Excerpts from Eneados, Gavin Douglas’ 16th-century Scots verse translation of Virgil’s Aeneid

From “The Prologue to the First Book”

Wherefore to my lord’s nobility and estate, (1)
This humble book, such as it is, I dedicate,
Written in the language of the Scottish nation,
And requiring me thus to make this declaration:

First I beseech, good sirs, by your grace,
Understand my work before you damn or praise,
And consider carefully the oft-read tale.
While at a glance my poetry does not look skilled,
Yet, forsooth, I took every conscious pain
As much as I could to make it broad and plain,
Keeping nothing Southern, just our own tongue
And speaking as I learned when I was young.

Yet I do not all English wholly eschew,
Since some words I pronounce as our neighbors do:
The way that, in Latin, Greek terms will commute,
So I was behooved at times (or else be left mute)
By some bastard Latin, French, or English use
When Scots ran dry–I had no other choice.
Not that our tongue itself is scant or thin,
But I required language in profusion:
For bringing forth the flavor of his style
Yet maintaining the sense constricted me a while,
As did keeping my words in shortened time
Compendious but also to emphasize a rhyme.

Therefore, good friends, for a quibble or sport,
I pray you not blame me for every small word.
Lawrence of the Vale, that worthy patron,
Without a doubt a great scholar of Latin,
Admits that even after twelve years of study
On the texts of Virgil, he still found them muddy.
Thus when you or I, my friend, aspire
To have Virgil read, reasoned, and made clear,
The proper meaning is what we seek.
The Aeneid took twelve years to make,
And had not been corrected at Virgil’s decease; (2)
Thus for small faults, my wise friend, hold your peace.

Adding to my justification,
Although the Englishman William Caxton (3)
Has printed a crude English version in prose
Called Virgil’s Aeneid, which he says
He translated from the French, God help us,
To the original text it bears no more resemblance
Than the devil does to Saint Augustine.
Give him no praise, therefore, nor credit his undertaking,
So shamefully did he pervert great art.
I read his translation with pain in my heart,
That such a book, lacking all substance and style,
Should dare be given the Divine Poet’s title.
His original verses were golden, not gilt;
I spit in disdain to see them so spoilt
By someone who knew not, as is apparent,
More than three words of what Virgil meant.
Thus for Caxton’s mangling I have nothing but contempt.


(1) Douglas dedicated his translation to Henry, Lord Sinclair, a distant relative who had encouraged him to complete the work.

(2) Virgil’s original manuscript was published after his death without revisions he had intended to make.

(3) Caxton (~1420-1492), the first English printer and retailer of press-printed books. He translated 26 works into English, including the Aeneid in 1490, from a French source text; Douglas published his translation in 1513.


From “The Prologue to the Seventh Book”

…Well-fed, refreshed, and baked beside the fire,
At evening-time I stretched out to retire,
Wrapped my head, and added three warm quilts
To keep the perilous, piercing night-chills out.
I crossed my heart, then braced myself for sleep,
When, through the glass, I spied the gleaming shape
Of Latonia, (4) queen of the long, irksome night.
Her subtle glances shed a watery light,
Whirling high up in her distant region,
Toward Phoebus in his western opposition;
She called the dusky Crab her proper home,
And held the heights after the sun went down.
I heard the moon-horned night-owl in her cave
Shout and yowl, as though she was depraved;
Loathsome of form, with a crooked, wicked beak,
My stomach curdled at her weird, wild shriek.
The wild geese cried also through the gloom,
Flying above the sleeping city’s dream.
I sadly slid toward sleep, and soundly slumbered
Till in the east the light crept softly upward.
The nighttime’s watchman, Phoebus’ crowned cock,
Clapped his wings three times and proudly spoke.
As dawn brought forth the dazzling light of day,
And subdued Cynthia slowly slipped away,
I awoke in my warm bed, and heard the cackles
Upon the roof above of noisy grackles.
Palamedes’ cranes flew through the sky,
Croaking as they formed the letter Y, (5)
Then with a single trumpet gave proclamation
(Their cries have always been prognostication)
Of windy blasts and blizzards’ miseries.
Close to my chamber, in tall, barren trees,
The beggar kite whistled, mewed, and moaned,
And thus I knew for sure the day had dawned.
I summoned forth the fire and lit a candle,
Then blessed myself and, donning my warmest mantle,
Opened a shuttered window just a crack
To look out on the dawn: chill, wan, and bleak,
With a heavy mist engulfing all the sky,
And the soil hoary, frozen, stiff, and gray,
Branches rattling, and all the hillsides blackened,
With ravaged ridges and withered banks of bracken;
The morning dew-drops frozen on bark and stubble,
And sharp hailstones, crusted into rubble,
Hopping upon the thatch and nearby road.
I closed the shutter, shivering with cold,
And retreated back from such a bitter season,
Hoping with hot flames to forestall freezing.
And as I bound myself close by the hearth,
I glanced about me, south, west, east, and north,
And seeing Virgil on my lectern stand,
I instantly took up my pen in hand
To finish my translation, months past started,
Of the Poet, grave and somber-hearted;
For my own heart had greatly grown annoyed
That I had left so much hard work avoided,
And I sternly told myself, “The truth is strict:
A man may rest, but the yoke stays on his neck.”
Thus within my mind I laid my plan:
Nothing shall be abandoned, once begun.
Despite my duties, which approached apace,
I plunged into this volume with all haste;
And though weary, I neither slowed nor tired,
I was so loath to leave work in the mire,
Or be delayed by storms or bitter rain:
Boldly thus I yoked my plow again,
And with stubborn, single-minded diligence,
Produced this next book, of profound substance,
Begun thus in the winter’s chill,
When frosted days embroidered home and hill.

…………..Thus ends the sad prologue


(4) Latonia was another name for Selena, the moon, also known as Cynthia in Greco-Roman mythology.

(5) The first century Latin author Hyginus wrote in his Fabulae the story of how the Greek Palamedes, son of Nauplius and a contemporary of Odysseus, created eleven consonant sounds for the Greek alphabet, which Hermes then transcribed into characters shaped like the different wedges made by cranes in flight.


Gavin Douglas

Gavin Douglas (1474-1522) represented, along with William Dunbar and Robert Henryson, the flowering of the golden age of the Northern Renaissance in Scotland. The son of the powerful and influential Earl of Angus, Douglas studied for the priesthood at St Andrews University and traveled widely, absorbing both contemporary and classical virtues and resources. Completed in 1513, his Scots translation of Virgil's Aeneid, which included Douglas' original prologues to each book, was both a literary masterpiece and the first complete rendition of a classical text to be produced in Scotland. Later in life, Douglas became Bishop of Dunkeld and tutor to the young James V, and involved himself entirely in political rather than literary affairs and intrigues. He concluded his years in exile in England, where he died of the plague.

Kent Leatham

Kent Leatham is a poet, translator, editor, and critic. His translations of medieval/Renaissance Scots poetry have appeared in Rowboat, and his original work has appeared in journals such as Zoland, Poets & Artists, Artifice, Bellevue Literary Review, Softblow, 322 Review, and The Battered Suitcase. A wayward native of central California, Kent serves as a poetry editor for Black Lawrence Press.

Copyright (c) Kent Leatham, 2012.