On First Looking into Humphries’ Latin

I first encountered Rolfe Humphries’ translations from Latin in approximately 1980, perhaps it was first year Comparative Literature, perhaps a Classics class, or maybe that first year Latin class that concluded with journeying to the Underworld with Virgil. Humphries’ Aeneid seemed to be one of the few inexpensive translations in print at the time – Mandelbaum’s appeared about mid-term. A year or two later, when faced with Ovid, I found Rolfe Humphries’ Metamorphoses handy. Again, an alternative, Horace Gregory’s, appeared to late to be of much use.

And then . . .

Late in 2011 I found The Art of Love (actually Amores, Ars Amatoria, Remedia Amoris, and Medicamina Faciei Femineae) at the Book Seller, — one of the great second hand bookshops in Edmonton — not having imagined the boy had done anything other than the Big Two. Read it. Loved it. Was startled by its modernity and honest earthiness, particularly in the context of the straight-laced 1950s when it was published.  These poems — for they are poems, not just translations — remain fresh and alive here in the second decade of the third millenium.  They are as full of life now as they were half a century ago and as they were two thousand years ago.

Back in the 80s I hadn’t known anything of Humphries beyond what was in the blurb on the back of the two books and that one picture of him looking like an undertaker on the back of the Aeneid. But now I had the internet.   I googled the old boy for other works, of which there are many, and I found the story of the Poetry prank in which he pwned the editorial staff of the most important poetry journal in the U.S. and publicly insulted a very wealthy and influential advisor to Presidents.   In retaliation, the Editors banned Humphries from the pages of the magazine, a Pontic exile which lasted two years, although I suspect   Humphries was chuckling through it all.

I simply had to read all of such a wit’s Latin translations.

At this point I’ve read The Art of Love, The Satires of Juvenal and Selected Epigrams of Martial over the last six months and made a start on Humphries’ Lucretius. Soon I will reread his Aeneid and his Metamorphoses, but I simply felt I had to rhapsodize without further delay.

It’s been many years since I last read Humphries Aeneid so I’ll simply mention W. H. Auden’s remark that Humphries, for his Aeneid, should be awarded the highest possible public honour. But, Humphries left us far more than his Aeneid and has far less public honour than he deserves.

Apart from that Latin thing Ovid wrote, the only Metamorphoses I’ve read in more than just snippets is Humphries’, and, again, that was many years ago. For what it’s worth, Ovid and Humphries between them inspired me to cobble together my own verse translations of some passages of Ovid years ago, and to dream of one day, after I’d translated all of Old English poetry, to return to Ovid and translate all of his works. Oh, dreams of youth. I’m bogged down about half way through the Old English stuff.

But, to what I’ve read more recently.

The Art of Love. Published in the 1st century B.C. And 1957 A.D., it describes urban bachelor life and dreams in the heads of  millions of young men in every western city this very evening, it seems to me. For a brief, remarkably stupid moment while reading Humphries’ translation I thought it might be worthwhile to reread C. S. Lewis’ The Allegory of Love to see what he says of Ovid. I quickly dropped Lewis. That tiresome prig seems to have lived in the only time in history in which relations between men and women weren’t at least to some degree a bit of fun. Or maybe it’s just that Lewis hadn’t figured out relations between men and women yet. Either way, Lewis is a road better not taken.

Ovid (and Humphries) writes of a world in which men and women, married to each other or not, but more often not, enjoy the play of physical love — not just sex — and are fully aware of its pitfalls and ephemerality. It is a world of dinner parties with friends, of students struggling to make ends meet while frittering money away at the tavern with the mates or on the wife of a rich man. Lewis dismisses Ovid’s advice to young lovers as satire but to me Lewis seems shockingly insensitive to the love and nostalgia Ovid – he was into his middle age – is expressing about this youthful, reckless, urbane life.  One night a few decades ago in some place on Whyte Avenue (I think it was Yannis), Dave said to me, his belly full of ouzo “We’re sho shuphisticated!” Moments like that are the preludes of Ovidian nights, and Ovid loves that world in all its silliness and absurdity and foolishness.  He is not just satirizing it, Jack.

Humphries is not in the least insensitive:  Humphries gets Ovid. Humphries revels in Ovid’s poetry and helps us to revel in it as well. I am saddened by the sexism which any honest translator must preserve. Ovid’s was a man’s world as was Humphries’, as ours still is in so many ways. Perhaps I’m wishing it on him, but I have a suspicion that Humphries was also saddened by the sexism.

Something that must be mentioned in a discussion of Humphries is anachronism.  Humphries translations read like a sort of amalgam of the classical and modern, Togapunk, if you will.  This  love of anachronism pushes itself to the fore in his Satires of Juvenal into which Humphries inserts at least one spaceship and a very popular singer named Elvius. Juvenal seems to quote Shakespeare, mentions twentieth century race horses by name, discusses secret intelligence about the doings of the Russians and the Chinese (Thracians and Chinese in Latin), and refers to safety deposit boxes. As impossible as it may sound, it works and it works marvellously!  Humphries is translating Juvenal’s comments on Roman society into comments on Western society.  The satire of Rome is retained but there’s another level of modern satire in Humphries translation.  In a sense reproducing the Poetry prank with it’s surface layer of classical reference and the acrostic layer of the contemporary horse’s ass.

In his note to his Selected Epigrams of Martial, while discussing the meters he has chosen, Humphries remarks: “I have had no consistent principle in this matter, nor in my use of anachronism.” We have been fairly warned. A number of the epigrams are translated as limericks:

If you’re passing the baths and you hear,
From within, an uproarious cheer,
You may safely conclude
Maron’s there, in the nude,
With that tool which has nowhere a peer.

[Audeieris in quo, Flace, balneo plausum,
Maronis illic esse mentulam scito]

As impossible as it may seem, what Humphries calls in his introduction to de Rerum Natura his “pigheadded brashnesses” pays off. Humphries’ limerick is far funnier – better, in fact – than Martial’s couplet.  Humphries has Martial at least once refer to a character in the Mikado and Ben Hur even takes a turn around the Circus.  The list of anachronisms in Humphries’ Martial (yes, I made one) would run to many, many pages.  We know  (I hope) the anachronistic references today as well as Martial’s audiences knew the references Humphries has replaced. We know that “Elvius” signifies a Roman who was the Elvis of the time.  And we also know that Martial regularly used false names for contemporaries mentioned in his epigrams, names which suggested the nature and character of the person in question.  Why shouldn’t Humphries choose new names which will have similar resonances for a modern audience?

I hope I’ve not given the impression that Humphries is some sort of Bowdlerizer or popularizer. He is not. Nor is he a students’ crib. These works are frequently very challenging, always charming, very serious poetry in their own right. Humphries has a marvellous handle on what the Latin poets were aiming at, and he is unerring in hitting those same targets for a 20th and 21st century audience. If Martial had lived in 1966, he would have certainly written at least a few limericks. Lucretius in 1968 would have chosen blank verse.

As an undergraduate I was annoyed that Humphries did not hew to the lines of the original (like Lattimore’s Homer) but rather followed the sense as he saw it and put line number references at the top of the page (like Homer by Fitzgerald) or, left out the numbers altogether, as he did in the Aeneid. But now I am an oldster with a share of my own translations under my belt: Humphries is the Man!

Nowadays, if I want a crib, I go to the Loeb. But if I want to read poetry on a quiet evening (and who doesn’t?) I’ll pull out Humphries (or Fitzgerald for Homer) and keep a copy of the original at my side for those times I come across a Gilbert and Sullivan reference about two thousand years out of place. And I’ll chuckle or laugh out loud, charmed again by the wit of a poet — of two poets — far too unknown today. And in coming days I will seek out Humphries translations of Lorca, and, most excitedly, the many volumes of his own poetry.

The breadth of poetic tones Humphries confronts in his translations and the apparent effortlessness of his execution is nothing short of breath-taking. From the high dignity of Virgil, through the hilarious vulgarity of Martial and back to the Wordsworthian philosophizing (without the Wordsworthian pomposity) of Lucretius. From Ovid’s serious and finally tragic playfulness to all the well-placed grumpiness of that curmudgeon Juvenal. Humphries achieved a feat of poetic translation I would argue unequalled in English since the age of Dryden and Pope – if even then – and, unlike the heroic-couplet masters, Humphries did it all on his own. I stand in awe, wondering what he might have done with Catullus. And, if ever a scrap of paper is turned up in the storage rooms of Amherst College with idle bits of a translation of Tibullus’ first elegy, I’ll be at the head of the line for my copy when it’s published, squealing like it’s 1964 and the Beatles – or Elvius — have stepped off the plane.


3 comments on “On First Looking into Humphries’ Latin

  1. I love your term “Togapunk” for Humphries’ anachronisms in Juvenal. Was just listening — relistening, actually — to the audiobook on the way to the Starbucks I’m at right now.

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