Friday, October 1, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Len Krisak (trans.), Virgil's Eclogues. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Pp. xx, 91. ISBN 9780812242256. $29.95.
Reviewed by Betty Rose Nagle, Indiana University


This is by far the most readable and accessible version of the Eclogues I know, and the most engaging as a poem in its own right. Gregson Davis's introduction rightly identifies the translator's success in conveying both the "intermediate register" of Virgil's diction and the poet's "musical virtuosity." Len Krisak's own preface stresses his intention to reproduce as much as possible the "music" of the original. Let me begin, therefore, with those features.

From the very first lines the music rings out, not only in the iambic hexameter form, but also, in Krisak's own words, in his "abundant use of alliteration, assonance, consonance, [and] rhyme . . . ."

Under a beech's stretching branches, there you lie,
Tityrus, trying, on the slimmest reed, to court
The forest muse, while I must leave, saying good-bye
To home, with its dear fields. But you, in shady ease,
Make "Lovely Amaryllis" echo through the trees.

Most prominent here is consonance in the first line (eech, etch, anch); assonance (lie / trying; court / forest; fields / leave / ease); and end-rhyme (lie / good-bye; ease / trees). As throughout, end-rhyme is noticeable but not predictable.1 Some rhymes are playfully contrived, as when Krisak begins Eclogue 10 by rhyming "Arethusa" with "Muse—a." Remarkably, he finds not one but two rhymes for the name Thestylis in Eclogue 2 ("As Thestylis is pestling sweet garlic cloves," 2, and "Though Thestylis has pestered me . . . ," 43). In the lines above, alliteration is less striking (beech. . . .branches; Tityrus, trying), but elsewhere it can be insistent, as twice in Eclogue 8: "Mopsus, cut brand new brands: the bride is brought before you" (29) and "That traitor left me all these trophy (exuvias trinkets once / As pledges of his love. Earth take to rest this trash" (91-2).

Krisak's sound patterns can be as complex as anything in Virgil or other Latin poets. Here is a sample: "The waves will wash the fish they've stranded on the shore" (1.60); note how initial w's shift to final sh's and then to an initial sh. "The landed world's great round bows down, its huge head bent, / So do the sea and the eternal firmament" (4.50-51); especially note the subtle mirror effect of "round . . down." "Then gradually the grain will grow in golden fields" (4.28). "Or waves that pummel summer sand like drums. . . " (5.83). Finally, "Falling upon that codger who'd so often conned / Them of a song they'd longed to hear, they made his very / Garlands bind him. Then Aegle finds them, joins their wary / Company . . . . (6.18-21).

Moving from music to diction, we find that Krisak's turns of phrase are notably apt, idiomatic, and as Davis noted, in an "intermediate register." An example is his version of 3.72-73. The original Latin, one of the couplets Menalcas exchanges with Damoetas, is O quotiens et quae nobis Galatea locuta est! / partem aliquam, venti, divum referatis ad aures! In English this becomes "The things that Galatea's said! Who could keep score? / So heaven's ears may hear: winds, waft just some of them." Very idiomatic and, obviously, quite free.

Those two lines are as a good a sample as any with which to compare previous translations. C. Day Lewis' 1963 version compares favorably with Krisak's here: "Oh many times, oh charming words / she's spoke to me, my Galatea! / Whisper a few, a few of them, / You breezes, into heaven's ear!"2 Among other twentieth-century versions are those by Guy Lee (1980), Barbara Hughes Fowler (1997), and David Ferry (1999).3 Lee's version of these lines is both idiomatic and more literal---yet not prosaic---but not as lively as either Krisak's or Day Lewis': "Oh, Galatea has told us so much, and so often! / You breezes, waft a word or two to the gods' ears." Fowler's is similarly idiomatic, but a bit prosaic: "How often and sweetly has Galatea spoken to me. / O winds, carry some part of her words to the ears of the gods." Ferry, on the other hand, finesses the difficulty posed by the words quotiens and quae to produce a version less literal yet more prosaic: "Let the breezes tell to the gods only a part / Of what my Galatea said to me!" Sometimes, of course, Krisak's register is off, as with "hick" (rusticus, 2.56) and "pooches" (canibus, 3.67). An egregious example is "the sibs of Phaethon" for the high-epic Phaethontiades (6.62). Mistakes are rare, but music often trumps exact meaning. Krisak's diction also includes numerous compounds. These condense wordier Latin much more often than they render Virgil's own epic compounds, but like his they are one form of language which Krisak calls "marked," i.e., distinctive from ordinary usage. Other marked language involves extending the meaning of words (at 3.64, "apples" means "throws apples at"), and frequently using rarer words, or common words in less usual senses (at 4.29, grapes "depend from brakes gone wild"). Finally, Krisak has too good an ear for puns—bees "take thyme" (5.77), cows "will steer" (7.11), and "scarlet will redress the peaceful lambs" (4.45)—not to be intentional (also, these are in keeping with what Fred Ahl has taught us about wordplay in Latin poetry.)4

The vivid imagery of Krisak's diction helps make his Eclogues so effective as poems in their own right. He constantly either brings out the image in a Latin word or adds one to it. Two examples come from a single one of Corydon's salvoes in Eclogue 7. The first nicely conveys the image in tegit: "And green arbutus roofing you with shade," (46). In the second, "now jewels bud on limbs like jade" (48, iam lento turgent in palmite gemmae), the italicized phrase conveys both senses of the Latin word gemmae. Adding "jade" makes that image more vivid (and alliterative).

Neither Krisak nor Davis remark on devices of word order. These are notoriously difficult to preserve in English, yet Krisak often succeeds in doing so. A good example is 4.20-25:

ipsae lacte domum referent distenta capellae
ubera, nec magnos metuent armenta leones;
ipsa tibi blandos fundent cunabula flores.
occidet et serpens, et fallax herba veneni
occidet . . . .

Here is Krisak's version:

All by themselves, the goats shall bring milk-swollen udders
Home, and herds faced with mighty lions shall not shudder.
All on its own, your cradle will provide you blossoms.
Death, even for the snake; and for all poison plants,
Death, too.

This preserves the repetition and emphatic location of both ipsae / ipsa and occidet / occidet. The variation between "All by themselves" and "All on its own" even suggests the Latin polyptoton. With repeated occidet, Krisak preserves enjambement (as he also did between 20 and 21). Not only does he reproduce the chiasmus in 24-25 (occidet . . . serpens . . . herba . . . / occidet, but in 24 the order of English words corresponds almost exactly to the Latin.

When Virgil's anaphora is especially insistent, Krisak preserves it. Striking examples come from the last Eclogue. This homage to Gallus naturally begins with repetition of the elegist's name, three times in Virgil's first six lines, and four in Krisak's, which even keeps one at the same emphatic line and sentence end. At poem's end, Krisak keeps the repetition and position of "Gallus" at the end of 72 and the beginning of 73. In between, he matches Virgil's repetition of nec paeniteat (twice in two lines, 16-17); perfect forms of venio (four times in three lines, 19-21); hic (one less repetition than Virgil's four in two lines, 42-43); and forms of umbrae (three times in two lines, 75-76, twice as "shade" and once as "shadows").

His use of "echoes" (allusions to English poetry) is a feature besides music to which Krisak's preface does call attention, but he is far too modest about this ingenious strategy for suggesting that important aspect of Roman poetry which is usually lost in translation. There are many more of these than he signals in his notes. Virtually none are gratuitous, but are as apposite as those ancient reminiscences are. Meliboeus, for instance, has been evicted in the aftermath of the civil wars set in motion by Caesar's assassination; hence the allusion to Shakespeare's Brutus when Krisak's shepherd asserts that "The land / is crying havoc" (1.11-12). The echo from Paradise Lost accords well with the "Messianic" Eclogue, specifically in the context of Iron Age elements persisting as the new Golden Age approaches: "Yet man's / First tragic error and its fruits shall linger" (4.30-31). One gratuitous exception seems to occur when another Virgilian shepherd uses the Vulcan Spock's signature farewell: "live long and prosper, woods!" (8.58).

Turning to more prosaic matters, this edition is bilingual, with Mynors' OCT on facing pages. Krisak departs from that in two places, but his English oddly (to me) faces Mynors' unchanged Latin. He comments on those departures in notes to 1.65 and 4.62, after listing them at the end of his preface (an unfortunate typo leaves a blank where the second Latin passage should be; it does appear in the note.) He credits these simply to the Loeb edition, without explaining his preference.5 Finally, note the several Latin typos: culem for culmen (1.68); cacumia for cacumina (2.3); and deplicat for duplicat (2.66).

The notes are not extensive; they elucidate the content or remark on reception; a few comment on the text or translation. Rather than a list of gaps in these annotations, here is a brief sample of topics which beg explanation: how a (normal) pregnancy lasts ten months (4.10); why frankincense is "manly" (8.65); what wolves have to do with losing one's voice (9.54); and what's going on with the Syracusan spring Arethusa and the ocean (10.4). Finally, the note (to 6.64) about Gallus' single surviving pentameter is out of date.

Gregson Davis' introduction succinctly puts the Eclogues in their historical, sociopolitical, intellectual and literary-historical contexts, with emphasis on the last two. Classicists will not find his "revisionist" interpretation novel; perhaps for readers more familiar with European pastoral it is a good corrective. Putting the "myth" of an "idealized, utopian Arcadia" to rest does provide the framework for a thematic synopsis. He concludes with those brief remarks on register and music mentioned earlier. Although the translation itself seems best suited to the general reader---a figure perhaps as mythical as a Virgilian's pastoral utopia---Davis' specialist vocabulary seems pitched at academics, including graduate students, advanced undergrads, scholars of other literatures.

For nonspecialists I enthusiastically recommend this translation. For someone who wants a more literal but still readable version, and for more scholarly purposes, Lee's Penguin is better. Ferry's literary translation is satisfactory; Krisak's is outstanding.


1.   By contrast, his earlier translation of Horace's Odes ([The Odes of Horace in Latin and English]. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2006) conveys Horace's formal accomplishment in that collection by using a variety of predictable patterns of end-rhyme.
2.   Here I cite The Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1964. Note that Krisak and Day Lewis handle this amoebean Eclogue differently. Day Lewis makes songs of this one and the others, in forms quite different from his prevailing six-beat (not six-feet) lines. Only in this contest does Krisak depart from his usually unpredictable end-rhymes; instead he conveys the capping aspect of the exchanges by having each shepherd begin with a line that rhymes with his opponent's last word; in the present example, "score" in 72 rhymes with "more" in 71.
3.   I cite Lee's 1984 Penguin revised edition of Virgil: The Eclogues and Georgics, first published in 1980 as "Liverpool Latin Texts;" Fowler's Virgil's Eclogues. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997; and Ferry's The Eclogues of Virgil: Bilingual Edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. The version by David R. Slavitt, trans. The Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1972, is only loosely a translation; its author calls it a "series of meditations" on those poems (16).
4.   Frederick Ahl. Soundplay and Wordplay in Ovid and Other Classical Poets. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.
5.   The first---treating cretae as a place name---makes slight difference, but the second is puzzling. That Latin (4.60, 62-63) reads Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem / . . . / incipe, parve puer: cui non risere parentes, / nec deus hunc mensa, dea nec dignata cubili. The English reads "Begin, boy infant, smile—to show you know your mother. / . . . / Begin, boy infant. Goddesses will bed no child— / Nor gods board one—on whom his parents have not smiled." For 62 to make sense, however, the end of line 60 has to mean something like "get to know your mother from her smile."

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