Virgil: On the Solar Apocalypse (From Latin)

On the Solar Apocalypse
By Vergil (Geo.I.461-514)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

What the late dusk brings hither, whence the weather
Hurls the fair clouds, how dank the southwind's schemes...
These things the sun foreshadows. No man questions
The sun. For it foretells the tide of times,
Treasons unseen, star-chambered insurrection,
And the first groundswell of uncivil war.

When Caesar bled his last, the sun pitied Rome,
Veiled his bright head in iron-red air till godless
Times shook in terror of eternal nightfall.
Over his wounds the sky had prophesied.
Then in those days of wrath the earth and ocean,
The foul-mawed beasts, the gyres of heinous birds
Foreshadowed things. Mount Aetna quaked with magma
And ruptured, overflowing the Cyclops' fields
With molten stone and lava whirled through air.
Wild over Germany the nordic thunder
Of battle hammered the sky. The stiff Alps shifted.

And all the multitudes heard a mighty voice
Cry havoc through the silent groves, beheld
Unearthedly pale visions in the dead
Nightfall. Yea even the cattle cried in tongues.

Unnatural times! Streams sat still, the landscape fissured,
The temple bronze broke out in sweat and tears.

That overlord of rivers Eridanus
Flooding whole forests in his waking, rushed
Amok about the lowlands, making off
With herds and pens. And ever in that time
The viscera of beasts were thick with omens
Evil and awful, wellsprings were spurting blood
And every night the towns on high ground sounded
And resounded with the wolf-pack's trailing wail.
Never from such a fair sky had more firebolts
Fallen, nor heaven blazed forth more baleful comets,
As fury cumbered Italy. It was clear
Brutus against the western coalition
Would see the Roman legions once again
Battle each other, wielding the same blades.
For the Master Spirits saw fit that the soil
Of Macedonia and the broad Balkans
Be gorged a second time on blood of our own.

Surely in ages hence, states yet unborn,
The farmer turning earth in those same lands
Will find the javelins eaten red with rust
Or clank on empty helmets with his harrow,
Gaping at the those same skulls in excavated
Mass graves: the ancient ruin of our nobles.

O national home gods! Dear founding father
Romulus! Mother Vesta! All of you
Who guard the Tiber and the Palatine!
Now that age's revolutions are complete
Let not this young, august Octavian fail
In peace-keeping. Long enough have we suffered
The heavens' crimes against humanity.
And long enough beneath your reign, O Caesar,
Have jealous gods harassed us for your triumphs
Reversing right and wrong. Such world-wide warfare,
So many faces of wickedness. No honor
Paid to the plow, but farmland left to rot,
The farmers drafted for troops, their curved sickles
Hammered to straight stern swords upon the forge.
First Germany's wars...then wars in the Middle East!
Neighboring peoples violating treaties
For violence's own sake, with an unholy
Militant god berserking over the globe.

Just so a chariot bursting from the gates
Veers out of control. The four horses run wild
As though spur-struck by four invisible horsemen,
Towing the driver powerless at the reins,
The chariot heedless of the charioteer.


Note:

Anyone translating Virgil into English in the 21st century has some serious explaining to do. Why the hell do we need yet another incarnation of him when there are good translations out there, and Latin is far from an obscure language of study? This question I cannot answer for others. In my case, it is because I see a chance to inject a 21st century appreciation of Vergil and sense of relevance (or, rather, my appreciation and sense of relevance) into the translation. I'm not offering access to new texts here, so much as offering a peak into the way I engage with a text in the context of an added 2000 years of historical developments in language, politics, literature, scholarship, aesthetics, philosophy etc.

What does this mean, then? Virgil's habit of allusion to legend and lore is one that, obviously, can't be appreciated in scrupulous literal translation- or even the conventional sort of verse-translation. And most translators simply footnote such, or hope the teacher will supply the necessary guidance. However, I employ here a methodology allowing allusive resonances that weren't around for Vergil to use, such as -for one- the previous famous English treatments of Roman history (or monarchy in general) such as those of Shakespeare. Shakespeare's allusions to e.g. the legend of the heavens fortelling Caesar's death would today no longer appreciated by contemporary audiences- even educated ones- but allusion to Shakespeare himself alluding to such legends might do better- telescoping forward in time even while telescoping back.

Though Shakespeare, Milton and other bigwig British versewrights of yesteryear have been of value in choreographing this temporal dance, there's more, obviously: a history of apocalyptic language in English from the King James Bible to Yeats, the modern resonance of strife in the Balkans, modern sentiment, philosophical and religious controversy etc. Mind you, I have implanted nothing I saw as foreign to the poem. With "Haemus", for example, being turned into "Balkans" I have simply replaced an ancient geographic term with the modern term for (roughly) the same area- and in so doing importing all the allusive connections of the latter because this served the ends Vergil had by other means accomplished in the line in Latin.

It could be said that this makes my translation a modern adaptation, rather than an ancient poem in English, that it is more mine than it is Virgil's. Yes, in the most obvious sense, it is. But as witnesses for the defense, I could summon the poets of Classical Greece and Rome themselves, who did precisely these sort of things routinely.

Imitation and adaptation were a key component of classical aesthetics. Especially in Latin poetry, creative imitation was basically poetic law. When Roman literateurs called someone's work original, it was often not a compliment but a condemnation for straying from proper (Greek) models, and to call someone's work "derivative" would have been as meaningless and absurd as a modern green beret calling a marine an evil butcher for being so good at killing. A measure of a Latin poet as an artist was the ability to take an established model and give it a new twist.

The flipside of this is that Latin literary translators felt free to take such license as they deemed necessary. In fact whether something counts an adaptation or a translation is often less a question of fidelity than of intent. When composing an original imitation the poet was plying his own craft which entailed adherence to models. When fashioning a translation from an original, the poet was conveying the craft of another, which meant giving as best an account as possible of what the original poem was like. And this meant adjustments not just of language, idiom etc. but also, at times, of Culture. Helios could become Apollo in one instance, and Sol in another.

It is my position that, in casting Virgil the way I have, I am availing myself of an aspect of the Roman aesthetic that most translators often treat, in much the way architects treat bathrooms, as undeniably integral but best kept as hidden as possible.


The Original:

Dēnique, quid Vesper sērus vehat, unde serēnās
ventus agat nūbēs, quid cōgitet ūmidus Auster,
sōl tibi signa dabit. Sōlem quis dīcere falsum
audeat? Ille etiam caecōs īnstāre tumultūs
saepe monet fraudemque et operta tumēscere bella;

Ille etiam extīnctō miserātus Caesare Rōmam,
cum caput obscūrā nitidum ferrūgine tēxit
impiaque aeternam timuērunt saecula noctem.
Tempore quamquam illō tellūs quoque et aequora pontī
obscēnaeque canēs importūnaeque volucrēs
signa dabant. Quotiēns Cyclōpum effervere in agrōs
vīdimus undantem ruptīs fornācibus Aetnam
flammārumque globōs liquefactaque volvere saxa!
Armōrum sonitum tōtō Germānia caelō
audiit, īnsolitīs tremuērunt mōtibus Alpēs.

Vōx quoque per lūcōs volgō exaudīta silentis
īngēns et simulacra modīs pallentia mīrīs
vīsa sub obscūrum noctis, pecudēsque locūtae,
Ō īnfandum! Sistunt amnēs terraeque dehīscunt
et maestum illacrimat templīs ebur aeraque sūdant.

Prōluit īnsānō contorquēns vertice silvās
fluviōrum rēx Ēridanus campōsque per omnīs
cum stabulīs armenta tulit. Nec tempore eōdem
trīstibus aut extīs fibrae adparēre minācēs
aut puteīs mānāre cruor cessāvit et altae
per noctem resonāre lupīs ululantibus urbēs.

Nōn aliās caelō cecidērunt plūra serēnō
fulgura nec dīrī totiēns ārsēre comētae.
Ergō inter sēsē paribus concurrere tēlīs
Rōmānās aciēs iterum vīdēre Philippī;
nec fuit indignum superīs, bis sanguine nostrō
Ēmathiam et lātōs Haemī pinguēscere campōs.

Scīlicet et tempus veniet, cum fīnibus illīs
agricola incurvō terram mōlītus arātrō
exēsa inveniet scabrā rūbīgine pīla
aut gravibus rāstrīs galeās pulsābit inānīs
grandiaque effossīs mīrābitur ossa sepulchrīs.

Dī patriī, Indigetēs, et Rōmule Vestaque māter,
quae Tuscum Tiberim et Rōmāna Palātia servās,
hunc saltem ēversō iuvenem succurrere saeclō
nē prohibēte! Satis iam prīdem sanguine nostrō
Lāomedōntēae luimus periūria Troiae;

Iam prīdem nōbīs caelī tē rēgia, Caesar,
invidet atque hominum queritur cūrāre triumphōs;
quīppe ubi fās versum atque nefās: tot bella per orbem,
tam multae scelerum faciēs; nōn ūllus arātrō
dignus honos, squālent abductīs arva colōnīs
et curvae rigidum falcēs cōnflantur in ēnsem.
Hinc movet Euphrātēs, illinc Germānia bellum;
vīcīnae ruptīs inter sē lēgibus urbēs
arma ferunt; saevit tōtō Mārs impius orbe;
ut cum carceribus sēsē effūdēre quadrīgae,
addunt in spatia et frūstrā retinācula tendēns
fertur equīs aurīga neque audit currus habēnās.

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