Tuesday, January 7, 2014


William Fitzgerald, How to Read a Latin Poem: If You Can't Read Latin Yet. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 278. ISBN 9780199657865. $35.00.

Reviewed by Betty Rose Nagle, Indiana University (nagle@indiana.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


That title. That sub-title. That "yet".

This engagingly written and cleverly organized book contains sophisticated discussions of a wide range of poets, periods, and genres, primarily in the form of close readings of the Latin originals. By what means, and how successfully, does its author accommodate that hypothetical Latinless reader? He does not do this by dumbing anything down; these are readings from which the proficient can profit, too.

The poets and works included come mostly from the "greatest hits" list, but there are some unorthodox choices as well, such as Sulpicia in the chapter on love poetry, several Priapea included with Catullus and Martial in a chapter on invective, and Persius as the featured satirist. The first two chapters treat antithetical topics (love, hate); the middle two treat respectively a collection (Horace's Odes) and a corpus (Virgil's works) written during the same period; the fifth treats another pair of contemporaries, the Neronians Petronius and Seneca; and the sixth, thematic again, pairs Lucretius and Ovid as philosophical and narrative "science fiction." This organization serves to showcase for the novice a variety of approaches to Latin poetry: by author(s), by theme, by period. There is also an introduction for his readers, cleverly followed by a "Prelude" discussing two poems addressed to their readers, and a brief "Epilogue," using Hadrian's animula as a bridge to a few comments about the very different poetry of Christian hymns. Ancillaries include a pronunciation guide, suggestions for further reading, a glossary of terms, an index of names and topics, and another of poems.

Each Latin poem or selection is accompanied by an English translation, either by the author or from a variety of published versions. This is normal practice, of course, even for a specialist audience, but here it is related to one of Fitzgerald's goals—to convey to the Latinless English reader the very different means by which Latin poetry expresses meaning. Hence his stated preference for translations which do not entirely eliminate that foreignness. The format for quoting text and translation varies: sometimes a block of Latin is followed by a block of English; one of Sulpicia's elegies is translated line-by-line, while one of Ovid's is couplet-by-couplet. Horace's Pyrrha Ode and its translation appear side by side, an effective way to show how much of Horace's "mosaic of words" cannot be conveyed in English. Also, when individual Latin words appear, Fitzgerald always glosses them parenthetically and routinely points out several English derivatives, as one might do in a Latin class. The former would not be out of place in a work addressed solely to experts; the latter, of course, would be. His readers' lack of Latin, however, does not keep Fitzgerald from citing the Oxford Latin Dictionary several times, thereby introducing them to this classic of Latin lexicography. One of those citations contributes to his discussion of the famous Virgilian tag sunt lacrimae rerum, during which he contrasts the noun res with the other Latin idiom for which "thing" can be a translation.

As with the diction of Latin poetry, so with the technical vocabulary used in discussing poetry, Latin poetry in particular. Any reader not already acquainted with that certainly should be familiar with it after reading this book. Fitzgerald explains not only poetic, rhetorical, and metrical terms, but also grammatical and syntactical ones because these readers may not know about cases, inflection, agreement, and so on. Usually each is defined at its first appearance and is also included in the glossary, which lists 27 items, but is not exhaustive. Occasionally a term appears a time or two before it is glossed, as with "anaphora" and "enjambment." The former is clear in context; the later is a common enough term in discussions of poetry in general. The reader will learn that Horace's Lalage ode has a typically "feminine" ending, but not what that is. A random sample of terms includes antithesis; ablative absolute; protreptic use of an adjective; ictus; molossus; hyperbaton; polyptoton; priamel. The inceptive form of verbs is explained but, oddly, not the substantive use of an adjective, despite that discussion of the word "thing," and the several wordier explanations he has to give each time that usage crops up. The term "ellipsis" doesn't appear either, although Fitzgerald comments on some examples of it—which he claims differ from English usage—in which a word (a verb, as it happens: 209, 223) can be omitted because it has already appeared and can be inferred. That is not different from Latin usage, in which, because the language is periodic, the word appears only after one has already had to infer an omission In my experience this usage routinely stumps students precisely because it reverses what they are used to in English.

Flexible word order and quantitative meter are surely the two features of Latin poetry most different from English. Consequently Fitzgerald focuses much attention on the poetic effects made possible by these features. Over and over again, he stresses the importance of word order, calling attention to the juxtapositions made possible by chiasmus, to the effects of the golden line and other types of patterned lines, and to common arrangements of noun-adjective pairs, such as the interweaving of two three-word phrases (208). His treatment of quantitative metrics in general and of several specific metrical schemes is quite good. Besides dactylic hexameter and the elegiac couplet, he introduces Catullan hendecasyllables, the iambic dimeter of Hadrian's animula, and some Horatian strophes, calling them "stanzas," perhaps because that term is likely to be familiar. He contrasts the self-contained elegiac couplet with Horatian enjambment. He includes the subsidiary role of accent, the effects from coincidence or clash of ictus and accent (146), and even such technical details as the repetition of a word in different metrical positions or the placement of a different word in the same position in different lines.

Precisely because these characteristic aspects of Latin poetry are the most difficult to convey to English speakers, Fitzgerald makes special efforts to enable his readers to recognize and appreciate them. Sometimes he conveys these visually, as when agreement between noun and adjective is signaled with differences in typeface, or the relationship between feet and words (he does not use the term "caesura") is conveyed with slashes between feet and either commas or dashes between words. A good example of the former comes from the Pyrrha Ode section. Using italics for "Quis . . . gracilis . . . puer," boldface for "multa . . . in rosa," and small capitals for "te" enables Fitzgerald to show how in Latin that poem's first line quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa conveys the idea of an embrace not only aurally but even visually (although he does not use Dryden's term "visual onomatopoeia"). An example of the latter is Lucretius' first line, Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divumque voluptas, which Fitzgerald represents schematically "dum da da / dum—da da / dum—da da / dum—dum / dum da—da/ dum dum." This use of "dum" and "da" rather than the conventional symbols for long and short syllables is a constant reminder of the quantitative basis, but I doubt that a truly Latinless English speaker can hear a dactyl so represented (dum da da) without thinking waltz time with a downbeat. Maybe using Morse code "dit" and "dah" might be more successful, with the staccato brevity of the closed "dit" and the naturally open "dah."

These ingenious devices go only so far, however. Without some audio component—a companion CD or website—most Latinless readers are not going to hear the poetry in their mind's ear. Those with even a bit of previous experience probably will be able to subvocalize the words they are reading, but a real novice would, I think, be seriously challenged. Fitzgerald does refer readers to some websites where they can hear Latin poetry being read, and recommends a book that does come with CDs. His brief guide to Latin pronunciation is a fairly typical one, but flawed. He lists "i" with both consonants and vowels. But, although he refers to a "consonantal" "u" in treating "q," he lists "v" rather than "u" as a consonant without clarifying that "v" represents the consonantal "u." For short "e" he compares the English "net," and yet later (163) gives "feenay" for the word fine. For "s" he provides an example of an English unvoiced "s," and yet later (145) gives "meelez" as the way to pronounce miles. (Thankfully such attempts at phonetic spelling are rare.) These are minor quibbles. More serious is the misspelling of "au" as "ou" in the list of diphthongs.

Fitzgerald's intended readers lack not only linguistic literacy, but also cultural literacy (and not just ancient Roman culture itself, but the culture of transmission, reception, and study), all that contextual detail Latinists acquire, systematically and piecemeal, in written and in oral form. In his introduction and in passing as needed Fitzgerald works in those kinds of details about Roman history, politics, social practices, details about the poet's life and works, literary history, and so on. A random assortment of such information includes: a clever explanation of scented oil at a banquet with the analogy of champagne marking a special occasion; satire as a Roman invention; the absence of punctuation in the original texts; the nature of elite education; ancient ideas about "love" as far from "romantic" ones; the hierarchy of genres; the significance of the toga (as part of explaining that Virgil's "togaed race" isn't a reference to fashion); and the quaint editorial practice of censoring (sexually) offensive material either by omitting it or translating it in Italian, thereby assuring that "generations of schoolboys" will know exactly which are the "dirty bits."

Typos, except for that one in the pronunciation guide, are few and minor, such as a stray "v" in "dervive" (179); an extra "s" in "progresss" (190); a space omitted before the parenthetical citation in "heaven(7.455f" (190); and "poets often (i.e., after) him" (232). The inconsistency in capitalization in the index is puzzling—sometimes lower case (chiasmus, patronage), and sometimes upper (Hyperbaton, Refusal poem); oddly, "christianity" is the only proper noun not capitalized. An error of a different sort quotes a MSS reading in the Latin, but translates an emendation (197): "Keep far away this shame" for procul hunc arcete furorem (Lucan 2.295).

A delightful book and yet . . . . The title, with its italicized "yet," is overly optimistic or even hubristic. But, as Fitzgerald himself notes, the Roman poets themselves weren't big on modesty. And that "yet" is undeniably a great hook. Reading this witty and delightful book might prompt a genuine beginner to learn Latin, as Fitzgerald hopes (7-8), but would that person really be able to read it in the first place? If, however, the title is amended by replacing "yet" with "fluently," the potential audience expands to include those who can or—at an earlier point in their education—could, "read" Latin, perhaps not with facility and perhaps not verse—someone who took a year or two in high school long ago, for example, or undergraduate now majoring in the subject. And to be fair, Fitzgerald includes those who may be "already embarked, or even advanced on [the] path" to reading this poetry in the original (8).

And yet . . . . Perhaps an intellectually curious reader, or a serious reader of poetry, especially poetry indebted to Latin, might be "piqued" (to use Fitzgerald's word) to take on the challenge. There are such people. A neighbor of mine permanently derailed his graduate work in political science when he decided he should learn classical Greek to be able to read Aristotle in the original. As for me, if there were (or is) a book like this one about Biblical Hebrew poetry, I would certainly read it, based on an interest arising from years spent reading, chanting, and singing Psalms. Furthermore, Fitzgerald's discussion of Lucretius makes this Latinist want to return to a poet I last read carefully in a college honors seminar.

1 comment:

  1. Should 'fine' not be represented as 'feeneh' rather than 'feenay', the final vowel being short?