Monday, July 25, 2011

More Catullus

Not Georgics related, but here is some more Catullus poetry in my translation...

Catullus 5

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and let us value all the mutterings
of stern old men at a single penny.
For suns it's possible to set and rise
again; our light is short.  Once it sets
we're forced to sleep one neverending night.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand, then a hundred,
then, after we have finished several thousands,
we'll mix them up again to keep ourselves
from knowing and to keep the envious
from bearing us a grudge once they find out
the number of our kisses.

Catullus 11

Furius and Aurelius, you would accompany
Catullus anywhere he went: to the other side
of India, where the distant breakers roar
beating the eastern shore,

to the Caspian or decadent Arabia,
to the Sacians and the arrowshooting Parthians,
or to the flat land the seven branches
of the Nile tint and hue;

even if he crossed the lofty Alps
to tour the monuments of mighty Caesar,
the French Rhine, and the bleak north sea
as far as Britain,

you'd be ready to approach in tandem absolutely
anything heaven might want to throw
our way; so bring my girl this message,
a short one and no fun:

let her stay with, enjoy herself with all the adulterers
she holds in her embrace, three hundred at a time,
not one of them a true love, just balls to bust
over and over again.

No need to pay my love the heed she once did; 
it was her fault that it collapsed, fell
like a flower at the meadow's edge clipped
by the passing plow.

Catullus 50

Yesterday, Licinius, while we were free
we played a lengthy game in my notebooks
since we'd agreed to act like slackers.
The game:  each of us wrote down short poems
in various meters, in style a or style b,
trading compositions over jokes and drinks.
I left there so excited by your wit
and sensibility that food no longer
did me any good, nor would sleep drape
my eyes in stillness; poor me, tossing and turning
on my bed like an unchained lunatic
longing for daylight so that I could talk
to you and be with you again. The struggle
wore me out; after my body lay in bed
half-dead a while, I wrote this poem for you,
my friend, to make you understand my pain.
Now watch out: don't be cruel, please don't spit
on my requests, lest Karma take revenge
on you, my dear one.  The goddess is
a real bitch: take care you don't insult her.

Catullus 69

Don't be surprised, Rufus, if women are
unwilling to place their soft thighs beneath you,
even when you wear them down with gifts
of finest cloth or choice, transparent stones.
You're being undercut by a malicious rumor
which maintains that a vengeful goat dwells
in the gulley of your armpits.  Naturally
everyone is afraid of it, since it's a nasty animal;
beautiful girls won't share a bed with it.
So either slay the beast that pesters noses
or give up wondering why they run away.

Vergil and Allusion

One aspect of Vergil's Georgics that can be hard for first-time readers to appreciate is the degree to which it borrows and reworks passages from earlier Greek and Latin poetry.  For example, in the first book of the poem, while talking about irrigation and its importance to farming, Vergil gives us the following verbal picture:

“Why should I mention the man who hurls his seeds and then attacks the fields hand-to-hand?  After knocking down the heaps of undernourishing sand, he leads the stream and the rivulets that follow among the plants; then, as the burning land swelters in the heat and the greenery dies, behold, there he is, summoning water from the top of a sloping footpath.  The falling water creates a noisy burble among the smooth stones, and its freshets cool the baking fields.” (lines 104-110)

Note the implicit comparison of the farmer to a soldier charging into the line of battle.  One reason this comparison is apt is that Vergil is in fact reworking some lines from Homer's great poem of war and warriors, the Iliad.  In book 21 of that epic, the hero Achilles is being chased down by the river god Scamander.  Homer describes the chase with the following comparison:

“As when the man in charge of a channel leads a stream of water from a blackwater spring among his plants and his gardens, holding a hoe in his hands and knocking the blockages from the channel; as the water streams forward, all the pebbles underneath are flipped over, and in a steep spot part of it flows down swiftly, making noise, eventually outstripping the man who leads it.”  (257-62)

Homer's irrigator, who stands for Achilles, becomes a farmer in Vergil's poem, a farmer who, appropriately enough, is represented as a warrior.  The simple act of watering plants on a hot day is thus ennobled by its association with the heroic world of Homer.
            The other day I was translating a lyric by the Roman poet Catullus and was reminded of another Vergilian reworking.  Catullus lived about a generation prior to Vergil and made himself famous by publishing a collection of poems written about his friends, enemies, and lovers.  First and foremost among his lovers was a woman whom he nicknamed Lesbia.  The majority of his poems to Lesbia deal with the breakdown of their relationship, but a few are intensely romantic and positive, like this one, Catullus 7.  Note, before reading it, that Cyrene was a prosperous city in north Africa, on the coast of modern day Libya; Battus was the name of its legendary founder, and silphium was an aphrodisiac spice which the Cyreneans harvested and got rich exporting.

Concerning kisses, Lesbia, you inquire:
how many would be quite enough for me?
A number as large as all the grains of sand
that lie in Libya round silphium-rich
Cyrene between the sweltering oracle
of Jupiter and the hallowed tomb
of ancient Battus, or as numerous
as the stars that watch mankind engage
in secret liaisons when the night is still:
kissing me that many kisses would be
quite enough for your crazy Catullus,
kisses no busybody could ever count,
kisses no malicious tongue could jinx.

You wouldn't think Vergil would find much to borrow from this, but he does, in book two of the Georgics, after talking about different varieties of grapes and the wines made from them.  The discussion takes the form of a catalog, which mentions, not shirazes and chardonneys, but famous ancient wines - "Rhodian," "Chian," and so on.  But before his list gets to long, Vergil stops short and says:

“But there is no counting how many varieties and vintages there are, nor does putting a number to them matter; to want to know is like wanting to say how many grains of sand are stirred up by the west wind on the Libyan desert, or to know how many waves approach the shores in Ionia when the east wind lays into the fleet with unusual force.”

There were any of a number of comparisons Vergil could have used to suggest an uncountable quantity, but it is the Catullan one (African sands) that he picks up on.  And the allusion to Catullus makes sense, since the subject of wine and the subject of love have a natural affinity to each other which I need not explain.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gentlemen Farmers, Gentlemen Hackers

One of the reasons Vergil's Georgics was so popular in its day is that most of the literate audience at Rome was made up of men who were gentlemen farmers; that is, men who owned enough agricultural-productive property (farmed largely by slaves, sharecroppers, or tenants) that they could live off the income of their estate and devote their lives to activities other than living for subsistence.  In other words, almost all of the Romans who achieved some measure of fame - all the poets, orators, politicians, generals, emperors - were also farmers, in that they owned farmland and made money from it.  Of course, many didn't care that much about the science of farming or the cultivation of the natural world - but there was widespread knowledge of how to farm, and it was considered normal for certain types of people, esp. retirees, to devote themselves more or less full time to their land holdings.  It was this latter group in particular that merits the title 'gentlemen farmers'.

I was put in mind of all this by reading an article about 'Gentlemen Hackers' out in Silicon Valley who have to decide what to do with their lives after creating a successful business and finding themselves set for life, financially speaking.  Some go out and buy stuff (boats, sports teams, lawmakers); but some return to the field that made them wealthy and pursue crazy technological ventures; "Open up a shop with a bunch of hackers and just build stuff."

Winbolt's Georgics

I stumbled upon this edition of the first book of Vergil's Georgics using googlebooks.  It was first published in 1900 by Samuel Edward Winbolt, who wrote a number of textbooks on Latin verse and Latin language. What I like most about it are the illustrations, and the way they suggest Roman culture was a more exotic creature than the bland Victorian preface to the work would have you believe.  Check out the Pan (p. 2), the 'naked Chalybes' (5; mythical metalworking dwarves), Demeter and Triptolemus (11; goddess of Grain and the 'first inventor' of grain farming, riding a dragon-powered chariot)), the drinking trough (18), etc.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Coffee; Table; Book

(Coffee plant, Coffea arabica)

Support University Presses...

... and the University of California Press, in particular, which was smart enough (I like to think) to publish my book.

Here is the link to the catalog:

Large chunks of the text are also available for free at Google Books:

I don't really understand the business model behind making this much of the text available for free, but... there it is.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Vergil's Georgics, translated by Cecil Day-Lewis,

Most modern English translations of the Georgics are disappointing, for reasons I won't get into here.  The best one from the last century, imho, is by Cecil Day-Lewis, and was published in 1947.  Day-Lewis was the British Poet Laureate from 1968 until his death in 1972; before WWII he was associated with the circle of poets that included W. H. Auden.  Even if you have never heard of him you will probably be familiar with his son Daniel, the actor.

Here is a recording of Day-Lewis reading his translation.  The first passage that he reads comes from book one of the Georgics and describes a series of weather signs - more elaborate variations on the 'Red sky at night/ sailors' delight' strain of folk wisdom.  The second comes from book two, and is a description of the coming of spring.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Vergil and Nanotechnology

"In 2003 the German company Icon Genetics encoded Georgics 2.109 into the genome of an Arabidopsis thaliana plant:  Nec vero terrae ferre omnes omnia possunt, 'Neither can every soil bear every fruit.'"

Mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana):

Thursday, June 23, 2011

High School

When I was a senior in high school, our Latin teacher, Mrs. Patla, spent the year guiding us through the Aeneid, the epic poem published by the Roman poet Vergil a few decades before the birth of Christ.  We were a smallish class and rather than scatter across the room the six of us sat bunched together in a corner by the windows.  For our textbook we used a text and commentary edited by a scholar with the wonderful name Clyde Pharr; later on I would hear classicists refer to it affectionately as 'The Purple Aeneid' because of its cover:

The epic, which we parsed and interpreted one slow line after another, day after day, for the entire school year, recounted the story of a Trojan hero named Aeneas, who was the son of the goddess Venus (and the brother of Cupid).  Aeneas survived the sack of Troy only to find himself wandering around the Mediterranean with a group of other long-suffering Trojan refugees.  They eventually landed in Italy and, after fighting a war against some suspicious Italian tribes, settled there.  Romans of Vergil's day traced their roots as a people back to this early settlement; hence, in telling the story of Aeneas, Vergil was writing a foundation epic for Rome.

However, in high school what impressed me most about the Aeneid was not the history or the mythology behind it but its evocative poetry.  The epic, like any good long story, shifts constantly back and forth between scenes of chaos and moments of bliss:   vast storms at sea or human tragedies like the suicide of Dido alternate with descriptions of placid landscapes or scenes on Mt. Olympus.   This painting by Claude Lorraine comes from a series of illustrations of scenes from the Aeneid and captures well a moment of transition between the two moods.  Dido is showing Aeneas around Carthage, the city which she founded and which Aeneas has stumbled upon.  We know that she will fall deeply in love with him and in the end will be driven insane by her love; still, for the moment we see her realm as she would have seen it herself and as she would want Aeneas to see it, bathed in a perfect, almost paradisical light:

Anyway, the point is that the experience of reading the Aeneid in Latin turned me into a fan of Vergil; and like any teenage fan this enthusiasm made me open to trying out his other works.  Mrs. Patla told us one day that before writing the Aeneid Vergil also composed two other long poems, one of which was called the Georgics and was about farming.  Intrigued, I drove over to the library at Central Connecticut State University and pulled out all the books on the Georgics I could find.  I sat there on the floor of the stacks with a pile of books and opened the first one, a translation of the poem by John Dryden.  This is what I saw:

Dryden's rendition of Vergil's Latin into English rhymed couplets is certainly polished but not otherwise a source of much magic.  What grabbed my attention instead was the illustration at the head of the page that showed Pan with his pipe and his goats watching a plowman at work while the distant sun and moon hang low in the sky.  The picture covers a lot of ground, thematically-speaking:  it is defined by the contrasts between man and nature, leisure and labor, carnal goat-god below and orderly sky above; and, what's more, if you follow the translation you can see that all of this is already there in Vergil, that the themes of the picture are the themes of the opening lines.  Together, Dryden's old-timey translation and the modernist illustrations by Bruno Bramanti were just enough to convey some sense of the power of the original.  Looking at and meditating on this page represented my introduction to the Georgics.  Having spent the past twenty-odd years meditating on the poem, I now have a book to show for it.