Sunday, February 08, 2015


the wavering hours

Full-on winter around here, with record-breaking amounts of snow.  Every few days, another foot.  Tomorrow, more than another foot.  It is all I can do to keep up with it, in fact I am no longer even trying.  Just letting it happen.  As if I had a choice.  And I'm not painting much, so am subsequently rather grumpy.  In short, I seem to be stuck in my annual slough of despond.  Thank you, February.  However, books are sunlight, as always, and I am reading.  After the aforementioned sojourn with Mark Twain's Notebook and a brief art-book spree I returned to my shelves of ancient literature with renewed determination, and have now finished a trio of wonderful books:  The Odes of Horace (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1997), The Epistles of Horace (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2001), and The Eclogues of Virgil (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1999), all translated by the poet David Ferry.  I bought all three at a library sale in 2004, for three dollars each, hardcover first editions in jackets, all near fine, one even inscribed and signed by David Ferry to boot.  I've browsed in the Virgil before - I mentioned it on this blog once, long ago - but I've never read all three cover to cover until now.  They are lovely indeed, in form and in word.  With facing-page Latin, wide margins, and creamy substantial paper they are a pleasure to hold and read.  Their pastoral nature, full of landscape detail, feeds the longing within me for green things growing.  And of course, in the way of famous ancient things, the words feel eerily relevant and are shivery-beautiful throughout. 

The Odes of Horace, iii.29 (p.253)

"...There may be storms tomorrow,

 Maybe fair weather.  Nobody knows for sure.
 What I have had in the past cannot be taken
 Away from me now.  Fortune, who loves to play
 Her cruel game and plays it over and over,

 Can do what she likes with me or anyone else.
 I'll praise her while she favors me, but when,
 As she prepares to fly away, I hear
 The rustling of her wings, I'll yield my luck

 And wrap myself as in a garment in
 My knowledge of who I am and what I've been..." 

The Epistles of Horace, i.18 (p.95):

"Interrogate the writings of the wise,
 Asking them to tell you how you can
 Get through your life in a peaceable, tranquil way."

ibid (p.97):

"Where is it virtue comes from, is it from books?
 Or is it a gift from Nature that can't be learned?
 What is the way to become a friend to yourself?
 What brings tranquility? What makes care less?
 Honor?  Or money?  Or living your life unnoticed?
 ...what do you think I pray for?
 'May I continue to have what I have right now,
 Or even less, as long as I'm self-sufficient.
 If the gods should grant me life, though just for a while,
 May I live my life to myself, with books to read,
 And food to sustain me through another year,
 And not to waver with the wavering hours.'"

I won't quote endlessly from these famous texts - I always feel like everyone must already know their contents by heart except me - but I had to mention those passages.  I told my mother I was reading classical authors this winter and she told me about taking years of Latin in school, and how her Latin teacher had the students keep lists culled from their texts of what the teacher termed Utterly Memorable Lines.  My mother still has her list, somewhere.  I have compiled my own.   

So interesting to compare translations, too - David Ferry's with what Bernard Knox chooses in The Norton Book of Classical Literature, which I spent a lot of time with last month.  I recognized and wanted to take notes from the same passages in each, even though the word choice and phrasing was often very different.  The strong underlying sentiment, the full river of emotion, carried the meaning of both versions comparably well.  I can only imagine the nuances I've missed out on by not being able to read Latin.  But that thought is not to be dwelled upon, at this dismal time of year or any other.  All the things I can't do - ugh - wavering thoughts that tend to float around, rustling, when I spend too much time indoors.

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