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Virgil's Georgics: Previous Prose Translations

Older Versions

Prose is the safe option, for if it denies the translator the expressive power of verse it also prevents him blundering badly. The first two examples have the elevated diction of English prose of the period, splendidly echoing the original, but now needing a little updating.

virgil's geogics previous translations

H. R. Fairclough: 1916

What makes the crops joyous, beneath what star, Maecenas, it is well to turn the soil, and wed vines to elms, what tending the cattle need, what care the herd in breeding, what skill the thrifty bees — hence shall I begin my song. O most radiant lights of the firmament, that guide through heaven the gliding year, O Liber and bounteous Ceres, if by your grace Earth changed Chaonia's acorn for the rich corn ear, and blended draughts of Achelous with the newfound grapes, and you Fauns, the rustics' ever present gods (come trip it, Fauns, and Dryad maids withal!), 'tis of your bounties I sing. {15}


J. W. Mackail: 1934

What makes the cornfields glad; beneath what star it befits to upturn the ground, Maecenas, and clasp the vine to her elm; the tending of oxen and the charge of the keeper of a flock; and all the skill of thrifty bees; of this will I begin to sing. You, O bright splendours of the world, who lead on the rolling year through heaven; Liber and gracious Ceres, if by your gift Earth exchanged Chaonian acorns for the swelling ear, and tempered her draughts of Achelous with the discovered grape; and you, O Fauns, guardian presences of the country, trip it together, Fauns and Dryad girls; of your gifts I sing. {16}

Free Verse Translations

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. Be that as it may, 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); {17}

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.

Through this: C. Day Lewis 1940

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 {18}

'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.

And 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. {19}

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 forgets the decorum of Latin verse: 4. 351: . . . till Arethusa, first of the sisters to peek, . . Or adds a whimsy not found in the original: 2.80: And in no time at all, a great tree, amazed by unusual leaves and fruit not its own, tickles the belly of heaven with its laden boughs.

And 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 Fauns 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; {20}

L.P. Wilkinson was a noted Virgil scholar, and his several books display a keen ear for the beauties of Latin verse. In this translation the section introductions are excellent, packed with useful information, and the rendering is generally faithful to the text, though not always appropriate in diction nor gracefully expressed. 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. Exceptions are the famous sections where the translation rises a little to the power and beauty of the original, notably at the end of Book One, the praise of Italy, and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.


To this by A.S. Kline


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. {21}

Tony Kline's version is intelligent, informed and faithful, sometimes closer to the original than better-known translations. As a simple-to-read crib for busy students it could hardly be bettered, but the diction and awkward rhythms do not echo the excellence of Virgil's Latin.

Free Verse Characteristics

Free verse is not a lackadaisical or curiously ordered prose but verse in which some formal characteristics have been relaxed or given an extra subtlety, usually by reducing the regularity of metre or line length. Unfortunately — and why good free verse is so difficult to write — removing such vital supports calls for greater skills in intertextual matters: assonance, alliteration, phrasing, cadence, vowel harmony, etc. — skills which are only gained by practice in writing verse, and in reading it. I have no quarrel with free verse, and indeed employ it throughout the Ocaso Press version, collecting lines of varying length into formal hexameters. Here, in the opening section, each line has a rhythmic unity, iambic, but with wide differences in pace and phrasing:

What makes the cornfield joyful,
and beneath what star we turn the earth,
Maecenas?
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.
And Neptune giving birth to neighing horse
when your great trident struck the earth,
and you,
the dweller of the woods,
for whom three hundred head of snowy cattle browse the Ceos thicket lands;
Tegean Pan that guards the flocks,
though much you love Maenales lands,
come, leave your own Lycaeus groves and favour us;
Minerva of the olive gift,
and you,
young man,
who first revealed the curving plough,
Sylvanus,
planter of the pliant cypress tree,
and you,
obliging gods and goddesses who watch our fields,
to nourish native fruits we have not sown,
and have the heavens so plentifully water crops.
And you,
great Caesar,
who in time will join the gods,
in unknown company,
but choosing, it may be, to safeguard cities,
care for lands,
become the source of wondrous harvest on the widespread earth,
the seasons' potentate that wears his mother's myrtle crown,
who broods on boundless seas,
the sovereign breath that mariners to far-off Thule look to,
Tethys furthers,
winning you as son-in-law with waves,

These can then be 'reassembled' as hexameters:

What makes the cornfield joyful, and beneath what star
we turn the earth, Maecenas? 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. And Neptune giving birth to neighing
horse when your great trident struck the earth, and you,
the dweller of the woods, for whom three hundred head
of snowy cattle browse the Ceos thicket lands;
Tegean Pan that guards the flocks, though much you love
Maenales lands,come, leave your own Lycaeus groves
and favour us; Minerva of the olive gift,
and you, young man, who first revealed the curving plough,
Sylvanus, planter of the pliant cypress tree,
and you, obliging gods and goddesses who watch
our fields, to nourish native fruits we have not sown,
and have the heavens so plentifully water crops.
And you, great Caesar, who in time will join the gods,
in unknown company, but choosing, it may be,
to safeguard cities, care for lands, become the source
of wondrous harvest on the widespread earth, the seasons'
potentate that wears his mother's myrtle crown,
who broods on boundless seas, the sovereign breath
that mariners to far-off Thule look to, Tethys
furthers, winning you as son-in-law with waves,

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Latin pages.