excerpt from ECLOGUES

written by Giovanni Boccaccio

translated by David R. Slavitt




Dorilus, poor fellow, it doesn’t seem to matter
whether Orion sends rain to the earth, or Amon
flowers, or whether the Crab brings crickets to chirp in the heat,
or Chiron strips the leaves from the trees, I always see you
with your head bent and tears welling up from your sad eyes.
What is the source of this grief?  Have all your grape vines died?

Go know who these people are.  There are implausible guesses,
but it’s easy to read as powerlessness and poverty (Dorilus)
and indifferent or wicked power (“Lycidas’”, root is “wolf.”)
Orion, Amon (the Ram), the Crab, and the last one, Chiron 
(Sagittarius) are the four seasons’ constellations.


With a fire bolt from the highest heaven that Jupiter flung,
the fields around us are flattened.  He struck a mighty beech
that was famous in these woods.  The earth groaned at the blow,
the leaves of the forest trembled, and birds took off in panic
to hide in nearby briars.  Shepherds shut themselves
in their rustic huts and cowered, sure that the god was angry
at somebody’s bad behavior, fraud or some worse crime. 

The tree is perhaps a leader.  The late Thomas Bergen suggests
that this might be Prince Andrew, but that doesn’t fit with the rest.
(I took one of his classes: he was a decent fellow,
but not altogether persuasive then, or it turns out, now.)

Contemptuous of our rustic freedoms, a wicked man
scattered the flocks and herds.  His lusts went beyond all bounds
and even as Crisifabrus was preparing a sacrifice
to Juno for his marriage, he came and stole away
the bride from the wedding party—I mean the lovely Rufa.
And Phyllis, Phytias’ girl, he also purloined.  Remember
Ovid’s account of the Centaurs and Lapiths and that feast
that turned into total carnage?  These grotesque events
came a close second.  I’ll omit all the sordid details
except to say that he also took my sweetheart, and I
am bound with chains in a sunless cave where ivy and myrtle
never grow.  This is why you see me weeping.  But you?
In patches and covered in soot?  A workman?  What is your story?

“Crisifabrus” is something more or less akin
to “Goldsmith.”  Nobody knows if the poet had in mind
a particular man.  The sunless cave is a pastoral prison;
the ivy is probably books of poems; and myrtle
is an attribute of Venus and therefore means loneliness. 


I see that Menalcas spoke the truth about this poor valley.
The sordid gifts of Plutarcus do not distress me so much
as the wicked deeds of a madman who’s emerged somehow from the swamps
where bullfrogs live in the marshes and managed to come into power.

Plutarcus is the lord of the underworld—or Pluto.


I hadn’t recognized you.  Forgive me.  I took you for
Podarcis with the light behind you that way.  These days
one cannot be too careful.  But now my hopes revive. 
You’ll help restore blue skies, revive the fields and herds,
and freshen the valley’s streams. I’ll set up crowns of oak
behind the altars to thank both you and the heavenly gods.
Come into the cave with me.  I cannot offer you much.
I have no milk or fruit or hazelnuts or wine.
Polipus took it all.  Or nearly all.  There is
some bread and water that I can share.  I’ve made a bed
of ferns.  I think I heard when I was a child that the gods
live on the earth this way when they condescend to visit.
Don’t scorn it, then.  At least you can wash your hands and face
with the water.  You can rest your weary limbs for a while.
I’ll put another log on the fire to warm us up.


No, no.  I’m sorry to say that you’re wrong.  What you see before you
isn’t me, but a simulacrum.  I’m not of this world,
not since Hermes’ wand touched my head and robbed me
of light and air, and took a lock of my hair for Hecate.


Poor fellow!  I’m truly sorry.  My hopes for safety are lost,
and I expect to die in this misery that now
darkens my days.  Hylas drives the flock of sheep
to Micon’s meadow to graze.  His hands milk them.  Another
fetches clover, leaves and willow shoots to nourish
the lambs and the ewes.  Yet another shears their heavy fleeces
and washes the wool in running streams.  Another sings
or plays on the pipes he loves, while the boughs of the cypress sway
as if in time to his tune.  Only I am alone,
fettered this way by Polipus, having committed no crime.
My hours, otherwise idle, are filled with lamentation.


But answer me, I beg you, did the nine Castalian sisters
teach you to pass your days this way in endless weeping?
Your mind is in no way fettered!  Your soul is always free! 
Nothing keeps your imagination from wandering through
Sicilian pastures or Cretan woodlands.  You can, if you choose,
climb Mount Ida’s heights to converse with the shepherds there
or explore the peaks of Parnassus where the fragrant laurel grows.
Do not brood on injustice, but think what you have that no one
can take away.  Have you never learned how to be content
without the world’s poor trinkets or mankind’s fickle opinion?
Argus gave us the laws of the gods of Mount Olympus;
blind Mopsus celebrated the Phrygian and the Danaan
shepherds; Tityrus had his farmlands taken away,
but that did not prevent him from singing of how, once, Turnus
had dyed them with blood.  If tears are shed, they ought to be mine,
to whom nothing remains whatever.  Do you remember
what I was in life, how great my holdings were,
the extent of my limitless powers?  I have lost all but loss,
for nothing is left to me now but misery and ruin!

The Castalian spring on Parnassus is where the Muses frolicked,
which explains that soubriquet. Hesiod is Argus;
blind Mopsus is Homer; Tityrus of course is Virgil,
Turnus being Aeneas’ antagonist in his epic.


Ah, Lycidas, I never thought to have so great
a consolation—and certainly not from you—for this
hard life of mine.  But tell me, how do you get on
with Plutarcus?  What is your existence like down there?
What are the valleys and plains that you have been wandering through
since Mercury deprived you of Apollo’s blazing light?


At the center of our world is Treneros, a cave
that the sun never sees.  We are all led through its gaping mouth
where the huge black mastiff leaps and snarls, guarding the cavern,
nipping at the heels of any who move too slowly
and attacking those who would try to turn back and escape
without the prince’s express permission.  From there one can see     
groves of trees, lakes, rivers….  But all is dark
with fog and murk, and the beetling cliffs are black with soot.
We find ourselves in perpetual winter, perpetual night,
and we warm ourselves—but never enough—with invisible fires
that are not fed by fuel but the magic and will of the gods.
These are nothing at all like Sicily’s pleasant pastures
or the meadows of Tyre, or the gardens of roses the Lebanese plant.
No flowers, no cheerful prospects of hillsides or curving beaches.
The rivers are not the beautiful Po but sluggish streams
that stink as they wind through barren fields of yew and crowsfoot.
Their banks are lined with a venomous slime. If there were beasts
or birds, they could not drink of such repellent foulness,
but vermin and snakes like it, and the scorpions from Egypt.
Here you sometimes pause to listen to nymphs that sing
sweet melodies in the woods or to sirens out on the rocks.
Down there are only bellows and screams—from lions or boars
or creatures even more fierce and beyond all imagination,
and the grim echoes repeat, resounding from those black cliffs.


It sounds very bad.  Could nature—or supernature—fashion
so vile a place, even there, deep in the bowels of the earth?


Why ever not?  The creator made the woods and the stars.
What could be beyond his capabilities?  What
he can imagine, he can bring into being.  But wait,
the worst is yet to come.  Plutarcus sits on a huge
boulder next to his swarthy spouse in the blackest shadows
of the overhanging boughs and the canopy they affect
of a large sheepskin.  Beside them, two of their courtiers stand:
Mange and Chill, who menace sheep and sorely afflict them
bringing them fevers and certain death.  Close by, a savage shepherd
covered with clinging serpents that wind about his limbs
plays on his instrument, but not the pipes or the lyre
that soothe and charm.  Instead, he blasts on a long horn
that panics the flocks and rouses up the dreadful Furies
to run among the briars and stampede the maddened bulls
that run through those barren places destroying whatever they pass.
Count the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the beach,
but the number of groans and cries one hears down there is greater.
From time to time, the mighty Jove hurls down his bolts
that shake the ground beneath us and illuminate for an instant
in ghastly glare our wretched state that the gloom has concealed.
The clouds pour down an icy rain mixed in with hail
while the winds howl and the wretched oak trees bend and break.
Those myriad souls that before were merely grieving now
flee in terror through thorns that tear them as they hurtle
through in every direction.  Some of them come to a high cliff
where they leap in desperation (but the dead cannot die again).
Then Diomedes’ horses that feast on human flesh
come bearing down upon us, and Geryon’s fierce hounds
bark and bite at random.  We are driven on by hydras.
Demons on every side laugh in derision and fling
filth at us as herds of wild bulls charge and trample
and nests of vipers arise to writhe and torment us further.
There are stakes in the ground with their points sharpened in fires to wound
our already wretched and bleeding bodies.  Packs of great wolves
descend from the hills howling to harry and do us hurt.
The worst that you can imagine comes nowhere close to the truth.


Stop, stop!  I beg you.  I cannot bear to hear more.
What crimes could you have committed to deserve so dreadful a sentence?


I think of them all the time now.  For my theft of Micon’s sheep
my punishment might suffice.  But I seduced young boys,
ruining not only my own life but theirs
in the woods’ shadowy places—and for that I have to pay.


It is said that Hercules dragged the fearsome three-jawed monster
out of those depths and rescued Theseus, Athens’ king.
Do you want me to pray to Pan that you might be removed
to some milder and better place and released from that dark valley.

Those were, indeed, Hercules’ feats but they suggest as well
how Christ harrowed hell.  Pan, the woodland god
would also be a stand-in for the Christian deity.


I am afraid my case is far beyond the powers of prayer,
even yours, and Olympus is hardly likely to listen.
My torments are not much different than many of those whom the gods
have dispatched to the netherworld—for all I know, forever.
But let me tell you more of the demons who punish us all.
One drags hogs to a cliff and with his great strength dashes
them down to the rocks below where their limbs twitch and are still.
Another leads a pack of hounds from the heights of a mountain
until they are limp with fatigue and also tortured by plague
at which time he lets them drink the water of stagnant marshes.
One drives bears from their caves and forces them into the sea
to swim as long as they can and watches them founder and drown,
or he swims out to be among them and with a huge iron hook
goes fishing for bears.  Another casts evil spells on the lynxes
so that they can no longer eat and he studies how they starve slowly.
I could go on even longer, but it only gets grimmer and grimmer.
We live against our will and pray every day for a death
that never comes.  But the sky is less dark in the east
and I must be gone, for I am forbidden Apollo’s sight.
But I say to you do not despair.  There is always some faint hope.
Polipus may climb an oak tree, reach for a bird,
and fall and break his neck.  And we will have one more guest
to swell our chorus of groans and our cries of exquisite pain.
The sisters spin out their threads, and nobody’s runs forever.
Your fields will be yours again, while your chains will be taken from you.    


O Pan, whom we have honored here in these woodlands, grant
that what he says may happen.  Come to us with your aid,
and we shall give thanks to you with our finest and fattest lamb
that we’ll offer upon your altar.  And we’ll pray and play the games
that my songs of gratitude shall extend well into the evening.


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