A Translation & Notes on Pervigilium Veneris

Updated: Jul 16

Pervigilium Veneris


1.

These two wonderful lines in an 85-line odd poem of unknown authorship written between the 1st and 4th centuries have drawn translators from Thomas Parnell to Ezra Pound to Allen Tate to any number of university professors:


Cras amet qui nunquam amati Quique amavit tras ame.


They seemed plain enough when I first read them: and so “Let whoever has not loved, love tomorrow / Whoever has loved, love tomorrow,” was my translation. Others came up with versions that seem, well, quirky: Allen Tate’s Tomorrow may loveless, may lover tomorrow make love seems quirkiest, being so nearly incomprehensible, but close in the running is also Now learn ye to love who loved never—­now ye who have loved, love anew! by Arthur Quiller-Couch or Let the loveless love tomorrow, let the lover love again, by J. F. Pobson, M.A., a professor of Greek in the University of Bristol Cambridge. Tate’s oddness seemed confusing for such an otherwise terrific poet. Here is his explanation, which I read as him trying to stuff a little too much baggage into his version:


In the fall of 1942 the refrain of the Pervigilium came back to me and for several days kept running through my head; then I suddenly knew that I ‘had’ it. I had it, that is to say, in language that somewhat resembled English and in a metre that the English language can be written in: plain iambic pentametre, with anapaestic substitutions for the frequent falling rhythms of the original. The Latin is in trochaic septenarii, seven-footed lines with, at the end, an extra syllable which is usually accented, making eight accents; the metre, in fact, of Tennyson’s Locksley Hall, which was actually used by some of the early translators of the Pervigilium. Except for certain special purposes it is an impossible metre in English, for unless the extra accented syllable at the end is managed with great skill the line will break down into units of four and three and sound like a Wesleyan hymn—a high price to pay for metrical fidelity to a foreign original.


Jeepers.  On the bright side, the explanation shows that there is room in the world of translating for many versions, born of many different considerations. Some translators strive for word-perfect and even scansion or rhyme-perfect versions; these can be admirable, but to my ear too many are like Samuel Johnson’s description of a dog walking on his hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Here are others, more than a few at least as quirky as Tate:


Let whoever never loved, love tomorrow, Let whoever has loved, love tomorrow. — Ezra Pound


Let those love now, who never loved before, Let those who always loved, now love the more. — Thomas Parnell


Tomorrow may loveless, may lover tomorrow make love.