Ovid

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, now in the Galleria Borghese, Rome

I recently finished teaching Ovid to both my classes. In fourth-year Latin verse, we finished up my chosen selections from his Epistulae ex Ponto (letters from Pontus), and in Latin epic we finished A. D. Melville’s translation of his Metamorphoses.

In my undergrad, I read only a few Latin poets — Virgil, minor authors associated with Tibullus, and Ovid. The Ovid I read then was his Ars Amatoria — the art of love. Ovid is a great poet, and if you are Latinless, A. D. Melville is a great translator of Ovid. Depending on your personality, you’d best start either with The Love Poems or The Metamorphoses.

Ovid himself started with the love poems — the Amores, themselves full of wit and charm and amusement, executed in brilliant elegiac couplets. This was his favoured metre — the first line of each couplet is a dactylic hexameter (the metre of epic), the second line has had a foot stolen by Cupid (technically called a dactylic pentameter, and that’s all we’re saying about metre today).

He played with all the conventions of Latin love elegy, and went on to his Ars Amatoria in that metre as a way to produce a mock-didactic poem about how to pick up the ladies, with a section for ladies to pick up men. Sometimes he gives opposite advice. Men — make sure you see her in daylight to make sure she’s really pretty; sometimes lamplight covers up blemishes. Ladies — make sure he only sees you in the lamplight, it covers up blemishes.

Apparently chariot races are also a good place to find a date.

Poets who are always testing and stretching their art are not comfortable with staying still, however. Thus Horace ranges through as much lyric as he can before moving to satire, and thence to the invention of Latin verse epistles. Ovid takes his love elegy and transforms it with his own first foray into mythology and the verse epistle with the Heroides. If you know classical mythology, I very strongly encourage you to read the Heroides. These are letters from the women of myth to their men, mostly complaining about their ill-treatment. Cutting and vibrant, they create a voice for the too-often voiceless characters of classical verse.

Ovid’s next two forays into myth were simultaneous — why stick to one thing when you can do two? The famous Metamorphoses, the epic that defies convention, and the Fasti, a work that could be said to be at least inspired by HellIenistic models, a poem in elegiac couplets that goes through the Roman calendar and gives the myths and legends surrounding their foundations. Two different approaches, two different tones, pure Ovid.

If you know a ‘Greek myth’, there is a very good chance that you know it from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. For example, we have no pre-Ovid version of Narcissus and Echo. The version of Apollo and Daphne we all love, or of Pygmalion, or of countless others, is the version as recounted by Ovid. Ovid’s main concern in the Metamorphoses is not simply to recount myth after myth about 250 times in almost 10,000 lines of dactylic hexameter. If that were the case — shoot me now. Rather, it is to use myths, and myths of metamorphosis in particular, to plumb the depths of the human soul to bring out the psychology and suffering and pathos of every sad myth, and cry out against the injustices of the gods.

(Aside: You’d think there’d’ve been a Greek Ragnarok; these guys are just as bad.)

Ovid soon had cause to cry out against Jupiter — as the poets called the first emperor, Augustus. He found himself exiled for a poem — the Ars Amatoria — and an error. We don’t know what the error was. Off he went to Tomis in Scythia Minor on the Black Sea (modern Tomi, Romania). Was it as bad as he says in the Tristia and Letters from Pontus?

I think it felt that way to Ovid — what more can we ask of a man?

He died in exile, despite his many letters and poems sent home.

His verse coruscates with device, artifice, wit, and cleverness. He is perhaps too clever for his own good, bringing down the censure of Quintilian and the English Augustans (18th century). Not only that — he’s fun! And we all know serious literature cannot be fun, of all things.

This brief encomiastic run-through of his poetic output scarcely does him justice. If you’re looking for a new poet to test out, if you want to test the waters of classical verse — try Ovid.

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The disadvantage of the modern reader of Pride and Prejudice

I am reading Pride and Prejudice just now. If you’re wondering, Lizzie is on the way to visit Charlotte and Mr Collins. Don’t worry about ‘ruining’ what comes next, for it is not as though you, dear reader, have that many spoilers for me, do you?

By the mid-point of my fourth year of undergrad, I knew the following facts about Pride and Prejudice: There was a man named Darcy, played by Colin Firth (whom I knew largely from The Importance of Being Earnest). He was the main guy for whom females swooned. There was another guy named Bingley, and some of my friends felt that he was too much overlooked and, in fact, preferable to Mr Darcy in his own way.

They named a (bluegrass? folk?) band after him.

That winter (spring? 2005) I saw Bride and Prejudice. Between then and now, when I am actually reading the book for the first time, I have seen Bride and Prejudice several times, the BBC miniseries once, the Donald Sutherland film once or twice, Austenland at least twice, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies once. My favourite overall, if you want to know, is Bride and Prejudice. My favourite Darcy is probably Colin Firth. My favourite Lizzie is probably Aishwarya Rai. My favourite Mr Bennet is Donald Sutherland. And my favourite Mr Collins is Matt Smith.

My disadvantage, then, when coming to Pride and Prejudice is the fact that, when Mr Darcy turns up, I know exactly what his destiny holds. And when Mr Wickham turns up, ‘Seems like a nice chap,’ is largely meaningless. He’s not, and I know it. This means that the foreshadowing about his character/future by Mrs Gardiner seems very heavy-handed to me, but perhaps that’s only because I know the future.

I had a similar, though less acute, problem for Jane Eyre, having seen only the 2006 miniseries — mind you, even before seeing the miniseries, I knew there was a madwoman in the attic because I spent a lot of time with English majors in undergrad.

I wonder what it would be like to read about Darcy’s growing fascination for Elizabeth Bennet not knowing where this would lead, or to meet Mr Wickham and not know, ‘Scum of the earth!’, or to encounter Mr Collins and not already have the heeby-jeebies. It is not a reading experience that I have the luxury of enjoying.

Nevertheless, this disadvantage is not a real problem. This is one of the key features of what one may consider great literature. The pleasure of reading derives not merely from the discovery of plot (of which I do not recall everything, and of which small details are rarely all translated to screen). It derives from the words on the page themselves — thus, reading Jane Austen for the first time is still reading Jane Austen for the first time. I may have heard some of her dialogue spoken by actors on the screen, but now is the first time I have encountered her style and her prose itself.

Moreover, I am, myself, a great re-reader. I re-read The Lord of the Rings for the fourth time this year. Likewise the Aeneid, with my third round through Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Euripides’ Bacchae. The delight of re-reading a book, or reading a book you’ve already seen adapted on screen, whether it’s ‘high’ literature such as Pride and Prejudice or more ‘pop’ like A Princess of Mars, is not from the big plot points, but from the small things, the beauty of language, the characterisations, going back over favourite moments, etc.

This I can get from Jane Austen any time, whether I’ve seen the film or not.

But at least when I get to Persuasion, about the only thing I remember is the name Captain Wentworth.

Tonight I finished The Silmarillion

First-edition cover, George Allen & Unwin, art by Tolkien (a heraldic device for Lúthien). Click the image for copyright info.

Having put our son to bed, my wife and I were preparing to have Grendel’s favourite snack* with a cup of tea, and discussing our relaxation plans for the evening. I said I wanted a cup of tea because I was almost done The Silmarillion. She said she was impressed. It’s not that impressive that I’ve read all those other boring because I had to read them. But she tried The Silmarillion and didn’t finish.

So did I. Twice.

Or was that three times?

I have to say, it takes a particular kind of Tolkien fan to like this more than The Lord of the Rings or to be really, really excited about re-reading this book. The Silmarillion is a hard book to get into, especially if (as on my first try) you mistakenly think it is a novel. It is not. It is less of a novel than The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien denies that LotR is a novel, FYI).

This is big mythology written in faux-archaic English from the creation of the world to the end of The Lord of the Rings. (By far, the best faux-archaic English I’ve read yet.) It was edited by Christopher Tolkien (with help from Guy Gavriel Kay) out of the various versions and notes of his father. The elder Tolkien had intended to get this published, but when he brought it to his publisher, he was told to do something more hobbity instead (so we got The Lord of the Rings, praise Ilúvatar!). That is to say — however difficult this book is, unlike some (most? much? all?) of the other posthumous disiecti membra doctoris Christopher has inundated us with over the years, some version of this was meant to see the light of day.

Anyway, this probably makes me seem like I’m down on The Silmarillion, and all the people who do ‘philosophy and fantasy’ or ‘theology and fantasy’ or ‘Tolkien and Northernism’ or what-have-you are preparing to troll me. I’m not.

I really, really like the first few pages. After that, there is a certain amount of slogging to get through to bits that I liked. Interesting stories — like making the trees of light in Valinor, or Melkor riding Ungoliant to undo what the Valar do, or the creation of the Dwarves, or the departing of the Noldor for Middle Earth, or the fight that one guy with a forgettable name had with Morgoth and cut off his foot, or Beren and Lúthien, or the fifth battle against Morgoth, or parts of the extraordinarily long and depressing tale of Túrin, or Earendil, or what-have-you — simmer in the midst of a barrage of names and long non-descriptions of imaginary places that are mostly names of rivers and mountain ranges and the points of the compass with no maps to help.

The interesting stories and parts of stories are really interesting, though. Don’t get me wrong. I even get the depressing ones. In fact, you can see the unsurprising interweaving of Tolkien’s Catholicism and his Anglo-Saxon/Norse philology in some of the depressing parts (which is to say, they have interest!). In The Silmarillion, even the evil, even the discordant notes, works as part of the harmony of the whole — somehow. What Melkor/Morgoth intends for evil, Ilúvatar will have turn out for good in the end.

That is Catholic. Augustinian, even.

But all joy is tinged with sorrow. Happiness has a cutting edge of grief. The elves are fair and wondrous, but also sad. This sort of sorrow runs through a lot of Anglo-Saxon literature.

All of this to say — I enjoyed The Silmarillion overall, whether I can pronounce the titles of its different sections or not.

In the end, I do have mixed feelings about The Silmarillion.

Basically, I feel as though, if I’m going to put this much effort into a book, I’d rather it be actual ancient mythology, and not a philologist’s dream-child. I like it, but I feel that the reward may not be worth the effort of a second reading — for me, at least. Those of you who revel in this book and drool over your print-fresh copies of The Fall of Gondolin — have at it.

*Danishes.

Cultural references and making class relevant

Q, a highly evolved being who does not, strictly speaking, have a body

I recently shared on Facebook about how I — without planning to — worked Star Trek into a lecture on Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. The context was a discussion of the ‘divine spark’ in human persons, and how this idea is part of many ancient philosophies and religions, and in some cases ties into the idea that we need to release this divine spark through ascetic discipline, setting it free from the confines of the material world. This led to the statement that many philosophies accordingly believed that the material, physical world was bad, and the metaphysical was good.

‘This belief,’ I said, ‘can even be seen in Star Trek.’

Student: Which Star Trek?

Me: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Student: Good.

Me: [Something about how every time we meet a highly evolved race in Star Trek: The Next Generation, they have shed or are about to shed their physical bodies.]

Student: Like the Q.

Me: Yes, like Q, who is there at the beginning and there at the end.

A friend on Facebook says that tying material into their own lives in this way is a good method for helping ideas stick in students’ minds. And I agree.

The problem for me is figuring out which cultural references actually work.

Later in that same lecture, I was talking about the sea, and how ancients did not like travelling by sea, because it was very dangerous, etc., etc. This concern about the sea is played out in A Merchant of Venice, for the play begins with Antonio losing his wealth because he had sunk it into merchant vessels. And I got blank looks.

So, Star Trek before Shakespeare, I suppose. But the lecture I gave where I brought in the debate about whether Battlestar Galactica is based on The Aeneid also go blank looks.

Thankfully, though, the Three Amigos works, sometimes even for those who’ve not seen it.

Student: Professor, how should we translate famosus?

Me: What do others think? (In Latin class, I like to ask the rest of the room first.)

Other student: Notorious.

Me: That’s right, fama in Latin often has a negative association, unlike the English word fame. So famosus can be more like infamous than famous, like the infamous El Guapo. ‘In-famous? What does in-famous mean?’ ‘It means this guy’s not just famous, he’s in-famous! He must be the biggest star in Mexico!’

Another student: *laughs*

Me: That’s The Three Amigos.

Student who laughed: Best movie ever.

Me: You should all go home and watch it. It’s on Netflix.

They will all now, hopefully, remember that famosus does not mean famous.

It is hard to know where to go with cultural references. Some of them creep out of me, and sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. I’ve never been hip, but it seems that enough Classics students watch Star Trek that I can get away with a few references as part of my pedagogical practice.

What successes or failures have you ever had?

Loving Horace

Horace’s Odes by William Morris

I recently finished teaching Horace, Epistles, Book 1, to my fourth-year Latin poetry class. One of the things I like about my current position is that I get to teach texts that have no direct bearing on my research. I research late antique Latin prose letters written by bishops of Rome. The fact that they are letters in Latin is the strongest link these texts have to Horace.

I get to teach literature that I simply like with no wider vision in mind. I even got to choose — Horace’s Epistles, Ovid’s Letters from Pontus, one of Ovid’s Heroides, and some of Ausonius’ verse letters (I couldn’t keep Late Antiquity out!).

Not all of my students enjoy Horace. For some, it’s simply that, compared with Ovid, Heroides 1, Horace’s Epistles are more difficult, both in terms of Latin grammar and vocabulary and in terms of grasping what he means. Horace is harder to interpret, at least here. Some dislike the moralist attitude he often adopts in the Epistles, others aren’t enamoured with his love of the countryside.

I, on the other hand, really enjoy Horace’s Epistles. In fact, I like Horace at large, even with ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s fatherland) and ‘odi profanum uulgus et arceo’ (I hate and shun the profane mob). I also have to admit that I don’t always agree with Horace’s philosophy.

The basic principles of Horace’s philosophy as spelled out in the Epistles seem okay to me — live a contented life whatever the circumstances; each man is the measure of his own freedom; indebtedness to others is no true freedom; live in accordance with your own nature, even if that means you differ from other wise men; Homer offers more wisdom than the philosophers.

Nevertheless, his own self gets in the way. Sure — live a contented life wherever you are. But wouldn’t you rather live in the country like me? Isn’t it better to avoid the City (Rome) in August and September? I can see how some people, reading always with suspicion — especially with suspicion of wealthy aristocrats — would dislike Horace for this, let alone his two famous phrases above.

Nonetheless, I did see students coming around. One student loved how beautiful his verse is. This is a statement that cannot be borne out by an English blog post. Read it yourself. It is beautiful. Horace is a consummate poet. We could also balance out some of his hard edges with his fables that always surprise the reader used to different modes of poetic voice — suddenly, as if out of nowhere, he tells the story of the horse and the stag doing battle …

But for an individual reader, balancing the positive and negative will not always work. Can we love Horace without having to like him?

Well, we can theoretically love our neighbours and enemies without always liking them.

Perhaps we begin with the balance — the fables, the beauty, the philosophy, the syntax, the morals. Uneven. Unequal. Human. Rather than trying to allow the good to outweigh the bad, simply acknowledge this situation.

Maybe then seek empathy. His inconsistencies in philosophy, for example, merely make him human, not a bad poet. Consider why he loves the country. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of his philosophical and moral statements. Then read the Latin aloud for its sonorous beauty. Parse a sentence and see his art, grammar, syntax, all at work at once.

Read Horace as high art, beautiful poetry, created by a flawed human, as weak and feeble as all of us.

Maybe then the resistant reader can come to love him.

Finally — loving Horace is different from loving Ovid, and different again from loving Virgil, let alone from loving Shakespeare or T S Eliot. And that’s okay.

But I think you could try this with any author.

Full disclosure: The inspiration for this post was Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.

Quick thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 by John Tiffany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some brief, spoiler-filled thoughts.

This book is a couple of plays. It reads like plays, and it moves at the pace of plays. That is, plot development is not especially deep. That said, it seems like it would have been brilliant to watch live. It is highly entertaining. As a person who enjoys Harry Potter but not the Harry Potter phenomenon, and who thinks there are other, better children’s fantasy books, it gave me what I wanted.

But what, really, does this add to the Potterverse? Almost nothing. We see an outlandishly happy ending for all the good guys — they grow up to be influential bureaucrats and civil servants, which I think is supposed to be a good thing? And the play basically ends status quo ante bellum.

What does it provide us, then, besides a bit more fun and Voldemort’s daughter? It gives us what plays are good at. Plays — and, really, I only know Greek tragedy and comedy and Shakespeare besides Murder in the Cathedral — are more about characters and psychology than plot. Epics and novels and romances are for plot, films as well.

That’s what this play gets us — we see insight into what it means to be the man who was the Boy Who Lived, to be his son. We have fathers and sons. We have themes of friendship and loyalty and depth of love. We see Draco and Harry become friends because their sons are friends.

So, no, this book won’t really add an ‘eighth story’ like the first seven. But it adds something, some depth as well as glimpses of what life could have been.

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Atonement

Today I taught Virgil, Aeneid 12 — the final book of the epic. Mostly I lectured about

**SPOILER ALERT**

the death of Turnus. When Aeneas kills him, he says (Frederick Ahl’s translation):

Pallas gives you this death-stroke, yes Pallas / Makes you the sacrifice, spills your criminal blood in atonement!

In Latin this is:

Pallas te hoc uulnere, Pallas / immolat et poenam scelerato ex sanguine sumit.

I hadn’t checked the Latin before class, but as I read Aeneas’ declaration out to my students, I said to them that I did not like this use of atonement. In the context, Aeneas is essentially killing out of revenge, possibly seeking propitiation for Turnus’ killing of Pallas. Now, atonement is often used in contemporary English in the place of propitiation, but its wider use implies something bigger and potentially very different.

Without looking at the Latin, we decided on retribution — propitiation usually involves the gods, after all.

Ahl has a difficult task throughout his translation, because he is trying to translate verse into verse across different languages. But at least he is not trying to match the same number of English iambic pentameters to ancient dactylic hexameters like Emily Wilson does in her Odyssey, since that is essentially impossible without more cutting than usual.

Anyway, ‘spills … in atonement’ renders the Latin ‘poenam … sumit’, which I would take to be ‘exact/inflict the penalty/punishment’.

This is retribution, not atonement.

How are we to differentiate?

Well, maybe this is just the philologist in me, but the English word atonement, while it often comes out meaning ‘retribution’ in contemporary English, does not always mean that today, nor has it historically. Moreover, it is more often used in terms of ‘reparation’ today — that is, one ‘atones for’ one’s crimes.

Atonement, as you likely know, is about the only word in the English theological vocabulary descended from neither Latin nor Greek. It looks like its original meaning — ‘making at one’ or even, dare we try?, ‘one-ing’ or ‘onement’. It comes to take on ideas from propitiation, retribution, reparation, because of its use to refer to how Jesus oned humans and God by taking on human sin, guilt, punishment, etc., and dying.

But because of its use in Christian theology, it strikes me that we should be careful how we use the word atonement, regardless of popular uses. Does Turnus atone for his sin with his death, or does Pallas simply take retribution from Turnus’ blood?