Boethius poems Orpheus, Odysseus and Hercules, De consolatione philosophiae

Boethius poems 12 of Book III, Orpheus, Odysseus and Hercules combine epic subject matter with dramatic declamation in a trilogy that effectively alludes to the key figures of Greek mythology. Poets like Boethius and the Roman de la Rose of Old English and Old French, as well as Chaucer and his Middle English works like Troilus and Criseyde, owe a great debt to these poems as late antique masterpieces of verse.

Thanks to its enduring impact in literature, The Consolation of Philosophy has become one of the most copied, translated, and discussed books in Western civilization. Rediscovered, maybe by Cassiodorus de Cades, after its composition, the book eventually found its way to Charlemagne’s central Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries, and then to Alfred the Great’s England. Medieval illustrated manuscripts from the Consolation are among the most magnificent examples of their kind. Among the many scenes illuminated are Boethius in his study, Lady Philosophy in her lettered gown, Fortune with her wheel, and the adventures and trials of the mythological characters featured in the poetry.

Boethius poems Orpheus, Odysseus  and Hercules,  De consolatione philosophiae
Only in England can you find translations of the Consolation from as far back as the court of King Alfred in the late ninth century, Geoffrey Chaucer at the tail end of the fourteenth century, and Queen Elizabeth at the tail end of the sixteenth century. William Caxton introduced the new technique of movable type to England in the mid-1470s, and one of the first works printed by him was Chaucer’s Boece. Sir Thomas More definitely had Boethius in mind when he reflected on his own incarceration in 1535. Edward Gibbon, a historian who lived two and a half centuries after the First Roman Empire collapsed, yet considered the Consolation “a golden book, worthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully [i.e., Cicero].”

Thus, Boethius has played a one-of-a-kind role in the annals of English literature, and David Slavitt lends his own sensitive understanding of the subtleties of Latin poetry and the various forms of English verse to the Consolation. For example, in the forthright colloquialisms of passages like Book V, prose 6, when Philosophy answers the prisoner’s question about “the apparent randomness of good fortune” with: “This is the great question, isn’t it?”

Scholars who come to his translation will discover much that sparkles and surprises. As in this beautiful alliterative moment in Book III, poem 12, they will also discover poetry returned to verses that were once reduced to prosaic paraphrase: Rooted trees hurried to hear Orpheus’ dirge for Euridyce’s death, and rivers that were flowing halted to listen. This happened a long time ago.

This passage, along with others where Slavitt juxtaposes the ordinary and the complex, will captivate readers who are new to the Consolation. For instance, in poem 1 of Book I, the prisoner’s “fairweather friends” foreshadow the terrible storms that will hit his mind in poem II. Similarly, in poem 3 of Book IV, the Latin line vela Neritii ducis generates phrasing that is reminiscent of the opening of Ezra Pound’s Cantos: the Ithacan’s black ship and the remainder of his wandering flock that the winds drove to the island where the fair goddess dwells.

The translation of Slavitt’s Consolation, thus, harkens back to the annals of classical translation while bringing a classic of Western literature to a new generation of readers at the turn of the century.