Can a Book Inspire You to Read Latin?

Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens gloria Teucrorum .–Virgil’s Aeneid, Book II

“We were Trojans; Ilium and the great glory of the Trojans are gone.”

Many years ago I read Virgil, Ovid, and Horace in translation.  I was puzzled:  why were these classics?  Somehow the poetry didn’t translate gracefully.  My friends and I gossiped:  “Men romanticize this so much.”  But I had a nagging sense that something was missing.  And so I studied Latin, learned that English and Latin have different structures, discovered I have a Latinate brain, went to graduate school, taught in private schools for a few years (like most of my fellow classicists), and have continued to read Latin poetry for decades.

Not everyone can study Latin, but books can  inspire you to read Roman authors, or to return to them.

Seven Sisters margaret drabbleIn  Margaret Drabble’s extraordinary 2002 novel, The Seven Sisters, I was fascinated by the narrator’s fascination with Virgil’s AeneidThe Aeneid is my favorite poem, and I have tried in vain to get fellow bloggers to read it.  (You know who you are.)

Candida, the ex-wife of a headmaster who jettisoned her for the mother of a student who drowned in a pond on the school grounds, has moved to an apartment in West London.  She is solitary, almost friendless, and far from her family, and the big event of her day is swimming at a Health Club, which has not always been a health club:  it was converted from a College of Further Education that in the evenings held adult classes.  Candida had taken a Virgil class there, which involved not only reading Virgil in Latin but comparing translations by Dryden, C. Day Lewis, and others.

You wouldn’t think you could go to an evening class on Virgil’s Aeneid in West London at the end of the twentieth century, would you?  And if fact you can’t anymore as it’s closed. …Why did I join it?  Because its very existence seemed so anachronistic and so improbable.  Because I thought it would keep my mind in shape.  Because I thought it might find me a friend.  Because I thought it might find me the kind of friend that I would not have known in my former life.

Candida, who is obviously depressed, is obsessed with Book VI of The Aeneid, which describes the descent of Aeneas into the underworld, and dovetails with her own obsession with death.  Eventually she is inspired to organize a Latin class reunion and a life-affirming Virgilian trip  to Italy.

Drabble’s book influenced me to consider teaching again.  We had moved to a lovely, quiet city that “had no culture,” as I was told.  It definitely had no Latin.  I had no job.  I was hanging around the house, reading all of Virgil, when I wasn’t alphabetizing the books at a very messy used bookstore.  (I was paid in books.)

Why not get out of the house and teach adult ed?  I wondered.  And so I taught a very traditional Latin class, using Wheelock’s Latin as the text. We also translated a short Latin passage from The Aeneid every week, with a great deal of help from me in the form of vocabulary lists and worksheets.

How to Read a Latin Poem William FitzgeraldI believed my idea of reading Virgil in Latin with students who knew little or no Latin was original (or perhaps I had borrowed from Drabble). But after reading Roy Gibson’s review of William Fitzgerald’s new book, How to Read a Latin Poem If You Can’t Read Latin Yet in this week’s TLS, I discovered that other classicists are doing this kind of reading.

Roy Gibson, the reviewer, is a classicist, who likes Fitzgerald’s book and is mostly positive.  He writes,

…it has a serious purpose:  to give the reader with little or no knowledge of Latin or the classical world a feel for the character of Roman poetry in the original language.  We are offered word=by-word analysis and translation of classic texts, with deft explanation of how meaning gradually emerges from a language which (unlike English) does not depend on word order to create sense. This is a necessary task.  Some ancient poets translate rather well into English (Catullus, Ovid), but readers who have encountered Virgil or Horace’s Odes only in translation can feel justified in wondering what the fuss is about.  Fitzgerald proves an inspiring guide to the richness and (rarely emphasized) strangeness of Virgil’s Latin.  He also offers stimulating asides on the stark juxtapositions of vocabulary that are inevitable in a language which dispense with definite and indefinite articles and has no need of many of the prepositions which litter English.

He says, however, that Fitzgerald glosses over the amount of work involved in reading Latin.  Professionals use commentaries and dictionaries, and some passages remain controversial or ambiguous.

Of course I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s book, but it is the kind of thing I would give to friends to help them understand Latin poetry.

Alexandria peter stothardIn Peter Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Days and Nights of Cleopatra, a  brilliant memoir of his fascination with Cleopatra, he writes a few pages about reading Latin poetry with those who don’t know Latin.  Stothard, a classicist and the editor of the TLS,  chaired a panel on how to read a Latin poem, saying it is “the kind of appointment that come to an Editor of the TLS with interests in the ancient world.”  The panel read and discussed an ode by Horace addressed to Plancus, a shrewd man of middle rank  who was devoted to Marc Antony until the tides of politics changed. Stothard had extensively researched Plancus for his book about Cleopatra.

Stothard  writes:

The choice of poem was not mine.  Plancus followed me by purest chance.  ‘Laudabunt alii‘ we all began at 10.00 a.m.  A light-pointer identified each word:  ‘will praise’ was followed by ‘other men.’  Laudabunt alii claram Rhodon aut Mytilenen aut Ephesum bimarisve Corinthi moenia:  Others will praise bright Rhodes, or Mytilene, or Ephesus or the walls of Corinth on its two seas. The audience had come to read it in Latin–and it was my task to help them do just that.

Then there is classicist Mary Beard’s blog, A Don’s Life. She recently wrote a very interesting post about participating in a debate on The Future of Latin.

What came over most clearly — and clearer than I had ever seen it before — was the way we have projected onto Latin so many of our anxieties about privilege in education, teaching quality and the personality of the traditional teacher, ideas of utility, the control of the curriculum etc. Latin in other words is so much of a symbol that it is hard to discuss it without getting involved in series of much bigger debates, only symbolically connected with Latin.

Cicero EverittAntony Everitt’s Cicero:  The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician is a fascinating biography of Cicero, and a very clear, accessible history of the politics of the first century B.C.

Everitt writes in the preface:

With the disappearance of Latin from the schoolroom, the greatest statesman of Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is now a dimly remembered figure….

…nearly two thousand years after his time, he became an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives.   For the founding fathers of the United States and their political counterparts in Great Britain, the writings of Tully (as his name was anglicized) were the foundation of their education.  John Adams’ first book and proudest possession was his Cicero.

Professor's House catherLet me also mention Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, which is not about Rome but nonetheless describes the life of Tom Outland, a student Latinist.   Professor St. Peter, a disenchanted historian of early Spanish explorers, camps out one summer in the old empty house, too depressed to follow his very conventional family to the new house they have built. And he often remembers his student Tom Outland, who died young; we learn in the middle part of the novel that during a summer in the Southwest Tom read all of The Aeneid in Latin.  St. Peter’s conversation with a greedy colleague who is about to benefit from Outland’s research causes him to connect Tom with Shakespeare’s Mark Antony.

 The university, his new house, his old house, everything around him seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man.  Yes, it was possible that the little world, on its voyage among all the stars, might become like that:  a boat on which one could travel no longer, from which one could no longer look up and confront those bright rings of revolution.

He brought himself back with a jerk.  Ah, yes, Crane; that was the trouble.  If Outland were here tonight, he might say with Mark Antony, My fortunes have corrupted honest men.

I recommend the Fagles translation.

Finally, let me recommend Virgil’s Aeneid in translation. This stunning epic poem about the founding of Rome is translated beautifully into English by Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald, and this cannot be said about very much poetry in any foreign language.  This classic poem describes the fatigue of the depressed hero, Aeneas, forced by last-man-standing fate to lead the refugees from Troy, the allure of a foreign queen, Dido, who is really Cleopatra and Medea combined, and the gods that force him to continue his trip to Italy, which leads to yet another war.

2 thoughts on “Can a Book Inspire You to Read Latin?

  1. I studied Latin for a year at Grammar School before we had to drop the subject and was intrigued – but we never got anywhere near the literature, which was a shame and I wish we *had* done more – alas, I shall have to stick to translations!

    Like

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