Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Snob Time!

Dear Everyone:

Okay, it’s snob time. Today we have a poem by Quintus Horatius Flaccus. Who he, you ask? Only one of the greatest lyric poets of all time is all. We know him simply as Horace.

Everybody’s heard of Horace. How many people do you know who’ve ever actually read anything by him? Invest a couple of minutes on the lines below and it’ll be you!

Let me set the scene. It’s a spring day in Italy 2,000 years ago, and Horace's friend Lucius Sestius is worried about money, his social position, and his love life. To which Horace replies:

To Sestius
by Horace

Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome coming
Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,
Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their
caulked boats
Down to the water; in the winter stables the cattleAre restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;
The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the
early mornings.
Maybe, somewhere, the Nymphs and Graces are dancing,
Under the moon the goddess Venus and her dancers;
Somewhere far in the depth of a cloudless sky
Vulcan is getting ready the storms of the coming summer.
Now is the time to garland your shining hair
With myrtle or with the flowers the free-giving earth
has given;
Now is the right time to offer the kid or lamb
In sacrifice to Faunus in the firelit shadowy grove.
Revenant white-faced Death is walking not knowing whether
He's going to knock at a rich man's door or a poor man's.
O good-looking fortunate Sestius, don't put your hope
in the future;
The night is falling; the shades are gathering around;
The walls of Pluto's shadowy house are closing you in.
There who will be lord of the feast? What will it matter,
What will it matter there, whether you fell in love
with Lycidas,
This or that girl with him, or he with her?

Did you note the translator’s use of “revenant”? Cool word. It means “One who returns” or, more to the point, “One who returns as a spirit after death,” meaning, usually, a ghost. I looked it up for you. Alas, I cannot tell you what Latin word Horace used, but from the context it almost certainly translated roughly as “creepy-scary spirit.” The gamers among you may want to remember this word.

Here’s what poet Robert Hass had to say about Horace:

“He was born when Rome was emerging as a world power. He fought, as a young man in those turbulent years, in the wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, and wrote most of his poems in the age of Augustus.

“With Catullus and Virgil and Ovid, he's one of the four great lyric poets of ancient Rome. For English poets from Shakespeare's time to the end of the 19th century, he was the man. Horace spent most of his life in retirement on a modest farm in the country outside Rome. He wrote immensely civilized, poised, exquisitely polished, and apparently casual poems about the countryside and the Roman seasons, about not living in the Augustan equivalents of the corridors of power and the feeding frenzies of the media and the fevers of the deal. His values were the gentleman farmer's ideals. Balance was what he admired, independence, privacy, friendship, a sensible prosperity, good wine, the fruits of the season.”

And now you’ve read him! Don’t you feel ever so cultured? Trust me, nothing makes you feel scornfully superior to your fellow man like reading the classics.

All best,



Markin said...

... .oO(Should I tell him? Should I not? ... Oh, I'll go ahead, he's got the power to zap this comment, after all.)

Revenant -- a lovely word, to be sure. But one that David Ferry (the translator) supplied. It's not in the Latin, which reads:

Pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas / regumque turris.

Which Englishes out, more or less literally, to:

Pallid death with equal measure strikes the hovels of paupers
and the towers of kings.

No revenants here, boss ... nor uncertainty on the part of Death. Actually, although "pulsat pede" is not, as far as I can make out, attested to as a way of saying "kick", one does sort of get the mental image of Death kicking down towers and taverns like one might sand castles on the beach, save that the imagery is all wrong for the rest of the poem. Pes here, I'm sure, with aequus, does not literally mean foot but measure, as in poetic measure.

This can lead to an interesting discussion on the ins and outs of translation (literal, or as close as English grammar lets you) vs. Englishing (great English, but not necessarily exactly how the original read). Ferry wrote a poem based closely on Horace's, but he added his own poetic skills to it (he is a poet in his own right, after all), to great good effect.

Pedantically yours,
Mario (astonished at the way the Latin sorta kinda started coming back after all these years ...)

Michael Swanwick said...

I freely admit that Latin bested me, three falls out of three. So I have nothing but admiration for your pedantry, Mario.

Translation is a slippery business in almost all aspects. Our Muslim brothers say that the Koran existed before there were men or words and that it cannot be translated into other languages. Leaving me wondering exactly what those English-language books with the word "Koran" on the cover were. Then a couple of years ago, I learned the answer: They're books of commentary. Because the Koran, of course, cannot be translated.

And something very similar obtains in the case of poetry.

Markin said...

You realize, I hope and pray, that I wasn't writing in the spirit of "I've got Latin and you don't" [spoken in a childish singsong], nor trying to undermine what you wrote in your essay on the poem. I, too, was curious what the original Latin behind "revenant" was; in the course of checking it out, I discovered the situation was just a tad more complex. And I delighted in the complexity, wanted to share.

Unfortunately, I thus also ended up essentially saying that the readers had not actually read a poem by Horace, but a poem by David Ferry closely but not slavishly following a poem by Horace. For which I apologize. If this were a private conversation, say over pizzas at the Villa Roma, it would have come out better ...

As for my pedantry -- [shrug] Languages are just a knack with which I was born. Possibly just a byproduct of growing up bilingual in the first place. Admire me if you wish; me, I admire your writing and your insights, which are more than just a knack. But we could call it even. (What really is pedantry is that I've been happily going through the list I compiled of all the entities mentioned, even in passing, in Dragons of Babel, and nailing down the whos and whats and whys of them. Or perhaps that's not pedantry so much as being obsessive. [grin])

Anyway. Me, I'm enjoying these conversations, and I am grateful for your enabling me to explore more poets than I had heretofore. Thanks for this blog.


Michael Swanwick said...

Mario, three ways in which you are not in the wrong are:

1: If I were intimidated by the mental accomplishments of others, I'd have to drop Chip Delany and Gene Wolfe from my list of friends.

2. I am grateful for all insights you bring to this conversation, particularly those I'd have missed if you weren't conversant in Latin.

3. The original audience being teenaged boys who were intimidated by poetry, I was careful to dump on them only one insight per poem. Hence, no explication is meant to be anything more than superficial.

The question of translation is a deep and fascinating one. I have come to the opinion that translators practice an art of their own, as different from the original as prose is from poetry. They're like magicians who work a change on a trick, or musicians who do a cover of a classic. I assume the best of all my translators, and I'm grateful to them all.