Damon’s Song (from Eclogue 8)

by Vergil / translation from Latin by Olivia May

Translator’s note: Vergil’s Eclogue 8 presents a singing competition between two shepherds, Damon and Alphesiboeus, whose verses are said to stupefy lynxes and reverse the course of rivers. In his song, translated here, Damon assumes the persona of a shepherd lamenting the marriage of his beloved to another man and ultimately committing suicide. The song channels elegiac motifs while maintaining bucolic norms, and its verses seem to alternate between the delicately moving and the tragically absurd.

 

Lead out the morning, Lucifer, warm comfort from above:
I’ve been naïve, deceived by Nysa’s fleeting, fickle love.
And though I’ve called upon the gods as witnesses in vain,
To them I still direct my final breath in this refrain.

Begin, my pipes, to play with me
A sweet Maenalian melody!

The sylvan song is silver-tongued; pines prattle to their peers:
The mountain’s always humming, yet the mountain always hears
The lusty strains of shepherds as they lead a wooly throng,
And Pan, whose skill first stirred the reeds from artless sighs to song.

Begin, my pipes, to play with me
A sweet Maenalian melody!

If Mopsus marries Nysa, then what castles in the air
Are out of reach for lovers? Soon the griffin and the mare
Will share in married bliss, and in the age about to dawn,
You’ll see the hound assuage his thirst alongside fearful fawn.

Begin, my pipes, to play with me
A sweet Maenalian melody!

Go chop the nuptial torches, Mopsus: soon you two will wed.
She’ll be your wife, transform your life; she’ll share your wedding bed.
So sprinkle nuts in preparation, happy groom-to-be:
The evening star ascends for you, while daylight turns to flee.

Begin, my pipes, to play with me
A sweet Maenalian melody!

You’ve found a worthy husband; now the rest know your contempt:
You ridicule my beard and brows, their bristles coarse, unkempt:
My pipes you call repugnant, while recoiling from my herds:
You question whether any god will heed a mortal’s words.

Begin, my pipes, to play with me
A sweet Maenalian melody!

We met among the copses: you were young, the morning new,
The apples you and mother gathered glimmered with the dew.
I led you: only twelve, I scarcely reached the fragile boughs.
I looked and I was hooked: cruel error took me, love aroused.

Begin, my pipes, to play with me
A sweet Maenalian melody!

And now I know who Amor is: no boy of blood and bone,
But changeling child, our hearts beguiled to claim him as their own.
For Tmarus, Garamantes, or Rhodope first begot
Upon their jagged rocks a boy as jagged as the spot.

Begin, my pipes, to play with me
A sweet Maenalian melody!

For Amor taught a mother’s undefiled hands to pool
the blood and flesh of flesh and blood—oh Mother, you were cruel.
His ruthlessness, your cruelty: which the flame and which the fuel?
The boy is ruthless, certainly—but Mother, you were cruel.

Begin, my pipes, to play with me
A sweet Maenalian melody!

Let wolf turn tail and flee his prey; let oak bear golden fruit:
Let tamarisk ooze amber, jonquil bloom from alder shoot.
Let owl and swan compete in song, poetic repartee:
Let Tityrus be Orpheus, or Arion at sea.

Begin, my pipes, to play with me
A sweet Maenalian melody!

Let all become the deep. Dear groves, I bid you now farewell:
A final gift, to see me plunge from cliff to frothy swell.

Now cease, my pipes. It ends with me,
The sweet Maenalian melody.

 

Original Latin text (taken from the Latin Library):

“Nascere, praeque diem ueniens age, Lucifer, almum,
coniugis indigno Nysae deceptus amore
dum queror, et diuos, quamquam nil testibus illis
profeci, extrema moriens tamen adloquor hora. (20)
Incipe Maenalios mecum, mea tibia, uersus.
Maenalus argutumque nemus pinosque loquentis
semper habet; semper pastorum ille audit amores
Panaque, qui primus calamos non passus inertis.
Incipe Maenalios mecum, mea tibia, uersus.  (25)
Mopso Nysa datur: quid non speremus amantes?
Iungentur iam grypes equis, aeuoque sequenti
cum canibus timidi ueniet ad pocula dammae.
Incipe Maenalios mecum, mea tibia, uersus.  (28a)
Mopse, nouas incide faces: tibi ducitur uxor;
sparge, marite, nuces: tibi deserit Hesperus Oetam.  (30)
Incipe Maenalios mecum, mea tibia, uersus.
O digno coniuncta uiro, dum despicis omnis,
dumque tibi est odio mea fistula dumque capellae
hirsutumque supercilium promissaque barba,
nec curare deum credis mortalia quemquam!  (35)
Incipe Maenalios mecum, mea tibia, uersus.
Saepibus in nostris paruam te roscida mala
(dux ego uester eram) uidi cum matre legentem;
alter ab undecimo tum me iam acceperat annus;
iam fragilis poteram a terra contingere ramos: (40)
ut uidi, ut perii, ut me malus abstulit error!
Incipe Maenalios mecum, mea tibia, uersus.
Nunc scio quid sit Amor: duris in cautibus illum
aut Tmaros aut Rhodope aut extremi Garamantes
nec generis nostri puerum nec sanguinis edunt. (45)
Incipe Maenalios mecum, mea tibia, uersus.
Saeuos Amor docuit natorum sanguine matrem
commaculare manus; crudelis tu quoque, mater:
crudelis mater magis, an puer improbus ille?
Improbus ille puer; crudelis tu quoque, mater. (50)
Incipe Maenalios mecum, mea tibia, uersus.
Nunc et ouis ultro fugiat lupus; aurea durae
mala ferant quercus, narcisso floreat alnus,
pinguia corticibus sudent electra myricae,
certent et cycnis ululae, sit Tityrus Orpheus, (55)
Orpheus in siluis, inter delphinas Arion.
Incipe Maenalios mecum, mea tibia, uersus.
Omnia uel medium fiat mare. Viuite, siluae:
praeceps aerii specula de montis in undas
deferar; extremum hoc munus morientis habeto. (60)
Desine Maenalios, iam desine, tibia, uersus.”

 

 

Olivia recently received a B.A. in Classics and enjoys studying Vergil, Horace, and Propertius. She currently lives in Wisconsin, where she works for a medical software company.


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7 Responses

  1. Gregory Kaplan

    Olivia,

    I’ve never posted a comment on this website before, but I felt your poem was such an incredible translation of Latin and a beautiful work in its own right that I had to write something.

    You have a wonderful gift of language, and I especially enjoyed the second stanza (“The sylvan song is silver-tongued…”) since you create such a natural flow that echoes the original content while following closely to the original playful style. You fill your poem with a creative, unique voice, soothing rhymes, and assonance that rolls off the tongue. Your phrase, “the blood and flesh of flesh and blood” is perfect. Vergil couldn’t have said it better himself.

    I hope you continue writing and sharing your work. This poem was a joy to read and sing!

    Reply
  2. James A. Tweedie

    When it comes to classical Latin and Virgil, I am completely in the dark, so, when I read a translation of Virgil, I expect to catch little more than a dim, fleeting glimpse of what the poet actually wrote. I do not, however, expect to be tempted into thinking that the translation might possibly be equal to, or greater than the original! In the person of Olivia May, I see not only an able translator, but an accomplished, inspired poet in her own right. This translation not only honors and elevates Virgil, but stands on its own as an outstanding example of English poetry. Bravo!

    Reply
  3. C.B. Anderson

    Dear Olivia, I can only echo the thoughts and sentiments expressed in the comments above my own. Yet I might add that I have seldom read before on these pages anything quite as well executed or as gripping as this translation. But I would like to understand what “Maenalian” denotes and connotes. In any event, it is my fervent hope that we have not seen the last of you. Pipe up whenever the mood (or Muse) urges you to do so.

    Reply
  4. David Watt

    Olivia, I find your work to be of such high quality that I forget it is a translation. I doubt it is easy to translate from Latin into English. Although I can’t comment on the original, your translation is superb!

    Reply
  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    This is a very fine English rendering of the Latin, and done in what were called “fourteeners” in Shakespeare’s time. These “fourteeners” are a good equivalent for Latin dactylic hexameters. There isn’t a single syllable that is out of place.

    The poet also has a sophisticated ear for rhythm, and an impressive vocabulary (“Let tamarisk ooze amber, jonquil bloom from alder shoot”). She is unafraid of offending the Plain Language Police who are so annoying in poetry circles today.

    The line “The sylvan song is silver-tongued; pines prattle to their peers” is absolutely magnificent in its triple alliterations. And thank God we have a poet who knows how the semicolon works.

    Moreover, every rhyme pair is perfect. Not slant, not near, not assonant, not offbeat, not “experimental.” This is what classic English poetry is supposed to be.

    Reply
  6. Aedile Cwerbus

    I am inspired by Ms. May’s translation of part of “Vergil’s Eclogue 8”, and for some of the reasons commenters have mentioned, it possesses a natural flow, it stands as a poem in and of itself (it is worthy of placement in a New Millennial anthology), the iambic heptametres are excellently executed, and the various poetic elements suffused throughout are delightful ornaments. The exact rhymes are nice; and they do not detract at all. In fact, what she is attempting in poetic translation is what others here @ SCP are attempting in poetry, with variations, of course, and qualifiers. Mr. Salemi is right on target when he says, “These ‘fourteeners’ are a good equivalent for Latin dactylic hexameters”.

    Though, as an aside, I disagree deeply with Mr. Salemi and his crusade against slant rhyme, near rhyme, etc.

    What is so magnificent about Vergil’s Eclogues, including this one, is his method of spontaneous artistic fusion of all material. Here, of course, Vergil is working predominantly with Theocritus, and some of his pictures of the very ordinary, flash almost into fairyland; L37-41, in Ms. May’s translation, are beautifully rendered:

    “We met among the copses: you were young, the morning new;
    The apples you and mother gathered glimmered with the dew.
    I led you: only twelve, I scarcely reached the fragile boughs.
    I looked and I was hooked: cruel error took me, love aroused.”

    The alliteration through is finely done, but what I particularly like here are her line cadences and the placement and vowel-working of “cruel error took me”.

    At the end of the song within the poem, we find the phrase “omnia vei medium fiat mare”, meaning something like “may all things become a mid waste of sea” clipped succinctly by Ms. May as “let all become the deep”, a line Vergil perhaps derives from Theocritus. Here it is easy to see the impossibility of completely bringing a poem from one language into another. How could Ms. May get the meaning, and simultaneously the allusion from Greek?

    Still, as was recently mentioned of Mr. Pagano’s translation of Foscolo, we owe Ms. May gratitude for showing how, in the New Millennium, here @ SCP many are striving for a finer line, and a firmer foundation for this next phase of English literature.

    Reply
  7. Monty

    I don’t know the very first thing about the Latin Language; Damon; Vergil; or Eclogues . . but I do know that the above poem is a high-class, highly-polished and masterful piece of work in its own right.

    And to think that it was all accomplished within the confines of a translation is, to me, mind-boggling!

    Reply

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