#216: A SONG FOR SPRING. In the sixth volume of the venerable Loeb Classical Library, tucked in after texts of Catullus and Tibullus, is one of odd little mysteries of Latin literature: the Pervigilum Veneris, twenty-two highly colored stanzas, quatrains with a single-lined refrain, a seeming ritual poem to Venus as the spirit of Spring. Its author and date are unknown, its versification—unusual in that it scans both quantitatively and metrically—and linguistic evidence have pinned it down only to within a couple of centuries. It originally existed in two manuscripts of battlefield disorder, and the ensuing textual studies have largely been very tentative suggestions for emendation and shrugs of bafflement. Scholars have heard in it an echo of the proem in De Rerum Natura to Venus, “that Goddess who thawed the icy dignity of Lucretius,” and it has been seen, emotionally if not stylistically, as the pivot of classical poetry toward the romanticism of medieval verse. It owes its very narrow survival no doubt to its charm, its warmth, its color; it has survived the centuries as we have survived our winters; it is a gemstone and a puzzlement. No one knows what to make of it, but no one wants to discard it.
It has been, among so many, a bane to translators. Its refrain has a stubborn and fragile beauty that typifies the whole: “Cras amet qui nunquam amavit quique amavit cras amet.” J.W. Mackail in the Loeb volume renders this, “Tomorrow shall be love for the loveless, and for the lover tomorrow shall be love.” Thomas Parnell, an eighteenth century Dubliner, rendered it, "Let those love now who never loved before, Let those who always lov'd, now love the more." Ezra Pound turned it into “Let whoever never loved, love tomorrow, / Let whoever has loved, love tomorrow.” See what I mean? No matter what you do, the English words are like so many pieces of furniture scattered about a room, the arrangement never quite right. Poetry? Ain’t gonna happen.
There is some version of this tumult in the original, as the manuscripts are such an unholy mess. The Loeb volume has Mackail’s ordering of the verses and his rendering of the text, much discussed by scholars—tentatively, most times, with the courtesy of the uncertain. It resembles nothing so much as the fabled story about Keats composing the “Ode to a Nightingale,” as retailed by Galway Kinnell in his own poem “Oatmeal”:
He wrote it quickly, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his pocket, but when he got home he couldn't figure out the order of the stanzas, and he and a friend spread the papers on a table, and they made some sense of them, but he isn't sure to this day if they got it right. An entire stanza may have slipped into the lining of his jacket through a hole in his pocket. He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas, and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move forward with a reckless, shining wobble.
So the poem has escaped translation, despite Parnell and Quiller-Couch and others. William Barton’s new edition (Pervigilium Veneris: A New Critical Text, Blackwell, 2018) is indeed scholarly but not for the general reader. The exception to this is Ezra Pound’s version, in the liquid, archaized language of his early work; it’s reprinted in The Spirit of Romance (New Directions, 2005). Otherwise the English mutters where the Latin sings, trudges where the Latin dances, wobble or not. But if you are very lucky and have some bits of schoolboy Latin left in your head or some memory of the Latin Mass, you may be able to work your way back to the flower-strewn, erotic original, where physical love may make a path to the goddess, the flesh make way to meet its own joy and divinity. Even in Mackail there is some hint of it: “All the night shall be kept awake with songs unceasingly.” Keats and Kinnell both knew that way. Of Keats, little need to speak to those who know his poems; later on, in “Oatmeal,” Kinnell writes “Maybe there is no sublime; only the shining of the amnion’s tatters.” “Cras amet qui nunquam quique amavit cras amet.” The tatters are still bright.