Tag Archives: latin poetry

The Last Poets of Imperial Rome, trans. Harold Isbell

The Last Poets of Imperial RomeThe Last Poets of Imperial Rome by Harold Isbell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My star rating is based on the readability of the translation and selection here given, not on accuracy; I have not compared the texts with the Latin, so I cannot say how well Isbell translated on that count. However, the translations are very readable, verse renderings of some of the most important Latin poems of Late Antiquity, so straightaway I want to recommend this book; anything that can promote the final years of Roman rule as more than mere ‘decline’ or the beginning of a ‘Dark Age’ is welcome.

After a general introduction to the period and the poetry, Isbell gives us a series of poems from the 200s all the way, oddly, to Alcuin. Each poet/poem is given his/its own introduction as well. Some of the material is, unsurprisingly, outdated, since the study of the Later Roman Empire has not stood still since the volume was first published in 1971. However, this anthology is recent enough that Isbell doesn’t scorn the poets and poetry of the age, which is refreshing.

The works contained herein are:

Nemesianus (c. 283-4): ‘The Hunt’ (Cynegetica)
Anon., 3rd/4th c: ‘The Night Watch of Venus’ (Pervigilium Veneris)
Ausonius (310-395): ‘Bissula’, ‘Mosella’, and ‘The Crucifixion of Cupid’ (Cupido Cruciator)
Anon., 4th c.: ‘On the Freshly Blooming Roses’ (De rosis nascentibus)
Claudian (370-405): ‘The Rape of Proserpine’ (De raptu Proserpinae) and ‘Epithalamium for Honorius Augustus and Maria, Daughter of Stilicho’ (Epithalamium de nuptiis Honorii Augusti)
Prudentius (348-405): ‘Praefatio’, ‘Psychomachia’, ‘Cathemerinon’, and ‘Epilogus’ (Isbell notes that this last is not likely by Prudentius)
Rutilius Claudius Namatianus: ‘Concerning His Return’ (De reditu suo) from 416
Paulinus of Pella (376-459): ‘Thanksgiving’ (Eucharisticos)
Boethius (480-524): a selection from The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 3, about Orpheus and Eurydice
Columba (521-597): ‘In Praise of the Father’ (Altus Prosator)
Alcuin (735-804): ‘The Dispute Between Winter and Spring’ (Conflictus Veris et Hiemis)

The volume closes with a ‘Glossary and Index of Names’.

As I say, this covers most of the major Latin poets and poems of the era. It thus serves as a good introduction to the work of the period, and I would encourage the reader who enjoys any of these poets to seek out their wider works if they exist; most of them can be found in the Loeb Classical Library.

One final thought: if this were to be reissued, I would like to see the final three poets cut (as much as I like them all, and as much as I could see a case made for Boethius) and have Sidonius added as well as one hymn from St Ambrose — maybe also something from Paulinus of Nola. That would give us a better selection and restrict all of our poets to Imperial Rome as the title claims.

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Ausonius vs the Romantics

Ausonius (Vol. 1)Ausonius by Ausonius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ausonius (d. AD 395) is not necessarily the best regarded of ancient poets — but his contemporaries really liked him. In his introduction to this edition/translation, H G Evelyn White at least gives Ausonius’ poetry that much. Not much more, mind you. But that much. Evelyn White writes:

‘As poetry, in any high or imaginative sense of the word, the great mass of his verse is negligible.’ (vii)

On the fact that Ausonius wrote a poem about the number three: ‘…so trivial a theme is no subject for poetry at all…’ (xvi) — and then Evelyn White praises Ausonius’ versification.

The Vergilian Cento is referred to as ‘literary outrage’ (xvii).

A final example from Evelyn White gives us an idea of why Ausonius and his style of poetry are so lowly regarded today, say that Ausonius was ‘insensible, broadly speaking, to sentiment and unappreciative of the human sympathy which should pervade true poetry’ (xxvii).

Now, I come not to praise Ausonius, nor to bury him. Nevertheless, Ausonius’ lack of respect in the modern age drives principally from the Romantic movement, and not that his subject matter can be quite dull or that a lot of his poems are simply neat tricks in verse that would probably amuse a native Latin-speaker more than they do any of us. This vision of poetry is not that it is a question of setting out in verse form one’s content but that it is the setting forth in verse one’s soul — that the subject of poetry is, in fact, the subject. This sort of criticism, for example, led one critic to refer to the scientific/philosophical passages in Dante as ‘pure prose’.

That is to say, Ausonius is not, by Romantic definitions, a ‘true poet’. He lacks true sentiment in what he does. For Ausonius, verse is a place to play, to delight in the titillation of the ear, to display his knowledge and erudition, to set forth pieces in various metres on various subjects. As to whether any real sentiment lies behind it — well, who cares?

The result is poetry that I think almost all modern readers would suffer through to a great degree. I admire Ausonius. I think some of his poetic experiments, such as the Technopaignion, where he ends each line of verse with a monosyllable, are amusing and would require enormous skill — even the Virgilian Cento, a patchwork of lines from Virgil, is the work of a person steeped in poetic metre. A lot of it, however, is unstimulating to the modern mind and ear. Perhaps if I were a Latin-speaker born, the rhythm and cadence of the verse would grab me more. Nonetheless, I do not say he is no true poet, and I do not think he is a bad poet. I think his is a style unsuited to our age and certainly unsuited to translation into English — you cannot translate hexameters and you cannot translate aural tricks.

I do recommend to today’s reader from the selections here in vol 1: ‘The Daily Round’ (it is what it says), various of the personal poems, the ‘Parentalia’ which recounts his deceased family members, the ‘Mosella’ which is regarded as his best (I say begin with this one, it is magnificent!), and ‘The Order of Famous Cities’. Various others are amusing, but I fear that reading an entire volume of Ausonius would be tedious for most. If you enjoy those I recommend, take a dip into some of the others…

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Ovid’s Amores: Wit, desire, artifice

I just finished A. D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Amores in his Oxford World’s Classics volume of Ovid, The Love Poems. I had previously read his translation of the Metamorphoses and fell in love with the liveliness of Melville’s verse, as quick to turn a phrase as Ovid himself, so when I took advantage of Blackwell’s 2 for 1 sale of Oxford World’s Classics early this week, I paired this volume with¬†Selected Philosophical Writings of St Thomas Aquinas.

If I ever get around to recommending more classical epic, a piece on the Metamorphoses would be in order — following, however, The Aeneid of Vergil.

But right now, some thoughts on the Amores as they come.

This selection of poems includes some of Ovid’s earliest publications (Ovid lived 43 BC-AD 17/18), although he re-edited the original five books into three for the final, single-volume edition. The poetry included here is elegiac verse. Elegy is written in couplets; the first line of the couplet is a dactylic hexameter, the same meter as epic verse, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Virgil’s Aeneid. The second line of the couplet is a pentameter, comprising two pairs of two and a half dactyls.*

It is a meter as invariable as the Appenines of Ovid’s birthplace (Sulmo), moving ever forward as desire draws a man to his beloved. It can be playful; it can be mournful. Today, we associate elegy with mourning.

In Latin, elegiac verse was written primarily for love poetry. The themes of elegiac verse are, in fact, often associated with mourning or lament. Lamenting the burning of desire caused by love. Lamenting a door keeping the lover out of the beloved’s house. Lamenting the husband at a dinner party. Lamenting the beloved being away for the weekend. Lamenting the beloved coming back to Rome early. Lamenting the beloved’s unfaithfulness.

That’s not all that it’s about, but those are not uncommon themes in Latin love elegy, which I first encountered with J C Yardley at the University of Ottawa where we read his little text and commentary Minor Authors of the Corpus Tibullianum (including such figures as Lygdamus and Sulpicia) as well as a few from Tibullus himself. The other poet famous today for Latin love elegy is Propertius. And all of these men looked back to Gallus, from whom one papyrus fragment was found in the 20th century, much to the disappointment of Latinists everywhere. It wasn’t as good as hoped.

Anyway, Ovid comes after Tibullus and Propertius and basically does everything you can with Latin love elegy. In the introduction to this volume, E J Kenney says that he ‘finished off … Latin love elegy.’ (xix) Whereas for one such as Tibullus and Propertius, the affair is mostly an unhappy business, Ovid’s love affair is, until the later stages of Book 3, not unhappy.

There are laments or complaints, such as to doors and slaves and suchlike. But Ovid’s wit brings us a largely happy love affair from inception to denouement — hence it is not always happy, for the endings of such things tend not to be. In three books of short poems, Ovid takes his reader on a journey through this love affair, his wit creating various conceits and situations along the way: addressing the doorpost, a (written) poem that is ostensibly an oral message to the slave who bears a written message, a poem to the mistress followed by one to the slavegirl about the same event, one early poem about what to do if the husband is at a party, a later one about her doing these things in relation to other men at a party where Ovid is present, and so forth.

Besides the straight-out love poetry, there are pauses and breaks. We have an encounter between Tragedy and Elegy. We have a defence of poetry vs politics and the lawcourt. We have a funerary elegy for Tibullus. And throughout, there is interwoven Ovid’s expected mythological allusions and uncommon, unstandard versions of the tales of literature, as well as allusions to his other work, such as the Heroides which are a series of fictional letters from famous heroines of myth to their lovers.

Throughout, driving Ovid more than anything is desire. The desire for Corinna, who is probably a fiction. The desire for immortality and fame. The desire to twist and turn and make new what has been done before by many another. The desire for his art to be taken seriously. And the glass tesserae that comprise Ovid’s mosaic of poetry are wit and artifice.

Wit and artifice — not necessarily insincere but a caution to take Ovid’s love poetry too seriously — run through all of Ovid’s work, whether the works in elegiac verse such as the Amores and Ars Amatoria or the epic¬†Metamorphoses.

I invite you spend some time today with one of Rome’s wittiest poets, a man who was certainly successor to Virgil as the giant of the Augustan Age. And do so, if you can, in the company of A. D. Melville’s masterful, faithful, fast-paced translation.

PS: If you’re interested in the Metamorphoses, Nemo at ‘Books on Trial’ has two posts of what will be a series up, one on Phaeton and another on Narcissus and Echo.

*A dactyl is: Long, short, short, like the joints of a finger (daktylos is Greek for finger).