Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book Review: How to Read A Latin Poem

How To Read A Latin Poem: If You Can't Read Latin Yet
by William Fitzgerald. 2013.

Figurative language, subtle connotation, obscure references, shifts in word order, omissions–there are plenty of barriers to comprehending poetry. There are more obtuse impediments to enjoying poetry–O mores!–but those are wailings and failings for another day. How do you enjoy a poem though, if you don't know the language in which it is written? More importantly, why would you bother trying to learn? It's not so hard to pick up even a tough book written in your native tongue because the risk is so low: if you don't like it you can put it down with no inconvenience. Yet how do you judge, other than by its hoary reputation, whether you should learn a language just to read its literature?

The last word of William Fitzgerald's How To Read a Latin Poem: If You Can't Read Latin Yet, suggests confidence in the reader and the literature. At least half of that faith is justified, as is Fitzgerald's implied faith in his powers of persuasion and demonstration. First off, don't let its soft Pre-Raphaelite cover deceive you: this isn't prettified Latin translation dressed up with florid explanations. In fact, the case is the opposite. Fitzgerald strips the Latin of as many barriers as he can so readers can get enough of a sense of the poetry that, hopefully, the Latinless will be inspired to pick up the poems on their own.

Chief among these barriers which Fitzgerald helps the reader sidestep is the system of inflection. He spends some time at the beginning outlining the basics of morphology and case usage, but wisely doesn't explicate the entire system. If you get the idea that the endings change the meaning and can imagine the resulting possibilities for word placement, then Fitzgerald's explanations will carry you through. Despite this apparent evasion, the greatest strength of the book is Fitzgerald's ability to demonstrate the beauty and significance of the Latin word order. Liberated from the need to give full grammatical explanations, Fitzgerald is able simply to point to word relationships and thereby paint a lucid picture without jargon and caveats. Take this selection from his explanation of Horace Ode 2.10:
All the lines in this stanza are enjambed, and the sense tumbles from one line to the next in unpredictable ways. the main verb, 'loves' (diliget), comes, as usual, at the end of its clause, but it is emphatically emjambed to underline the oxymoron of loving middleness, and Horace's word order places love and lack into close proximity (diliget, loves; caret, lacks). (Fitzgerald, 105.)
Clear and precise, but not narrowly grammatical. For this reason in particular Latin students and classical neophytes alike will enjoy Fitzgerald's demonstration that there are dimensions to reading and writing poetry besides mechanics. In this respect How To Read A Latin Poem is a foretaste of the fun parts of reading Latin for those still champing the basics. May he inspire beginners to endure the latter for the former. Toward that end I think Fitzgerald's translations, which are literal but not so obtusely so that they obscure more than they reveal, encourage the reader to work through Latin, if only to match up the parts which Fitzgerald mentions. Likewise the brevity of the selections encourages readers to dive into the Latin rather than gloss over the foreign passages, resigned just to read the book as analysis. Leaning on his translation and with such descriptions, readers can begin to see the cascade of images and constellation of relations.

Yes, he discusses vocabulary, and I'm not sure if there's any more tedious part of teaching classics than running through the endless cognates and derivatives. Fitzgerald is prudent about this, choosing to prop up little umbrellas of meaning over choice words only when needed to explain puns, subtle suggestions, and the many words which fade in facile translation.

The highlight of How to Read a Latin Poem for advanced students and proficient readers, though, will be the commentary. It's rich and varied, with summaries of the basics neatly woven to frame more sophisticated discussions. From Chapter 4 on Vergil:
Yes, Furor is restrained, but he is not pacified, and the restraining power must exercise a savagery worthy of the victim himself. As the culmination of a speech forecasting the glorious future of Rome and the extent of its domination abroad, this picture of barely contained violence 'within' is disturbing to say the least. Is this Furor to be held in reserve, ready to be unleashed on the recalcitrant? (Fitzgerald, 167)
Fitzgerald is at his best, though, on the less famous authors, especially discussing the political science behind the psychologies of Lucan's Pompey, Caesar, and Cato and the furious Atreus of Seneca's Thyestes. On the latter:
...Atreus drives on to complete the second line with a command that expresses the final, impossible aspiration of power: quod nolunt velint. English cannot achieve the compression of the two juxtaposed Latin verbs, nolo (I do not want) and volo (I want); nor can it imitate the elegant chiasmus with which Atreus delivers his devastating theory of power: true praise (A) even falls to the lowly man (B) only to the powerful (B) false (A). (Fitzgerald, 209)
Finally he brings some just attention and affection for perhaps the most overlooked masterpiece, Lucretius' De rerum natura:
The sights and sounds of everyday Roman life have as vivid a presence in Lucretius' epic as the sublime expanses of the universe, but here both come together in a single image. Between the paving stones of a Roman road a vision opens up that reaches both down into the earth and up to the heaven in dizzying succession. (Fitzgerald, 238)
Moderate measures of grammar, history, psychology, comparative literature, and rhetoric make for a handy little book very much like advanced program notes for the opera. It has a lot of rich details to bring out the best of the texts, and just enough crib to carry you through the tough parts. Like a great opera, too this book features a cross-section of life: invective, satire, love, tragedy, myth, and epic.

Hopefully, though, students will approach it less like a cheat than as an invitation to a language and authors which Fitzgerald demonstrates are vital and exciting. How To Read a Latin Poem makes a great companion for high school classes and a valuable supplement to classes whose curriculum or teacher eschews discussions of style. It's an outright boon for independent students of any caliber. For teachers and experts it's a brisk and lively day's read with a colleague of diverse interests, learning, and insight. The presentation is perhaps a bit too consistent and its abrupt conclusion doesn't live up to the diverse and engaging opening which ranged from Catullus to Pope to Kipling to David Niven (in Separate Tables)but this is a great read. Mr. Fitzgerald's students are most fortunate.

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