Seamus Heaney and the Classics

I am reading Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things (1991), right now. I am not generally enamoured of 20th-century poetry, but Heaney I like. His use of language is rich in its apparent simplicity, and somehow ordinary life becomes beautiful in his poetic mode.

While reading this book, I cannot but think of T. S. Eliot’s little booklet, The Classics and the Man of Letters, itself originally an address. The main thrust of Eliot’s booklet is that someone involved in writing English literature should be invested in the predecessors of English literature, being part of the ongoing tradition of literature — and this includes the Classics, Latin literature in particular. A good point, if we consider the educational background of most English poets before the 20th century — for even Chesterton studied Latin in school.

Reading Heaney makes one appreciate this idea of Eliot’s, given his allusions. Indeed, the volume begins with a translation of the golden bough passage from Aeneid VI (all of which he would later translate; I recommend his translation). The book also has its references to Homer (I love the phrase, ‘I swim in Homer’; I’ve swum in Homer, myself).

Heaney’s intertextual world, though, is not only Classical, not only those things he would have been taught at school. He also has various biblical allusions, allusions to Norse myth, and references to Irish history, culture, literature, besides one poem where he encounters Larkin’s ghost (called his ‘shade’ — an allusion to Virgil) which quotes Dante to him. And the volume closes with a translation of Dante, in fact.

There is undoubtedly much on the Irish and modern English verse side of this book that I miss. But there is much I grasp, regardless. And here is the interesting thing about a poet like Heaney. I appreciate the classical, biblical, Norse allusions. But I can appreciate his manipulation of the English language and his skill as a versifier without them.

That’s what makes a good poet. You can have all the allusions and intertexts you want, but if the reader who doesn’t grasp them does not appreciate your verse, there is a good chance you have not necessarily produced something of quality.

Study Later Latin!

Codex Amiatinus, portrait of Ezra (Cassiodorus?), folio 5r (c. 700, based on older Italian Bible)

One of the many interesting facts found in Jürgen Leonhardt, Latin: Story of a World Language (read my review), is that about 80% of surviving ancient Latin texts are from the late 200s to the mid-500s. The sheer quantity of texts, then, makes Later Latin literature appealing, doesn’t it?

The other 20% of surviving ancient Latin texts cover about 500 years of literary history — those are the Latin texts we are all most likely to study: Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Horace, Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, Lucan, Suetonius, Tacitus, and others, including those fragmentary poets of the Republic such as Ennius.

When you think about those who study English literature,  not only do these Latin classics not add up to a very large quantity of texts in comparison, they are also among the most studied texts in the world. Everyone who ever studied Latin with seriousness, whether a Ciceronian so harshly criticised by Erasmus, Erasmus himself, or, say, Aelred of Rievaulx, read Cicero.

So we should keep reading Cicero (there’s more to that argument, but that’s for later).

But Cicero has been analysed, edited, commented upon, translated, and so forth a lot.

Leo the Great, on the other hand, has 23 letters that have received no edition since 1753, and I am contemplating writing the first commentary on the whole corpus of letters.

Not only is Later Latin relatively understudied: It’s vast! Here’s but a sample of people as they pass into my mind:

Lactantius, Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Ausonius, Ambrose, Symmachus, Augustine, Prudentius, Sedulius, Leo I, Innocent I, Celestine I, various other popes, Caesarius of Arles, Peter Chrysologus, Quodvultdeus, Prosper of Aquitaine, Ammianus Marcellinus, Hydatius, Priscian, Donatus, Servius, Macrobius, Claudian, Porfyrius, Boethius, the legal work of Justinian

The list could and does go on. We have poetry of multiple genres (including epic and some experimental stuff), history of multiple genres, biography, letters, sermons, speeches, grammar books, commentaries on classical poets, commentaries on the Bible, theological treatises, philosophical texts, autobiography, monastic rules, and more.

If we extend our dates to around 800, as the much anticipated Cambridge History of Later Latin Literature will, then we also get Gregory the Great, Gregory of Tours, Aldhelm, Bede, some lovely Hiberno-Latin literature, and more!

There’s something for everyone in later Latin literature, and a lot of it remains untranslated, or poorly translated, or only available in expensive translations. So learn some Latin and go read it!

Robert E. Howard and Ariosto

When I was a teenager, I bought a copy of The Essential Conan as a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy book club. This anthology of classic Robert E. Howard Conan stories came complete with a poster of Conan wielding an axe, about to cut off the head of a serpent. Slinking in the background is an almost totally nude woman. Before putting the poster up, I honest-to-goodness cut out a paper dress to put over the mostly naked woman.

So, basically, your average, run-of-the-mill Conan picture.

I was reminded of this poster recently, reading my Oxford World’s Classics edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s Italian Renaissance epic, Orlando Furioso. The cover depicts Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, mounted on a winged steed (bird? hippogriff? I don’t know yet), lancing a dragon from atop his mount. Angelica is nude:

This is, as I have alluded to above, standard Conan cover material: Naked (or mostly naked) woman being rescued from a monster by a hero with weapons. Ingres might paint fewer muscles, but all the essential elements are there for a cover of Savage Sword of Conan (for example).

This led me to start thinking about Howard and Ariosto. Now, I’m not saying that Robert E. Howard ever read Ariosto (or Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato). I do wonder if maybe he read Bulfinch’s Legends of Charlemagne, which is essentially a synopsis of Boiardo and Ariosto from what I can tell. Nonetheless, Ariosto and sword-and-sorcery fantasy are not as far as apart as you may guess.

Magic swords. Magicians from the East. Magical castles built by demons. Magic rings. Ghosts rising up from rivers. Various monsters.

There are men who fall in love with women so powerfully they will literally hunt them to the ends of the earth. There are men of nobility as well as villains amongst all races.

The cast of Orlando is essentially the same as in Conan, it’s just a different time period.

There are important differences between Howard and Ariosto, though. Howard is into what we would call the weird, etymologically speaking. The chilling, spooky, terrifying. There are dark and ancient evils hiding in the deserts of Howard’s imagination. Things without names. He also believes in the power of steel — it is not a magic sword that can save the day, but bravery and strong steel, even in the face of enchantment. His men are rough and violent, thieves, mercenaries, and the like. Conan is barely a hero, although he can rise to the heroic given the opportunity.

Ariosto’s world, a world of woods, castles, Saracens, and Christians, is different. The darkness is less heavy, and if enchantment is involved, you need enchantment to undo it. There is still nameless and faceless evil. But his men are cleaner and more civilised (if you will), living by a code of chivalry regardless of religion or ethnicity. They can also be straight-up wicked, despite their cleanliness and manners, mind you.

I’m sure that if I were reading Ariosto in Italian I would also find subtler differences than these. And if I read beyond Canto 4.

Most importantly for me right now, what they both have in common is that their stories are rip-roaring fun!

Latin: Story of a World Language by Jurgen Leonhardt

If you are looking for a single volume history of Latin, I recommend this volume by Jürgen Leonhardt. Leonhardt does not spend energy on Indo-European linguistics, and he does not linger on the fragments of old Latin — the story of Latin is far too long for that. The most sizeable portion of the book is the chapter entitled ‘Europe’s Latin Millennium’ — tracing the centuries 800-1800.

Nonetheless, ancient Latin has its place. Indeed, we cannot have Latin as a world language without Latin as the Romans’ language. Leonhardt gives a readable discussion of the ‘classical’ period of Latin literature, the era of Cicero, Caesar, Virgil, Ovid, et al. This era of Late Republican and Early Imperial Latin literature is important for the story of Latin literature because of two major developments. First, this is the era when Latin authors sought not to imitate but to rival Greek authors. Horace does not wish simply to be a Latin lyric poet in the tradition of the Greeks; he seeks to outstrip them. Second, this is the era of linguistic history when the Latin language ceases to change. The Latin of Cicero is syntactically and grammatically the same Latin as Augustine.

This fixing of Latin at this historical moment, a moment when so much enduring literature was written (the two mutually reinforce each other) meant that Latin was able to truly become a world language. The story of Latin when it is no longer connected to the ancient Roman world is the story of the bulk of this book.

Leonhardt’s book is full of interesting facts and important arguments, for which there is not a lot of time in this review. What is most significant, I think, is the argument that Latin in the Middle Ages created the space for vernacular literatures, and there was not originally competition between Latin and the vernacular. A piece of evidence for this mutual coinherence of literary space is the fact that our earliest vernacular literatures — Old English and Old Irish — emerge precisely in places where Latin literacy was maintained. Similarly, in periods when Latin goes through a slump — the 900s, for example — so do vernacular literatures.

The vernacular literatures only start to compete with Latin as the Early Modern period progresses. Even then, the competition is slow. In Italy, for a very long time, they considered Latin the grammatical form of the language for literature and Italian as simply the volgare. Moreover, even if places like England and France were using the vernacular for their court, this has little to do with poets, philosophers, and theologians who want an international audience. While our association of the rise of vernacular literature with the Early Modern world is not entirely off the mark, it is also worth noting that so many famous authors of the time wrote in Latin for a wider distribution, even if a lot of them also wrote in the vernacular: Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Lancelot Andrewes, John Calvin, and many Germans.

In fact, Latin remained the supraregional language within Germany for a very long time due to the fact that many German dialects are mutually incomprehensible. The book includes a very interesting discussion of Bach being hired by the Thomasschule in Leipzig, mostly about the state of Latin teaching and humanism at the time. One simple point, however, is that, although Bach was not considered qualified to teach Latin, he was still able to converse in Latin and answer catechetical questions in his job interview. A very different era from today.

Alongside a consideration of Latin literature and its variety through the ages, this book looks at Latin pedagogy in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and 1800s, and Leonhardt argues that one of the things that helped make Latin less alive in the 1800s is the lack of instruction in spoken, daily Latin but simply the style we all know from our own Latin classes, of memorising paradigms and vocabulary and nothing but the Classics for our reading.

In the book’s close come many challenges for those of us invested in Latin today. It is not enough to say with Harry Mount’s book Amo, Amas, Amat and All That that the best reason to learn Latin today is to be able to read the Latin classics, simply because too few people are interested in the effort required when they can, instead, read A D Melville’s Ovid, Robert Fagles’ Aeneid, David Ferry’s Horace, John Yardley’s Livy. However, given that over 90% of the Latin ever written remains unread and unedited, there is much potential for growth in the field. While Cicero and the turn of the era should remain an essential ingredient of Latin instruction, Leonhardt argues for promoting the riches of medieval and modern Latin as cause for students to become interested.

He also argues that we need to make Latin instruction live again — bring in more conversation, perhaps. Investigate methods from modern languages. Help students do composition exercises related to things other than politics and war. He doesn’t say it in quite these words, but that’s the feel I got.

This book is well worth the read for anyone interested in Latin, even if it’s just nostalgia from having studied it in school in the 1960s.

Books ‘normal’ people read

I am on parental leave following the birth of my second son just now. It is leave from my paid work, but it is work! Between the PhD and then four academic jobs in four years, all the while hunting for more academic work, my mind is a bit tired. So, while I’m on parental leave, I’ve decided to read books ‘normal’ people read.

This definition of my current reading has, however, been challenged! After reviewing Anne of Windy Poplars, I was told by one friend on Facebook that her sister read all the Anne books, and no one in that family could be considered normal (fair enough). I was also told that no normal people read the later Anne books.

I did a bit of research on this second challenge, asking Canadian females on Facebook how many of Montgomery’s Anne novels they had read. I received 21 responses from Canadians, 14 of whom had read them all, and of whom only 2 had read zero. One had read only one, one was unsure, and two didn’t specify how many. Somehow that only adds up to 20. Anyway, it seems that Canadian females with whom I am Facebook friends have read the later Anne books, by and large.

I polled the men and got five responses, of which three were zero (one was ‘A hard zero’), one had read them all, and a fifth had read the first. Canadian men read less L M Montgomery than the women.

But are my Facebook friends normal? This is harder to say. This is a band of people that includes my relatives, after all. And academics and artists and a vlogger and other people who would be proud of not being ‘normal’.

Besides having read two Anne novels (look for a review of Anne’s House of Dreams soon!), I’ve also read the first two Earthsea books — A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan — besides an entertaining, short novel by Red Deer novelist Sigmund Brouwer called The Leper. Do normal people read these books?

I don’t know.

I suspect that ‘normal’ people read novels by Danielle Steele, Nicholas Sparks, Jeffrey Archer, John Grisham, or self-improvement books and parenting books and books about how to make money. I have read some parenting books, myself, at least.

So what do I mean why I say that I am reading books ‘normal’ people read?

I mean I am not reading ancient books, medieval books, academic books about ancient or medieval topics, or academic theology. That part of my brain, which never necessarily turns off, needs a bit of a rest, and I have the chance to give it one, hoping for more verve when I’m back in the office in mid-July.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K Le Guin

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2)The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is the sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea, and it is di fferent in some important respects. First, it is about a female — Le Guin says, in the Afterword to the edition I read, that this was her third novel, and she hadn’t written a female protagonist yet. Second, it has a stable setting. In the former, Sparrowhawk goes through much of Earthsea, giving a sort of ‘Quest’ narrative that also establishes the world. In this book, the girl once named Tenar stays in one place almost the entire story. Third, the Kargites amongst whom the narrative mostly takes place are suspicious of magic, whereas the people of Sparrowhawk’s culture are regular users.

Like its predecessor, this is a story of becoming, of ‘coming of age’ as they say. It is about the high priestess of the Nameless Ones — ancient, malevolent Powers whose cultural heyday is past but who are very real nonetheless. This priestess herself is nameless, having had her name eaten in a ceremony at six years of age. Here we see the violent, scarred edge of religion. It is a potent force of existence throughout the novel.

This priestess has her world of women and eunuchs and the Powers challenged by the appearance of a man, a sorcerer, a wizard, in the vast labyrinth of dread beneath the temple precinct. She had thought the Nameless Ones would have destroyed him. He had come seeking an object of power left by another wizard long ago. Her duty as priestess is to kill him, but she cannot bring herself to do it.

In the end, priestess and wizard rely on each other to survive. Here is a great lesson. Le Guin notes that some criticised her, saying that the lesson of the novel is that women cannot do anything without men. That is not the lesson, for Sparrowhawk needs Tenar as much as she needs him. The lesson is that both sexes need each other.

Myself, I did not think on gender dynamics at all. Obviously, Sparrowhawk relies on Tenar for his survival. But my view of his relationship to her where she relies on him as well struck me more as that of wise sage and young person on the cusp of personal discovery, in quest of true wisdom. Obi-Wan Kenobi, I guess?

Anyway, this is possibly too vague a review because I’m trying not to give away too much of the plot. Trust me, though. This is a good sequel. I have put The Farthest Shore on hold at the library.

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