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I Love a Good Surprise: Catullus Carmen 107

If anything ever happens to someone who is desirous and eager yet not anticipating a surprise,

then the unexpected is especially pleasing to person in such a state of mind.

Therefore, it is particularly dear to me because you have restored yourself

to me, my desire; you restored yourself to an eager and unsuspecting man, and you

did it all yourself. Oh light, more favorable than a lucky day!

What man could possibly live a luckier life than me, or what man could

possibly want to lead a better existence?

(Translation is my own.)

It seems fitting this week that as I begin teaching a Catullus course to my upper level Latin students that I am also reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Catullus and Frederic both receive quite the “sentimental education” at the hands of an older woman. The anticipation of seeing the beloved is palpable in Catullus’s poems and Flaubert’s text.

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Meaningless Impermanence: Dorothy Richardson on the Symbolism of Walls

The timing of my reading Dorothy’ Richardson’s paragraph in Deadlock on the symbolism of walls could not have been more perfect:

“For so long the walls had ceased to be the thrilled companions of her freedom, they had seen her endless evening hours of waiting for the next day to entangle her in its odious revolution.  They had watched her, in bleak daylight, listening to life going on obliviously all round her, and scornfully sped her desperate excursions into other lives, greeting her empty glad return with the remainder that relief would fade, leaving her alone again with her unanswered challenge.  They knew the recurring picture of a form, drifting, grey face upwards, under a featureless grey sky, in shallows, ‘unreached by the human tide,’ and had seen its realization in her vain prayer that life should not pass her by; mocking the echoes of her cry, and waiting indifferent, serene with they years they knew before she came, for those that would follow her meaningless impermanence.  When she lost the sense of herself in moments of gladness, or in the long intervals of thought that encircled her intermittent reading, they were all round her, waiting, ready to remind her, undeceived by her daily busy passing in and out, relentlessly noting its secret accumulating shame.”

During a long, sleepless night I kept mulling over Richardson’s words about walls and how perfectly relevant they are to the sad and useless debate about walls currently unfolding in my country.  Apparently we have learned nothing from antiquity, the ruined walls of which old nations are scattered around the world and now merely serve as tourist attractions.  The Trojans were absolutely convinced that their walls were impenetrable.  But I have a feeling that they would tell us now that there is no such thing.  Scholars are often amazed at the lack of walls in the archaeological record at the Minoan, Bronze Age site at Knossos.  Since they lived on an island, did the sea serve as their “wall”?  The Bronze Age site at Mycenae, by contrast, had massive, thick walls built with stones that are weighed by the ton.  Did the Mycenaeans feel more secure, safer, more free because of their walls?  I doubt it.

And, of course, we can’t forget about Hadrian’s wall in Roman Britain which, many have argued, was intended to keep the barbarian tribes to the north out of Roman territory.   Was this massive structure successful?  Scholars can’t even agree on the purpose of the wall, let alone its efficacy—was it merely for defense or was it simply a boundary marker?  Was Roman Britain safer, more secure, more free because of this wall?  I doubt it.  But at least now Hadrian’s famous wall serves as an archaeological treasure trove of information about the Roman military.

Miriam Henderson, too, initially views the walls of the room in her boarding house as symbols of her freedom—they represent her independence from her family and the need to get married.  But these walls quickly become oppressive and suffocating.  Mariam learns that a wall as a symbol of freedom is an absurd idea.  If only our current leadership would follow that advice.



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Goethe’s Roman Elegies Translated by Michael Hamburger

I was just going to tweet the text of this poem, but Michael Hamburger’s translation of Goethe’s Roman Elegies is so sublime and beautiful that I decided it deserved a blog post instead.  I have been reading, along with his autobiography A String of Beginnings, the Michael Hamburger Reader from Carcanet Press.  In addition to his translations, this fabulous volume contains his own poetry and essays.  Hamburger, who began translating Goethe at the age of fifteen, comments about his poetry: “To reflect on the untranslatability and elusiveness of Goethe’s poetic work as a while is to go straight to the heart of his uniqueness, his staggering diversity and the extent to which many of his most original poems—especially the earlier lyrics—are inextricably rooted in their own linguistic humus.”

From Goethe’s Roman Elegies


Happy now I can feel the classical climate inspire me,

Past and Present at last clearly, more vividly speak—

Here I take their advice, perusing the works of the ancients

With industrious care, pleasure that grows every day—

But throughout the nights by Amor I’m differently busied,

If only half improved, doubly delights instead—

Also, am I not learning when at the share of her bosom,

Graceful lines, I can glance, guide a light hand down her hips?

Only thus I appreciate marble;  reflecting, comparing,

See with an eye that can feel, feel with a hand that can see

True, the loved one besides may claim a few hours of the daytime,

But in night hours as well makes full amends for the loss.

For now always we’re kissing; often hold sensible converse.

When she succumbs to sleep, ponder, long I lie still,

Often too in her arms I’ve lain composing a poem,

Gently with fingering hand count the hexameter’s beat

Out on her back; she breathes, so lovely and calm in her sleeping

That the glow from her lips deeply transfuses my heart.

Amor meanwhile refuels the lamp and remembers the times when

Likewise he’d served and obliged them, his triumvirs of verse.

—Michael Hamburger, trans.



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Love is Not Blind: A Renaissance Love Elegy by Cristoforo Landino

Mercury slays Argus while he is guarding Io. Peter Paul Rubens. 1636-1638.

The Italian Renaissance scholar Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498) is best known for his philosophical dialogues written in the vernacular Italian of which he was an advocate.  But, in the style of Latin love elegy—Catullus, Ovid and Propertius—he did compose a series of poems about his love affair with a woman he tenderly calls Xandra.  In the following poem entitled “Conqueritur de Amore” (Complaints about Love) he vehemently dismisses the commonly held notion that love is blind (translation is my own):

Alas, whoever believes that Love is blind is indeed deceived: Argus, the ferocious monster, didn’t have as many eyes in his head as my lover! For what shadows or what out-of-the-way places are able to secretly snatch me away in safety from her eyes? The riverbanks and the rivers overflowing their curved banks and the leaf-covered fields are my witnesses, for it is among them that, desiring to put aside my shameful, fiery passion, I have sought to complain pointlessly about the savage lashings of my mistress. For you, oh wild beasts, have often seen me wandering around among your mountains in a vain attempt to hide myself. And what have I accomplished? That cruel god, Cupid, never guides his path away from my heart. Are there no other mortal hearts for you to burn with your little torches? Or what about immortal hearts? Or do you prefer to safely relax with your fellow deities with whom you’ve made a sacred pact? You are certainly sure to tire out those bloody weapons of yours as I now stand in resistance. But your bow only holds me in its sights. Go ahead and lead forward, you three Fates, you savage spirits, your distaffs that you have imposed upon us so harshly; I just pray that there is a limit and an end to my madness. There is no limit for a grand love. But my Xandra knows what your quiver is capable of, she knows full well about adverse love. Although she might be capable of conquering fierce tigers and Sicilian giants or conquering Harshness itself, she nevertheless does not look at my wounds with dry eyes. My girl is indeed harsh, but she is not that hardhearted.

This poem is particularly indebted to Ovid for its mythological allusions to Argus and Cupid; Ovid is fond of calling the amorous god “savage boy.”  I especially like that, although the poet is trying to hide from all seeing eyes of his love, in the end he playfully acknowledges that she does have a soft spot for him and he for her.


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Not Dead, But Frozen into their Attitudes

Nothing excites me more than studying, researching and pondering etymology, derivatives, word usage, etc.  This little gem, from Owen Barfield’s book  History in English Words, was waiting for me in my inbox when I woke up this Sunday  morning.  It is not enough for me to copy into my commonplace book,  I had to share:

In the common words we use everyday the souls of past races, the thoughts and feelings of individual men, stand around us, not dead, but frozen intp their attitudes like the courtiers in the garden of the Sleeping Beauty. The more common a word is, and the simpler its meaning, the bolder very likely is the original thought which it contains and the more intense the intellectual or poetic effort which went to its making.  Thus, the word quality is used by most educated people every day of their lives, yet in order that we should have this simple word Plato had to make the tremendous effort (it is one of the most exhausting which man is called on to exert) of turning a vague feeling into a clear thought.  He invented the new word ‘poiotes’, ‘what-ness’, as we might say or ‘of-what-kind-ness’, and Cicero translated it by the Latin ‘qualitas’, from ‘qualis’.  Language becomes a different thing for us altogether if we can make ourselves realize, can even make ourselves feel how every time the word quality is used, say upon a label in a shop window, that creative effort made by Plato comes into play again.  Nor is the acquisition of such a feeling a waste of time; for once we have made it our own, it circulates like blood through the whole of the literature and life about us.  It is the kiss which brings the sleeping courtiers to life.


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