Wednesday, February 11, 2015


amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant

Almost time for Valentine's Day.  Gosh these winter holidays keep right on happening.  I find that the annual round provides regular and excellent reminders of what matters most.  In this case, what do we love, in this life?  Hopefully our spouses and partners, families, homes, animal companions, the work of our lives, the things we've gathered close to make life more beautiful and meaningful as the days pass.  Books not least among those things.  To wit, my classical reading project continues.  In the last week I've finally finished The Norton Book of Classical Literature (all 850+ pages!), and I've also read Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Highet (Common Reader reprint 1996), and last night I finished Virgil's Aeneid, translated by Robert Fitzgerald (Random House 1983).  So, lots to say about all that.

First, the Norton - editor Bernard Knox provides such a compelling selection and range of authors and translators.  In the case of this particular reader, I found certain authors I most definitely wanted more of, and others, well, not so much. It went something like this.  From Greek times, a big YES to Herodotus, a big NO to Thucydides.  YES to Aristophanes, NO to Sophocles. YES to Plato, to Theophrastus, to Callimachus (my notes about him are comical:  "read all of the Aitia? how long? read all available Callimachus? how much?"), YES to Sappho, and to Theocritus.  In Roman times, a big YES to Catullus, and especially to Horace.  And NO to Virgil and Ovid, sad to say.  The fault lies with me, I'm sure, though I will read Virgil's Georgics if I stumble across a copy.  It all comes down to voice.  I love the contemporary-sounding phrase, the straightforward language and poetry about everyday life.  I do not love the epic voice.  When reading Horace and Virgil I couldn't help but remember the difference between Byron's Childe Harold and his Don Juan.  The overtly arcadian, misty-parnassus world of consciously poetical language versus the conversational, adventuresome yet ordinary narrative.  As I encountered different authors in the Norton, I kept thinking Do I love this voice?  And sometimes Do I even like it at all?   

David Ferry says in his introduction to The Epistles of Horace, this, about voice (pp.x-xi):

"It's the voice that's the life of these poems: so free, so confident, so knowledgeable about himself, and about work, so contemptuous of pretense, so entertaining, so joyful. The voice is an invention, of course, or a playing field of inventions, but it gives the illusion of speaking to us as we hear it with a startlingly familiar immediacy....It is the voice of a free man talking about how to get along in a Roman world full of temptations, opportunities, and contingencies, and how to do so with your integrity intact....It's a voice that's on a civilizing mission, fully aware of all its difficulties, of how the temptations and contingencies are always there, in such a world and in our own natures..."

That's why I love Horace so much.  That voice of his, and what he says with it.  Virgil... well... some is very beautiful, and some lines I truly love.  But.  The voice just isn't there for me (again, the fault lies with me, I'm sure).  I find myself wondering Who would attempt a sequel to the works of Homer? (His Aeneid revisits and continues the stories of Homer and then some.)  And Where is Virgil himself in all of this?  It could come down to the difference between writing based on personal experience and writing invented for deliberately epic purposes.  The epic is not my favorite form by any means.  I really had to grit my teeth to read all of the Aeneid, and I will admit to skimming over some of the extremely gory sections of the last three books.  Lots of it was far too heroic - war, war, and more war.  I guess even in my ancient literature, I am one of those readers who longs for connection, not instruction.  And in speaking of voice, I will also say that in all this ancient reading, Sappho and one or two others aside, I miss the female voice.  You know, the other half of the human race?  Since it seems that these authors are writing mostly about men, for men.  Such a simplification, but so noticeable, when reading through famous works spanning hundreds of years.

I meant to write about ancient love poety today, and just look at me.  Everything but.  I will say this - that I expected to love Ovid, and his lovely books all about love.  But I didn't.  Perhaps after reading the Aeneid I'd had enough of war, and so when Ovid said, in his Amores Book I (Norton p.732), "lovers are all soldiers in Cupid's private army" and went on to further equate love and warfare in no uncertain terms, I set it aside.  And I don't think I need to talk about Ovid's seduction handbook either, The Art of Love, other than to say it seems awfully coldhearted and artificial for something purporting to be about love.  (In fact it reminds me of The Prince by Machiavelli - explicit, diabolical.  Unloving.)  Well, his books did get Ovid banished, so there is that. 

But let's not end there.  Ancient literature abounds with memorable love poetry.  Even though the best of it is about difficulties in love - this, from doomed, lovelorn Dido in Book IV of the Aeneid (p.114):

"She prayed then to whatever power may care
 In comprehending justice for the grief
 Of lovers bound unequally in love."

That's not exactly an upbeat sentiment to end this Valentine's-week reverie with, I know!  On a happier note, I'll talk about Gilbert Highet's fine book, Poets in a Landscape, at a later date, when the melancholy brought on by the Aeneid has lifted.  Meanwhile, amo, amas, amat...

You've brought back good memories of happy days spent reading volumes of Desiderius Erasmus's letters in the wonderful University of Toronto Press translation. Even in translation his sheer joy and playfulness with the language he loved is infectious - thanks to those letters every once in a while I still have fleeting thoughts of someday learning Latin.

May your avalanches of books continue and of snow disappear soon.
I'm so glad, Jule, thanks for your kind comment. I read "The Praise of Folly" in graduate school, and remember loving its tone and language (again, in translation... sigh...), but I've never read his letters. Since letters and diaries are my particular reading love, I will add these to my wish list! I'm considering moving up in time into the middle ages and renaissance, after I've burned myself out on Greece and Rome, so this will be something to consider. I'm glad to get your recommendation on that edition, too, it's hard to know how to choose sometimes.
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