The Georgics: A Poem of the Land (Penguin Classics)
Penguin Classics, 2011
224 pp., $15.00
Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics)
Penguin Classics, 2009
160 pp., $15.00
Martial's Epigrams: A Selection
Penguin Books, 2009
224 pp., $15.00
Something Old, Something New
I have always taken a special pleasure in the mythological figure of Janus, god with two heads, or half-heads pivoting upon one neck, Roman equivalent of the villain Two-Face in Dick Tracy. The phrase "two-faced" probably made it inevitable that references to Janus (when he is brought up at all) are usually pejorative. That's a pity, because the connotations surrounding Janus are far richer and more complex than simple associations with betrayers of all stripes, including that kid in school who acted like your friend but wasn't. For the ancients, Janus was the god of beginnings and endings, or, more precisely, endings and beginnings—think "January," as the mouth of a new year bites its own, aged tail. Thus "Janus' figure facing right and left" (to use Virgil's phrase) looks toward the past and future simultaneously. Janus also represents crossings, symbolizing times of transition and the anxiety attending those times. In his epic poem Aeneid, Virgil describes a custom whereby a citizen in ceremonial garb opens wide the iron Gates of War. Then, as Robert Fagles renders the scene, "The entire army answers his call to arms and / brazen trumpets blast their harsh assent." As the gates swing on their hinges, "Janus the watchman / never leaves the threshold."
Less bellicosely, Janus has always seemed a fitting symbol for translators and for literary translation in particular. Those two faces capture well translation's goal—that sense of a voice from a distant past that is also new, newly recovered and speaking forth again, freshly so. And renderings of lyric poetry are arguably the supreme place of crossings—cultural and linguistic—for translators. How does one "carry over" (for so the word "translation" literally means) a poem whose meaning, whose very existence, depends on the gifts and effects of its original language? Poems are no mere carriers of content, like an industrial flatbed of verse; instead, a poem's character and the heart of its achievement reside in what the poet and translator Kimberly Johnson, introducing her new version of Virgil's Georgics, calls "the work's extralexical elements, central to any discussion of poetry." These presences are nearly impossible to replicate in translation because they depend upon and inhere in the original poem, yet translators must be resourceful in finding equivalents, or migrations of effect.
And what of the sometimes millennia-old cultures in which such poems were first conceived and appraised? The translator must retain impressions of the exotic and the ancient without silencing the urgency and dramatic immediacy that characterize great lyric poetry. And she must do so, somehow, in a language and by specific language choices that both reflect these origins and still remain familiar to a present-day target audience. It may seem like a tall order (indeed it is), but three recent translations of ancient poetry show how it can be done superlatively well. They do so differently, in order to restore their subject's necessarily different voices.
Let me offer one example of the difficult choices involved in translating ancient poetry, even at the simple level of word choice. A few weeks ago, I was able to attend a discussion on Virgil's Georgics with Kimberly Johnson, Wheaton College classics professor Mark Thorne, and several undergraduate Latinists. A rich conversation soon followed, on Virgil, his peculiar but enduring poem, and the language and culture with which and in which he wrote. At one point, Johnson singled out a line in the Georgics where Virgil explains that guard dogs keep wolves and sneaking thieves away from the cattle. Virgil's idiom for "thieves" is striking: he uses the word "Hiberos," or Spaniards. What should a translator do with this? Is "Spanish" better? Or is either choice destined to leave a modern reader clueless about Virgil's Roman prejudice toward those from the Iberian peninsula? Johnson's choice of "banditos" is felicitous, retaining a taste (or distaste) of Virgil's original choice and cultural attitude, yet she herself would call it only an "honorable equivalent": "There's no way I can actually take it across," she admitted, "but I tried to find English words that would signify as much as possible." As we see here, translators must constantly choose among rival "communicative priorities."
Virgil wrote this great middle work of his after the pastoral verse of the Eclogues and before the Aeneid, his masterpiece left unfinished at his death. Georgics often reminds us why its author is regarded as the greatest poet of classical Rome, and nowhere more so than in the last of the poem's four books, where he recounts Orpheus' effort to retrieve his dead bride Eurydice from the Underworld:
But he, consoling love's agony with his hollow-shell lyre,
sang you, sweet wife, you to himself on the lonely shore,
you with the rising day, you with the day's decline.
What you're hearing is Virgil raising not only the lyrical stakes but the narrative stakes as well, as he presses from the existing tale greater emotion from the details.
he stopped, and upon his own Eurydice, already at the very edge of light,
forgetful alas! and his judgment overthrown … he looked back. Instantly
all his labour fell apart, broken the pitiless tyrant's pact,
and thrice thunder sounded over the pools of Avernus.
Virgil's retelling here is the first to mention that terrible detail—that Orpheus' glancing back upon his beloved Eurydice, as the pair ascended from Hades, caused his rescue to fail. The detail, and Virgil's precise eye—notice that Eurydice is "at the very edge of light," almost safe!—make this story of a "wife twice snatched away" even harder to bear.
For all the high poetry, though, Johnson's sure-handed use of colloquial speech is the greater reason for the Georgics' readability here. "Plus, they browse the woods and heights of Lycaeus," or "But sure, when at the Zephyr's summons," and so on. The speaker's a chatty imparter, eager to share his many kinds of instruction. It's no surprise that Johnson's Virgilian voice can span that range, for such versatility and virtuosity mark her own poetry as well. Consider how mystic vision collides with roadhouse show in her poem "Sweet incendiary":
give me a shotgun angel
to shuck me in the back
of his chariot and break
for the state line, shack up, rip
the veil, and show me the shining
undeniable face of God.
Sometimes this mixed diction exists in single lines, as in these describing autumn sunsets from "Crepusular," which recently appeared in The New Yorker: "It falls against the sidewalk like a slab / of meat, like a mugging the passersby pass by. / The church bells bang hollow vespers."
As will be clear by now, the Georgics is one strange barnyard animal. Johnson's introduction helpfully summarizes both Virgil's life and the status and sources of this particular poem. The title derives from the Greek words ge (for earth) and ergon (labor). The poem ostensibly catalogues "earth work," and its successive sections give advice on grain crops, wine and olive cultivation, and herds, flocks, and bees. Is this mainly an Ag-School poem then? Hardly. As Mark Thorne said on the night of our Virgil discussion, "The one thing that we know for sure is that this is not a poem about agricultural methods." Johnson agreed, adding that this poem about tending the ground in fact foregrounds the work of interpretation: "the Georgics' most persistent instruction," as she observes in her introduction, involves the "task of interpretation." Considering that Virgil composed the poem during a time of multiple Roman civil wars and eventual consolidation by Augustus, many have treated the Georgics as a screen for dramatizing political controversies, particularly the commandeering of lands to reward soldiers.
Although this edition is reader-friendly, and thereby typical of the Penguin Classics series, it is a rare title in this series in featuring the original text on facing pages, and the back pages include numerous translator's notes and a detailed glossary. Johnson insisted on the facing-page presentation because she set the high challenge for herself of translating Virgil's poem line-by-line (Latin poetry's powers of compression usually require larger numbers of English lines), and even attempts in her English "to replicate the syntactic experience of reading Virgil's Latin." The Latinists who recently assembled for that Virgil discussion (no easy audience) were impressed with this new Georgics volume, finding the language vigorous while still scrupulously following the original. At one point they considered the opening lines of various renderings: "What makes happy crops" is a trotting translation of Virgil's "Quid faciat laetas segetes," and for a fairly straightforward passage, there are many options. "What makes a plenteous Harvest," is John Dryden's 17th-century version, and he brings out the senses of flourishing and amplitude that laetas can possess. A more recent version has "What tickles the corn to laugh out loud," which gets at a different sense of laetas, but perhaps more cartoonishly than Virgil would ever have intended. Johnson's version is sharp: "What cheers the grain, beneath what star to turn / the soil, Maecenas, when to wed vines / to the elms, [… /—] here I begin my song." It belies her own memorable description of the poem as "a chunky text that nevertheless dazzles you."
Living and writing six centuries before Virgil, when no one had any idea that an upstart kingdom known as Rome would eventually colonize Greece, Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos around 630 BC. She is associated with a school or perhaps a religious community, as well as with various romantic intrigues with both men and women, including some of her female protégés. Alexandrian scholars first collected her poems into nine books, consisting of a staggering nine thousand lines, as best as scholars can tell. Basically, she wrote tons of poems. And in turn, admiration for her poetry was nearly universal throughout antiquity. Socrates calls Sappho the "beautiful one" in the Phaedrus, and Plato himself declared her the "Tenth Muse," making of Sappho a free-agent addition to the traditional nine muses of Greek myth. By the time of Virgil's Augustan era, she was a lyric rock-star, but unfortunately the intervening centuries and the loss of nine-tenths of her verses have reduced this standing. Today a more selective group of poetry lovers admire Sappho, and can do so only through a thin offering of her poems. What's more, the poems are fragmentary, salvaged from quotations that appear in other ancient authors' existing works or, with a tip of the fedora to Indiana Jones, from verse-covered papyri that filled up empty spaces in coffins and even in mummies. (Think ancient packing peanuts here.) One poem was recovered from a mummified crocodile—no doubt one of the most literate of taxidermy pieces in recorded history.
In addition to a narrower audience, Sappho has endured other quirks of critical reception. Stories, legends, or invectives against her have hardened into biographical fact, and the small percentage of recovered poem fragments incline readers to see her almost exclusively as a love poet. She is one of the most superb love poets in the Western tradition—one of the first and still among the best—but she also composed religious songs, marriage odes, verses for formal occasions, and so forth. Finally, she has benefited from some great translators through the years, but even these efforts have obscured the formal qualities of her original lines. For example, some translators (see Willis Barnstone's fine versions) strive for sparseness and compression of lyrical effect. They often fill in lacunae or round off incomplete poems, all for the sake of a stronger English equivalent of the (hypothetical) complete original. These versions resemble more than anything those brief, reticent poems of the Imagist school or those great Chinese poems that often appear in English
as if the lines
Others (such as Guy Davenport) wish to make plain the fragmentary fate of Sappho's papyric verses, and the resulting versions are heavy with ellipses and brackets to signal lost lines and phrases. Recently the formidable Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson presented an edition in this style, built upon a sophisticated theory about how the absences or silences or emptiness in these poems contribute further to their often poignant and "sweetbitter" (to use one of Sappho's own famous coinages) expressions of love and longing.
Now a new version of Sappho's time-broken songs has appeared, also in the Penguin Classics series, and it promises to become for many readers a reasonably priced, helpfully contextualized introduction to this poet. That Imagist connection will soon become understandable; we find here "lotuses on the dewy banks of Acheron" or
A full moon shone,
And around the shrine
Poised in place.
The translator, Aaron Poochigian, has prepared this edition with the energy and boldness of the recently hired: he completed his PhD in classics in 2006, and also has a creative-writing background. (His own writing has appeared in Poetry magazine, for example.) So much of this edition feels like a labor of love that perhaps it carried Poochigian through the darker days of graduate study. The current English poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy provides the preface. As the author of the celebrated The World's Wife—featuring revisionist monologues by the likes of Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway and Mrs. Faust—Duffy seems like the perfect champion, but we have only a cursory two pages from her. On the other hand, Poochigian's introduction offers up a coffin- or mummy-full of information. He is not only a translator but also clearly an expert in Sappho's poetics and her shifting reputation, and highly knowledgeable about the political, religious, and social complexities of the poet's ancient Greek milieu. He places her in the context of Greek literature, within her mysterious school, and discusses her style, her overlooked versatility, and the likely performance of her works. His own writing makes him sensitive to specifics, as when he points out her frequent use of formal hymn structure and the ongoing popularity of her Sapphic stanza (a quatrain whose last line is truncated) among poets as diverse as Swinburne, Ginsberg, and the formalist Timothy Steele.
This formal awareness also lies at the heart of Poochigian's own translation goals. He surveyed many prior English versions, including those mentioned above, and was disappointed to see Sappho's formal accomplishments neglected. "Sappho did not compose free-verse," he declares, and the foursquare look of poems here will surprise readers familiar with earlier editions. He also justifies the noticeable rhymes in his versions by saying they create a song-like effect in English and replicate Sappho's own emphatic line endings. He organizes the poems thematically ("Goddesses," "Desire and Death-Longing," "Her Girls and Family," "Troy," "Maidens and Marriages," "The Wisdom of Sappho"), and provides facing-page commentary for each— little paragraphs that superbly mix erudition and clarity for general readers. Of timely interest may be one poem ("Girls, chase the violet-bosomed Muses' bright") whose second half was only discovered in 2004, in a papyrus roll in Cologne. This strip matched up almost perfectly with the right half of the poem discovered in 1922. Sappho's poem is now complete, or nearly so, and one smiles for the scholar who made the connection—historical reconstruction rarely provides such satisfying confirmation and closure.
Occasionally Poochigian plays a sour note, as with the internal rhyme in "That fineness in your irises" (which sounds like a student trying to hard) or a "ditty/prettily" rhyme with its comic effect. However, these are quibbles against a series of achievements in this edition. The capturing of Sappho's unparalleled intensity and emotional power deserves the most praise. Poochigian strives to render that often missed versatility. The first poem, for instance, features the breeze that "feels as gentle as honey," but then that exquisite delicacy gives way to a begging outburst of a conclusion: "Since I have cast my lot, please, golden-crowned / Aphrodite, let me win this round!" This range concentrates in one poem what often feel like the poet's several personalities throughout her work. One poem begins "Hesperus, you are / The most fetching star," and you think, what a likeable poet, humble in praises and maybe winking a little. Contrast that easygoing impression with this Dido-like passion and fury:
You were at hand,
and I broke down raving—
My craving a fire
that singed my mind,
a brand you quenched.
And between these extremes one finds a most alluring sexual confidence, speaking with coy accusation of past experiences and how vulnerable we are to the next one: "You will have memories / Because of what we did back then / When we were new at this, // Yes, we did many things then, all / Beautiful …" The best compliment I can pay to this new edition is this: it grants that appeal of Sappho when she asks, "Lyre, be voluble."
If Sappho's feminine intensity, heart-rending love poems, and delicate words to young women all seem a little much, then boy do I have a classical poet for you. Marcus Valerius Martialis, or Martial as he is better known (named after his birth month), was a provincial Spaniard who lived in imperial Rome and wrote about its social customs' and its citizens' pretenses and debaucheries. Of course he had plenty to write about during the late 1st-century AD reigns of Nero and Domitian. Garry Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, is also an accomplished classicist. He offers in Martial's Epigrams a substantive selection across Martial's 14 books of poetry.Wills describes well the peculiar power of the epigram, a poetic form known for its brevity and what he calls its "studied formality," able to "add artifice to baser urges." He laments that English cannot simulate some of the effects of repetition and variation of the Latin language's inflected endings, but he does strive to "blend low matter with high polish, the intimate and the impersonal, the tough and the graceful." This mixing of tones is another hallmark of epigrams; as Wills memorably puts it, "They pick up dung with silver tongs."
Caveat lector: there is amid these poems plenty of baseness and dung, and certainly some readers will not find it worth wading through the frequently coarse or scabrous poems to arrive, stained and battered, at more charming epigrams deemed less offensive. For what it's worth, Martial is cool with that, and he repeatedly states that the "tang of life" and "comic license" in his verses are not for everyone. He would just as soon the sensitive or humorless among us stay home. The very first poem here begins this way:
You knew the play was of a naughty kind,
No subject for a puritan's closed mind—
Why join us in the theater at all?
To signal scorn by rushing from your stall?
Martial sharply pinpoints the pleasure in scorn that can tempt any scorner—that secret thrill behind the sober concern or wagging finger. Much later, he similarly says, "You people of wild stuff wary, / Sit down and read the dictionary. / Such sobersides are not for me." To his credit, he elsewhere pushes mere dismissal toward a more robust aesthetic defense, involving styles of language, the true character of the poet, his freedom to make fictions, and the satirical—and perhaps even conservative and socially beneficial—function of epigrams. "My poems more directly speak," he boasts, and there is something winning about his disdain for affected "pansy" alternatives:
What would you have my verselets do?
Put boxers in a pink tutu?
To earn a natural esteem,
Light things should not pretentious be.
We hear in these verses two key themes for Martial: his acknowledgment that he is not writing grand epic poetry, and his special pleasure in the modesty (but genuinely so) of his chosen form.
Some epigrams here memorably attack poetic pretensions: "Your giants are all made of clay, /While mine breathe deep of everyday." He likewise writes, "I deal with life, and make it see / What comes of all its flummery," and this bridging of the reportorial with prescriptive or even remedial concerns is central to Martial's satirical vision. More often, though, he is simply satisfied with his lot, genre-wise. For example, he is perfectly willing to admit, with witty self-deprecation, that some epigrams are throwaways: " 'Your book has thirty epigrams unneeded.' / I've only thirty clunkers? I've succeeded." In any case, at least they are brief poems, and thus even bad ones are more tolerable than the mediocre work of blowhards. On the other hand, he offers touching praise for poets he admires, such as Virgil and the Hellenistic poet Callimachus, who back up their high ambitions. However, the recognition of real life afforded by his modest subject matter leads to a frequent "Take that!" of his own: his readability and related fame. Again contrasting his verses with grandiose examples, he says bluntly, "Those things men praise—but mine they read." He prefers poetry "that fills the hall."
Martial also criticizes those who should be stronger satirists in a decadent Roman world deserving chastisement. "Where you should be a vice-decrier, / You give a baby's pacifier. / For me, no lullabies I sing. / I want harsh lines that have a sting." Civic crimes and social misdemeanors certainly abounded in Martial's Rome, but reading through his poems, one is also struck by how little changed are the values of our own age:
Vainly the poor extend their palms.
Only the rich are given alms.
What a fitting epitaph (and may it be just that) for our own unjust, preying, oligarchic age of Enron and TARP and "banks too big to fail" and "reduced" Wall Street bonuses of 9 million dollars. Garry Wills allows himself some playful anachronisms by including the Founding Fathers, Poor Richard, and George Washington in certain poems. Another praises the 18th-century satirist Alexander Pope and his epigram equivalent, heroic couplets— "Against vice Pope did lengthily inveigh, / Yet every line would accurately weigh"—and this vein of poetry also draws upon the "savage indignation" associated with Jonathan Swift. Like Swift, Martial does not flinch from graphically portraying the squalid and the scandalous. Rome in one poem is a "cesspool of stink." He asks his addressee, why would you want to come here?
Some poems praise the simple, virtuous life of farmers or thank a patron for hospitality in a country villa, while others are just as prone to assert the opposite— they mock our maudlin praise for idyllic rural settings or the "good old days" generally. One imagines Martial never really wanted to be outside Rome too often, for fear of missing something gossipy. Considering the outrageousness of some poems, his moral voice never feels very genuine. Wills in his introduction shrewdly calls out Martial: "He is a complicitous critic, half enjoying what he sneers at, mixing entertainment with revulsion …. a reforming voyeur, a compromised Savonarola." Today the Roman poet might resemble The Village Voice's Michael Musto with anger-management issues, or one among the legion of rabid bloggers.
Martial does offer a defense in the face of such criticism. Repeatedly he stresses that "My poetry is filthy—but not I." (His contemporary Catullus has a poem along practically identical lines.) Sometimes this distinction becomes repartee: "I grant you there is foul stuff in my book. / But why? You're in it—take a look." At the heart of this separation between author and work is a sense of gamesmanship; he does not attack individuals but vices generally, he claims (as Erasmus would later in The Praise of Folly), and he often sends up himself, as when he writes as a brow-beaten husband (in fact he never married) or uses the epigram form to broadcast his penury: "So patron, since you are not broke, / Save this poor poet—send a cloak!" In other words, he delights not in sincerity or consistency, but in a broad range of voice and style. Thus he can be equally effective in highly lyrical poems with delicate imagery (often associated with young men) or epigrams that become outright threats, or truly tender elegies for a servant or local celebrity or friend's son. In this respect, we must thank Martial for creating models that inform the Renaissance poet Ben Jonson's own elegies for his son and daughter, arguably unparalleled among epigrammatic elegies in English.
Martial's moral postures also remain unconvincing because he so clearly enjoys the insults he flings—just as we enjoy reading them (as he never lets us forget). His two main targets are women (rather a convention for Roman elegists) and bad poets. He lambasts cosmetics, "old crones," women who smell, and those with loose lips or who are loose generally. Martial can sound like a rude child—"Four teeth made up your total set, / You coughed out two, and had two yet"—and even the lighter touch of a gift poem, attached to an object, sounds chauvinistic: "This sash can circle you if you stay slender—But if you fatten up, return to sender."
His barbs aimed at less successful writers or performers are the most savory here, and they remind us by contrast of our own tame conference-going age for creative writers. Poor singers of his verses make him angry, as does the fellow who slips a substandard verse into Martial's book. Some potential opponents he rejects as incomprehensible— "His verse was meant to strike me low, / But since he wrote it—who will know?" The poem is a masterful deflection, the nonchalant swatting away by a master. In another, he has to confess an awkward situation: "You ask me why I send you not my book? / For fear you'll say, 'Here's my work—take a look.' "
Martial's books of epigrams helped to popularize Romans' use of the codex, that newfangled alternative to scrolls that was the Kindle or iPad of the age. Martial speaks of his "little book" and considers within one poem the very volume that contains it:"Well, book, you could be bulkier by far, / But who would really want more than you are?" Despite this deference, he is clearly proud of his literary production. Yet he also apprehends—at an interesting fork in the road in textual history—how books, by allowing readers to flip here and there, bestow a profoundly new freedom. "Some good things here, and some not worth a look. / For this is that anomaly, a book." For Martial and his generation, the codex was a curious new invention indeed. Unsurprisingly he also co-opts it into one last trope of humility and self-defense: "If this book seems too long, / Just read from it one song," he writes, accepting "whittling" readers. If this poem is not for you, move on, try the next one. This nonchalance recalls Chaucer's wonderful disclaimers in The Canterbury Tales—the drunken Miller is a churl, but you can avoid him, Chaucer assures his readers; just "turn the leaf." With Wills' new translation, those who feel up to the challenge can again practice the reader's essential interaction of discretion and freedom.
Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. His first collection of poems, The Garbage Eater, has just been published by Northwestern University Press.
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