Why learn Latin?

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

Cicero, Orator Ad M. Brutum

For the last week or two I’ve been fairly obsessively ruminating about my personal biographical relationship to some little spots around the Bay of Naples and the sweep of history upon which that relationship is contingent. And for a number of years I’ve been ruminating about the absolutely vital necessity of a Liberal Arts education for all citizens of a free society. If citizens are not trained in the arts of life in a free society (the Liberal Arts), any other training or education is the manufacturing of Orwellian cogs for a grey, meaningless social machine.

This morning a tweet by Kelly MacFarlane, a “Contract Academic” at the University of Alberta, got me a little more obsessive about getting some of these thoughts down on (virtual) paper. Ms. MacFarlane asked “What can we do to make Latin More Appealing to more students?”

I replied “I find this a troubling question. Latin IS interesting. Students must be shown why/how it is. Trying to doll it up is misrepresentation.” What I meant, in more than 140 characters, is that marketing a Latin course as something other than “learning to read the language of the Romans and to appreciate their literature and thought and all that appreciation implies” is misrepresentation. Learning Latin probably isn’t going to get you a good job. But learning Latin, like any of the Humanities, will very likely make you better at whatever job you get. It might give you intense entertainment on your commute. Other than that, pretty much all I have to offer is meaning.

Ruminations and a couple of text messages

A week or two ago as I was obsessively ruminating, I wrote to a friend one evening:

I find it exciting that just now I’m linking up Virgil and Pliny the Younger who described the eruption of Vesuvius and the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder who described the painting of the Greek painter Apelles which description led me to paint my series of little paintings of the area around the Bay where Vesuvius erupted and Pliny (elder) died and Pliny (younger) studied, and Virgil lived and wrote, and Aeneas descended to meet his past and his future, and where I wrote and studied and marveled and . . .

I just had a vision of me as a University lecturer in an alternate universe, bawling my eyes out as I describe to a gaggle of baffled undergrads what poetry and history and life can do when it’s all working right.

It’s probably a good thing I left Academia; weeping would probably be frowned on by the arbiters of tenure.

I also wrote to my friend about some homemade wine:

I might save the apple wine for later in the summer with a crowd. Vinalia might be time to open a half bottle of last Fall’s bucket of juice from Italy and read some Ovid or something.

In those two sentences I have linked a traditional Roman festival and Latin poetry to a laughing summer afternoon outside in the sun with friends and neighbours putting about a hundred pounds of apples from another friend’s backyard trees through a meat grinder. The glorious fragrant pulp went into plastic vats to be fermented into country wine. The reference to “Vinalia” is to the twice a year celebration of the grape in Ancient Rome, Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, and Vinalia Rustica, the festival of the grape harvest. On further consideration, it seems obvious to me that the poetry of Tibullus would be more appropriate than Ovid for either festival, and certainly for an Alberta high-summer backyard neighbourhood festival celebrating those apples we had processed together.

If you knew Latin, you’d fully understand the above paragraph and the following bit of verse. And you’d probably be pretty good at whatever job you have.

nec Spes destituat sed frugum semper acervos
praebeat et pleno pinguia musta lacu.
Tibullus, I.i.

What does all this have to do with getting undergrads interested in Latin?

When I was in grad school studying Anglo-Saxon poetry I often was asked “what are you going to do with that?”

My long answer was “I’d rather drive a cab with a Master’s Degree in Anglo-Saxon poetry than drive a cab without one.”

My short answer should have been “Live.”

My best answer, an answer that I only found with time is “Live with meaning.”

Cicero wrote in a letter to his friend Varro: “Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit.” Ad Familiares IX, 4

I’ve always imagined that Cicero’s garden and library were often visited by friends and neighbours, that Cicero “networked” with living, present people as well as with his books.

“pulcherrimarum clade terrarum”

We are a network of experiences, of memories applied to each other, to the present, and to the future. We are not the product of our personal history, we, at this very moment, are our personal history made manifest, a history which includes what we read, what we see on Netflix, the games we play, the people we have met, the places we have been, our family . . . . The richer our personal history, the deeper our references and experiences, the more we have personal connections to the deep history of our families, of our nations, of our cultures, and of humanity itself, the richer, deeper, and more alive we are, the more meaning our time on this whirling ball of rock has, whatever we may be doing in the present moment.

When young, the network is loose. It’s hard to see how things fit together, we search for meaning, too often we give up. Trust me, it gets tighter. A point will come as you pursue you living and learning, whether that learning involves Latin or another language or languages, when everything starts to fit together, where everything is linked to everything else in a glittering, beautiful, tragic and joyful web of association and causality and meaning. The depth is plumbed gradually, but my own life has shown me that within a couple of years of first taking Latin, experience was enriched, landscapes came to deep life, and things began to fall into place. And I began to understand other languages. And even others. It all meant something.

Making a loaf of bread in the Bakery of Modestus

Because of Latin, and travel in youth, when I knead bread I am connected, to my mother, of course, at whose knee I learned to bake bread, but, more deeply, I am connected to a man named Modestus who owned a bakery in Pompeii. Modestus most likely died on August 24, 79 A.D., shortly after enjoying Vinalia. But I have a photo I took many years ago of his bakery, and I have another photo of my mother standing in that bakery many years later, after I had painted a little picture of Modestus’ grain mill and oven. And I painted that picture because of the words of a man who died that same day, in that same Hellish disaster.

When I knead bread, I am connected to my mother, who taught me to bake bread, and who stood in the Bakery of Modestus where I had stood years before, and to people who died half a world away and two thousand years ago.

The Bakery of Modestus, Acrylic, 4″ x 6″

We are connected in this way because I learned Latin.

Below is a reverse timeline that may show some of the depth of connection that Latin has brought to my life.

A Reverse Timeline

Sometime before the end of 2006 A.D., a middle aged Canadian man started painting some tiny paintings using only red, yellow, black, and white paint.

Sometime after the end of 2005 A.D., a middle aged man from Canada chanced upon a passage about a Greek painter in a natural history written by an uncle who had launched the ships under his command to investigate a volcanic eruption, an eruption which soon claimed his life.

In late summer of 1983 A.D. a young man from Canada was having a wonderful time admiring the landscape and studying in the library of the Villa Vergiliana, in Cumae, Italy, just over the ridge from Misenum, on the Bay of Naples. He wrote in his journal:

I’m in heaven, or perhaps Hades. I’ve got a vast (comparatively) library at my disposal, including The Idylls of the King and Dryden’s Aeneid; and Avernus is on one side while the Sybil’s cave is on the other. Up on the roof I can see for miles. We’re staying in the Villa Vergiliana, a possession of the American Virgilian Society. I’ll never have enough time here. . . .

In the spring of 1981 A.D., a young Canadian was happily studying in an introductory Latin course at the University of Alberta. The professor had big ambitions for his students and they rose to the challenge. As the leaves budded out in the North Saskatchewan River Valley, these students, Latin neophytes a few months before, were reading their way through an epic description of a descent into Hell at Cumae and Lake Avernus. This glorious poetry had been written two thousand years earlier by a man from Gaul who was quoted by a man from Como in his description of his own descent to Hell.

Around 110 A.D., a middle aged man from Como in Northern Italy, who had studied as a volcano erupted, was asked by an historian friend to describe the events around the Bay of Naples during a late August week in his youth, when Vesuvius buried Herculaneum, Pompeii, and dozens of other cities, towns, and villages.

In late summer of 79 A.D., a young man from Como was contentedly studying literature at his uncle’s villa in Misenum. The Vinalia Rustica, the great festival of the grape harvest, had concluded a few days before. Every expectation was that in the spring the Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, would be celebrated in the towns and villages on the slopes of Vesuvius and in the villas along the bay.

As the young man studied, his uncle, commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum and author of an important work of Natural History, climbed to a high point of land to observe an unusual cloud on the far distant opposite shore of the Bay. He stood studying the cloud with a scientist’s eye and soon decided his ships should be launched for a closer look. That closer look soon turned into a rescue mission.

In 77 A.D., the uncle who would die on a scientific expedition turned rescue began to write his monumental Natural History. That Natural History contained a brief passage about an Ancient Greek painter who had miraculous abilities with a remarkably limited set of four colours.

Sometime before 19 B.C., a man nearing the end of his life who had once lived at Cumae wrote a line of verse that would be quoted by a man from Como as he undertook to describe his own journey in flight through Hell on Earth across the Phlegraean Fields near Lake Avernus.

In the late summer of 49 B.C., a yet-young man from Cisalpine Gaul was living at Cumae, carefully observing the volcanic countryside, and studying, creating the mind, the sensibility, the developed consciousness, that would produce some of the greatest poetry in World Literature.

In the depths of mythic time, a hero arrived from Troy to the shores of Italy at Cumae. After retrieving the Golden Bough, he consulted with the mystical Sybil and then, on the banks of Lake Avernus, in the heart of the Phlegraean Fields, that hero descended to the Underworld, met with the dead, learned of his past and of his future, and returned to the land of the living through the Gate of False Dreams.

And, because I learned Latin, I was there. For all of it.

Why study anything?

Because I studied Latin with Dr. Bob Buck in 1981-82, I grew to love the poetry of Virgil, was able to read the letters of Pliny the Younger and the Natural History of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Because I could read Latin, I learned of the Greek Painter Apelles. Because I could read Latin I painted a series of paintings which launched a funny little late-life career.

But, most important to me, those months in Dr. Buck’s class helped give to my life a rich depth of meaning. I am a network of experiences. I am linked to Apelles, to Virgil, to Pliny the letter writer and Pliny the Naturalist. I have stood on the same ground. We have wondered together at the power of Vesuvius. We have looked deeply into other lives and other times with the tools forged by study and tempered with a life in society, and we have found meaning.

If that doesn’t make Latin interesting . . .


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.