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Roman Poetry - Dorothea Wender

Book Review by Ursus

One can approach poetry in two ways. A scholarly and objective treatment would analyze poetry in terms of its form, style and social relevance. I cannot claim to be a scholar, nor can I even claim poetry as a forte. I prefer instead to taste poetry - to sample its enticing, delectable sumptuousness. I offer here a purely subjective review of one author's own subjective treatment of the great Roman poets. What interests me is not so much genre and form, but the fashioning of a witty phrase.

What intrigues me is perhaps not so much the historical and literary context, but the at times raw lasciviousness conveyed. Therefore if you want to know more about Roman poetry as Roman poetry, I cannot really help you, nor will I claim to do so. But what I will do is share with you an overview of an author's translation of several works. If you find them, as I did, to be on the whole inviting and entertaining, then consider yourself quite free to explore the topic further by consulting relevant sources, scholarly or otherwise.

The Romans were lawyers and statesmen, soldiers and engineers. But a few were also poets, lending a softer side to Roman imperialism. But this 'softer side' is all relative; Roman poetry has to be, in some respects, the most direct and earthy verse found anywhere. Even their poets have something of a lawyer's precision or legion's aggression about them. While I cannot say the Romans produced the finest poetry in the world, I can say they produced some memorable works.

Roman Poetry is animated by Dorothea Wender, the chair of the department of classics at Wheaton College. A poet and writer herself in addition to being a scholar, Wender has tried to imbue these classic poets with a verse that is at once faithful to the original spirit while yet relevant to the modern English ear. Her translation is indeed quite readable and engaging. Wender has chosen a wide and varied sampling of Roman poetry from Catullus to Juvenal. The selected works are indicative of the author's style as well as being personally meaningful to the translator. Wender briefly introduces each poet to the reader, providing just enough detail on the poet's personality, history and style. This admirably services neophytes such as myself who need a basic grounding before moving on to fuller works. She also, in her introduction, provides an amusing overview on the differences between Romanophiles and Hellenophiles.

Catullus and Lucretius are the poets under study from the Republican era. Catullus is a varied poet, able to write of love and lust in one poem, and in another able to savagely attack a man whose body odor repels would-be lovers. His Songs are witty yet simple:

My sweetest Ipsithilla, dear,
My cutie, I implore
Ask me to come at noon, and sweetie,
Please don't lock the door.

Be right at home and waiting for me,
There's no time to lose,
I want you to be ready, pet,
For nine continuous screws.

Every man must admit to having shared such sentiments to his mistress at some time! And yet Catullus has a deeper side as well, one contemplating the paradoxical nature of romantic love. That his love was one of the infamous Pulcher sisters may have played a factor in his ambivalence:

I hate and I love. You ask how this can be;
I don't know, that it's true
I know, and I am tortured.

In contrast to the delightful yet thoughtful Catullus, Lucretius is one big bore. His On the Nature of Things is not so much a poem as it is a rambling piece of Epicurean propaganda. Lucretius lectures us on physics and ethics as his worldview construes such things. Soporific rather than moving, Lucretius is one poet I could have happily ignored. The atheists among us might however enjoy his assault on traditional religion and normative social mores:

O pitiful minds of men! O blinded souls!
In what dark shadows, in what great fancied risks
Our little life is wasted! Don't you see
That nature howls for nothing more than this:
A body lacking pain, a mind removed
From fear and worry, free for happiness?

The imperial era begins with Virgil and Horace. While not nearly as good as The Aeneid, sections of Virgil's Ecologues and Georgics do offer a colorful praise of Italian history and its bucolic splendor. Poor Virgil tried so hard to imitate Homer and Hesiod, but never quite surpassed the originals. Nonetheless, he can joyously convey a Latin's native patriotism for home and farmstead:

Hail, Saturn's country, mighty mother of crops,
And mighty mother of men! It is for you
That I approach this subject; long the theme
Of praise and poetry; for you I dare
Unseal the long-closed holy well, and sing
Hesiod's song throughout the towns of Rome.

Horace's Satire and Odes extolls the worth of living in the present, unconcerned with death, and in so doing creating a reputation that will outlive the mortal coil. Someone who had fought on the losing side of Phillipi must have found it condign to make a virtue out of accommodation; if you can't beat them, join them. In in Horace's case, by accepting Maecenas' patronage, he obviously hoped to win lasting fame as a literati of the new regime:

Transformed, through flowing air I'll travel then;
When once these strange, strong wings begin to grow;
I'll fly above the lands of jealous men,
And leave the towns below.

The Stygian waves will never hold me tight,
Not I, whose parents were so poor, not I,
Your protoge, Maecenas, my delight:
I do not plan to die.

Then we have the love struck poets of the imperial era. Propertius is a most un-Roman Roman; his Elegies place love above the political and military might of Rome itself.

"But Caesar's powerful."
You said. But Caesar is
Powerful chiefly on the battlefield;
To conquer nations brings
No special power in love.

Rather subversive for a man who wrote for Maecenas! Nonetheless, his burning passion for a tortured love produced some of the finest lines of Roman poetry:

While Fate allows, let's glut our eyes with love;
The Long Night's coming; Day
Will not return for us.
I wish you'd bind us here, embracing, one,
With chains that are too strong
For any day to break.
...
It's wrong to look for a boundary to love's
Insanity; true love
Doesn't know limits or ends.

Tibullus is not as grand as Propertius, but like him he places love and a quiet life above war and politics. Tibullus' Elegy is pedestrian yet somehow charming:

I'd sooner see the world's
Supply of gold destroyed
And every emerald, than have one girl
Crying because of my
Departure on some trip.

Tibullus is lucky he lived during the empire, because the Republic that had fought the Punic Wars wouldn't have had much use for him.

Then finally there is Ovid. His lustful Amores and epic Metamorphoses convey the talents of a master storyteller. Strangely enough, while neither Propertius nor Tibullus were punished for their anti-establishment sentiments, Ovid's amorous poetry seems to have run afoul of the powers that were. He was banished to a dreary little town, but posterity would enjoy his works second only to Virgil:

What shoulders and what arms I saw - and touched,
What breasts - how suitable
For squeezing in their shape -
How flat the belly under her slim chest,
How large, how lush her lips,
How firm and young her thighs,
But why tell all the details? What I saw
Was perfect; we embraced
Body to body, bare.
You know the rest, I think; tired out we slept.
I wish more noons like that
Would often come my way.

Yeah, I'm right there with you, Ovid. And it's good to know libidinous males haven't changed their carnal predilections in the last two thousand years.

The poets of the Augustan Age had tongues laced with honey; Silver Age poets replaced the honey with acid. Martial's Epigrams are among the most delightfully crude verses in history. An adolescent preoccupation with sex and excrement combines with a flair for witty satire; the result is a hilarious barrage of invectives designed to make even the hardest cynic blush. Wender likens Martial to the 'simple humor of a five-year-old who can go into paroxysms of laughter at the mere pronunciation, out loud, of a word like "underpants" or "wee-wee."' Leaving aside for the moment that I personally still laugh out load at the vocalization of words like "wee-wee," I found in Martial an inspiring sardonic wit:

Gaurus, you have a fault for which
I freely pardon you:
You love to drink too much, too late;
That vice was Cato's, too.
I'll even praise your scribbling
Verses, instead of prose,
With NO help from the Muses, for
That fault was Cicero's.
You vomit; so did Antony,
You squander; records may show
Apicius as your model - now,
Who led you to fellatio?

Juvenal's Satire is less enjoyable to read, but they do convey something of the darker side of Roman life. "Only the rich sleep well in Rome," he claims. Now imagine hundreds of lines to the same effect. Juvenal's assault on corruption and greed will resonate with any self-important do-gooding social crusader. (Obama, are you reading this?)

This admittedly cheeky review was again designed with only one purpose: to share a few stirring passages in the hopes it will elicit further interest in the subject. Had they taught me such amorous poetry in high school I might have taken more interest in the subject. It is with that sentiment I thus convey the review to the public, and the only thing this review asks is that it is received in said spirit. Wender's book is an excellent introduction to Roman poetry that has inspired me to read further on the subject. I heartily recommend it, especially if you can find a cheap used copy.

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Book Review of Roman Poetry: From the Republic to the Silver Age - Related Topic: Roman Writers


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