Sunday, July 22, 2012


Vergil, Georgics, Book I

Jorge Luis Borges, in a list of Talismans, included "Lines of Virgil and Frost" ("Líneas de Virgilio y de Frost"). A line in Vergil's Georgics (1.412) recently struck me as talismanic or magical, a line describing birds which are "charmed by some unfamiliar sweet impulse we cannot guess at" (C. Day Lewis' translation of "nescio qua praeter solitum dulcedine laeti").

Some might find the line flat and pedestrian, rather than magical and musical. Many Latin poets seem to have avoided the preposition praeter as prosaic, according to Bertil Axelson, Unpoetische Wörter: Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der lateinischen Dichtersprache (Lund, 1945), pp. 81-82, n. 70, and in his Commentary on Ovid, Epistulae Ex Ponto, Book 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), Jan Felix Gaertner includes nescioquis in Appendix B = Prosaic Expressions (pp. 532-534, at 532).

Here are some excerpts from Vergil, Georgics, Book I (tr. H. Rushton Fairclough):

From the first, Nature laid these laws and eternal covenants on certain lands, even from the day when Deucalion threw stones into the empty world, whence sprang men, a stony race.

continuo has leges aeternaque foedera certis
imposuit natura locis, quo tempore primum
Deucalion vacuum lapides iactavit in orbem,
unde homines nati, durum genus.
The great Father himself has willed that the path of husbandry should not run smooth, who first made art awake the fields, sharpening men's wits by care, nor letting his kingdom slumber in heavy lethargy.

                                                 pater ipse colendi
haud facilem esse viam voluit, primusque per artem
movit agros, curis acuens mortalia corda
nec torpere gravi passus sua regna veterno.
Toil triumphed over every obstacle, unrelenting Toil, and Want that pinches when life is hard.

                                    labor omnia vicit
improbus et duris urgens in rebus egestas.
Therefore, unless your hoe is ever ready to assail the weeds, your voice to terrify the birds, your knife to check the shade over the darkened land, and your prayers to invoke the rain, in vain, poor man, you will gaze on your neighbour's large store of grain, and you will be shaking oaks in the woods to assuage your hunger.

quod nisi et adsiduis herbam insectabere rastris
et sonitu terrebis avis et ruris opaci
falce premes umbras votisque vocaveris imbrem,
heu magnum alterius frustra spectabis acervum
concussaque famem in silvis solabere quercu.
I can repeat for you many olden maxims, unless you shrink back and are loath to learn such trivial cares.

possum multa tibi veterum praecepta referre,
ni refugis tenuisque piget cognoscere curas.
Thus by law of fate all things speed towards the worse and slipping away fall back even as if one, whose oars can scarce force his skiff against the stream, should by chance slacken his arms, and lo! headlong down the current the channel sweeps it away.

                                    sic omnia fatis
in peius ruere ac retro sublapsa referri,
non aliter quam qui adverso vix flumine lembum
remigiis subigit, si bracchia forte remisit,
atque illum in praeceps prono rapit alveus amni.
In cold weather farmers chiefly enjoy their gains, and feast together in merry companies. Winter's cheer calls them, and loosens the weight of care...

frigoribus parto agricolae plerumque fruuntur
mutuaque inter se laeti convivia curant.
invitat genialis hiems curasque resolvit...
Then the rooks, with narrowed throat, thrice or four times repeat their soft cries, and oft in their high nests, joyous with some strange, unwonted delight, chatter to each other amid the leaves.

tum liquidas corvi presso ter gutture voces
aut quater ingeminant, et saepe cubilibus altis
nescio qua praeter solitum dulcedine laeti
inter se in foliis strepitant.
For here are right and wrong inverted; so many wars overrun the world, sin walks in so many shapes; respect for the plough is gone; our lands, robbed of the tillers, lie waste, and curved pruning hooks are forged into straight blades.

quippe ubi fas versum atque nefas: tot bella per orbem,
tam multae scelerum facies, non ullus aratro
dignus honos, squalent abductis arva colonis,
et curvae rigidum falces conflantur in ensem.

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