This poem, Peruigilium Veneris, or, “The Eve of Venus,” was written in Latin in late antiquity. The date it was written is uncertain and the author unknown. It is a celebration of a rite of Spring, Venus being the presiding deity. More about the poem is included in the Preface, by Raymond William Postgate. He translated this poem when he was a young man. It was printed when he was 28 years old, and at that time he was a journalist. He was the son of John Percival Postgate, a renowned classical scholar.
The poem in English is pretty opaque to me. I do not speak Latin so I can not judge of the quality of the original. The Preface, which talks about all the vagaries of its past translations and interpretations, is more interesting, in my mind, and it further shows some of the risks involved in reading only one translation of anything. This proves, as I have said for a long time, that translations are dangerous. If ever you do not like something in translation, and the book has been around for over a century, then there was something wrong with the translation! In that case, try another translation, or several, before deciding you do not like the original work. This version perfectly demonstrates this.
However, this translaton is much better and more faithful to the original than the previous ones in the lines Postgate provides for comparison in the preface. He proves how other translators took far too much liberty and veered far, far away from the true meaning. It is not Postgate’s fault that a very faithful translation using English words doesn’t make for an impressive poem. People who know Latin, and may even dislike poetry generally, think that this is one of the most beautiful poems they have read. The fact that we can’t know this from a faithful translation, is because English as a language is not good enough to reflect the beauties or nuances of the Latin tongue. Maybe the one person with the unique ability to translate it and make it beautiful, yet true to the text, has not told us about it yet or been published. More attempts are in order!
I also enjoyed the last notes in the Commentary, which explains Postgate’s reasoning for deciding a senseless, trite line of the poem was an interpolation at the end. He states that this was the main reason why he took on this new translation. Adding to this, he feels that this should have been noticed before, in the other editions.
It takes a brave man, at any age, in any time, to dare to object to the received doctrines and interpretations of “experts,” especially those in a different field. However, bravery and the courage to both express it an act on it formed an integral part of Raymond Postgate’s character. He helped begin the Communist party in England, and left it when it took a direction he did not agree with. He did this several years before this translation, in his early twenties. His views and beliefs thereafter were not marked by slavish adherence to any but his own convictions. Although he wrote for newspapers as a journalist, this book, small as it is, may have been his first stand-alone text. He followed it a few years later with many more books, biographies, novels and a restaurant guide. He was a bilingual, gourmet rebel — all in one!
Nice as it is to be able to put this book online for others to read, it is even nicer when it is a book that has extra-special meaning to me. Research on the edition was better than any imaginary yellow-brick road, because I found two real wizards at the end!
Let me tell you about it, and you may share my new and special attachment to my copy of the Pervigilium.
The book I have is number 250 of a limited run of 260 books published in the United States. It was also published in the United Kingdom. Normally, books by foreign authors published abroad at the same time as when they are published here are not in the public domain until seventy years after the death of the author. If that were the case, I could not have put the book online. However, things get tricky here. The run of the American books failed to mention that it was also published in England, and only stated it was published in New York by Harpers’ Brothers. There is no mention of co-publication by either a UK publishing firm or a European branch of Harpers. However, there was a limited run by a U. K. publisher, too. Since it appears to be solely a United States publication, it has to abide by copyright laws of the United States. There is no copyright notice in the book, nor was the copyright renewed at the proper interval. Therefore the book is in the public domain on this side of the pond only. In the United Kingdom it is still under copyright protection.
I have gradually realized that all publishers, academic or not, are not particularly concerned with their authors, once they are of no use to them as money machines. They pretend to represent the rights of their authors and swear they will take care of them and protect their legal rights to their productions, so they can concentrate on their writing. “Leave the business to us!” they say. Unfortunately, authors do not suspect that that was a bunch of malarkey until it is too late, and they lose their copyright status or find that they have given it away and can’t get it back. To exploit a creative individual of any type, and to profit by those talents but then abandon said-genius to die penniless in some garret, is an all too common brutal practice.
Not wanting to adopt the same principle of ignoring the creators of good works, I decided to make sure that putting the text online would not bother any of his family, by propagating the abuse of his trust, as long as the book was still under copyright in his own land. So I sought the people Raymond Postgate propagated.
Diligently searching, I found out that Raymond Postgate, who died in 1971, has a grandson with a website. Not just any old website, but one that showcases charmingly the fact that he is a noted children’s illustrator and author: Daniel Postgate. He wrote the very successful and much adored book, Smelly Bill, and more!
Mr. Postgate answered my e-mail with all the courtesy that characterizes the English. (The first good wizard on my path.) He said that he could not give the permission but he had forwarded it to his uncle, John P. Postgate, one of Raymond’s sons, who was in charge of those sorts of things for the family.
Professor John Raymond Postgate is not only the literary executor for his father, he is just as nice as his nephew. The second wizard! and a charming, venerable one he is, too. He is a microbiologist of note (retired), and writer of several popular books, including one on jazz, besides the numerous scholarly publications in his field of expertise.
He realized that the Peruigilium had not been copyrighted properly here, but was perfectly willing for me to put it online. My gratitude is immense, and my conscience is now pacified. You can read it guilt-free as well, wherever you are.
Even better, Prof. Postgate told me that he and his wife Mary wrote a biography of his father, A Stomach for Dissent: The Life Of Raymond Postgate, by John and Mary Postgate. (Keble University Press, 1994.
Not only is he okay with the text being online, but he also sent me the pages from the biography he and his wife wrote about the events surrounding his father’s writing of the Pervigilium, and he says that you can read it too!
To appreciate the excerpt you need to know a little of the background behind it. In 1918, Raymond Postgate’s father, John Percival Postgate, the classicist and a Tory, disowned his son for marrying Daisy Lansbury, whose father, George Lansbury, was a politician in the Labour Party.
Here is the quote from pp. 123-4, “A Stomach for Dissent” by John & Mary Postgate, Keble University Press, 1994:
In 1922 Ray published, in a New York weekly, a witty and ultimately laudatory review of A.E. Housman’s poems and of his edition of the Latin poet Manilius, then just reprinted. A letter to Ray from J.P. the following year echoes some old, unhappy things never far from J.P.’s mind: “I have read your recent review of Housman. It is interesting and well written. But you err in thinking that Housman’s idiosyncracy has been affected by the industrial conditions. His pessimism, arrogance and ferocity are temperamental. He would have been the same whenever he had lived. I doubt whether he cares a jot about industrial conditions.”
In 1924 Ray published, in the USA, a slightly garish-looking limited edition of Peruigilium Veneris or The Song Of Venus, a Roman Spring song of unknown authorship, with his own translation and commentary. The translation was received with pleasure by Edmund Gosse*, writing in the SUNDAY TIMES for 21 December, 1924 (“Mr. Postgate’s accomplished version”) and discussed with due respect but somewhat more severely by J.W. Mackail*, in the CLASSICAL REVIEW for February-March, 1925 (pp. 41-43). Mackail felt that one or two of Ray’s judgements were out of place, but concluded with the wish that Ray should “pursue his interest in the Latin poetry. . . .”
Ray had consulted his father over this translation, and the printed version met with J.P.’s approval. It must have meant a great deal to both father and son to be on such terms over a subject so close to J.P.’s heart. Every one of his letters to Ray, infrequent as they now were, must have seemed to Ray a kind of forgiveness. What it must have cost that stubborn old gentleman to keep up his implacable refusal to meet Daisy or his grandson we cannot know. Every letter, as always, was signed “Your affectionate father, J.P. Postgate” and in May of 1924, a few weeks before John’s second birthday, he added a line after his signature: “I trust you are all very well.”
* Both reviewers were especially concerned with the lines:
Cras amet qui nunquam amavit
Quique amavit cras amet
which had already troubled translators. Ray had remained fairly close to the Latin text:
“Tomorrow love comes to the loveless,
Tomorrow lovers love again”
Mackail thought that a version by Thomas Stanley (1651) remained the best:
“Love he tomorrow, who loved never;
Tomorrow, who have loved, persever:”
But Gosse favoured Parnell’s (1720) free translation:
“Let those now love who never loved before.
And those who always loved now love the more”
— an opinion endorsed thirty-two years later by Oliver Edwards in THE TIMES of 13 December, 1956. Mackail probably had the last word, however: “. . . . the Latin is really untranslatable.”
See what very great people you can meet when you read old books? My admiration for the author of the book, and my appreciation for what he wrote is immeasurably heightened by knowing this about him, and becoming acquainted with two other fine people related to him.
Sharing what makes this book and its author more special to me, may in turn add to your appreciation of it, and willingness to read a book that may not otherwise find its way to your list of read books. The book is very short and the English section amounts to only a dozen pages or so. So take a look, and see what you think!
My only comment on the above extract is in the use of the word “garish,” used in describing the book’s appearance. In America that term is not a “positive” adjective today. This book, so slight in bulk, with its pretty batik, padded slipcover and the different decorations on the borders of each printed page, makes it original and unusual and pleasing, even beautiful. All of these devices add to its enjoyment for me. They add that “garnish” for the “entrée,” bare printed text, making the words and thoughts behind them even ’more enticing, appetizing and digestible.
In another metaphor (I have been reading Vergil this week, another old Roman): Reading and typing this bolus, or pastille, of curative wisdom so nicely coated, was tastier than just a dose of plain, unsweetened erudition. As an added benefit, its distinctive packaging certainly makes it harder to lose on your bookshelf!
Savor it for yourself. My copy of the text is a tall thin paperback, composed of about 35 unnumbered pages, 8, at least, of these are blank, or have only a title or the publisher’s logo. The small book came with a slip cover (mine is in poor condition). The material forming the covers is a thick textured paper, with a small diamond shaped label with the title. Here is what it looks like:
Each of the text pages has a surrounding ornate scroll-work border, all of which are different. Here is the title page, with one of the versions:
More boringly, on to the detail of the online text of the Peruigilium.
The text of the poem, and the commentary, includes marginal line numbers. Due to the idiosyncrasies of web books, to display these two pages properly make sure your browser window is big enough so that these numbers don’t overlap the text.
Lastly, and importantly: The Latin translation is on the left pages in the text, and the English translation is on the right-hand pages. I have made one page with the Latin text, and one page with the English translation. This way you can open up two browser windows, each with one of these pages, and then align them side to side to compare the versions, if you wish to do so. Because the lines of the Latin do not coincide exactly with the lines of the prose translation, I have highlighted the refrain in red in both of them to provide a point for comparison.
Now you are probably ready to get to the book itself: