Monday, January 14, 2008

A Thin Dream of Life: lines from the Aeneid

I promised this little translation from Virgil's Aeneid to my friend Bo some weeks ago; so here it is now, much to my chagrin, a pretty ropey piece of prose disguised as poetry by virtue of having its sentences lopped in half and separated with white space. A thin dream of verse ...

But as a first 'serious' attempt at classical translation, it's not too desperate and was, in fact, rather useful as a starter exercise. I'm relieved to say that my ongoing translation of the long Anglo-Saxon poem, The Wanderer, is far more in line with the sort of original poetry I'm writing, i.e. it's less easy to tell at a single glance that it's a translation!

Where the elipsis occurs, a few lines are missing; I leapt over them in the translation to get to the central image.

Re-reading this, it's clearly not 'finished'. Especially the first two segments (I hesitate to call them stanzas). But that's a good thing. 'Finished' poems are beyond help. Unfinished ones ... well, if they're unfinished, it's easier to believe you could get them right one day, which is always more comforting than accepting that you've failed.

A Thin Dream of Life
(a translation from The Aeneid, Bk 6, l. 268 on)

Shoulder to shoulder, they took by night
to the shadowy wastes of death,
walking bare caverns like two people
lost on a forest path, their way home
shifting under a sullen moonlight,
clouds hiding the stars, everything blackened
by night’s monochrome.

Reaching the jaws of death, they saw
how those most grieved and oppressed
had thrown down their beds,
how the old and unwell
had built themselves a den there
with the poor and the starving.
Grim-faced and scared, they stared out
from death’s workhouse ...

at some vast shadowy elm,
older than time, extending dark arms
at the heart of this hell;
a resting-place, where a thin dream of life
still clings on and cleaves –
so they tell – with its sticky fingers
to the undersides of leaves.


Bo said...

This is fantastic! Really wonderful stuff. Is it a style, though, which could be sustained at great length?

Jane Holland said...

Thanks Bo, though using the word 'fantastic' to describe this clumsy effort is 'doing it rather too brown', as they say in Georgette Heyer novels.

No, I'm sure it couldn't be sustained over the many thousand acres of the Aeneid. I approached this excerpt very much as an individual lyric; if I'd been starting from line one and ploughing on towards what must feel like an eternal horizon for the translator, I would have been looking to build a strong poetic persona over time rather than go in for these gimmicky touches and sudden purplish outbursts.

I'll probably be in Oxford most Wednesday evenings this term, btw, doing Anglo-Saxon; if you'd like us to meet up for a jar sometime, it should be possible between 6 and 7pmish, or after about 9.45pm. Let me know.

Not this week though. This week is manic, and Wed/Thurs particularly so!

Sorlil said...

I dug out my David west translation to compare and I like very much what you've done especially how you worked the elm image.