Boccaccio's Eclogue Part VII  "THE QUARREL" Translated by David R. Slavitt






You snore the afternoon away.  You neglect your sheep.

You could have asked for me to look after them, but, no,

you just lie there and drowse, having drunk so much wine.

What can you say for yourself?  What excuse do you have?



Are you any better, Daphnis?  Why would I ask a thief

to guard my flock?  And you are not always sober, either.


Daphnis, Mercury’s son was the first shepherd, and here

the name applies to the emperor, Charles IV.  The other,

“Florida,” is Florence.  The quarrel between these two

was worrisome to Boccaccio, who had gone to Avignon,

representing Florence, to learn of the Pope’s intentions.

If the emperor came to Rome, the power of Florence and Naples

would both be much diminished.  This is the quarrel’s subject.



Don’t get high-hat with me.  You think I didn’t see you

emerging from Phaselis’ sheepfold the other night,

with one hand holding a sheep you’d stolen and, with the other,

combing your mussed up tresses.  What would Lupiscus think?


Who are all these people?  “Phaselis” stands for Lucca

that Florence wants to take back.  The Visconti family had it

but then sold it to Pisa.  “Lupiscus” is very likely

one of the house of Visconti. The sheep are the ones you fleece,

which is to say the people who happen to live in these cities.



It was my ram in the first place.  I was just taking it back.

You are the one who’s a thief.  I saw you myself, near Pisa,

rustling sheep and goats and none too careful about it.

Phaselis was crying out, but that didn’t faze you.  You ran,

dragging the poor beasts through dense and thorny thickets.



You lie!  Those were my own sheep I was taking to market.

Don’t I have the right to do with them as I please?



You might, if only for courtesy’s sake, try to make your lies

plausible.  What you’ve just said is arrant nonsense!

 What outlandish wind blew into your ear to addle

your tiny brain.  You, your father, and his father before him

--if indeed you know who they are—are savages all.

“My own,” has a meaning here other than what you can hold

in your arms as you run away from the man whom you’ve just robbed.



What will fair Galathea say when she hears your words?

You sound like ugly Lusca whom I expect to insult me.

The older farmers around these parts have learned to trust me

and have put me in charge of their sheep and all their grassy pastures.


“Galathea” is Rome and “Lusca,” which means one-eyed,

refers to Milan, which is the Visconti’s seat of power.


They trust in my good judgment, and the sheepfolds I protect

extend as far as the Indus and Hebrus in rocky Thrace

all the way to the African deserts.  You crazy woman,

your farcical attempts to condescend to me

are pathetic and bizarre.  I begin to lose my patience.



You begin to lose more than that.  Think of all those who have died

and gone to heaven or hell, whom you were supposed to protect.

Scarcely a corner of these great woods is truly yours

or pays any attention to your fragile decrees.  Your rule

is notional at best, for the Moselle’s current does not

reach the Indian plain, nor the Rhine’s flow extend

to the African sands.  The titles you claim from all these places

are honorific at best, and the world tries to hide its grin

when you and your foolish friends are brazen enough to use them.  



What backs them up is my pack of fine Molossian hounds

that circle about me and snarl and show the world their teeth.


Molossian hounds?  They are, by bucolic convention, his soldiers.

They came from near Epirus, and according to legend, Laeleps,

the first of these, was forged by Heaphestus in bronze.

He gave it breath and a soul and presented it to Zeus.

There are still Molossoid breeds: the Rottweiler, the Boxer,

the Neapolitan mastiff, the Boerboel, the Ca de Bou.

You get the idea.  They’re large-- attack dogs, guard dogs and fighters.


Even now, Galathea is saving laurel branches

with which some day she hopes to adorn my head.  And you

laugh at my titles?  I think you’ll wish soon enough you hadn’t.



Galathea will deck your hair with garlands of laurel

when pigs fly, when burning torches put out fires,

when the rising sun brings darkness.  Those who have been so honored

would throw their laurel chaplets in rage and shame to the pigs

if they should see you wear that insignia, undeserved

and utterly absurd.  I’d rather go blind or die

than see someone like you strutting around in laurel.



You’re aware, are you not, that you’re raving?  Do you dare defy

Apollo’s decrees?  A better and much more prudent plan

would have been for you to accept the truth of the world as it is

and offer your flowers to add to my laurel leaves so that Jove

might watch your flocks from above and protect them from wolves and foxes.


You may perhaps remember that, earlier, “Lupiscus”

signified a member of the house of Visconti.  “Lupus”

means wolf, and therefore the passage alludes to the plea that Florence

had made to Charles for his protection against Milan.

Charles refused to involve himself, and his patronizing

offer would have appeared to readers in Florence, false,

not quite a joke perhaps, but more than a little sardonic.



I have been paying attention for years and I can see

through to your tricky and timorous heart.  You use the snare

rather than hunt game with a spear that you’re not good at.

You think a few flattering words to me would be like bait

to draw me into your trap, but I am not blind or stupid.

Once I would have conceded to you the entire forest,

all the sheep and goats and bulls and cows.  No more!

And no more embraces and kisses.  Those times are gone forever

when Daphnis looked important, a great man at the crossroads.

You claim that it is Apollo who tells you to deck your head

with the sacred laurel, but I just don’t believe you.  The heavens,

Golia says, were given to gods, but the earth to men.

I take this to mean that each man or woman can choose

how to behave.  I am free. I was never joined to a husband.

I renounced the marriage bed and answer to no one else.

My spirits are high, and my strength has never yet failed me.

I have my bow and arrows and my pack of rough sheepdogs

that wild Licisca bore.  I tell you I’d rather die

before I let go of my lilies or throw them to the crows.

The lily, an old symbol of Florence, appeared on the florin.

And the crows?  As a matter of fact, they are purely and simply crows.



You may not be married, but I have seen for myself how many

adulterers you’ve welcomed into your unmade bed.

Phaselis’ marshy ground still shows their footprints’ path.

You pay for your guards with cash and therefore what you get

are the dregs of men, escaped prisoners, runaway slaves,

none of whom are disciplined fighters, or brave, or loyal,

but desperadoes and fugitives, fleeing us and our woods.

The lot of them aren’t worth an arrow from my quiver,

but rather the whips and cudgels that are more than enough to drive them

to instant flight.  You should go back to women’s work,

spinning, weaving, and sewing, and leave the fields to farmers.

Cultivate your garden, grow your kitchen herbs,

tend your flower beds, and gather roses and violets

for garlands for your girls.  Slaughter your fat hogs

and prepare a feast for your household.  Encourage some of your sons

to comb their beards, dress up, put garters on their thighs,

and let them preen by the smooth pools that show their reflections,

but flatter so that they seem to be slender rather than pudgy.

Give them all reed pipes and provide them with shady dells

in which to loll and play.  Bring on the brazen nymphs

and let the good wine flow.  Drive the noisy cicadas

out of the trees and shoo off the packs of barking dogs

so that nothing may disturb their pleasant postprandial naps.

Never mind what you do to their character and morale,

making them ever more wretched.  The Phrygian shepherd mocked me,

and Osyrus dared to show me his sneers of derisive contempt,

but they did not go unpunished, and neither, I think, will you.


The Phrygian shepherd?  The pope.  It’s Innocent VI.

And “Osyrus?” This is code for the house of Visconti, whose emblem

was—and maybe still is—a serpent.  Yes, it’s a reach,

but this is a game and the far-fetched associations are fun.



I will do as you say, enjoying the sweet springtime

when the woods are serene and the gentle breezes tousle the leaves,

at least in part so that you may be troubled with pangs of envy.

You accuse me of love affairs, but who do you think will believe you?

Dirty old men like you often accused chaste matrons

of what they would do themselves if only they still could.

Jove’s mighty oak is my witness.  What you have said is as false

as your own threats and boasts.  You talk of the Phrygian shepherd

and bandy about the name of Osyrus.  The sorry truth

is rather different.  Despite your empty claims of conquest

I know you have never ventured into Canopus’ forests,

or the far off Mysian hills, or Camander’s rocky valleys.  

If a big bird picked you up and dropped you down in these places,

would you recognize terrain that you’d never seen before?


Canopus is in Egypt, and therefore means the Visconti

holdings.  Camander, meanwhile, and the Mysian hills are the pope’s

“Phrygian” territories.  Charles was the emperor,

but the Milanese had the men and the power and called the tune.


You’ll sing these songs, I am sure, to the innocent nymphs who dwell

along the Danube, and maybe some of them will believe you.

But also sing of the door with the serpent carved on its face,

and the iron crown that was splotched with rust, the emblem of shame,

because of the great reluctance you showed in Venice’s fields.


The door with the serpent?  The gate of Milan through which Charles entered

with only a minimal escort.  He had to watch the parade

of Visconti strength.  He was crowned and then, in a matter of hours,

ended his visit and fled, as if from a prison cell.

The rusty crown, bestowed in 1355,

alludes to Charles response to the Lombards’ invitation

that the emperor should join them in fighting against the Visconti—

the Lombard states and Venice, together against Milan.

But even then, poor Charles was lacking in will or nerve.


Before you make any threats, it would be well to erase

those shameful associations that most of us still have.

You warn that you will destroy the sheepfolds, the oaks, and the beeches,

but we laugh at you.  We defy you.  What you should do is go

to your home at the end of the earth and put up a safe fort

for the women and children.  You can catch wild asses and try

to tame them.  You and your servants can trim back some of your vines

that are in great need of tending.  That ought to keep you busy.



It’s tiresome to argue with stupid croaking frogs!

I’m sorry for your children, who have learned to comb your hair,

wash your face, and get you dressed in the mornings.  You hear

their fulsome praise, in which you seem now to believe.

But the Arno will carry the news to its mouth and tell the Pisans

how I will place the heel of my boot on your stringy neck

and empty your wretched guts of their last drops of blood.



Hercules, the hero of Tyrins, gave me the golden

apples he said can bring deep sleep to feverish men.

These I will use to calm your fulminating rages,

and the Milanese will wake you from your fantastic dreams.


The golden apples represent the 100,000

florins the Florentines paid to Charles to leave them alone.

But beyond the money, Florence relies on the Milanese

of whom Charles is afraid, and not without good reason.






© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

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David R. Slavitt

Spring 2009 Poetry