Urbem, quam dicunt Romam, Meliboee, putavi
stultus ego huic nostrae similem, quo saepe solemus
pastores ovium teneros depellere fetus:
sic canibus catulos similis, sic matribus haedos
noram, sic parvis componere magna solebam:
verum haec tantum alias inter caput extulit urbes
quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi.
—Virgil, Eclogues I. 19-25
Fool that I was, I thought imperial Rome
Like Mantua, where on market days we come,
And thither drive our tender lambs from home.
So kids and whelps their sires and dams express,
And so the great I measured by the less.
But country towns, compared with her, appear
Like shrubs when lofty cypresses are near.
—John Dryden’s translation
Not a word-for-word rendering! —but Dryden, one may think, in felicitous mode. When he reaches the word viburna, he plays safe, unlike some more recent translators who have rendered it in various ways, from osiers to weeping willows. Dryden, perhaps unsure of the shrub’s identity, does not name what Virgil refers to as pliant viburnums.
The translator who rendered it osiers was possibly thinking of the word vimina, from which the Mons Viminalis took its name; and willows is perhaps an extension of that idea: both of them would fit the epithet lenta.
But Robert Coleman seems to get to the truth in his 1977 edition of the Eclogues (Cambridge University Press). He says:
‘viburna: either the ‘wayfaring tree’ or the wild ‘guelder rose’, to which lenta is slightly more appropriate. Both are hedge-shrubs, contrasting with the tall evergreen cypress.’
The wayfaring tree is Viburnum lantana and the guelder rose is Viburnum opulus.
There is an interesting passage in WJ Stokoe’s Observer’s Book of Trees and Shrubs of the British Isles. This was one of a popular series published by Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd from the 1930s onwards. What he says about the wayfaring tree might seem to settle the matter, if one knew more about his sources:
‘Though it grows to a height of 20 feet in places, it can never properly be called a tree… the local names of this shrub…Lithe-wort and Lithy-tree, also Twist-wood and Whipcrop, indicate the subtle and elastic character of the branches which are often used instead of Withy to tie up a bundle of sticks or vegetables, or to make a loop for a gate fastener. On the continent the shoots, when only a year old, are used in basket weaving…’
The Woodland Trust gives a photograph of it, solitary and not in a hedgerow. It certainly contrasts with the cypress:
Viburnum is a name familiar to modern gardeners, who can vouch for the number of beautiful cultivars, bearing flowers of different shapes and with shades on the theme of white and pink, most of them deciduous but a few evergreen.