Tag Archives: Latin Literature

Trust in the Future as Little as Possible: The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

I usually devour a 350-page book in a couple of days, but Woolf’s writing, both her fiction and non-fiction, demands careful attention and a slow read. It took me a week to read The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel that was published in 1915. She is just beginning to experiment with what will become her signature, stream-of-consciousness style. She pokes fun at the uptight, British upper class who, even while on holiday in a tropical South American climate, insist on wearing furs and formal coats and having tea every afternoon promptly at 5:00. Even though on the surface they engage in polite conversation about politics, suffrage, and social gossip, Woolf gives us a glimpse of what they are really thinking. She introduces us to Rachael, her heroine, by her own thoughts as she sits in her drawing room in solitude on her father’s ship:

To feel anything strongly was to create an abyss between oneself and others who feel strongly perhaps but differently. It was far better to play the piano and forget all the rest. The conclusion was very welcome. Let these odd men and women—her aunts, the Hunts, Ridley, Helen, Mr. Pepper, and the rest—be symbols,—featureless but dignified symbols of age, of youth, of motherhood, of learning, and beautiful often as people upon the stage are beautiful. It appeared that nobody ever said a thing they meant, or ever talked of a feeling they felt, but that was what music was for.

Rachael is a very naïve twenty-four-year old who was raised by her spinster aunts and her widowed father. Her Aunt Helen, who is also on the voyage to South American, invites Rachael to stay at her villa for the winter in the hopes of better educating her about life and bringing her out of her sheltered existence. When they land in South American, Rachael and her aunt socialize with the British upper class men and women who are staying at the local hotel. Among these guests is Terence Hewett, an financially independent twenty-seven-year-old man who likes to travel and dabbles in writing novels. Both Rachael and Terence have never been in love; even though they are mentally and physically attracted to one another they spend a lot of time drawing close and then pulling back from one another because their feelings terrify them.

Once they finally confess their feelings and allow themselves to be happy, Rachael and Terence start planning their wedding and have a few weeks of bliss. But The Voyage Out ends in tragedy. It’s a shame that the lovers wasted so much time before they decided to embrace what would make them both happy. Horace’s Ode 1.11, the famous Carpe Diem poem kept coming to mind as I read Woolf’s novel (translation is my own):

May you not ask to know what end
—for it is not right—the gods might
have in store either for you or for me
Leuconoe, and may you also not consult
Babylonian Astrology. How much better
it is to endure whatever will be, whether
Jupiter has allotted us more winters, or
if this is the last, the winter which weakens
the Tyrrhenian Sea with opposing rocks. May
you be wise, may you strain your wine, and
because life is brief, may you give up any
long-term hopes. As we are speaking, envious
time slips by. Seize the day, trust in
the future as little as possible.

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The Poet in Solitude: Propertius 1.18

Propertius 1.18

(Translation is my own)

This, certainly, is a deserted spot,  a quiet place for my complaints

and an empty grove only possessed by the light breeze of the west wind.

In this place it is freely permitted for me to pour forth my hidden pain;

that is if the lonely rocks are able to keep my trust.

At what point, my Cynthia, should I first repeat the tale of your

scornful contempt?  How did you make me start crying in the first place,

Cynthia?  I was just recently counted among the number of happy lovers,

but now I am forced to bear the mark of shame because of your love.

What have I done to deserve this? What crime have I committed that has

turned you against me?  Is the worry of a new woman the cause for your distance?

If you return yourself to me, cold woman, then and I can assure you that

no other woman has set her fair feet on my doorstep.   Even though in

my distress I have every right to be harsh with you, nevertheless, my savage anger

will not be released upon you and cause you to have perpetual fury against me or to weep

so many floods of tears that those eyes of yours should become ugly.

Or could it be that I give almost no signs of my feelings by the expression

on my face, or that no cries of loyalty towards you ever cross my lips?

Oh you trees, if you are capable of love,  you will be my witnesses—beech trees

and pine trees, beloved by the Arcadian god.   Ah, how often my words echo

under your shades, and how often the name “Cynthia” is written on the

thin bark of your trunks!  Ah, how your injury has caused me great anxiety,

an anxiety which is only increased by your silent door!

As a timid man I have accustomed myself to forebear all the demands of a

haughty woman and not to complain about her deeds through my melodious

grief.  I am given, for all of this grief, endless mountains, frigid rock, and the harsh

silence of an uncultivated wilderness.  Whatever of my complaints I am able

to narrate aloud, I, alone, am forced to say these things to the chirping birds.

And whoever you are, let the forests echo back to me my calling of “Cynthia”

and may the deserted rocks never be free from your name.

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Catullus, George Eliot and Soul-Sickness: A Translation of Carmen 76

Classes will be starting up for me soon and this fall I am very excited that I will, once again,  be teaching a Catullus course to my upper level Latin students.  As I was looking through my notes and preparing my course materials, I was lingering on the Roman poet’s Carmen 76 which, for many reasons, is difficult to teach.  Instead of going through his poems in numerical order (there are 116 poems in his corpus), I group them by theme: The Lesbia poems, the friendship and enmity poems, the poems about poetry.  Poem 76 falls into the Lesbia set of poems and it is the very last one I translate with my classes; for me it is the ultimate end of their love affair and he references many of the other poems he has previously written about her in this elegy.  In my mind this is most definitely the end of the affair.

Students always struggle with this poem because of the syllogism in the first few lines, the indirect speech, infinitives, etc.  But they also have a difficult time with the subject matter.  They have no patience for Catullus and his sick heart; time and again I hear them argue that he is weak, whining, feckless and on and on.  For a group of people who are prone to melodrama and tend towards emotional ebullience (I say this with the utmost love and affection for them), one would think that they would have more sympathy with or even empathy for Catullus.   But, alas, this is never the case.  It could be, I’ve always thought,  that they recognize in him the very qualities which they abhor in themselves; he mirrors the sentiments in the shows that they watch and music that they listen to.  Perhaps he is all-too familiar to them.  Or, as I also suspect, the depth of their emotions hasn’t quite reached the levels of soul-sickness that Catullus displays—they have yet, luckily, to get their little hearts broken like our dear poet.  Whatever the reasons for their distaste,  I will give it my best try, once again, to teach this poem and elicit a bit of tenderness for Catullus’s lost love.

I offer here my own translation of lines 10-26 of Carmen 76,  my favorite piece of the poem:

But why should you crucify yourself any longer?
Why don’t you settle your mind and walk away
from this and, even if the universe is against you,
stop being so wretched. It is difficult to put aside
a long love affair; it is, indeed, very difficult; but
put it aside by whatever means necessary. This will be your
only salvation, and you must conquer this: You need to do
this whether you think it is possible or not. Oh gods, if
there is any way for you to show mercy, and if you’ve
ever brought a man relief on his deathbed, then look
down on me who is at this moment so wretched, and if
I have lived a decent life then relieve me of this
plague and this ruin. What a lethargy
has slithered into every part of my being and
has expunged every ounce of happiness from my heart.
And I do not ask what I know is impossible, that
she love me in return or that she decide to be faithful;
but I want to be well again and put aside this soul-sickness.
Grant me this, oh gods, in answer to my prayer.

I decided to translate the Latin morbum (usually rendered as “sickness”) in the penultimate line as “soul-sickness” because it captures so well the complete misery that Catullus feels at the loss of this relationship. I was reading Daniel Deronda this weekend and the female protagonist of Eliot’s novel rejects a kind, loving, and very eager young suitor named Rex.  When his love is not returned, this twenty year-old decides that he can no longer continue his studies at Oxford and asks his father for permission to run away to the Canadian colonies where he can live off the land in an attempt to get over his sorrows.  When Rex’s father objects to this ridiculous plan and tells his son that love has softened his brain and good sense Eliot writes of him: “What could Rex say?  Inwardly he was in a state of rebellion but he had no arguments to meet his father’s; and while he was feeling, in spite of anything that might be said, that he should like to go off to “the colonies” tomorrow, it lay in a deep fold of his consciousness that he ought to feel—if he had been a better fellow he would have felt—more about his old ties.  This is the sort of faith we live by in our soul-sickness.”

Rex and Catullus, eager, intense, passionate young lovers, are suffering from the same affliction.  I like to think that Catullus would approve of me borrowing Eliot’s phrase, “soul-sickness” to describe his condition.  Catullus does get over Lesbia—he runs off to the colonies, which in his case is Bithynia in Asia Minor and the time away proves to be the best cure for him.  I hope that Rex’s fate in Eliot’s narrative is similar.

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Her Soul Receded into the Winds: Dido’s Suicide in Aeneid Book 4

Henry Fusel. Dido. 1781. Oil on Canvas.

If you haven’t read  The Aeneid then I implore you to do yourself a favor and at least read Book 4.  It is one of my favorite pieces of literature to read in Latin and in English. (I recommend the Fagles translation or the new Ferry translation.)  I won’t go through all of the specific reasons for Dido’s suicide in this book because you really need to read it for yourself to understand the complexity of her situation.  But she does feel hopeless, abandoned, deceived, angry. In the culmination of this heart wrenching scene, Dido climbs on to the top of the funeral pyre on which she has placed all her gifts from Aeneas, the Trojan hero who, at this very same moment, is sailing away from Carthage and from her (these translations are my own):

After she looked down at the Trojan’s robes and the all-too-familiar couch, and with her mind hesitating in tearful recollection, she laid down on that same couch and spoke her final words: “Oh gifts that were dear to me as long as the fates and the gods were allowing, accept my spirt and release me from my sorrows.  I have lived and I have finished the course which Fortune had set out for me, but now my famous soul will go to the underworld.  I have established a famous city, I have looked upon my city’s walls, and having avenged my husband, I exacted punishment from my hateful brother.  Unlucky, oh I am too unlucky—if only those Trojans ships had never reached our shores.” When she finished her speech she pressed a kiss into the couch and said, “I will die unavenged, but let me die anyway. In this way, yes, in this way it eases my pain to approach my death.  I hope that cruel Trojan drinks in this fire with his eyes as he sails away, and I hope he carries with him the omen of my death.” As she had said these things, Dido’s loved ones saw her fall onto Aeneas’s sword while standing in the midst of all his other gifts.  Both the sword and her hands were sprayed with blood.  A shouting reaches all the parts of the palace; the report of her death quickly spreads throughout the shattered city.

Since Dido kills herself, her soul is not allowed to be accompanied to the underworld by Mercury.  Instead the goddess Juno sends Iris to release Dido’s spirit:

Therefore, dewy Iris, dragging thousands of colors against the sun and through the sky with her yellow wings, descends and stands by Dido’s head: “I, having been ordered by Juno to carry out the rituals of the dead, release you from this sword and from your body.”  After Iris said this she cut a lock of Dido’s hair: at the same time all the warmth slipped from her body and her soul receded into the winds.

That last sentence is just beautiful, it gets me every time I translate it.  Please do read it and let me know what you think about Dido’s story.

 

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Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another: Propertius 1.3

Auguste Jean Baptiste Vinchon. Propertius and Cynthia at Tivoli.

Sextus Propertius, a Latin elegiac poet of the Augustan age, is, rather unfortunately, not as well-known as other poets of this era. He was friends with the most famous men of his day including Vergil, Maecenas and Augustus. His talent as an elegist is evident in his four books of poetry which contain 92 poems. I was fortunate enough in graduate school to be in a program that appreciated his work and I took three different classes that focused on this poet. I admit that I haven’t looked at or translated his work in many years, but he seemed like just the thing to suit my mood this week.

In Poem 1.3, he visits his lover, Cynthia, while she is fast asleep in her bedroom. In his amorous and drunken state he is tempted to wake her with a showering of kisses, but holds off for fear of angering her. He, instead, watches her sleep. I find the images of the first 20 lines, comparing her to a sleeping Ariadne and a Bacchante, simple yet sensual and intimate. I offer here my translation of lines 1-20:

Cynthia seemed to me to be breathing softly and quietly while sleeping with her head on her entwined hands; similar to weary Ariadne as she was lying on the deserted shores while Theseus sailed away on his ship; or similar to Andromeda, finally freed from the harsh cliffs, as she was resting during her first sleep; and similar to a Bacchante, exhausted from her continual dances, as she collapses on the grassy banks of the Apidanus. As the slave boys were shaking the torches late into the night, I dragged my feet, drunk with too much Wine, into her room. Not quite yet completely out of my senses, I softly attempted to lie on the bed beside her. Although two relentless gods, Love and Wine, were driving me, seized with a double passion, to disturb Cynthia while she was sleeping and to slip my arm under her and to steal drawn out kisses, I did not dare to interrupt my lover’s rest for fear of incurring the reproaches of her anger with which I am all too familiar. Instead I remained fixed to my spot with my eyes intent upon watching her—I was like Argus, the 100-eyed monster, who kept a vigil over Io with her strange horns.

Propertius’s last few lines, in particular, capture the vulnerability and sensuality of one lover watching another while asleep. It reminds me of the intimacy and trust involved in the experience of sleeping beside another person as described by Quignard in his novel Villa Amalia:

Entrusting one’s sleep to another is perhaps the only real indecency.

To let oneself be watched while sleeping, feeling hungry, dreaming, growing erect or dilated is a strange offering.

She could see his eyes quivering beneath his lids, moving beneath the pale, fragile skin. She could see everything. She could see he was dreaming. Who was he dreaming of? Curiously, she dreamt he dreamt dreams that weren’t dreams of her.

It turned out that he too sighed in his sleep—just like his little daughter.

They both of them gave enormous sighs—like sighs of relinquishment.

Stuart Shotwell’s novel Tomazina’s Folly has, for me, one of the most tender scenes in literature as a woman looks through her lover’s private sketch book in which he has drawn erotic and caring images of his ideal marriage:

As she went on through the book she discovered that a conspicuously recurring theme was that of one spouse watching the other sleep: the wife, sometimes gloriously nude, sometimes fully clothed, either in bed herself or in a chair, watched her husband as he slept; and likewise the husband watching over his wife. There was a tenderness and curiosity and protectiveness in the expression of the watchers, as if they themselves could not sleep, but wanted their spouses to dream undisturbed.

Finally, Jean-Luc Nancy in The Fall of Sleep touches upon the reasons why falling asleep beside another person is an extension of an act of intimacy:

Sleeping together opens up nothing less than the possibility of penetrating into the most intimate part of the other, namely, precisely into his or her sleep. The happy, languid sleep of lovers who sink down together prolongs their loving spasm into a long suspense, into a pause held at the limits of the dissolution and disappearance of their very harmony: intermingled, their bodies insidiously disentangle, however intertwined they can sometimes remain until the end of sleep, until the instant joy returns to them as renewed for having been forgotten, eclipsed during the time of their sleep, where their agile bodies surface again after having been drowned at the bottom of the waters they themselves poured out.

Propertius’s poem ends with his lover waking up, accusing him of being in the embrace of another woman, and complaining that he wasn’t there to fall asleep with her. Cynthia’s wish for him is that he get a taste of his own medicine and that he also experience a lonely night without her in his bed.

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