-the-works-of-john-dryden-now- first-collected-in-eighteen-volumes-volume-14-ala.shtml NNA

11. Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Evangeline. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. new2?id=LonEvan.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/m odeng/parsed&tag=public∂=2&division=div1 NNA

12. Highet, G. The Classical Tradition. O.U.P. 1949. pp. 316, 381, 667-8.

13. Patric Dickinson's Aenid VI 847ff quoted in Grant, M. Cleopatra. Phoenix, 2000. pp. 235-6.


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