The critic Charles Lamb described Vincent Bourne as ‘the most classical, and at the same time, most English, of the Latinists’, and he described Bourne’s Epitaphium in Canem as ‘the sweetest of his poems’. It is easy to see why. Bourne’s mixture of classical allusions and insight into contemporary life is beguiling. His image of the faithful dog leading its blind master (lines 5-6) employs vocabulary from Catullus and Virgil, specifically references to the thread used by Theseus to find his way out of the Minoan labyrinth: Catullus 64.113, errabunda regens tenui vestigia filo, and Virgil Aeneid 6.30: caeca regens filo vestigia – the latter explicitly connecting the filum with guiding (regens) blind footsteps (caeca vestigia); but instead of the Roman poets’ mythological setting Bourne grounds these words in the reality of daily life on the streets of London. Bourne’s classical style still produces an original and very touching portrait of the faithful dog and its master.
Pauperis hic Iri requiesco Lyciscus, herilis,
Dum vixi, tutela vigil columenque senectae,
Dux caeco fidus: nec, me ducente, solebat,
Praetenso hinc atque hinc baculo, per iniqua locorum
Incertam explorare viam; sed fila secutus,
Quae dubios regerent passus, vestigia tuta
Fixit inoffenso gressu; gelidumque sedile
In nudo nactus saxo, qua praetereuntium
Unda frequens confluxit, ibi miserisque tenebras
Lamentis, noctemque oculis ploravit obortam.
Ploravit nec frustra; obolum dedit alter et alter,
Queis corda et mentem indiderat natura benignam.
Ad latus interea iacui sopitus herile,
Vel mediis vigil in somnis; ad herilia iussa
Auresque atque animum arrectus, seu frustula amice
Porrexit sociasque dapes, seu longa diei
Taedia perpessus, reditum sub nocte parabat.
Hi mores, haec vita fuit, dum fata sinebant,
Dum neque languebam morbis, nec inerte senecta;
Quae tandem obrepsit, veterique satellite cascum
Orbavit dominum: prisci sed gratia facti
Ne tota intereat, longos deleta per annos,
Exiguum hunc Irus tumulum de cespite fecit,
Etsi inopis, non ingratae, munuscula dextrae;
Carmine signavitque brevi, dominumque canemque
Quod memoret, fidumque canem dominumque benignum.
Here I Lyciscus lie, while I lived watchful guardian of my poor master and support of his old age, loyal guide to the blind man; nor, with me leading, was he wont to wander the uncertain road, with his staff feeling the way this way and that through uneven places; but having followed my lead, which guides uncertain steps, securely he places his footsteps with unobstructed stride; and having found a chilly seat on an exposed stone, where the crowded mass of passers-by meet, there with pitiful laments he bewails the blindness and the dark that obscures his eyes. Nor does he lament in vain; one then another, upon whom nature has bestowed a good will and kind heart, gives a coin. Meanwhile I lie at my master’s side asleep, rather watchful in the midst of sleep; ears and attention alert to my master’s commands, whether in friendship he offered morsels and companionable feasts, or having endured the drawn-out tedium of the day, he was preparing to return home by night. These were the manners, this the life, while the fates allowed, while I was neither enfeebled by sickness, nor sluggish old age; which at last stole upon me, and deprived my blind master of his aged companion: but lest his regard for former deeds should wholly perish, obliterated through the long years, Irus erected this modest mound from turf, even though a small gift from a poor but not ungrateful hand, and he inscribed it with a brief poem, which recalls the master and his dog, the faithful dog and his gentle master.
Chosen and translated by Mark Walker (www.pineapplepubs.co.uk).