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84: THE SMALL CHANGE OF EXISTENCE

#84: THE SMALL CHANGE OF EXISTENCE. The frenzy of battle, the arguments of the gods, sailors lost in a monster-bestrewn seascape; it’s easy to think of classical poetry purely in the martial and melancholy terms of the great epics, and to forget the personal and pastoral poetry that is another part of the classical inheritance. Younger readers are no longer having this literature beaten into them with their schoolboy Latin; they may run across Housman’s translation of Horace’s “Diffugere Nives” or (from the Greek) William Carlos Williams’s rendering of the first idyll of Theocritus (in Pictures from Brueghel), but the American poetic idiom has moved away from Latin models, and the long Stygian mire of eighteenth-century English verse, which equated classicism with the drone of the heroic couplet, would be enough to kill anyone’s interest. So the superb recent Latin translations of Ted Hughes, David Slavitt and now David Ferry are not just wonderful poetry but a kind of restoration: lost valuables returned.

The Eclogues and the Georgics of Virgil are the great founts of example (out of Theocritus and Hesiod) for the tradition of pastoral, and have a long reach of influence in European and English literature. (And art: from medieval illumination and the Romanesque decorations of San Isidoro in Leon to the works of Blake, Palmer and Calvert.) But since the versions of Dryden—which I can’t say drive me mad with excitement—the English translations have been pretty pedestrian stuff, a far cry from Dryden’s “the best poem by the best poet” (of the Georgics) or Tennyson’s “the mightiest measure ever molded by the mind of man.” The Georgics suffer a bit in my mind from Virgil’s program, of writing a semi-practical almanac of raising crops and livestock. But it’s a vision of men at work, learning to read the signs of nature but also dealing with nature’s enmity and dangers. This insistence on the drudgery and repetition of husbandry, the skills required and the fairly terrifying descriptions of adders lurking in the horsestalls and the onset of a plague of anthrax mean that Virgil’s farmers and shepherds are not frolicking poetic cutouts. Ferry renders the Georgics in supple pentameters and gives passage after passage of unforced fineness—beauty rising from behind the words. The Eclogues wander around more—they float a bit more easily just off the ground than the Georgics—and Ferry’s translations capture the ecstatic, sweet timbre of the work—rills of pure delight, grounded in the real and political world behind them.

Horace, Virgil’s close contemporary and his friend, has for years suffered a neglect of translation as well. I’ve wondered if those public-school boys in England were so badly stuffed with Horace (et al.) that once they left their studies they never wanted to look at him again. But more likely it’s the kind of poet Horace is that’s the problem. “When summed up or capsulized, the meaning of the poems are entirely expectable: ‘Stay in the middle, don’t go too far out; remember that you are going to die, remember that you’ll lose your good looks, that your love will alter, that you will grow old; don’t be greedy, be content with what you have; power corrupts, riches corrupt, use them wisely; return to the ways of your virtuous ancestors; poetry immortalizes; poetry can do nothing against death.’ We greet such meanings, in this generalized form, without surprise.” But: “The expectedness of situation or of theme frees us to focus on the particular performance of it in a given poem, and to experience that performance in relation to others. One of the great pleasures of the four books of Horace’s odes is to see how he will do it this time.” Plainly, to render Horace as something other than a prig or a Dutch uncle, you will need something above accuracy and understanding; it will have to be poetry. The Epistles are marvelous poems, and Ferry’s versions read marvelously well—don’t miss them. But the Odes are, I believe by common consent, among the masterpieces of Latin classical verse, and Ferry’s versions are the rare case of one great poet being rendered by another. These are English poems of wonderful delicacy, variety and, finally, strength. “Each one of us must leave the earth he loves,” Horace writes, but his digestion of this certain fact—the steady courage of Latin stoicism—has released him to enjoy, to love, what’s here. Horace’s subjects are what we often allow, in David Carne-Ross’s phrase, “to be discarded as the small change of existence.” Horace’s great gift in these luminous poems, now so beautifully rendered, is to remind us that the coin is golden.

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