Like Sheep: On Translating a Literary Plague in a Time of Pandemic

Plagues, real and imaginary, spread like viruses through literature. The Iliad starts with one. It’s right there in line 10, a disease sent by far-shooting Apollo, god of music and medicine, plague and archery, because Agamemnon has snatched the girl Chryseis from her father, Chryses, one of Apollo’s own priests. The god shoots his arrows of contagion, striking first at the mules and dogs (it is interesting that the poet seems to be aware of zoonosis, pathogens that jump from animals to people), and then at men, so that the funeral pyres are crowded and burn without ceasing. The first deaths of the poems are not from war, but disease. Agamemnon, compelled to give the girl back to her father, takes Achilles’ “spear-bride” Briseis instead, setting in motion all of the tragic events to follow.

It is a plague too, this time in the city of Thebes, that sets Oedipus on the path to knowledge that will reveal the enigmatic and devastating truth of his birth and his marriage. When Oedipus asks the priest of Zeus what is wrong with his people, he answers (Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, lines 25–30, translation by Sir Richard Jebb):

A blight has fallen on the fruitful blossoms of the land, the herds among the pastures, the barren pangs of women. And the flaming god, the malign plague, has swooped upon us, and ravages the town: he lays waste to the house of Cadmus, but enriches Hades with groans and tears. . . .

Notice it is the crops and the herds that are first affected. The priest concludes dryly with the sentiment, as Jebb has it, “Neither walled town nor ship is anything, if it is empty and no men dwell within.”

Mythological plagues are often indications that something is very wrong, an invitation to look more closely at assumptions and injustice, a judgment. It is worth remembering that Sophocles’ famous play debuted in 429 BC. The plague of Athens had broken out the previous year, and 429 saw a second wave. The references to a plague, in combination with a criticism of state leadership, would have been eerily topical and resonant for the audience in a time of war and pandemic, for all that the play is set in a legendary past and another city.

Thucydides’ prose account of the Athenian plague in his history of the Peloponnesian Wars describes not legend, but events Thucydides had experienced firsthand: the first outbreak of plague in 430 BC, when nearly one in three residents of Athens perished. (A mass grave of plague victims was excavated by archaeologists in 1994 in the Kerameikos, the potters’ quarter, of the city.) Thucydides is a survivor and describes the symptoms both as an eyewitness and a former sufferer. Even Pericles, the leader of Athens, will succumb to the disease. According to Thucydides, the contagion arose in northern Africa and entered Athens by the bustling port of Piraeus. The symptoms begin with fever and red eyes, a swollen and bloody tongue, but go on to include a cough, and an assortment of other effects: the genitals can be affected, and sometimes a sufferers lose their extremities, their eyesight or even their memory. In describing the horror of mass civilian deaths, Thucydides uses the phrase “dying like sheep.”

Thucydides’ plague has a moral dimension: some people are afraid to do the right thing by caring for the sick (it is the health workers, in fact, who are hardest hit); worship of the gods falls by the wayside as prayer proves ineffectual, and people immerse themselves in pleasures, vices and crimes, excesses of the moment, not knowing what tomorrow will bring, and confident they will not be brought to justice. The proper disposal of the dead—religious observations as well as cremation—one of the most sacred aspects of ancient life, is abandoned. People toss a corpse on top of funeral pyres already in progress or set fire to a pyre painstakingly arranged by others to cremate their own dead. The plague becomes a symptom for a societal breakdown, a society with a weakened immune system that is slipping into decline and will lose the war as well as its hegemony and status.

Lucretius, the 1st century BC Roman poet who would be such an important model for Virgil in turn takes up Thucydides’ plague. In his didactic epic, De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of Things,” a poem about life, the universe, and everything, that lays out tenets of the atomic theory and Epicurean philosophy, Lucretius ends the poem—at least as the version of the poem has come down to us, supposedly edited by Cicero—on a Latin versification of Thucydides’ prose eyewitness account of the Athenian plague. Some of it is almost straight translation. Consider (translation mine):

At no time did the greedy disease let up. It caught and spread
From one man to another, as though they were so many head
Of fleecy sheep and cattle. . . .

Yet here as elsewhere Lucretius elaborates, inventing more lurid detail about the disease itself—not only are the genitals affected, for instance, but desperate victims even castrate themselves—and also expanding on the suffering of animals, such as noble dogs. In a 7,000-plus-line poem whose purpose is purportedly to free its readers from the fear of death, there is something counterintuitive about ending on this terrifying plague, on death coming alike to sinner and saint, weak and strong. The poem ends on the scene of people coming to bloodshed over funeral pyres, where others might try to throw random corpses:

Squalid Poverty and Sudden Disaster would conspire
To drive men on to desperate deeds—so they’d place on a pyre
Constructed by another their own loved ones, and set fire
To with wails and loud lament. And often they would shed
Much blood in their struggle rather than desert their dead.

That is the poem’s unsettling conclusion. Because of the nature of Latin syntax, the whole poem ends, or perhaps is abandoned, on the verb “desererentur.”
Virgil’s Georgics is his poetic masterpiece (John Dryden famously called it “the best Poem of the best Poet”), composed between his debut Eclogues and his grand epic project, the Aeneid; Virgil would die before the last was finished, and supposedly ordered it to be burned. The Georgics hits a sweet spot in both effervescent accomplishment and achieved ambition, the poet at the apogee of his powers. In four “books,” it purports to be advice to the Italian farmer, with a chapter on ploughing and crops, a chapter on vines and orchards, a chapter on animal husbandry, and a chapter on apiculture; but these topics seem to be pretexts for a discursive poem of natural history, learned allusion, the beauties of Italy, philosophical explorations of man’s essential condition, and exploration of the nature of civilization. Somehow the section about tending bees culminates in an exquisite retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The plague section comes at the very end of Book Three, the one on animal husbandry. After elucidating how to deal with common ailments of sheep, the poem goes on to recount a plague from some previous era that wiped out cattle, sheep, and even wild animals. This is an imaginary plague, a literary plague, that Virgil has fetched up out of allusion, trope, and his own imagination. Is some of it just an excuse to compete with Lucretius, to write graphically about the ravages of disease and wallow in horror, or maybe the poet has designs on us, to pluck at our heartstrings with the perishing of innocent beasts?

The Georgics was the first major classical work that I studied in the original in earnest and in its entirety; I wrote my master’s thesis on it, and it was through the Georgics (and at the urging of my Oxford tutor, Professor Richard Jenkyns) that I became acquainted with Lucretius, whose De Rerum Natura I would end up translating for Penguin Classics. That didactic epic in turn led me to translate Hesiod’s much earlier didactic poem in Greek, a disquisition on justice cum farmer’s almanac, Works and Days. Virgil’s Georgics is heavily indebted to both poems. In some ways it seems natural—like the cycle of the seasons—to come back around to the Latin poem where I started. But in truth it was the pandemic in the air that made me want to revisit this classical plague. Did I think, perhaps, there might be some lesson there (as there arguably is in Thucydides) about, say, what a plague reveals about society? If so, I didn’t find it. What I found was a supremely literary plague—a well-wrought contribution to a genre. But as I thought more about it, and indeed in the process of translation, I had to confront why it was still often so moving, so immediate despite its obvious artifice and even its sentimentality.

Hesiod’s Works and Days seems to be composed from the viewpoint of someone with experience working the land, with callused hands, dirt under his knife-pared nails, and a sunburned neck, and with a weather eye on Greek agricultural Iron Age reality. Virgil’s Georgics is more tempered and mediated, more mellowed, more artfully fermented. The real Italian countryside shines through, and one can learn useful things, such as about the benefits of crop rotation; but the poem itself is very aware of its identity as literature rather than wisdom or hieratic philosophy or scientific observation. The point I remember making in my master’s thesis was about how often what is a simile or metaphor from nature or agriculture in earlier literature, especially epic, Virgil transforms, in a sort of alchemy, back into reality, the metaphor pulled inside out back through itself. Whole swaths of the poem feel for me like walking into an epic simile in the midst of the din of battle and finding oneself in another, simpler world, where man is in harmony with nature and with man. I am reminded that this poem whose purported aim is peace and prosperity was composed in a period of grave uncertainty and civil war.

Looking back now at the plague section, which so cleverly plays with the narrative and tropes of both Thucydides and Lucretius, while shifting the focus from the human (pandemic, we might remember is from “all” and “people”) to the animal, I begin to see its fulcrum as the simile in both Thucydides and in Lucretius—men dying like sheep. But instead Virgil shows us how the sheep die. Sheep dying like sheep. Sheep dying like men.

And not just sheep: cattle, and the prize-winning thoroughbred, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, the viper hiding from death in her lair, the poor harmless water snake, its scales bristling in terror. Birds drop out of the sky mid-flight, leaving their little feathery souls behind them in the clouds, fish drown gasping on dry land like shipwrecked sailors, even the seals leave their salt-water haunts for encampments in freshwater rivers. These topsy-turvy images are both marks of the literary “adynaton,” the apocalyptic rhetoric of the impossible come true, widely used in prophecy (when the lion lies down with the lamb, for instance) and love poems (“Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear, / And the rocks melt wi’ the sun”), and of something deeply, deeply wrong, of the time being out of joint. It is impossible to read this passage now and not be touched not only by the empathy and personification, the sweetness and sorrow, the pathos and gentle bathos, but by the sense of a larger annihilation. Even during this Covid summer of quarantine and social distancing, of an Athens seemingly unpeopled by plague, I could read about flocks of bird dropping dead from the sky over New Mexico (perhaps fleeing fires and undernourished for their migrations), or nearly 400 dead whales stranded on a beach, fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, itself something that should seem impossible; as earlier in the year some 3 billion animals lost their lives (and some perhaps their species) or were displaced in wildfires in Australia. What I found in this section of the poem did not so much speak to me of Covid or contagion or the breakdown of society. It is something vaster, of which Covid is a part, a symptom. In the poem’s tenderness toward the bereaved ox and the watersnake alike it shows a radical sympathy with the natural world of which we are a part.

Virgil’s Georgics, as with his other poems, is written in an unrhymed dactylic hexameter—the meter of the Iliad and the Odyssey (and of the Works and Days and of On the Nature of Things.) My translation is in rhymed iambic pentameter couplets and slightly expanded, because of the dense Latin syntax, in the number of lines. (The line numbers in the translation align with the Latin.) There are plenty of arguments against rhyme for a long poem in the high style—Milton makes them—and indeed blank verse was invented in English, by the Earl of Surrey, explicitly for the translation of Virgil. But rhyme is for me a method of composition, a way of making myself look at larger units of syntax and meaning than the line, of understanding the poem. And of emphasizing that the reader is reading verse, not a prose essay. And, I hope, of bringing pleasure and swiftness, handing the reader smoothly from one line to the next as down a flight of steps.

Perhaps I will keep going on this project. I’ve started from the very beginning now, of Book One. If I plough through, eventually I will arrive here, at the plague, this section I think I’ve already done; but then I would be able to move beyond it, to the honey-golden book about bees, and forgiveness, and order, about violence and grief and loss, yes, but also mystery, rebirth and art. To move beyond destruction and despair, through diligence and work, toward repair, renewal, hope, creation, and ending not in the lamentation of the mass grave and conflagration of the funeral pyre, but in song, lying in the dappled shade of a great, spreading beech tree.