“An atypical Virgil writing humorous, obscene, parodic, and very slight poems, uncharacteristic to such an extent that scholarship has pretty definitely consigned them to the realm of forgery and misattribution.”
The Gnat and Other Minor Poems of Virgilby Virgil
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These delightful poems—by turns whimsical, beautiful, and vulgar—seem to have primarily survived because they were attributed to Virgil. But in David R. Slavitt’s imaginative and appealing translations, they stand firmly on their own merits. Slavitt brings to this little-known body of verse a fresh voice, vividly capturing the tone and style of the originals while conveying a lively sense of fun.
“An atypical Virgil writing humorous, obscene, parodic, and very slight poems, uncharacteristic to such an extent that scholarship has pretty definitely consigned them to the realm of forgery and misattribution.”
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The Gnat and Other Minor Poems of Virgil
By David R. Slavitt
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
My dear Octavius ... But do I forget myself?
No, on the contrary, I remember, as you do, too,
those old days when we fooled around, just starting out,
each on his own path, but good friends then and now.
Back then, as baby spiders sometimes do, I made
the frail and tiny webs that you would not think could hold
any kind of prey. But how else can they begin?
Let me return to that playful making of miniatures
that can be, I think, endearing, and are able to sustain
more than one might suppose. A plot! The speeches of heroes,
allusions to gods and all the Muses' elaborate stagecraft.
The bass notes will come later, but for the moment let us
turn our attention to this, the narrative of a gnat.
Will critics carp? I defy them! Their views are of even less
weight than the gnat would claim. All they want is uplift
and sound ideas. The poet has other, more important
business he must transact—as you so well understand.
This may be a jeu d'esprit but it can claim your attention
because its inspiration comes from Phoebus Apollo,
the golden child of Zeus and Latona and source of my song.
Let him inspire me with riffs on his harp that sound
like Xanthus' babble coming down Mt. Chimaera's slopes
to pass the town of Arna. Or better yet, imagine
the Castalia's steady murmur high on Parnassus' ridge
between the two rocky cliffs that appear to be great horns.
There the Naiads dance, thronging about the god,
while Pales, the shepherds' goddess, blesses her devotees
with increase in their flocks and keeps the woodlands green.
Tend those who tend the beasts, that I may roam the glades
taking whatever I can of their cool green inspiration.
And you, my dear Octavius, you also deign to bless
my efforts and to inspire, by your manifest merit,
the confidence I need for any such undertaking.
My lines will not sound the clangor of battle and bloody fighting,
and I shall not speak of war. The gigantomachy at Phlegra
that crimsoned the brown duff with the blood of the dying giants
is not what I have in mind. The Lapiths' brawl with the Centaurs
demands a recklessness that both you and I might question.
The Persian assault upon Athens with Xerxes' digging a channel
through Athos' foothills, and then later their ruinous flight
would make for the kind of splendid piece one dreams of writing,
but not until the wisdom—whatever there is—of age
supports the prosodist's craft with its bittersweet understanding.
Let's put that off a little, when the thirst for fame may prompt
ambitious undertakings for you of course, but for me,
too, in my own way. These are the tender shoots
of the flowers of early spring when Phoebus comes to wake
the long-slumbering earth with the warmth of his attention.
Let us wander barefoot as the young know how to do
on the almost velvety greensward. The holy youth I knew
was not yet burned by fame that waits upon you now
but I suspect you knew that it would one day arrive
as you know now that your place in heaven's abode is secure
from which your glistening presence will pour its blessings down
to inspire men and let them know of the joys of the good.
The sun has just risen up from its underground lair to shine
in the eastern sky and scatter its gift of golden rays,
and Aurora yet again has set the Darkness to flight
when a herdsman comes on the scene, driving his goats before him
and climbing the mountainside on his way to the happy pastures
where the grass still wet with the dew covers the gentle slopes.
The animals wander here and there, as if they have
a program they follow, but, no, it's just a series of promptings
of this attractive thicket, that delightful knoll,
and they crop the grass and nibble, composing as they do so
a picture of contentment for which we, in the city,
sometimes feel a yearning. Look at the rocky hollows,
the vines, the trailing arbutus, the delicate weeping willow
where the animals amble or sometimes, for no apparent reason,
caper and run, or then, as arbitrarily, rest.
Why should it be so pleasing to watch as a nanny goat stretches
her neck to take the delicate new leaves of the alder
that overhangs the stream, with no idea whatever
of the landscape she's in that sets her utter concentration
into a context of ease, tranquility, and peace?
Which of us has never thought of becoming a herdsman
and accepting the invitation of that pastoral scene? We dream
of power and wealth, of achievement, and are taught to feel disdain
for the poor man's bare-bones existence. But who in the city can claim
the happiness goatherds must feel at moments and settings like this?
The luxuries around us weigh us down with cares
as they whet our appetites for ever greater indulgence
so that our hearts are never at rest but always questing
to satisfy those whims that swirl around in our heads.
How fine to have our fleeces vividly double-dyed
in bright Assyrian colors, but can this satisfy?
Not all of Attalus' booty or gold-leaf glints from the ceiling
can sate the greedy soul, relentless in its craving.
Handsome paintings, gaudy jewels, the golden goblets
of an Alcon or a Boethus cannot quench such thirst
that burns as if from a fever. But there in that pleasant meadow
with a heart that is free from guile, the herdsman lies down happy,
stretched on emerald grass highlighted with dewdrops
where spring puts pastel accents of blossoms wherever he looks.
He stretches out his hand to pluck a reed from the river
and with it makes simple music, sweeter than our soirées
can ever provide in a salon abuzz with envy and hate.
This is the kind of playing Tmolus judged and enjoyed,
and sometimes the goats pause, look up from their grass and stare,
pleased at the sound they take to be that of some nearby bird.
With leaves and vines, goat milk, spring water, fruits and flowers
and all the gifts of Pales nourishing flesh and spirit,
where in his full heart can greed find a place to invade?
There must have been, long ago, a happier time, a golden
or silver age when all mankind lived in this manner,
free of the goads of greed, or war, or the fear of war,
the pitched battles on land, or the conflicts of fleets at sea,
in which men fight with men in the hope of plunder to pile
on the altars of cruel gods. His god is gentle and kind
with his rude images hacked in wood with a pruning knife.
Priapus does not require impressive marble figures
but only these frank gestures of the country people's devotion
and thanks for the benefits they see everywhere around them
in the green fields so richly speckled with colorful flowers.
Panchaea, that fabulous island in the Erythrean sea,
cannot boast of richer, more subtle perfumes than those
that waft in the gentle breeze with their ever-changing scents.
When his days of gratification have faded away with the sunlight,
his sleep is undisturbed by the kinds of dreams that torment us
with their burdens of fears and regrets. There is no silken pillow
that offers our heads the sweet repose of his contentment
as his weary body lolls in the sweetness of honest fatigue.
O flocks and herds! O Pans! O Tempe's idyllic valley
where the beautiful Hamadryads dwell in the trees! The herdsmen
have all this and rejoice, and each competes with his brothers
in songs of thanks and praise to the deities of his world
in the strains that Hesiod took for himself to descant upon
in Works and Days, his splendid poem of country life.
These are the satisfactions the shepherd enjoys as he leans
on his crook and daydreams (but only of more and more of the same)
or plays upon his Syrinx tunes or just random notes
as the sun climbs heaven's vault and pours down dazzling rays
that change their angle with every passing hour from dawn
through high noon until dusk. Then does the herdsman gather
his flock together as shadows lower upon the hillsides.
In one of those sheltered places he likes for the night, Diana
once saw Agave, daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia,
murder her own son, staining her wicked hands
with Pentheus' blood. When Bacchus' frenzy abated at last,
she ran away and hid from him in a cave like this one.
In a place like this did Pan and the Satyrs romp with Dryad
and Naiad girls, dancing the merry night away.
We know about Orpheus' song and how it made the Hebrus'
waters pause in their flow, but that was a brief interruption,
lasting much less long than the dancing out in the woods
that made Diana pause to watch and share their delight.
We know these tales of course and tell them to one another
here in the city, but there, in the countryside Diana
is so much loved, one can feel that she may have excused herself
for only a moment and therefore may return in the next.
It is the city dweller's yearning that makes her presence
so palpable as we think of her radiating her joys
among the whispering leaves and refreshing shade that the weary
recognize as blessings. The towering plane trees sway
over the lotus—wicked for what it did to Ulysses'
comrades, holding them captive in indolence and douceur.
The poplars, of course, are Phaëthon's sisters, the Heliads,
transformed in their fall from the blazing car to earth where they lift
their slender arms toward heaven, veiled in the white of mourning.
And Phyllis is there, who turned at her death to an almond tree,
the fruit of which is as bitter as the tears the young girl shed
for Demophoön after he left Thrace and forgot
all about her (a story that girls even today
weep to hear). And the oak trees, the kind we find at Dodona,
where vatic ladies chant their hints about what is to come,
used to provide us with food before the gifts of Ceres
improved and refined our lives, as Triptolemus traveled the earth
teaching men to plant, tend, and then harvest wheat.
And there in the woods are the shaggy pines the planks of which
were used to build the Argo—and those lofty trees aspire
to touch the starry skies where the Argonauts' constellations
revolve through the changing seasons. And look, there, at the ilex,
the sad cypress, the umbrous beeches, and see the ivies
constraining the poplars' arms lest, for their brother's sake,
they smite themselves with blows. The ivy climbs their branches
and dapples their golden clusters with accents of deepest green.
But have I mentioned the myrtle, the tree into which Myrsine,
Venus' priestess, was changed? (She had offended the goddess
who loved her nevertheless and made her tree evergreen.)
Among these various trees, the birds light on the branches
to sing their different songs. Beneath them the trickle of water
flowing over the rocks murmurs of calm and peace.
In answer to those birds a comic chorus of frogs
responds with querulous croaks from the homes they make in the muck,
and adding their note, the cicadas whirr in the heat of the day
that all of nature seems to have joined together to praise.
That's the scene, except for the sheep that are lying here
and there, resting and chewing their cud, as the random breezes
tousle their fleeces. The shepherd also decides to lie down,
weary with heat and happy to sojourn in his dream world
and drift off into a sleep in which his dreams will be
redundant. What possible reason could he have at a time and place
as idyllic as that for any worries or vivid fears?
This, you will have realized, is always a risky question,
the asking of which is often enough to invite disaster.
That may have been the reason—or there may have been none whatever—
for Fortune to decide that his sense of contentment and safety
was too much for her to allow, and in its habitual course
an enormous speckled serpent made its way to seek
shelter from the heat and perhaps a drink from the pond.
We can see the flickering tongue emerge from its fetid mouth
as it corkscrews along at a fair clip on its scaly coils.
Its expression seems to be one of absolute rage, unless
it is only the glowing eyes that give one such an impression.
It lifts its head and glances this way and that in spite;
the purple scales of its neck glisten as if they were armor;
and the crest on its head comports well with that martial effect.
It surveys the ground or say that it reconnoiters. It sees
the shepherd blocking its way. It narrows its yellow eyes
and continues on the course that is, at least for the moment,
obstructed by this large being stretched out on the ground.
The snake and its kind do not put up with such frustrations
but seize and crush to death whatever impedes their progress.
It's how they are wired perhaps, but no other possible answers
present themselves to the serpent. It performs as Nature has taught it,
hissing in wrath and showing its fangs (this often suffices
to solve its difficulties, for obstacles flee if they can).
It coils itself and rears in preparation for striking,
and the hideous mouth yawns in a minatory display.
The shepherd, as we remember, is lost to the world and cannot
have any idea of the terrible danger closing upon him.
And then? And then what happens? One of Nature's nurslings
arrives in time to warn him, stinging his eyelid to rouse him
and warn him that death impends. It has picked a tender place
either by chance or else, if this is a fable, then knowing
that this is the quickest way to wake him up, and time,
as they often say in the courtrooms, is of the essence. The eye
hurts and the shepherd wakes and strikes the little gnat dead!
What sacrifice to lay down one's life for another creature,
but the poor gnat has been crushed and become a tiny smudge
on the shepherd's weathered face. It's then that he sees the serpent
coiled quite close and looking angry and ready to strike.
He does not stop to think but grabs a nearby bough
from one of the trees and, inspired, uses the branch as a cudgel
beating upon the serpent again and again in a frenzy
one would not have supposed him able to summon up
from his frail and aged frame. The strength and also the courage
are those of a younger man with a martial disposition.
He smashes the snake on its crest and crushes the oval skull.
How can this happen? Remember he had just woken up
a moment ago and had no time to experience fears
that otherwise would have attended such heroic exertions.
But now that the snake is dispatched, he feels the clammy terror
seize his skinny limbs. He can hardly breathe or stand.
The sense of his danger comes belatedly and he
can't quite believe that he is alive and the snake is dead
there on the ground before him, crushed, and by his efforts.
His knees wobble. He sinks back to the ground and sits there
feeling no pride at all but the terror still, and amazement.
Erebus' wife, Night, is now urging her steeds
across the sky. Ascending from behind golden Mt. Oeta
the evening star is advancing. The shepherd pens his sheep
and after this eventful day lies down to rest
his utterly exhausted body in healing repose.
He drifts off and his limbs relax and then his mind
lets go of the outer world, but into its inviting
arena comes the minuscule ghost of the poor gnat
to inveigh against injustice and complain of ingratitude:
"Is this how I am repaid for my concern and aid
that saved your life? Aware of the risk to my own safety, I roused you nevertheless, and look at me now—I roam
through the emptiness of space, while you stretch out to sleep,
having been snatched from the very lip of a yawning grave
and an agonizing death. My spirit is on its way
across the waters of Lethe in Charon's dismal skiff.
The ferryman's eyes brighten as if they were flames of torches
at a temple at festival time. Tisiphone brandishes whips
and Cerberus barks from all three mouths while hideous snakes
writhe around his necks and his eyes glow red as blood.
And do you feel gratitude? Do you even remember me?
Does Virtue go unrewarded? Is Goodness held up to contempt
and ridicule? Is Justice altogether forgotten?
The pieties that religion used to nurture have all
fallen in desuetude. The bases of civilization
are fictions that have life only if men believe.
I saw my duty and I performed it, giving no thought
to what the cost might be. I accept that death I risked—
but let there be a grateful heart that knows what I did
and let there be at least some small reciprocal gesture.
I wander these pathless infernal regions as dark as those
in which the Cimmerians dwell, and all around me is torture
for those who deserve to suffer. Otus and Ephialtes,
Neptune's twins, are here, who tried to mount the sky.
Tityus writhes, who offered to do Latona violence,
and the vulture tears at his liver. These are ghastly scenes
from which I turn away, but then, in another direction,
I see poor Tantalus' desperate efforts to slake his thirst
and satisfy his hunger. Sisyphus worries his boulder
endlessly up that hill. The Danaids scurry in pointless
labor carrying leaky vessels of water hither
and thither for their crimes. Medea is here of course,
and Philomela and Procne, with Tereus overhead
calling out in his hoopoe cry for Itys, Itys ...
But what could be my connection with any of them and their crimes?
Or by what disproportion do I find myself in the same
venue as Polynices and Eteocles his brother,
both of their hands still stained with one another's blood?
It is necessary that I attempt to swim across
Elysium's wide waters. Persephone there urges
the heroine women to hold forth their unpropitious torches.
Alcestis is there having saved her husband Admetus from death
(much as I saved you, except that we weren't married).
Penelope is there, the glory of womankind,
and behind her as if in a diorama the many suitors
are disposed in various postures of sudden death with arrows
protruding from their lifeless bodies in every direction.
Eurydice too in those precincts of special virtue mourns
Orpheus' backward look that cost her that second chance
at life in the upper world where the light of the sun shines.
Whoever thinks that Cerberus cannot be stilled or that Dis
and its stern and implacable judges can never be moved to tears
rehearses their sad story with its faint flicker of hope.
He tells himself how Orpheus enchanted the rivers and trees
that were touched by his song and either stopped in their rocky beds
or contrived to move their deepest roots to come closer to listen.
High in the starry sky, the moon's matched pair of horses
paused to hear his lyre, the power of which possessed
Persephone too, the bride of the Lord of the Underworld,
so that she, of her own free will, gave Eurydice up,
or at least she tried. But Death, who takes us all in the end,
snared Eurydice back, although she'd done nothing wrong.
Orpheus raised her hopes and then, by his want of faith,
dashed them. (But I am afraid that art will often do that,
with its vision of a better world we can never reach.)
Her existence is now more painful than before her lover descended
and tried and failed to retrieve her. Across from that heroine band
is a group of deserving heroes. Both of Aeacus' sons
are there—they are Telamon and Peleus—secure
in their places among the blest, their father being a judge
in the underworld. (Peleus, you will remember, married
Thetis; Telamon's wife was Periboea.) The two
couples' sons were Achilles and Ajax, from whose exploits
one could recount the entire Trojan war that stained
the Xanthus and Simois red with the blood of men.
"Along the shores of Sigaeum, men from the Troad came
to slaughter the Greeks and attempt to burn their long black ships,
inspired by Hector's rage and by having walked the slopes
of Ida, which fills the hearts of all who ascend it with ire.
Its trees became firebrands that its devotees waved aloft
and used to set ships aflame. The smoke brought tears to the eyes
of even the bravest Achaians. Telemonian Ajax
came out to offer combat to Hector himself, the chief
defender of Troy. Just as in springtime when rivers roar
with sudden snowmelt and thunder down on plains below
to devastate farmers' fields, so from the heights of Troy
did spears and flaming arrows rain down on Greek ships,
but unlike the grain in the fields, they fought back with their swords
to repel the savage assault and maintain themselves on their beach-head.
"It was cheering to Telamon and Peleus to see
the Achaians triumph when Hector was killed and his body was dragged
around the walls, but their happiness turned abruptly to woe
when Paris slew Achilles, and the wily Ulysses drove
Ajax raving mad. Down here, they avoid each other,
and Ulysses eyes never meet Telamon's outraged glare.
That proud Ithacan king, who murdered Rhesus of Strymon
(whom oracles had said would be the savior of Troy),
exposed Dolon, the spy, and stole the Trojan's statue
that was said to keep their city safe from any attack,
now cowers in fear of the great anger of the Cicones
and the Laestrygonians too. Scylla, with her hounds,
menaces him and he cringes; the Cyclops hates his guts;
and Charybdis contorts her face in withering disdain.
"Here too is Atreus' son, scion of Tantalus' house,
under whose rule the Greeks laid waste the Trojan plain
for which they paid a heavy penance as their ships
were wrecked off the coast of Euboea. Fortune contrives to punish
those who have risen too high, as Nemesis comes to correct
the sins of pride. The returning ships had made good progress
on a calm sea with following winds and Nereids guiding
their helmsmen to home port, but then, through chance or fate,
the sky changed, and the winds whipped around, and the sea
was churned into a maelstrom that threatened to wash the welkin
of high heaven. The heavily laden vessels wallowed
and foundered in the tempest. The triumphant Greeks were reduced
to terror and then despair as first one, then another
craft crashed upon rocks at Caphereus or else
destroyed itself at the base of the cliffs of Euboea, and booty
plundered from the Phrygian treasuries and their temples
sank to the bottom or else drifted as flotsam toward shore.
"Here are Romans, too, the brave and glorious heroes
one might expect to find—the Fabii, of course,
and the Decii; Horatius (the one from the famous bridge);
and Camillus, who came back from an unjust exile to save us
from the siege of the Gauls; and Curtius, too, who flung himself
into the depths of the cavern that opened up and demanded
the city's greatest treasure (without which it would destroy us).
Musius, who endured the flames until they consumed
his right hand (and Porsenna was terrified and yielded),
is present as is the frugal Curius who preferred
his earthen pots to the gold and silver ones the Samnites
offered him as a bribe. Caecilius is here
who gave his eyes, and Regulus and the Scipios, who reduced
Carthage to random thickets in a desolate wasteland.
"Let them all flourish and thrive in their renown. Those precincts
in which the elect consort are not for the likes of me,
and I must go on, I fear, to oblivion's shadowy pools
and the waters of Phlegathon to which Minos consigns
those who were not heroes. To the fiends with scourges I plead
my sorry case, but you do not come to bear witness.
My story is unsupported and appears to be self-serving,
and what judge will believe the claim I put before him?
I am a mere gnat, but I shall miss the springtime,
the green groves of the forest, the sweet smells of the meadows.
My complaint may seem small—like me—but what I did
I did for you. And can you allow the random breezes
to disperse my posthumous words and obliterate the truth?"
That was all he had to say. Then with a small
whine that gnats produce when they fly he disappeared.
The shepherd woke up, not right away but soon enough
so he could remember his dream. Or was it a visitation?
His heart was flooded with sorrow and bitter chagrin. He arose
and returned to that glade where he started to dig in the grassy sod,
marking out a circle on which he could set the stones
fashioned from polished marble. This monument he bedecked
with myrtle from Sparta, acanthus, crimson roses, and violets.
He put in Cilician saffron, and laurel, Apollo's plant.
Oleander and lilies, and rosemary (for its perfume)
he placed in an artful design, with juniper accents (the berries
have a smell that resembles frankincense). And ivy
with its clusters of pale berries among its shiny leaves.
Amaranth, bumastus, perennial laurestine,
and Narcissus' pretty flowers decorated the mound.
Upon its face he put a plaque with an epitaph:
O GNAT, YOUR BODY WAS TINY, BUT YOUR HEART AND COURAGE
A GRATEFUL SHEPHERD PAYS YOU THIS TRIBUTE FOR SAVING
Excerpted from The Gnat and Other Minor Poems of Virgil by David R. Slavitt. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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David R. Slavitt has been lauded for his translations of Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes, as well as Propertius in Love and De Rerum Natura, both from UC Press.
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