Last winter was so mild in Maryland that I was able to hike the state’s entire stretch of the Appalachian Trail, sometimes in short sleeves. We’re paying for it this year, with weeks of below-freezing temperatures that have us swapping stories about burst pipes and heart-stopping heating bills. It’s a season for diminished expectations: I’m all too proud of having found increasingly efficient ways to strew rock salt along a 750-foot driveway in the woods.
After last night’s latest icy slap, I took a second look at a translation I made on a whim in 2014. “The Debate Between Spring and Winter” is a derivative bit of Vergilian pastoralism attributed to Alcuin, the eighth-century abbot of Tours and one of Charlemagne’s most influential advisers. At a gathering of shepherds on a sunny spring day, the personifications of cheerful Spring and misanthropic Winter snipe at each other—until two shepherds, young Daphnis and old Palaemon, decide they’ve had enough:
Desine plura, Hiems; rerum tu prodigus atrox.
Et veniet cuculus, pastorum dulcis amicus!
Collibus in nostris erumpant germina laeta,
Pascua sit pecori, requies et dulcis in arvis,
Et virides rami praestent umbracula fessis,
Uberibus plenis veniuntque ad mulctra capellae
Et volucres varia Phoebum sub voce salutent!
Quapropter citius cuculus nunc ecce venito!
Tu iam dulcis amor, cunctis gratissimus hospes:
Omnia te expectant — pelagus tellusque polusque —
Salve, dulce decus, cuculus, per saecula salve!
(MGH Poetae I, 272, 45–55)
Here’s that fragment rendered into alliterative, Anglo-Saxon-style half-lines that Alcuin might recognize, though he’d disavow the diction:
Zip it, Winter, you wasteful shit,
And hey, cuckoo! Come be the shepherd’s
Ol’ number-one pal. Let’s popcorn the hillsides
With giddy seeds and grazing sheep!
Let’s find us some fields that are fit for siestas!
Let the bone-weary dream under drooping green leaves,
While queued at the pail, the pap-swollen goats
Just beg us to milk them. Let beaks all warble
Their mashed-up salvēs to sunny Phoebus!
Faster, cuckoo, flap thy ass hither!
Luv, you’re the greatest, the guest of ’em all,
And everyone’s waiting, Earth, Sea, and Sky,
So welcome, sweet cuckoo-grace! Welcome forever!
I’ve tinkered with this to reflect less disrespect for Anglo-Saxon scansion, but alas, the tone abides. It’s no translation for the ages, but the restlessness is sincere.
I’ve yet to spot the cuckoos that summer in Maryland, but I look after their feathered brethren year-round, providing a heated bath for chickadees and titmice and mealworms for bluebirds that boing through the yard. They chatter impatiently, ungraciously, when I refill their feeders. I should be insulted—but lately, I know how they feel.