Latin Authors, Far From Homer

Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (47):

“I took my critical life in my hand, some years ago, when I suggested that Catullua was in some ways a better writer than Sappho, not for melopoeia, but for economy of words. I don’t in the least know whether this is true. One should start with an open mind.

The snobbism of the renaissance held that all Greek poetry was better than ANY Latin poetry. The most intelligent of the Quattrocento Latinists, Basinio of Parma, proclaimed a very different thesis; he held that you couldn’t write Latin poetry really well unless you knew Greek. That is, you see, very different. In the margins of his Latin narrative you can still see the tags of Homer that he was using to keep his melodic sense active.

I don’t believe that any Latin author is in measurable distance of Homer. I doubt if Catullus is inferior to Sappho. I doubt if Propertius is a millimetre inferior to his Greek antecedents; Ovid is for us a store-house of a vast mass of matter that we cannot NOW get from the Greek.

He is uneven. He is clear. His verse is as lucid as prose. Metrically he is not a patch on Catullus or Propertius.”

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Auguste Jean Baptiste Vinchon, Propertius and Cynthia at Tivoli

Snubs and Sensibility

T.S. Eliot, What is a Classic?

“I think that we are conscious, in Virgil more than in any other Latin poet – for Catullus and Propertius seem ruffians, and Horace somewhat plebeian, by comparison – of a refinement of manner, springing from a delicate sensibility, and particularly in that test of manners, private and public conduct between the sexes. … I have always thought the meeting of Aeneas with the shade of Dido, in Book VI, not only one of the most poignant, but one of the most civilized passages in poetry. It is complex in meaning and economical in expression, for it not only tells us about the attitude of Dido – still more important is what it tells us about the attitude of Aeneas. Dido’s behaviour appears almost as a projection of Aeneas’ own conscience: this, we feel, is the way in which Aeneas’ conscience would expect Dido to behave to him. The point, it seems to me, is not that Dido is unforgiving – though it is important that, instead of railing at him, she merely snubs him – perhaps the most telling snub in all poetry: what matters most is, that Aeneas does not forgive himself – and this, significantly, in spite of the fact of which he is well aware, that all that he has done has been in compliance with destiny, or in consequence of the machinations of the gods who are themselves, we feel, only instruments of a greater inscrutable power.”

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Greek Dramatists Not Up to Homer

Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (46-47):

“An epic is a poem including history.

Greek Drama depends greatly on the hearer or reader knowing Homer. It is my firm opinion that there are a great many defects in Greek drama. I should never try to stop a man’s reading Aeschylus or Sophocles. There· is nothing in this book that ought in any way to curtail a man’s reading or to prevent his reading anything he enjoys.

Ultimately, I suppose, any man with decent literary curiosity read the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, but if he has seriously considered drama as a means of expression he will see that whereas the medium of poetry is WORDS, the medium of drama is people moving about on a stage and using words. That is, the words are only a part of the medium and the gaps between them, or deficiencies in their meaning, can be made up by ‘action’.

People who have given the matter dispassionate and careful attention are fairly convinced that the maximum charge of verbal meaning cannot be used on the stage, save for very brief instants. ‘It takes time to get it over’, etc.

This is not a text-book of the drama, or of dramatic criticism. It is unfair to a dramatist to consider his WORDS, or even his words and versification, as if that were the plenum of his performance. Taken as READING MATTER, I do NOT believe that the Greek dramatists are up to Homer. Even Aeschylus is rhetorical. Even in the Agamemnon there are quantities of words which do not function as reading matter, i.e., are not necessary to our understanding of the subject.”

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The Odyssey is Still News

Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading:

Years ago a musician said to me: ‘But isn’t there a place where you can get it all [meaning all of poetry] as in Bach?’

There isn’t. I believe if a man will really learn Greek he can get nearly ‘all of it’ in Homer.

I have never read half a page of Homer without finding melodic invention, I mean melodic invention that I didn’t already know. I have, on the other hand, found also in Homer the imaginary spectator, which in 1918 I still thought was Henry James’ particular property.

Homer says, ‘an experienced soldier would have noticed ‘. The sheer literary qualities in Homer are such that a physician has written a book to prove that Homer must have been an army doctor. (When he describes cer­tain blows and their effect, the wounds are said to be accurate, and the description fit for coroner’s inquest.) Another French scholar has more or less shown that the geography of the Odyssey is correct geography; not as you would find it if you had a geography book and a map, but as it would be in a ‘periplum’, that is, as a coasting sailor would find it.

The news in the Odyssey is still news. Odysseus is still ‘very human’, by no means a stuffed shirt, or a pretty figure taken down from a tapestry. It is very hard to describe some of the homeric conversation, the irony, etc., without neologisms, which my publishers have suggested I eschew. The only readable translation of this part of Homer known to me was made by Amadis Jamyn, secre­taire et lecteur ordinaire du Roy (Henry III of France). He refers to Odysseus as ‘ce rusé personnage’.

You can’t tuck Odysseus away with Virgil’s Aeneas. Odysseus is emphatically ‘the wise guy’, the downy, the hard-boiled Odysseus. His companions have most of them something that must have been the Greek equivalent of shell-shock.

And the language of the conversations is just as alive as when one of Edgar Wallace’s characters says, ‘We have lost a client’.

W. B. Yeats is sufficiently venerated to be cited now in a school book. The gulf between Homer and Virgil can be illustrated profanely by one of Yeats’ favourite anecdotes.

A plain sailor man took a notion to study Latin, and his teacher tried him with Virgil; after many lessons he asked him something about the hero.

Said the sailor: ‘What hero?’

Said the teacher: ‘What hero, why, Aeneas, the hero. ‘

Said the sailor: ‘Ach, a hero, him a hero? Bigob, I t’ought he waz a priest.’

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Vergil Was a Sycophantic Hack

Rovert Graves, The Virgil Cult:

“Why Virgil’s poems have for the last two thousand years exercised so great an influence on our Western culture is, paradoxically, because he was a renegade to the true Muse. His pliability; his subservience; his narrowness; his denial of that stubborn imaginative freedom which the true poets who preceded him had prized; his perfect lack of originality, courage, humour, or even animal spirits: these were the negative qualities which first commended him to government circles, and have kept him in favour ever since.”

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“Don’t Know Grammar, Don’t Give a F**k”

Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks (Preface):

On the verge of writing the wars of kings with enemy nations, of martyrs with pagans, of the churches with heretics, I would first like to bring forth a display of my faith, so that one who reads me will not doubt that I am a Catholic. That plan has pleased me because of those, who despair of the approaching end of the world, so that the chief points of preceding times collected through chronicles and histories, and how many years there have been since the beginning of the world, may be clearly explained. But first I entreat the pardon of my readers, if I have run off the rails of grammatical art in my letters or my syllables, because I was not really educated with that skill, instead pursuing only that I may retain what is preached in the church without any recoiling or hesitation of my heart, because I know that one who is corrupted by sings is nevertheless able to obtain God’s pardon through a pure credulity.

Scribturus bella regum cum gentibus adversis, martyrum cum paganis, eclesiarum cum hereticis, prius fidem meam proferre cupio, ut qui legerit me non dubitet esse catholicum. Illud etiam placuit propter eos, qui adpropinquantem finem mundi disperant, ut, collectam per chronicas vel historias anteriorum summa, explanetur aperte, quanti ab exordio mundi sint anni. Sed prius veniam legentibus praecor, si aut in litteris aut in syllabis grammaticam artem excessero, de qua adpaene non sum inbutus; illud tantum studens, ut quod in eclesia credi praedicatur sine aliquo fugo aut cordis haesitatione reteneam, quia scio peccatis obnoxium per credulitatem puram obtinere posse veniam apud Deum.

Butcherly Feare in Making Latines

John Brinsley, Ludus Literarius (Preface)

There is a way (saith Mr. Askame) touched in the first booke of Cicero de Oratore,which wisely brought into Schooles, truly taught, & constantly vsed would not onely take wholly away that butcherly feare in making Latines, but would also with ease and pleasure, and in short time as I know by good experience, worke a true choise and placing of words, a right ordering of sentences, an easie vnderstanding of the tongues, a readinesseto speake, a facilitie to write, a true iudgement both of his owne, and other mens doings, what tongue so euer he doth vse.

This way, as he sheweth, is by causing the Schollar first to vnderstand the matter which he learneth: secondly, to construe truely: thirdly, to parse exactly: fourthly, to translate into English plainely: fiftly, to translate out of the English into the Latine of the Author againe: and so after to compare with the  Author how neere he came vnto it. Finally, by much translating both wayes, chiefely out of the English into Latine, as hee setteth downe in the beginning of his second booke; and hereby hee saw those strange experiments of the increase of learning, which hee reporteth of Mr. Iohn Whitney, and others.

Now, whereas these things are very hard to bee performed in the common schooles; especially for lacke of time to trie and compare euery schollars translation, and euer giuing them new peeces to translate, and those such as are meete for euery forme; by the meanes of these translations of our first schoole Authors, all these things may bee performed in euery Author and forme, most certainely and constantly, and with much ease and delight both to Maister and Schollars; as I trust will be found.

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