Virgil's Georgics: Previous Verse Translations

Heroic Couplets

There are two reasons for not adopting the heroic couplet. First is its structure, which boxes up the content, packaging it into sections that deny the phrase by phrase expressiveness of Virgil's orginal. Second is Dryden's translation of 1697, still immensely readable.

What makes a plenteous harvest, when to turn
The fruitful soil, and when to sow the corn ;
The care of sheep, of oxen, and of kine,
And how to raise on elms the teeming vine ;
The birth and genius of the frugal Bee,
I sing, Maecenas, and I sing to thee.
Ye deities ! who fields and plains protect,
Who rule the seasons, and the year direct,
Bacchus and fostering Ceres, powers divine,
Who gave us corn for mast, for water, wine
Ye Fauns, propitious to the rural swains,
Ye Nymphs, that haunt the mountains and the plains,
Join in my work, and to my numbers bring
Your needful succour ; for your gifts I sing.
And thou, whose trident struck the teeming earth,
And made a passage for the courser's birth ;
And thou, for whom the Csean shore sustains
The milky herds, that graze the flowery plains ;
And thou, the shepherds' tutelary god,
Leave, for a while, O Pan ! thy loved abode;
And, if Arcadian fleeces be thy care,
From fields and mountains to my song repair.
Inventor, Pallas, of the fattening oil,
Thou founder of the plough, and ploughman's toil ;
And thou, whose hands the shrowd-like cypress rear,
Come, all ye gods and goddesses, that wear
The rural honours, and increase the year;
You, who supply the ground with seeds of grain ; {5}

So early Augustan verse with its balance and rugged good sense.

previous verse translations of virgil's georgics

Contemporary Rhyming Couplets

It is perfectly possible, with a little ingenuity, to create rhyming couplets in a more contemporary, fluid style:

What gladdens cornfields, and what star inclines
us turn the earth, Maecenus? How may vines
be trestled by the elm? Or flocks be cared
for, oxen bred? What qualities prepared
the bees for hives? And you, celestial lights

that lead the seasons in their fruitful rites,
with Lider and kind Ceres, you who meet
to turn the acorn lands to thick-sown wheat,
and mix with Archeloüs new-made wine.
10. You Fauns the rustics bless with wayside shrine —
so dance you Dryad girls and gods — your source
I celebrate. And Neptune's gift of horse
when his great trident struck the earth, the ways
of one who loves the wood, whose cattle graze
15. the width of Ceos thicket lands, great Pan
who guards Maenales lands and flocks of man,
Come, leave your own Lycaeus groves and bring
Minerva of the olive gift. I sing
of one who showed us how curved plough should be,
20. Sylvanus, bearer of the cypress tree,
of gods and goddesses who guard our fields
and in the unsown woods make good our yields,
that heavens so plentifully give us rain.
And you, great Caesar, who in time must gain . . .

The rhyme requirements and shorter line length make it difficult to match the content properly, however, and the odd reader who can still appreciate such verse today would probably want to stay with the more conventional phrasing of Dryden.

Blank Verse

Blank verse is more than able to render the Georgics effectively, and was indeed been the preferred choice in translations from the classics until 'free verse' became the norm. Again the arguments turn on history. There is no point in undertaking a new translation if the result is not a significant improvement on what is already available. J.B. Greenough's 1900 version, so often featuring on university Latin sites, is excellent:

J. B. Greenough 1900

What makes the cornfield smile; beneath what star
Maecenas, it is meet to turn the sod
Or marry elm with vine; how tend the steer;
What pains for cattle-keeping, or what proof
Of patient trial serves for thrifty bees;—
Such are my themes. O universal lights
Most glorious! ye that lead the gliding year
Along the sky, Liber and Ceres mild,
If by your bounty holpen earth once changed
Chaonian acorn for the plump wheat-ear,
And mingled with the grape, your new-found gift,
The draughts of Achelous; and ye Fauns
To rustics ever kind, come foot it, Fauns
And Dryad-maids together; your gifts I sing. {22}
It is not difficult to write something similar, updating the diction:
What gladdens cornfields, and beneath what star
Maecenas, are we made to turn the earth?
How may the vine be fastened to the elm,
or cattle tended, and the ox be bred?
What knowledge is possessed by thrifty bees? —
such are my themes. Celestial lights that lead
the seasons in their fruitful dance. How Bacchus
and propitious Ceres brought Chaonian
acorn lands to thick-sown fields of wheat,
10. and formed of Acheloüs new-made wine.
And Fauns, you gods of country folk-so dance
you Dryad girls and gods-your gifts I praise.
And Neptune giving horse when your great trident
struck the earth, and you, the woodland one
whose snowy cattle browse the Ceos thickets;
Pan that guards the flocks, though much you love
Maenales lands, come, leave your own Lycaeus
groves. And come Minerva, you of olive
gift, the youth who first revealed the curving plough,
20. Sylvanus, bearer of the cypress tree,
and you, great gods and goddesses who watch
our fields, to nourish fruits we have not sown,
have heavens so bountifully water crops. . .

But again words have to be left out to squeeze the content, already terse in Latin, into the shorter English pentameter.

R.C. Trevelyan 1944

What makes the cornfield glad, beneath what star,
Maecenas, it is well to turn the soil,
And wed the vine to the elm, how to tend oxen,
For nurturing flocks and hers what care is needful,
For keeping thrifty bees what knowledge, now
Shall I essay to sing. O ye most glorious
Lights of the universe, that lead along
Through heaven the gliding years; and you, Liber
And kindly Ceres, by whose bounty earth exchanged
Chaonian acorns for the rich ear of corn,
And blended with pure water from the stream
And new-found grape; and you Fauns, present deities
Of country folk (draw together, Fauns
And Dryad maidens), it is your gifts to men I sing. {12}

R.C. Trevelyan, a distinguished translator, avoided such compression by rendering ten of Virgil's hexameters by twelve English pentameters. Strangely, the result was not a success. The verse lacks the phrasing, cadences and extra graces so vital to blank verse, and something like half the lines are limp or clogged with unnecessary obstructions.

References and Resources

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