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The Georgics: A Poem of the Land (Penguin Classics)
The Georgics: A Poem of the Land (Penguin Classics)
Virgil
Penguin Classics, 2011
224 pp., 15.0

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Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics)
Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics)
Sappho
Penguin Classics, 2009
95 pp., 15.00

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Martial's Epigrams: A Selection
Martial's Epigrams: A Selection
Garry Wills
Penguin Books, 2009
224 pp., 15.0

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Brett Foster


Something Old, Something New

Three ancient poets in fresh translations.

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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?

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