Article 6

ART. VI. A Translation of the Georgics of Publius Virgilius Maro, with the Original Text, and Notes critical and illustrative of Ancient and Modern Husbandry. By Wm. Stawell, A. M. Rector of Kilmalooda, in the Diocese of Cork. pp. 487. cr. 8vo. London, Longman, 1808.

The Georgics of P. Virgilius Maro, translated into English Blank Verse. By James R. Deare, L.L.B. pp. 138, foolscap 8vo. Longman, London, 1808.

[pp. 69-77] [original article in PDF format]

  1. THOUGH the reading population of this country has been long on the advance, the number of classical scholars by no means increases in the same proportion. An indifference to classical learning seems indeed to be gaining ground in society; and many parents direct their children's education to that acquirement, more in compliance with custom, than from any conviction of its utility. It is, indeed, to be regretted that merely verbal studies should so often encroach upon a period of life fitted for the attainment of more useful sciences; and it would be easy to point out, and declaim against, the defects which will be found in the system of our great schools, notwithstanding their general utility and excellence. But we feel, in common with every Englishman, a partiality approaching to veneration for that discipline which is consecrated by long usage, and guarded by bulwarks co-eval almost with the constitution of the country;—which has produced men that would do honour to the best times of the world, and to which, with all its faults, the country is so deeply indebted. We contend only for the fact, that, even in those foundations, where amplest provision is made, and most time is devoted to the acquisition of the learned languages, the experiment fails in the greater number of instances; and that, compared with the whole amount of readers in Great Britain, the proportion of classical scholars is [69] but as a grain in the balance. It is therefore a duty we owe, both to ourselves and to the ancient models who trained our best authors to excellence, to encourage translations worthy of the originals, in order that those images and sentiments which have stood the test of ages, may become familiar to every class of English readers.

  2. While so many learned heads are employed in presenting correct and intelligible copies of the original works to the few who can enjoy them, it is but fair that equal pains should be taken to communicate them in unimpaired beauty to that far greater number, who can relish them only in their mother tongue. There are, indeed, some extravagant admirers of antiquity, who decry all translation, as utterly incapable of giving any idea of the occult and indescribable charm of the Greek and Latin poets. We are not insensible to the superiority of those noble languages: but, prejudice and association apart, it must, we think, be granted, that Pope frequently surpasses Homer, and that the Iliad of the former, is quite as fine a poem as that of the latter. Nor are we without poets in our own days, whose translations offer no disparagement to the most admired works of the ancients. We feel that in urging this argument, we are more particularly pleading the cause of the fair sex, who muster at least as many and as intelligent readers as ourselves, though excluded by custom from access to the learned languages. To them it is of infinite importance to extend as far as possible the range of such reading as shall delight the imagination, and cultivate the taste, without corrupting the heart.

  3. With all these prepossessions however in favor of translations, we did not augur much from a new one of the Georgics. That exquisite composition reckons among its translators some of the best poets of the two first languages of modern Europe. The Abbé de Lille has clothed it with a dignity which French verse had been thought incapable of maintaining on agricultural subjects: his notes form a most valuable and amusing commentary, nor do the feeble version and virulent critique of his antagonist Raux* appear to have shaken his well-founded pre-eminence. Dryden, though himself a poet not inferior to Virgil, took little pains to understand his author, and his translation, with [70] the exception of some brilliant passages, is upon the whole slovenly and paraphrastical. Warton corrected the inaccuracies and chastened the luxuriance of Dryden, but fell short of the vigor and majesty of Virgil. It was not till lately that Mr. Sotheby combined the excellencies without the defects of his predecessors, and gave us so perfect a specimen of translation, that those who can relish it, have little reason to regret their want of acquaintance with the original.

  4. The two contemporaneous translations, therefore, which form the subject of this article, were not called for either by the small number or the indifferent quality of those that went before them, but were undertaken apparently in the mere sportiveness of literary leisure, and from a desire to break a lance with former competitors. But to wrest the prize from such hands as we have mentioned was arduous, and the attempt indicates a degree of self-confidence, which nothing but success could justify. Mr. Stawell, in his Introduction, informs us of a circumstance which by no means contributed to remove our unfavourable anticipations. A considerable portion, it seems, of this translation was written so long ago as the year 1785, when the author was an under-graduate in the University of Dublin. Now there is surely some degree of presumption in matching with the laboured productions of veteran and approved writers, the unripe fruit of his youthful studies. He has indeed bowed in almost triple obedience to the maxim of Horace; but few traces are discernible of the intermediate labour which alone can give the maxim any value. The work, by his own account, 'has lain, in his desk ever since, till last year, when he was induced to resume and complete the version.' The reader will be surprised to hear that the inducement which tempted Mr. Stawell to disturb the repose of his MS. and bring forth 'treasures better hid,' was the appointment of an agricultural professor in the university of Edinburgh. This circumstance, coupled with the establishment of a philosophical institution at Cork, were to Mr. S. decisive proofs that the public mind had once more returned to a love of agriculture, and was at last worthy of enjoying that translation and those notes, which are to strengthen and perpetuate this happy propensity to tillage. But can any thing be more preposterous than to hold up the Georgics as a practical system of husbandry? No man at a loss how to manage his land, ever dreamed of recurring for directions to Virgil, or any of his annotators. The precepts of the Roman poet are always too obvious, or too obscure, or too exclusively adapted to the soil and [71] climate of Italy, to be of the least use to an English farmer. What would the latter say to Virgil's advice (I. 209,) to sow barley and flax at the autumnal equinox, or to beware of working on the fifth, or stealing on the ninth day of the month. The truth is, that among the readers of the Georgics there are very few who know, or care to know much about fanning: The pomp and artifice of language which elevate the meanest subjects, and the variety of episode and allusion which relieve the driest, are attractions more powerful than the justness or utility of practical rules.Yet one instance recurs to our memory in which an attempt was made to reduce the rules of the Mantuan to practice. A clergyman of our acquaintance purchased a few sheep to run in a lawn before his parlour window: an unfavorable season introduced the scab among his little flock, and as our friend was better acquainted with the Georgics than with the Transactions of the Board of Agriculture, he naturally, as Mr. Stawell would have done in a similar case, had recourse to the famous recipe of his oracle, Virgil, Geo. III. v. 448. Accordingly he took train oil, litharge, brimstone, bees wax, squills, hellebore and bitumen. One article he could not obtain, Idæan pitch, for which therefore he was obliged to substitute Norway tar. With this exquisite composition he proceeded to anoint his patients, who, to his astonishment, died very rapidly under his hand. When he had lost about two thirds, his friends persuaded him to call in the assistance of a neighbouring shepherd, who happily preserved the remainder by throwing the Mantuan unguent into a ditch! This astonished our friend yet more:- his confidence in Virgil, however, continued unshaken, for, to this hour, he attributes the failure of the experiment to the Norway tar!

  5. The capital defect of Mr. Stawell's translation is the want of that high-wrought polish, that boldness approaching to majesty, which are indispensable if we wish to give the English reader an adequate idea of Virgil's excellence. There is a trailing languor in his verse, very unlike the spirited conciseness and easy flow of the original. His contrivances to lengthen and curtail are too apparent; and we seem to behold him, like another Procrustes, alternately hewing and racking his lines, till they fit into couplets.

  6. In the following passage (I. 139,) Virgil describes the progress of the arts in the reign of Jupiter:

    Tum laqueis captare feras, et fallere visco,
    Inventum; et magnos canibus circumdare saltus: [72]
    Atque alius latum fundâ jam verberat amnem,
    Alta petens; pelagoque alius trahit humida lina.
    Tum ferri rigor, atque argutæ lamina serræ,
    (Nam primi cuneis scindebant fissile lignum.)
    Tum variæ venere artes: Labor omnia vicit
    Improbus, et duris urgens in rebus egestas.

    Mr. Stawell translates it thus:

    'Then beasts insnar'd gave all their freedom o'er,
    And birds in trammels own'd invention's power.
    Then too had man along the forest grounds
    Pursu'd his game with toils and deep-ton'd hounds.
    One the broad stream with casting net explores,
    And the lash'd stream re-echoes to its shores.
    Another weary drags his dripping line,
    While seas seem deepening as he pulls the twine.
    Then steel was temper'd from the mineral land,
    And the saw's thin blade grated in their hand;
    The wedge was all those early ages knew
    To cleave the timber, that in splinters flew;
    Then arts innumerous thro' the world appear'd,
    Labour unweary ev'ry passage clear'd,
    Want urg'd the way, for want is always heard.'

    It would be wasting the reader's time to illustrate the assemblage of blunders that meet in this passage. He can scarcely fail to be struck with the nonsense of the two perfectly gratuitous lines tacked to the third and fourth of the Latin,—the prosaic intractability of his 10th verse, which no mouthing consistent with sense can mould into a line,—and the bull of the couplet which, having given 'those early ages' steel and the saw, denies that they had any means of dividing a tree but by wedges. We cannot resist the pleasure of inserting, as a contrast to those lumbering lines, the parallel translation of Mr. Sotheby, which in nearly half the number, and in less compass than the original itself, expresses the full meaning:

    'Then snares and lime the beast and bird betray'd,
    And deep-mouth'd hounds enclos'd the forest glade;
    Light mashes [sic] lash'd the stream with circling sweep,
    And weightier nets descending dragg'd the deep;
    Then iron and the saw's shrill-grating edge
    Eas'd the rude efforts of the forceful wedge:
    Thus roused by varied wants new arts arose,
    And strenuous labour triumph'd at its close. [73]

  7. Mr. Stawell takes several liberties, against which we should enter a formal protest, if we regarded them as the result of a studied system of innovation, and not, as we believe them to be, symptoms of his ignorance and imperfect powers of versification. For example, he more than once makes the last line of a paragraph rhyme with the indented line of the next (pp. 71 and 219,)—a thing common enough with the French, but quite inadmissible in English heroic verse. Another and still more unpardonable liberty is his altering the quantities of proper names. Thus he constrains us to read Cyllāvus, Onāger, Tisiphōne, Priapus, &c. though it affects our nerves like the creaking of a rusty hinge.

  8. Two other instances of the same fault occur in the following passage, so eminently beautiful in the original: II. 484.

    'But if the blood congeal'd around my heart,
    Forbid the muse from nature to impart,
    May I the fields and Water'd vallies love!
    Bear me inglorious to the bosom'd grove!
    Oh! where the Sperchius warbles through the vale,
    Or Spartan choirs from Taÿgētus* hail;
    In Hæmus' cooling glades I lay me down
    Amid the deep-o'ershading umbrage thrown.'

    How could Mr. S. conceive that the ears of English scholars, ever tremblingly alive to syllabic quantity, would tolerate such monstrous anomalies? But, indeed, from the frequent recurrence of this practice, and the impossibility of justifying it on any rational grounds, we strongly suspect that the author began his translation while he should have been conning his prosodia, and was tagging couplets before he could scan an hexameter.

  9. Among the minor faults we have to notice such ungraceful elisions as 'right and wrong's together hurl'd.' 'Dacians from conspiring Ister 'pall;' and such mutual accomodation between senses as is implied in the expressions of 'tasting a sight' p.263, and 'feeling a sound' p.243.

  10. With every possible help to the meaning of the original, [74] Mr. S. has sometimes contrived to miss it. Mellaque decussit foliis, he renders 'From leaves bade honey drop in viscid dew.' There is no authority for applying mella to the morbid affection of trees called honey-dew. The true meaning manifestly is, that in the reign of Jove, honey no longer dropped from the leaves as in the golden age—Flavaque de viridi stillabant ilice mella. Had Mr. S. forgotten that Virgil himself, in describing that age, had said (Ecl. 4, 30.) Et duræ quercus sudabunt roscida mella. We might also mention under this head, though the error is common to him with all the translators except De Lille, that by not adopting the punctuation of Dr. Hunter's Edition,* he has overlooked the only chance of giving a consistent sense to an obscure passage, I, 195.

  11. That we may not be suspected of selecting the vulnerable parts for quotation, we shall give his translation of the celebrated simile of the nightingale robbed of her young, on which he piques himself so much, that he particularly recommends it to the reader's attention, in a note.

    'So from the poplar, in lamenting strains
    For her lost young sad Philomel complains,
    Which some rude peasant with unfeeling breast
    Had mark'd, and tore unfeather'd from the nest.
    She weeps the night:—sole-perch'd amid the grove,
    Wailing the sorrows of her tortur'd love:—
    Each falling note renews with fond despair,
    Warble the woods, and sighs the wounded air.'

    It would be the justest as well as the most severe criticism on this passage, to quote the corresponding lines of Mr. Sotheby.

  12. We shall close our extracts with part of the fine description of a Scythian winter in the third book, l. 360, of the Georgics. Mr. Stawell's version, though much inferior to the original, is in his best stile.

    'A sudden crust the flowing river feels,
    And now its back sustains the glowing wheels;
    Where ships had sail'd the loaded waggons pass,
    And oft asunder snaps the brittle brass.[75]
    Their clothes congeal upon the wearers' backs,
    And wines, once liquid, cleave beneath the axe.
    The ditches, late with stagnant waters full,
    Have chang'd, and ice consolidates the pool;
    And from their beards uncomb'd and matted hairs
    The icicle in stiffened dropping stares.'

    The notes are copious, and as far as they are selected from Martyn, De Lille, and the Delphin edition, may be useful to general readers. But the misplaced ambition of making a practical book, betrays him frequently into long and tiresome extracts from the Complete Farmer, and Tull's Horse-hoeing Husbandry. Virgil's precept, et sonitu terrebis aves, is expanded into a receipt for the construction of a scarecrow, and the note concludes with this profound reflection: 'The impudent familiarity of the sparrow should not be allowed to disgust us; who, by the destruction of insect eggs, almost repays the debt to vegetation contracted by his voraciousness.' We have long notes too on the astronomical part, the formation of the ancient plough, and other puzzling passages of Virgil; but after writing about it and about it, he leaves the subject in the same obscurity as before. It is vain, we believe, to attempt to throw new light on points so often and so ably discussed; and really the illustrations of the Georgics are so numerous and accessible, that we applaud Mr. Sotheby's forbearance in resting his fame on the simple dignity of, what is so rare in these days, a poem without a note.

  13. We have dwelt so long on Mr. Stawell's translation, that we must be very brief in our observations on that of Mr. Deare. Its being in blank verse, is an objection in limine, which, we fear, will be fatal to it. That measure is altogether unfit for any but dramatic translations. It requires to support it a nervousness of diction, and sublime originality of thought, which can be looked for only in the free and unfettered exertions of transcendent genius. We know of no blank verse translation of an ancient poet that has become a favorite with the public. Pope's Iliad is in every body's hands; but who, even of Cowper's warmest admirers, ever reads his version of Homer? Mr. Good, chiefly from the same cause, has miserably failed in his Lucretius: and Dr. Trapp's blank version of Virgil is only saved from oblivion by the value of the notes. But though we condemn the choice of his measure, the execution possesses considerable merit. He has little of the intolerable harshness and bathos of Trapp, and with the advantage of being very close and literal, is not always deficient in elevation and felicity of language. We select, as a [76] specimen, part of Virgil's praise of a country life, which Mr. Deare thus renders:

    'Ah! but too happy, if they knew their bliss,
    Are husbandmen; for whom the righteous earth,
    Far from discordant arms, pours forth her stores
    Of ready sustenance. What, if for them
    No lofty mansion from its ample porch
    Vomit each morn a sycophantic tide;
    What, if no decorated columns move
    The admiring crowd; no broider'd gold disguise
    Their simple vests, nor Grecian vase for them
    Project its graceful form; no Tyrian dye
    Their spotless wool, nor vitiating use
    Of eastern perfume taint their wholesome oil?
    Yet rest secure, and life that ne'er deceives;
    Rich in the various wealth of wide domains;
    Caves and the living lake; yet cooling vales
    And lowing herds and shaded slumbers sweet
    Are theirs: for them the woodland glade expands;
    Theirs are the pleasures of the chase; a youth
    Of labour patient and of frugal fare:
    Theirs the pure altar; theirs old age revered:
    Leaving 'mongst them her vestiges extreme,
    Departing Justice fled the haunts of men.'

  14. This is about as much above Trapp as it is beneath Sotheby. In short, Mr. Deare must, we think, be satisfied with the praise, and it is no very high one, of having produced the best blank verse translation of the Georgics. We certainly read his book with more pleasure, or rather with less pain than Mr. Stawell's; but we cannot flatter him with the hope of being generally perused, while such translations as Sotheby's, Warton's, and Dryden's remain.