“And in a Heap Cam on Them with a Swack”: Notes by Peter Valente on a Few Passages in Gavin Douglas’ Aeneid with Examples of Its influence on Modernist Poetry

Criticism: Peter Valente

“And in a Heap Cam on Them with a Swack”

With new translations of Virgil’s Aeneid appearing last year, Shadi Bartsch’s translation of 2021 (only the second English translation from a woman; the first was by Sarah Ruden in 2009) and David Hadbawnik’s translation, which was published this past August, I thought it would be interesting to examine passages from the first English rendering of the epic poem, made famous by Ezra Pound. When Gavin Douglas began his translation of the Aeneid in 1511, finishing some time before 1513, James IV was the king of Scotland and the relations with England were stable; it was a golden age of artistic freedom when multilingualism and cultural diversity had become the norm. It was a world in which people could be addressed as French, English, and Scots. There was no standard English being spoken, but rather a conglomerate of languages, so Douglas created his translation in a linguistically fertile time. But his core vocabulary is of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) origin: these linguistic changes in the Middle English have been linked to the influence of the 8th and 9th century Viking invaders who conquered territories in the vicinities of Northumbria, Lincolnshire and East Anglia. In addition to the Anglo-Saxon influence in his translation, we also see words from other languages, such as French. England, as we remember from high school History class, was conquered by the Norman French at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and Anglo-Saxon was supplanted by a hybrid language that borrowed much from French vocabulary and syntax. As John Corbett offers in Written in the Language of the Scottish Nation: A History of Literary Translation into Scots (1999), “It would have been impossible for Douglas to restrict himself to ‘Scottis’ in a linguistic environment where there was not yet a fully developed standard language, either in England or Scotland.” There had also been a French Eneas in the 12th century and an Irish version before 1400, but Douglas’ translation was the first translation into a language resembling English as we know it.

Virgil’s Aeneid is in dactylic hexameter, as is Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Douglas’ translation of the opening lines of Virgil is in decasyllabic rhyming couplets He translates:

Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
Litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
Vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;


The battles and the man I will descrive
Frae Troy’s bounds first that – fugitive
By fate – to Italy cam and coast Lavine,
Ower land and sea catchit (driven) with meikle (much) pain,
By force of gods above, frae every steid (side),
Of cruel Juno through auld-remembrit feid. (hatred, rage)

In Douglas’s translation there is a build-up of words that give weight to the line. The first line in Virgil’s Aeneid is “Arma virumque cano,” frequently translated in modern times as a variation on “I sing of arms and the man.” Douglas translates this line as “The battles and the man I will descrive;” the word “descrive” means “to represent orally or by writing;” it is an Old French word whose origin dates to the 13th century. Douglas captures in this word, departing from a literal rendering of “cano” as “song,” both the idea of an oral tradition, as well as a written language. Douglas translates “fato profugus” as “fugitive / By fate” retaining the “f” sound and picking up the “fug” from “profugus” in “fugitive.” He translates “multum ille et terries iactatus et alto—literally “much was he tossed over land and the deep” (“alto,” means deep as in “the deep sea)” as “ower land and sea catchit (driven) with meikle (much) pain.” Douglas reads “pain” in being tossed (or battered) which makes sense and gives the translation its vigorous strength. He translates “Litora (shore)” as “coast” and picks up the hard “c” in “catchit” and the hard “k” sound in “meikle.” Douglas translates “Vi superum saevae (from the gods)” as “By force of gods above, frae every steid (side);” his addition is implied in the Latin as the gods are all knowing and all seeing, from above and all around, from every side.

There is alliteration in Douglas and his translation is also creative; but he is essentially faithful, and the rhythm also approximates that of the Latin. As Pound writes, in ABC of Reading, “Gavin Douglas, set on a particular labour, with his mind full of Latin quantitative metre, attains a robuster versification than you are likely to find in Chaucer.” Douglas’ hard consonants impact each other to create a startling effect of presence, almost imagistic:  Ower land and sea catchit (driven) with meikle (much) pain, / By force of gods above, frae every steid (side).” This is not “Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth / Inspired hath in every holt and heeth,” with its sound from the Norman French influence that shows in the softening of the consonants; and even prior to the Norman conquest rhyming had begun to replace alliteration as the distinguishing literary device of English verse. Douglas’ line is vigorous, vibrant; he is versatile with his sounds; his hard consonants give substance to the line; we feel its impact, its projective force.

Douglas’ influence on Ezra Pound is well known. Pound’s translation of “The Seafarer,” the Old English poem from the 10th century Book of Exeter, was indebted to Douglas’ sense of rhythm and sound:

May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.

Here we have the use of alliteration sometimes extending from one line to the next as in “harsh days / hardship endured oft,” and in the line “Narrow nightwatch nigh.” Here, Pound’s meter reminds one of the accentual meter based on Anglo Saxon poetry. Another contemporary heir to Gavin Douglas’ rhythmic and sonic palette was the poet Basil Bunting, born in Scotswood-on-Tyne, Northumberland. The following is his poem, “Coda”:

A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know.

Night, float us.
Offshore wind, shout,
ask the sea
what’s lost, what’s left,
what horn sunk,
what crown adrift.

Where we are who knows
of kings who sup
while day fails? Who,
swinging his axe
to fell kings, guesses
where we go? 

One can clearly see the ghost of Old Scots in Bunting’s English. Compare Bunting’s “Coda” to Douglas’ Aeneid, from 1513:

Heich (high) as a hill the jaw of water brak (break)
And in a heap cam on them with a swack.
Some heezit (lifted) hovering on the waws heicht, (high waves)
And some the sucking sea sae law gart licht (made to descend so low)
Then seemit the earth openit amid the flood;

Douglas has that wonderfully evocative word, “heezit” which means “lifted.” Bunting uses the word “earsick.” Both are similar in their sonic effect, using the sound of the hard consonants to give the line weight, dimension; earsick is a neologism which is immediate in its sense; “heezit” is used to express the lifting of a boat by the waves; you can feel the sense of heaviness, of even exhaustion, in pronouncing the word. There’s another wonderfully vivid word in the Douglas excerpt: “swack,” which is a Scots word close to our “whack.” Bunting writes, “rain slant, spray flick,”; it’s something that could have come right out of Douglas. With “swack” Douglas is embodying the actual sound of the waves hitting the ships with great force. The soft “sw” is the sound of the wind; Aeolus, god of the wind, is causing the waves to overturn the ships of Aeneas’ men. The hard “ck” is the sound of the hard impact of the wave on the ship. The word “swack” creates an effective visual image that is immediately sensed. Douglas’ couplet is: “Heich (high) as a hill the jaw of water brak / And in a heap cam on them with a swack.” Through this complex metaphor made up of “jaw” and “water,” we are kept aware of the god Aeolus’ presence, though he is not named, as well as the effect of his blowing on the waves, and the enormity of his power. “Brack” and “swack” complete the rhyme and suggest the waves breaking against the ships with great force, and the eventual destruction of them. I hear the rhyme as the sound of catastrophe and I remember the cause of this was Juno’s anger.

Later Douglas writes the “sucking sea.” We should imagine the waves sucking the ships into the depths of the ocean. Douglas also writes, “The sucking swelch sank under sea and drowned;”the word “swelch” means whirlpool. The alliterative effect of this line is immediate on our ears. The “s” sound is carried along in “sucking swelch sank;”collectively, these words express the effect of the wind on the vast turbulent ocean (this is the sound of the undulating waves); the ships are being tossed into the depths of the whirlpool. The word “swelch,” suggests a crushing effect; also, in pronouncing the word slowly the mouth simulates a kind of sucking sound, “the jaw of water”; you can also hear as you pronounce the word the effect of the “ch” sound; this is the side of the ship cracking as it’s being sucked into the whirlpool; and “swe” is the sound of the great force of the waves guided by Aeolus’ breath. Finally, it is as if the actual “earth openit (opened) amid the flood.” It is a startling image that reminds one of Dante’s descent into hell.

Douglas is versatile in his use of language. He not only gives shape to his images but also a three dimensional quality. He embodies the motion and power of the waves crashing against the ships, and the presence of the god, Aeolus. It is no wonder that his influence can be felt in certain types of poetry that are based on a meter like the Anglo-Saxon rather than the iambic pentameter or blank verse, the dominant strains of English poetry in the centuries after Douglas. Samuel Johnson would say in 1778, “I think Heroick poetry is best in blank verse; yet it appears that rhyme is essential to English poetry, from our deficiency in metrical quantities.” Ezra Pound, who was the first poet to draw attention to the value of Douglas’ translation would write about him, in 1917, in his essay, “Notes on Elizabethan Classicists,” “I am inclined to think that he gets more poetry out of Virgil than any other translator. At least he gives one a clue to Dante’s respect for the Mantuan.”

Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of twelve full length books. Forthcoming is his collection of essays on Werner Schroeter, A Credible Utopia (Punctum, 2022), and his translation of Nerval, The Illuminated (Wakefield, 2022), and Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2023).

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