JUNE 29, 2019
IN A 2015 INTERVIEW, A. M. Juster gave as his opinion that “the purpose of all work is to try to make the world better for your efforts. With poetry that can mean turning people toward something spiritual, letting them laugh, helping them face their fears, or reminding them about joy.”
This is more than he claims for John Milton’s Latin elegies and thus, inescapably, for what he calls in a “translator’s note” his own “highly accurate literary translation” of them. In his introduction proper, he asserts only that the reader will find in these poems, written by Milton as a teenager and young man, a different poet from the “forbidding” Milton of Paradise Lost. This youthful Milton can be “witty,” “insecure,” “lovesick,” and “even raunchy.” This is indeed the poet Juster often gives us in these translations: a poet capable of showing how Aurora “reveals her large, all-bearing breasts” (Elegy 5, line 58). The sight of young women in a park makes him almost giddy with desire:
Here you may often see the passing bands of girls,
Those stars diffusing their seductive beams.
How often, ah, I’m stunned by wonders of fine form
That could enliven even Jove’s old age.
How often, ah, I saw their eyes outshining gems
And all the heavens circling both poles,
And necks that would surpass the arms of reborn Pelops,
Each colored by the Way that flows pure milk,
And a uniquely gorgeous face, and flowing hair
That sly Love uses as a golden net,
And purple hyacinths that pale by saucy cheeks,
And even blush, Adonis, from your flower (1:51–62)
But Milton was very young, still mostly unschooled in the poet’s trade. Of the seven Latin elegies, Juster seems only wholly admiring of the first and sixth. The third, he allows, deserves more attention than it has so far received. The second elegy, however, is “bloodless,” the fourth “lacks […] warmth and humor,” while the fifth and seventh are mere “exercises.” And even if Juster could have created translations that were better than Milton’s originals, his understanding of his task as an accurate translator would not have allowed it. Still, what he has done is masterful enough, remaining faithful to his sources while fashioning fluent, metrical English-language verse. And for readers fluent in Latin, Milton’s original is placed on pages facing Juster’s English so that the accuracy of the translation can be verified.
When Juster deviates from the original, he doesn’t go far, and it’s usually for the good reason of the reader’s convenience. “Blanda […] Amathusia” (7:1), which only specialists would recognize, appears in English as “Seductive Venus,” for, as Juster explains in a note, Amanthus was the site of a temple to the goddess. In the same spirit, the translator renders “Naso Coralleis mala carmina misit ab agris” (6:19) as “Ovid would send bad verses from Corallian fields.” Ovid’s full collection of names is Publius Ovidius Naso. But you must go to the notes for help on Corallian fields.
Some may appreciate help with another, larger question, one dealt with in the introduction: why did Milton call these Latin poems “elegies” when only two of the seven commemorate a death, which we often consider to be the purpose of elegy? The other “elegies” consist of three epistles (two of these addressed to Milton’s best friend, Charles Diodati), a welcoming to spring, and a poem about love. Yet all of these, Juster explains, would be considered elegies by Milton and his contemporaries, because the verse form he employed was the elegiac couplet, whose first line is a dactylic hexameter and second is a dactylic pentameter. For example:
Tandem, care, tuae mihi pervenire tabellae,
Pertulit et voces nuntia charta turas. (1:1–2)
The elegiac couplet first appeared, as Juster mentions, in the love elegy, but its use was soon extended to a variety of purposes. Several notable Latin poets made this verse form their own, including Ovid, to whom Milton alludes in these poems more frequently than any other poet. Tibullus and Propertius also wrote elegies, as did the late classical poet Maximianus. In Milton’s time, it was a favorite form of the Neo-Latin poets. And it appears to be a favorite of Juster, who has also translated Tibullus and Maximianus.
Juster has too much sense to try emulating in English a pattern of dactyls and spondees. That never works. What he does instead is create an effective approximation in English, rendering the longer initial line into a (roughly) equally long one (almost always of 12 syllables), and the shorter second line into a shorter one (usually 10 syllables). The comparing reader will find the content of virtually any Latin line reappearing in the translation’s equivalent line, so that the first couplet of 1, quoted above, becomes:
At last your letters came to me, beloved friend;
The paper brought your news and tones of voice.
“Tandem” is “at last”; “care” is “beloved friend”; “nuntia” is “news.” This is line-for-line translation, approaching word for word. Does this look easy? Maybe it isn’t too terribly difficult to render a single couplet faithfully and gracefully, but how about two or three? How about hundreds? And how about avoiding, as this translation does, any awkward enjambment? No, nothing about this achievement is easy, and A. M. Juster, who makes it seem that way, deserves great credit.
One may, as always, object to certain choices. In 5:47, the setting moon is “ponens” (laying down) her rays, but Juster has her “scrapping” them, which seems too metallic to be associated with ethereal light. In 7:7, the poet addresses Cupid as “parve” (small one), which becomes “pipsqueak”; since Milton is speaking harshly to Cupid at this point, a disparaging word is appropriate, but I wish the translator had chosen one that calls less attention to itself. These are minor quibbles. More importantly, Juster allows those with little or no Latin the opportunity “to understand the young Milton,” which he believes “is essential to trying to understand the mature” poet of Paradise Lost.
But how is it essential? How readily can traces of the sometimes “forbidding” later Milton be glimpsed in the elegiac youth? Consider Elegy 6. This is the second epistle to Diodati, who has just apologized for sending to his friend, Milton, verses of inferior quality. He blames their shortcomings on his being distracted by “revelry” while trying to write. At first, Milton appears to criticize him for seeking undeserved approval:
You want to know in verse I cherish and respect you;
Trust me, you’d hardly know it from this poem. (5–6)
But then he displays a sharp and pleasing wit in drawing a distinction. The poem is lacking, not the subject:
Indeed, our love is not restricted by strict measures,
Nor does it come untouched on its limp feet. (7–8)
Then, assuming that “revelry” means drinking, Milton asks, “Why whine that verse is alien to wine and banquets?” (13), for “[a] poem loves Bacchus; Bacchus loves a poem” (14). There follows a passage of 39 not always inspiring lines that praise alcohol as a stimulant to writers of verse. At this point, Milton introduces an unnamed heroic poet, resembling Homer, “who tells of wars and godlike lords, and martyrs” (55). Conceivably, he is thinking of the poet he himself aspires to become. For this grander bard something other than wine is prescribed:
Let the clear water stay beside his beechwood bowl.
And let him drink pure drafts from sober cups. (61–62)
Finally, Milton returns to Diodati and registers a note of mild reproach, essentially asking, aren’t you curious about me? Just a little?
But if you ask me what I’m doing, (if, at least
You think it worthwhile knowing what I do) (79–80)
And whether or not he believes his friend does think it worthwhile, the elegy’s closing lines describe precisely what Milton is doing:
I celebrate the King of Peace from Heaven’s seed
And happy eras promised in the Scriptures,
And God’s first cries, while stabled under the poor roof
Of He who graces Heaven with his Father,
And the star-spawning sky, and singing throngs above,
And gods abruptly shattered in their shrines.
I give these gifts to Christ, however, for his birthday,
Bestowed on me before the dawn’s first light.
My sober strains from native pipes await you too;
You, to whom I recite, will be my judge. (81–90)
Two mature Miltons may be foreshadowed here. There is a promise of epic, surely, in “star-spawning sky” and “gods abruptly shattered.” But I also note, and prefer, a humbler Milton — the poet who would write the sonnet on his blindness — happy to celebrate Christ’s birthday in “sober strains.” Juster’s young Milton may be no giant, but he contains multitudes.
A former professor of English, Jake Fuchs has written scholarly books, short fiction, two satiric mysteries (Death of a Dad: The Nursery School Murders  and Death of a Prof: The Nursery School Murders II ), a send-up of academe (Welcome, Scholar ), and the semi-autobiographical novel Conrad in Beverly Hills (2010).