‘The Pastoral Poems’ by Virgil, trans. E.V Rieu

Ancient Roman bust (so-called "Bust of Ve...
Image by A. Hunter Wright via Wikipedia

My copy of Virgil is a 1961 Penguin Classics edition; it has the original Latin poetry as well as the English translation, and essays on each of the eclogues by the translator.  Its full title is, for what it’s worth, ‘Virgil The Pastoral Poems The Text of the Eclogues with a Translation by E.V. Rieu‘.  I’ve never read this one, because I picked it up in my first year of university.  I was studying Euripides Ion in Greek and struggling enough with that to be terrified of Latin grammar.  I couldn’t help myself from buying it at the open air markets I worked at, but I also couldn’t help myself from tucking it neatly into my bookshelf and never looking back.

It’s a shame I didn’t read it sooner, because the book is lovely.  It is a purple penguin, the colour still vivid and dark.  It smells like old books and spilled tea, probably thanks to the stain in the top-right corner of the pages.  In the ten Eclogues there are only two selections underlined in pen (underlined pages and phrases were very common in secondhand books on campus), Gallus line 27:

…stained with vermilion and with blood-red elderberry juice.

and line 77:

Home with you, goats: you have had your fill.’

No Latin underlined, so I am assuming that this was an ancient history student finding quotes to flavour  an essay.

The poems themselves are, of course, Pastoral in theme, and brief enough that summarising them seems somewhat moot.  Rieu notes in his essays the various guises that political and personal figures assume in Virgil’s characters, and the ways that Virgil’s own persona can be seen in some (sometimes all) of them.  But, as he also notes, academics have been reading symbolism and connotations into Virgil since before Cassell’s Latin Dictionary went to press.  These days I believe people don’t try to find which individual character is analogous to Virgil in each poem, but analyse the whole poems and their meaning.

I don’t like to say what I think about poetry, especially the Latin stuff, until it’s had a few years to stew inside my head and I’ve been able to pick up on the references within later literature and media.  I never studied Latin as well as I did Greek, and I miss a lot of the context unless I specifically research the time period in advance.  So my reactions to the characters and essays will be stored up in a dark corner of my head for at least a year.  It also seems silly to go looking for other reviews when Virgil’s work has already been reviewed and studied countless times over hundreds of years, and because you can just dip in online to get a feel for the language yourself.

You can find Virgil’s works online in Latin and translated, because public domain is a wonderful thing.  Try Project Gutenberg and The Perseus Project to get started.


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