Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Virgil In English Verse

by Henry S. Salt

It is only to those who sympathise that a lover of Virgil can express his feelings about the Master; only a Virgilian can fully understand a Virgilian, for there is a freemasonry in the cult which separates it from all the world beside. The tendency that has existed in the schools, since the time of Macaulay, to depreciate Virgil as less “original” than Homer, and than some other writers of antiquity, troubles the Virgilian no whit; to him the author of the Æneid and the Georgics is the greatest of the Classics, not only because he has no equal a craftsman in verse, but, because he is a poet of the heart, a psychologist and modern—as human as Euripides, and a consummate artist as well.

At Eton half-a-century ago Virgil was not a household word as Horace was: we read the Æneid and the Georgics, but without much illumination; indeed, “a Georgic” suggested to our minds little more than the copying of over five hundred lines, a penalty which sometimes fell to our lot. I remember, in a fifth-form division, the Rev. E. D. Stone, a fine scholar, reading aloud to us Conington’s version of the sixth Book of the Æneid, and how irreverently we laughed at the translator’s description of the golden bough that formed Æneas’s credentials in the descent to Hades:

“Yet none may reach the Shades without
The passport of that golden sprout.”

During the year that I as in the division o that remarkable teacher, William Johnson (afterwards Cory), the author of Ionica, I think we did not read much Virgil; else from him we might have heard something worth attention about the wonders of the Virgilian verse, its structure and rhythm, its subtleties of elision and cæsura, for, as Mr. A. C. Benson tells us in his introduction to Ionica, he “loved Virgil as a friend.” From Dr. Hornby, in sixth form, we learnt little on these points, but just read and construed some book of the Æneid, and were told what the scholiasts had said about the more difficult passages. When discussing our Latin verses, if they were hexameters, the headmaster told us that we should frame them on the model of Virgil, rather than of Ovid; which was true enough, but, unfortunately, he did not proceed to indicate the salient features of Virgil’s art, though here a slight hint or two might easily have set us on the track, for unconsciously we felt, even then, the charm of the Virgilian cadences. The only remark on the subject that I ever heard at Eton was from a very talented school-fellow, who drew my attention to the beauty of the cæsura in Eclogue IX., 60:

“. . . . Sepulcrum
Incipit apparere Bianoris. . . .”

Again, the “saying lessons” in Virgil might have been of great service to us if we had been made to learn them thoroughly; for to know by heart a fine poem, or passage of a poem, is an acquisition of lasting value: as it was, we were allowed to slip through, week by week, with an imperfect knowledge of our sixty or seventy lines, and by the end of the term we had practically forgotten the whole. It was only after I had left Eton that I began to understand Virgil, and, with an increased sense of the marvellous melody of his diction, to see how in the tenderness of his sympathies and psychological insight he had anticipated, like Lucretius, some of the most advanced modern feeling.

As a stylist, Virgil had no rival among his fellow-countrymen. It may be held that the Greek Iliad and Odyssey are greater epics than the Æneid, as being more primitive, more massive, and in that sense more original; but though it is true that in the construction of his story Virgil imitated Homer, the imitation was of a sort which, in the hands of a great artist, brings to the task an equal genius and originality of its own. In subtlety of mind, and in varied melody of rhythm, the Greek poet cannot be compared with the Latin, whose stately and sententious lines, rich in thought, and still richer in the flawless beauty of their music, are indeed one of the greatest achievements in literature.

For example, Virgil’s treatment of the theme of Death, in his pictures of the fabulous Hades, which as a poet he accepted for the purposes of his story, inevitably invites comparison not only with those passages in the De Rerum Naturâ of Lucretius (III., 830-1094) in which a rationalistic explanation is given of the popular beliefs concerning the dead, but with the Homeric original; and the Virgilian poem, steeped as it is in a profound sense of mystery and darkness, quite transcends the much less impressive description given in the Odyssey. And here, as I agree with Mr. F. W. Myers’s opinion, as stated in the chapter on Virgil in his Classical Essays, that “the critic should try to show (by translation) the view which he takes of a few well known passages.” I will venture to give an English version, however inadequate, of the lines to which I allude (Æneid VI., 264-281):

“Ye gods who o’er the Shades dominion hold,
Chaos, and realms that boundless silence keep,
Grant me tell the tale as erst ’twas told!
Grant me your grace those secrets to unfold,
In earth’s abysmal darkness buried deep!

Dimly they went, where there was naught but night,
Through the empty halls and kingdoms of the Dead;
As when, by the stray moonbeam’s niggard light,
Men trace some forest-path, and a black spell
Of hueless gloom the landscape hath o’erspread.
And there—in the very gate and gorge of hell—
Sat Grief, and Care who tracks her prey afar,
And pale Disease, and Age with looks unkind,
And Fear, and Famine that dishearteneth—
Shapes hideous to behold—and Dearth and Death;
Death’s cousin, Sleep; ill joys of Passion bred;
And full in front the grisly form of War:
There the iron Furies couched, and Discord dread,
Her viperous locks with gory fillets twined.”

The true and broad humanity of Virgil makes itself felt in many passages of his poems; the number of his lines have become proverbial and lasting possessions of mankind testifies to his deep hold on our affections; and perhaps the very reason why we sometimes question and resent the doings of his hero, Æneas, is that Virgil, unlike Homer, is so modern in spirit that we are inclined to judge him by the most advanced ethical standards. It is curious, too, that while his mediæval reputation was that of a mystic and necromancer, there is no sense of antiquity in his verse: he is quite as human and modern as Milton in his handling of ancient themes. Of all English writers, in fact, Milton is the most akin to Virgil in style, especially in those passages of his Comus which are full of the mingled gravity and grace in which Virgil was so adept.

But it is of the difficulty, the impossibility perhaps, of translating Virgil into English verse that I wish now to speak. The Latin hexameter being longer, by at least two syllables, than that which is its natural equivalent in English, the ten-syllabled iambic line, in which the chief characteristic of the Latin, its grave measured harmony, can be most nearly reproduced, it follows that a translator must often have recourse to a larger number of lines, or to a stricter compression of the words.¹ Efforts have accordingly been made to avoid this by employing a longer English line than the decasyllabic, such as the hexameter itself, or a fourteen-syllabled verse; but it can hardly be said that the results have been encouraging.

For, first, in regard to the hexameter, owing to organic differences between the two languages, this metre, which in Latin has a native dignity and charm, is apt in English to become a tedious jog-trot, irritating to a sensitive ear; so that, as a vehicle for translating Virgil, the very form in which he himself wrote is about the least appropriate that could be chosen.

In the interesting preface to his translation of the Æneid² Sir C. Bowen expressed the opinion that the hexameter, in English, requires rhyme “to prevent it from becoming tedious,” but that it is not possible to treat it in rhyme. He accordingly tried to solve the problem by dropping one syllable—that is, by turning the final spondee of the hexameter into a single syllable, as in the line, Æneid VI., 286:

“So, unseen, through darkness amid lone night they strode.”

That this curtailed form of the hexameter provides a happy medium for translation I cannot think: it is slow, heavy and in the long run almost as wearisome as the English hexameter itself. Nor is the fourteen-syllabled verse any more successful. William Morris’s rendering of the Æneid is the work of a poet, but somehow it does not convey any impression of the Virgilian spirit or style; its long lines do not in the least reflect the roll and flow of the hexameter. Take, once more, the famous Ibant obscuri solâ sub nocte per umbram:

“All dim amid the lonely night on through the dark they went,
On through the empty house of Dis, the land of naught at all;
E’en as beneath the doubtful moon, when niggard light doth fall.” . . .

Such a metre may be well adapted for a Norse legend; but the genius of Virgil quite refuses to be domiciled in it.

But if a longer verse than the decasyllabic does not in practice command itself, still less does a shorter one, as, for example, that which Professor Conington used in his fine and sympathetic translation of the Æneid, the metre of Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel. All lovers of Virgil are indebted to Conington for the insight with which he caught the meaning of the Latin poet; but the rapid, short-paced movement of the Scottish Border minstrelsy is a strange form, indeed, for reproducing the long, slow, rhythmic swing of the Virgilian lines.

“Along the illimitable shade
Darkling and lone their ways they made.”

It raises a smile to find Conington saying of this metre: “I certainly do not pretend that it is the one true equivalent of the Virgilian hexameter.” On the contrary, there is much weight in the question asked by another translator, Sir George K. Rickards, in reference to Conington’s work: “What is become of those grand sententious single lines, not unfrequent in the Æneid, which by their compact force and fulness stamp themselves like proverbs on the memory?” Thus, in Conington, the great line, Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos, is whittled down into

“Show pity to the humbled soul,
And crush the sons of pride.”

We come back, then, to the decasyllabic, as the English metre which, in spite of its lack of length, best corresponds with the Latin hexameter; and here it may be asked, Did not so great a poet as Dryden translate the Æneid? He did; but the “heroic couplet,” made famous by Dryden and Pope, is vitiated as a medium of translation by its cramped structure and monotony of rhyme. “The great complaint which I have to make against Dryden’s version,” says Sir George Rickards, “is that, be it what else it may, it is not Virglian.” That this criticism is a true one what reader of Dryden’s Æneid can doubt? Recurring to the sixth Book, take his version of those solemn lines about Hades, to which allusion has already been made (VI., 264-267):

“Ye realms, yet unrevealed to human sight,
Ye gods, who rule the regions of the night,
Ye gliding ghosts, permit me to relate
The mystic wonders of your silent state.”

There is no semblance of Virgil here. The unbroken sequence of the hexameter can rarely be portrayed in such a form; a few Virgilian passages may lend themselves to it, but in the great majority the unfitness of the vehicle must defeat the skill even of a real poet. It is doubtless this fact which, in Dryden’s translation, accounts for the rarity of that “mighty line,” which in his Absalom and Achitophel, and elsewhere in his poems, is so frequent and so glorious.

Is rhyme, then, to be condemned and discarded? “I will venture to assert,” said Cowper, “that a just translation of any ancient poet in rhyme is impossible. No human ingenuity can be equal to the task of closing every couplet with sounds homotonous, expressing at the same time the full sense, and only the full sense, of the original.” In like manner, Rickards, with other recent writers, inveighs against the trammels of “regularly recurring sounds,” and Mr. Frederic Harrison, in an essay in the English Review (May, 1915), complains that “rhyme embarrasses the writer and often irritates the reader.”

But here it has to be noted that Cowper’s objection, if valid, is obviously valid not so much against rhyme in itself, as against the rhymed heroic couplet; and so, with later critics, it is not the rhyme-sounds, but their “regular recurrence” against which the complaint holds good. This point—a very important one—seems to be overlooked in Mr. Harrison’s conclusion that a “verse translation of the Æneid must be in the stately involuted blank verse of Paradise Lost and of The Excursion, i.e., iambic metre of ten syllables, without rhyme, without archaisms, without cryptic novelties.”

Before going further, we have to face the fact that the adoption of blank verse is itself subject to one serious practical disadvantage. Let it be admitted that blank verse, such as that of Comus, would probably be the nearest approach in English to the Latin of Virgil. But who is going to compose it? Only great poets can write attractive blank verse; and so no translation of the Æneid, which is devoid of attractiveness, can merit to be called a translation, it is clear that, in the absence of a Milton (and Miltons, unfortunately, are not less rare than Virgils), blank verse, though in theory the ideal form, must fail in practice, like the other forms which have been mentioned. This was long ago recognised by Dr. Johnson in his Life of Milton, where he remarks that “he that thinks himself capable of astonishing, may write blank verse; but those that only hope to please must condescend to rhyme.” Conington, too, spoke truth when he wrote in the preface to his Virgil: “Blank verse, really deserving the name, I believe to be impossible, except to one or two eminent writers in a generation.”

Have such “eminent writers” of blank verse made their appearance as translators of Virgil? I think not. Sir G. K. Rickards’ rendering of Books I.-VI. of the Æneid has much merit, and many felicitous phrases; but as a whole it seems to fail from tameness—lack of that vitalising beauty which only a great poet can impart to an unadorned metrical form. The same objection, I think, must be urged against Mr. C. J. Billson’s otherwise excellent translation (1906), with which Mr. Harrison seemed to be content when he deprecated the use of rhyme.

But—and here I come to the main point of my contention—there is a manner of rhyme which is not liable to the censures that have justly been passed on the cramped “heroic” couplet, and that may with some reason be urged against any regularly framed stanza; viz., a free, irregular sequence of lines, such as that of Milton’s Lycidas; and herein, no less than in blank verse, lies a chance of reproducing in an English translation what is of the greatest importance, the graduated structure of those Virgilian periods which are built up with such elaborate care—each successive verse, and each cæsura, or pause in a verse, ministering to the final effect. I have already given a sample of this method, in my own rendering of eighteen well-known lines from the sixth Book of the Æneid (nineteen lines in the English); from which I think it will be seen that it is at least possible to preserve something of the spirit and shape of the original, without such material alteration of the Latin structure as would be inevitable in a uniform couplet or stanza.

Let me take another specimen, a scarcely less famous passage relating to the tragedy of Dido (Æneid IV., 522-533):

“ ’Twas night. Earth’s weary creatures, far and wide,
Slumbered; wild woods and waters lay unstirred,
At that still hour when stars serenely glide
In their mid course; when all the land hath rest;
And flocks are hushed; and every bright-winged bird,
Haunting the limped lake, the bosky plain,
Is lulled to sleep beneath the silent spell,
And suffering hearts have respite of their pain.
But not sad Dido. Ne’er can slumber blest
Soothe her, nor night’s soft balm on eyes and breast
Fall welcome; still love’s bitter pang renewed
Torments her, tossed on passion’s stormy swell;
Still ceaseless o’er her sorrows must she brood.”

It has been said that Virgil “ought to be translated more or less lineally, as well as literally.”³ There are passages where it is even more necessary that the version should be lineal than literal; for example, in dealing with those terse, gnomic utterances, full of wisdom as of beauty, which have in many cases become proverbial, it is better to sacrifice some of the words than to impair the conciseness of the line, which is indeed its perfection. Nor would strict literalness always give the desired effect; so marked are the differences of idiom between the Latin and the English. Virgil’s frequent use, for instance, of patronymics, of distinctive epithets (such as pius), and of historical or mythological allusions—familiar to Roman readers, but needing translation in verse. In prose it is otherwise, for the first object of a prose rendering of a poem is to give the letter rather than the spirit; whereas a poetical version, however great may be its difficulties and imperfections, does at least aim at a fuller and more personal interpretation. A translation of Virgil in verse may succeed in giving what no translation in prose can ever give—a glimpse, however distant, of the poet’s mood and manner.

I would not, however, be misunderstood as in any way depreciating the value of literalness; indeed, it is far easier to keep close to the sense of the original when one is free from the shackles of couplet or stanza, and when the rhyme can fall early or late as may be desired. I doubt if the famous passage (Georgic. IV., 464-484) which tells how Orpheus, after the loss of Eurydice, attempted to win her back from the dead by the power of music, could find a more literal translation in blank verse than in the following:

“Hi lute he touched, to soothe love’s bitter pang,
And thee, his lost love, thee by lonely shore,
Thee at first dayspring, thee at nightfall, sang:
Yea, and the jaw of Death’s deep-cloven door,
And grisly forest, black with midnight dread,
He passed, and parleyed with the awful King
And pitiless hearts that heed no human prayer.
Then from Hell’s lowest depths came hovering,
Thrilled by his song, the spectral shades o’ the dead,
Countless as birds that flock to leafy lair
When darkness drives them from bleak mountain height:—
Matrons, and men, and many a ghostly shape
Of mighty heroes, boys, and girls unwed,
And slain youths buried in their parents’ sight:—
And round them, rank with reeds and black with mud,
The loath’d Cocytus winds its sluggish flood,
And Styx with nine-fold coil forbids escape.
Then stood the very house of Death spell-bound
To its inmost vaults, and that sweet music swayed
The Furies with dark-gleaming serpents crowned;
Hush’d Cerberus held his triple mouth a-gape,
And e’en Ixion’s windy wheel was stayed.”

If any apology be needed for yet another essay in these much-trodden fields of Virgilian translation, I would plead that as final success, if ever attained, must be founded on many previous failures, it cannot be wholly unprofitable to make a new adventure in a form which has not hitherto been tried, and which, I am convinced, is more suited to the purpose than those which have long been in vogue. What I have criticised in my predecessors is not their workmanship, but their medium: what I venture to view with satisfaction in my own attempts (drawn from an unpublished translation) is rather the medium than the work.

¹ Often, but not always; because, owing to what has been called Virgil’s “fondness for say the same thing twice over in the same line,” the sense can sometimes be expressed in fewer words in the English, as, for instance, in the line (Æneid VI, 68):
Errantes que deos agitata que numina Trojœ,
where deos and numina mean practically the same.
² Virgil in English Verse, 1889.
³ Sir C. Bowen in the Preface to his Virgil in English Verse.

Published: Fortnightly Review, February 1923