Poem of the Month: Job 3

David McOmish

This poem is the final piece in a collection of poems published by Andrew Melville as a response to the bloody and sustained attack upon French Protestants known as the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, which occurred in France in 1572. Although in the rest of the collection the massacre is directly addressed, here and in the opening poem, the Carmen Mosis, there is no explicit reference to it. However, Melville's choice of subject matter, and his own literary presentation of it, does strongly articulate an idea of forbearance in the face of seemingly pointless and indiscriminate persecution, which speaks directly to the purpose of the collection. As you shall see, Melville employs classical authors (especially Virgil) liberally to re-imagine Job's lamentable plight. This classicizing paraphrase of Job 3 presents the reader with an opportunity to see the ways in which Melville's Classical Latin and its literary hinterland relate to the original Vulgate text (his use of the Vulgate is itself surprising - see notes below). You shall also see that his use of classical authors facilitates his subtle attempts to take the reader beyond the oppressively pessimistic message of Job chapter 3 and to alert them to the redemption that will find Job at the end of the Book of Job. The power of this message relies on Melville and his readers' shared Latin literary heritage. We can see this quite clearly when the poem articulates the importance of keeping the faith and the rewards for doing so: Melville's use of Virgil at line 1 encourages the reader to remember Evander's refusal to break his covenant with the Trojans; and at line 64 there is a direct allusion to Io from Ovid's Metamorphoses which directs the reader towards the suggestion that there may be a positive transformation for Job round the corner. This relatively short and easily approachable poem provides today's readers with a valuable opportunity to rediscover Melville the poet and his message. The poem is rendered in hexameters, the metre of the classical epic.

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UT via vix tandem voci laxata dolore est, 1
Ip[s]e suum Iobus natalem devovet amens
Immeritum: ac tales erumpit pectore voces: 2
Heu lucem invisam, & noctem infælicibus actam
Auspiciis! quæ prima haustum mihi luminis hujus
Dira dedit, natoque patrem illætabilis auxit.
Link to an image of this page  [p91] O pereat lux illa atris extincta tenebris,
Nec cœlo pater omnipotens hanc spectet ab alto, 3
Nec super accendat radios fulgentior axis:
At tristes fœdent tenebræ pallentibus umbris,
Densior & nimbis nigrantibus incubet aër:
Ac veluti scelerum diris ultricibus acti
Terribili fremitu horrificent, qui mole malorum 4
Evicti ingratam exoptant abrumpere vitam.
O pereat nox illa alta caligine mersa, 5
Expuncta è fastis, exempta è mensibus anni.
Secubet, & deserta vacet: solaque sub umbra
Auscultet nec læta jocos, nec festa Hymenæos:
At longum integrans ferali carmine luctum 6
Nænia, crudeles Superos, crudelia clamet
Sidera, congeminetque atris accentibus Orcum.

Iam neq[ue] sint astrorum ignes, neq[ue] lucidus æthra
Siderea polus: obscuro sed nubila cælo
Semper, & immenso nox intempesta profundo. 7
Expectet lucem nequicquam: & prævius almæ
Lucifer auroræ rosei jubar abnuat oris.

Denique natalem æternis tegat umbra tenebris,
Quæ me infælicem in lucem è penetralibus alvi
Extulit: & portæ parituræ limina pandit. 8
Illa meis, infandum, oculis curasque, laboresque,
Et luctum, & lacrymas satis objecit iniquis.

Mene sinu clausum materno occumbere quondā[m]
Non potuisse? ipsove animam hanc effundere in ortu: 9
Aut alvo elaspum mox ævi in limine primo
Oppetere? & tantos letho prævertere luctus?

Quid genibus susceptus ego? quænam ubera fuxi
Infælix? Somno positum sub nocte silenti 10
Dulcis & alta quies gremio complexa foveret
Me nunc, & socium magni rectoribus orbis,
Nunc & confortem claris splendore tyrannis,
Quique nova antiquas instaurant mole ruinas:
Quique suis tectis penitus defossa talenta
Abscondunt ignotum argenti pondus & auri. 11
Essem ego nunc (ceu vitę exors atq[ue] æthere cassus
Infans, qui latebris alvi, qui carcere cæco 12
Link to an image of this page  [p92] Inclusus jacet) exanimis sine luce, sine aura.
Sævus ubi insontem parcit vexare: ubi ingens 13
Parta quies fessis rerum fractisque labore:
Vinctus ubi nec vincla gerit jam rupta: nec audit
Exactorem, operi jussis qui tristibus instet.
Hic & dives opum, & duris in rebus egenus. 14
Hic & avis atavisque potens, & clarus honore, 15
Obscurusque ævo, simul atque ignobilis ortu:
Hic servi, domino excusso, jam libera cervix.

Quid lucem ærumnoso homini? quid munera vitę
Mœstis corda dedit? qui votis omnibus unam
Expectant mortem frustra: scrobibusque subactis, 16
Alte vestigant oculis, & forte reperto 17
Serius, exultant læti, gaudentque sepulchro:
Queis vitam fors atra gravem caligine cæca
Obsidet: obstructamque viam Deus intercludit.

Multa gemens crebo ante cibos suspiria duco,
Clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollo, 18
Fletuque fremituque, & luctisono mugitu. 19
Haud secus, ac torrentis aquæ rapidissimus imber
Vastior it: raucumque sonans immurmurat unda.
Quod metuit, quod fugit onus præsaga mali mens, 20
Pondere nunc premit, & duris me casibus urget. 21
Non lentum, non securum, non pace beata
Florentem stupor egit iners me hoc turbine rerum,
Tantos ille suo rumpebat pectore quæstus. 22

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Paraphrase of Book of Job Chapter 3

When finally a slender path for his voice was freed from his grief, 23
beside himself, Job curses his own undeserved birth;
and he breaks forth such words from his heart:
"Oh that hateful day and night passed in ill-omen,
which first portentously gave the breath of day to me,
and joylessly provided a father with a son!"
Link to an image of this page  [p91] "O let that light of day disappear, obliterated by pitch-black night,
and let neither the all-powerful father look upon this day from high heaven, 24
nor let the brightening wheel of the sun fire up its flashing spokes.
Instead, let the gloomy night darken the day with dulling shades,
and let the darkening sky brood with blackening storms:
and, like the sounds from men driven by the avenging Furies of sins,
who are overcome by a mountain of evils and earnestly wish to end
their unpleasant existence, let the storms in fear-inducing
groans send shivers up the spine.
O let that night of my birth disappear, plunged into the deep gloom;
erased from the calendar; banished from the months of the year.
Let it be solitary, and let it be empty, abandoned: alone in the shade
let it neither as a joyful day behold the games, nor as a festive day witness weddings.
Instead, renewing its lingering lamentation in funereal song,
let Grief scream at the unrelenting Gods above
and the unrelenting heavens, and let it make a new
Land of the Dead with its gloomy tones."
"Now let there neither be bright fires from the stars nor let
the heavens shine with a starry sky: rather let there always
be clouds in a covered heaven and darkest night in an endless abyss.
Let day await the light in vain: and let Lucifer, the forerunner
of nourishing Dawn, block the splendor of her rosey face.
Finally, let a shade cover that day of my birth in eternal darkness;
that day which brought forth an unhappy me into the light of day from inside the womb,
and lay open the threshold of a soon-to-open door. By unjust fate,
that day threw out unspeakable sorrow, worries, hardships, and tears before my eyes."
"Ah, why could I have not died when enclosed within the maternal bosom?
Why could I have not given up the ghost in birth itself?
Or, having slipped out of the womb, not met death soon after the very
beginning of my life? And thus through death averted so many sorrows?"
"Why was I received by my mother's knees? Why the breast, pray tell, did I
unhappily feed upon? For calmed in sleep beneath a silent night,
a sweet and deep sleep embracing me in its bosom would now keep me warm,
and I would be a companion to the rulers of the great globe,
and now a partner in dignity with the illustrious dukes,
who erected with fresh enthusiasm the buildings now laid waste and ancient,
and who, in those palaces of theirs, concealed treasures buried far within
the ground, an unkown amount of gold and silver."
"I would now have been (just like the infant deprived of life, without
sweet air, who lies imprisoned in the depths of the womb, in a cell
Link to an image of this page  [p92] devoid of light) lifeless, without light, without air.
Where the cruel stop harassing the innocent: where limitless rest
is acquired by those worn out by their lot, and ground down by toil:
where the defeated no longer endure their broken chains: nor do they hear
the oppressor, who would compel them to work
with hostile commands; here are both the rich and the destitute.
Here are the powerful in lineage and illustrious in dignity,
and also those unknown in their own lifetime and lowly in birth:
here, with the master driven out, the slave's collar is released."
"Why give the gift of life to the suffering man? Why give the gift
of life to the dejected in spirit? Those who, in vain with all their prayers,
long for death alone: and who, with grave-trenches dug,
search with their eyes to the heavens, and when they have
later found their grave, gladly they rejoice and exult:
for whom grim fortune haunts their burdensome life in gloomy
mist: and God blocks the impassable way."
"Often groaning, I let out many sighs before I eat,
and also in tears, in grumbles, and in loud doleful lament 25
I raise up terrible shouts to the heavens.
Just so pours forth the vast and fastest-flowing flood of swirling
water, and the resounding wave rumbles loudly.
What I feared, the onerous prophecy which my divining mind fled,
now bears down upon me with its burden, and with unyielding misfortunes
oppresses me. Not lazy, nor indifferent, nor flourishing in blessed rest
was I, as some languid numbness pursued me with a whirlwind of misfortunes."
Such plaintive cries did Job continually burst forth from his heart.


1: Virgil, Aeneid XI.151

2: Virgil, Aeneid V.409

3: Virgil, Aeneid VII.141.

4: Virgil, Aeneid IV.465

5: Virgil, Aeneid VI.267

6: Virgil, Aeneid IV.463

7: Virgil, Aeneid III.585-587

8: cf. Virgil, Aeneid VI.525

9: Virgil, Aeneid I.97-98

10: Virgil, Aeneid IV.527. The preceding line is an extremely close paraphrase of the Vulgate, Job 3.12: 'Quare exceptus genibus...' The current line has been little changed from the original where Virgil tells of the portentous circumstances before Aeneas leaves Dido

11: Virgil, Aeneid I.359

12: For this and the following line cf. Virgil, Aeneid VI.734

13: Virgil, Aeneid I.99

14: Virgil, Georgics I.146

15: Virgil, Aeneid VII.56

16: Virgil, Georgics II.50

17: Virgil, Aeneid VI.145

18: Virgil, Aeneid II.222

19: Ovid, MetamorphosesI.732

20: Virgil, Aeneid X.843

21: cf. Virgil, Georgics I.146

22: Full line quotation from Virgil, Aeneid IV.553. There may be a problem with the text here. For 'quaestus' we should read 'questus'.

23: These are the words of Evander (see note in Latin text for specific passage) as he curses the fact that his son is dead. Despite his son's death Evander refuses to blame his covenant with the Trojans. This mirrors Job's own reluctance to break his covenant with God in the face of his own loss.

24: At line 1, where Melville incorporates an entire Vergilian passage to add dramatic colour, and at line 7, where he closely paraphrases the Vulgate's 'pereat dies/o let that light', we begin to see two aspects of Melville's compositional approach: Vergilian accretion; and linguistic fidelity to the Vulgate. Here we see a third: a close paraphrasing of the Vulgate that replaces individual Vulgate Latin words with specifically Vergilian terms - 'pater omnipotens/all-powerful father' for 'deus/god' and 'caelo ab alto/from high heaven' for 'desuper/from above'. These three approaches are in evidence throughout the work.

25: This passage comes from Ovid's description of the plight of Io (see note above in Latin text), who has lost her offspring and been turned into a heifer by divine will (Juno). Job too, of course, has been deformed by divine will, and has also lost his family. Io's deformity and sorrow are of short duration, as Jupiter transforms her back and then gives her a new family. This fate, ultimately (at the end of the book), awaits Job. Melville here plays on his readers' literary knowledge to promise a positive outcome.