Posts Tagged ‘Horace’

De lingua latina

September 22, 2018

I was reminded about this topic when at the Pont du Gard a couple of weeks ago. There is a small tablet placed on the road bridge side of this huge edifice; it’s in Latin and tells – who, exactly? – that the Romans built the aqueduct, and the Occitans added the road bridge in 1745. There were some students, engineers I think, larking about and taking their task half-heartedly. They were supposed to note down what the tablet said. One of them admitted defeat, telling his mates it was in Italian and he couldn’t read it. I helped him, whereupon he tried to pass off my help as his own genius…

In our country the teaching and learning of classical languages has pretty much vanished from the state sector of education, in some cases replaced by a vague and optional course in Classical Civilisation. And for years it was acceptable to decry Latin as a dead language, the study of which was of no possible use to anyone in such a modern and technological age as ours. So it has gone: people can no longer make out inscriptions in churches and on old monuments, and most people have no idea how to understand Roman numerals…

I find all of this very sad, not because I am a luddite, sitting here typing at my desktop PC using the linux system I installed and customised myself. I can manage the social media I want to use, admittedly not an awful lot. And I’ve been writing this blog for over five years. I studied Latin at school, up to A Level and originally intended to read it at university, until my love of English Literature overtook that desire. I read and prepared Julius Caesar and Virgil, HoraceLivy, Cicero and Tacitus for my examinations, and enjoyed them, too, along with the history we studied. I think I can still just about decipher Caesar’s Gallic Wars, though I do enjoy engaging with a fellow-blogger’s more demanding passages from Roman authors which she occasional excerpts.

I have found Latin useful throughout my life. My first encounters came as a Catholic in the days when all services were in that language, and I was trained as an altar-boy in all the responses at mass; I can still recite then today. I am passionate about history and visit many old churches and other archaeological sites, and Latin helps me understand inscriptions, books and other artefacts. A working knowledge of Latin has been invaluable in my studies and teaching of English, both language and literature, and obviously immensely helpful in my learning of French at school, and now Spanish. Latin helps us understand an engage more fully with our past, and in these divisive days a reminder of a common language, first via the Roman empire and then the Western church, is salutary.

I can’t advocate inflicting the study of Latin on all school students; I don’t suggest it replace other subjects in our school curriculum. But I would like the option of learning it, and using it to access an enormous wealth from the past, to be available to all students, alongside other subjects. I do have an issue with the prescriptiveness of the school curriculum and our current obsession with science, technology and mathematics to the exclusion of the arts, languages and creativity.

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…



Choices, ageing, regrets…with poems

July 26, 2018

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,

labuntur anni, nec pietas moram

rugis et instanti senectae

adferet indomitaeque morti;

Looking back nearly half a century I can see why I loved Horace at school. Even as a school student I found I could tune in to the rhythm of his verse, as well as the images he conjured up of the Roman countryside, food and wine, so very atmospheric. And at the ripe old age of 17, though I couldn’t really have known anything about the subject, l loved this poem of his about ageing and its inevitability: the years slip by and there’s nothing you can do about it; wrinkles and death will arrive, no matter how good you have been… now I really know that. And if there’s nothing to be done, then I have to accept and come to terms with it. Which took me on to this poem by Robert Frost:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The first twelve lines are a single sentence that flows slowly, deliberately, creating a sense of thoughtful reflectiveness, partly through the poet’s use of enjambment which allows his ideas to run on; then the single exclamatory line which follows brings him up short, with the impossible idea that he can always go back and start again… the entire third stanza is his reverie interrupted, and he then re-joins it in the final stanza, where he acknowledges the finality of that original choice.

Notice also Frost’s use of the first personal pronoun, which occurs quite regularly through the poem, reminding us of the personal nature of the choice, and the effect of the hiatus in the final stanza, where ‘I’ is repeated, perhaps anchoring the poet’s responsibility for that choice. A certain feeling of wistfulness – or is it nostalgia? – is created by the exclamatory ‘Oh’, and the word ‘sigh’ in the opening line of the final stanza, carefully placed to balance the ‘I’ at the start of that line and to rhyme with the ‘I’ ending the line two lines further on.

Choices. We make them all the time, little ones and big ones, ones we understand and ones we can’t know the significance of, at least until much later on. At the actual moment of choice, Frost observes, there may seem very little in it: ‘really about the same’.

There’s also the matter of impulse for Frost, the idea of certain choices as leaps in the dark: having considered one option carefully for almost the length of the first stanza, he leaps at the other possibility in a single line. The idea of paths you cannot return along is quite haunting in a way, too, almost as if those turnings on life’s map are erased once you have passed them by.

It’s almost impossible not to apply this poem to one’s own life: it’s a poem with a particular meaning for Frost, but which, once out there in the public domain, becomes almost the property of every reader. I often reflect on my younger years and the choices I made way back when, which helped turn me into the person I am today, whether I like him or it or not. Inevitably such thoughts also which lead me to Edith Piaf’s famous song, Je ne regrette rien. If I regret my past choices, am I not also regretting what I am today, given that those choices helped shape me? I think that depends on how happy or satisfied or content I feel with my life, my achievements and my current self…

I made life-changing choices at school: studied English, not History; studied French and English and not French and Latin at university, chose to be an English and not a French teacher. Long ago now, I chose to leave a relationship which meant a lot to me at the time but which I could then see would not give me what I most wanted in my future. Once made, as Frost acknowledges, fairly soon those choices could not be unmade: ‘way leads on to way’ and one is somewhere and someone else before one realises it…

I’ve mentioned some of the choices I’m aware of having made. Then there are also choices I didn’t have, such as – for instance – to not have had a very religious upbringing. But if I hadn’t, who would I be today? And finally there are choices I didn’t know I’d made, the most obvious example of which was not getting on a plane one day when I was much younger and flying somewhere, so that I’ve ended up today with what’s either a phobia or a total unwillingness, meaning there are a lot of places I’d really like to visit that I’m never going to see…

For me, neither Horace nor Frost have said anything I didn’t already know: what they have done – and here is another skill of a true poet, it seems to me – is to put something I already knew into words I could not, and thereby made me stop and reflect more deeply on those things. My truth was mine: they capture the eternal as well.

De lingua latina

January 10, 2016

51NyAcHeyJL._AA160_This is a recent treat to myself, and I’ve just started reading it; it’s sent me back about fifty years, thinking about my acquaintance with the classical world…

Raised as a Catholic and trained as an altar-boy before the change to Mass in one’s own language, my acquaintance with Latin began at an early age. True, it was Church Latin, not classical Latin, but I soon met the latter at grammar school, and never looked back; once I’d cracked the grammar, there was a whole new world ahead of me. In those days you met real authors for O Level – Caesar’s Gallic War and Virgil’s Aeneid; I had that under my belt at fourteen and an A Level in Ancient History at fifteen; more authors and more Roman History followed in the sixth form. It was a curiously censored literature, with anything remotely rude excised from schoolboy texts, and no chance of getting anywhere near Catullus and other such racy authors. The history, too, was very sober and old-fashioned – battles, dates and famous men, but it didn’t take me long to realise that the Roman Empire had lasted quite a lot longer than the British or American ones…

Life is shaped by chance decisions: I rejected my original choice of History as an A Level subject in favour of English (!) and I changed my mind about going off to read Latin and French at university in favour of English Literature and French (and look where it got me…)

But I have retained my fascination with Latin and things Roman, along with a copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer. My knowledge of the language, along with my religious upbringing, has given me very useful keys to understanding a great deal of European art, literature, history and culture, as well as an enormous amount of pleasure and enjoyment: whether one is religious or not, the fact remains that Romans and Christianity have shaped our part of the world into what it is today…

I can still manage to read Church Latin; classical Latin has faded rather, though a recent look at Caesar again (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…) showed me that it hadn’t vanished completely without trace. I recall my enjoyment of Horace‘s lyrics, Cicero‘s mastery of the language through oratory, and the weird syntax of Tacitus: magical stuff. And I can still remember the recipe for making bees (Virgil, Georgics IV)!

On time…

March 30, 2015

Reading a fair bit of science fiction lately shunted me onto the track of thinking about writers and time – that think which is always in limited supply and of which we never have enough. We are prisoners of it, shaped by it: in the end it defeats us, and all our works: Shelley’s Ozymandias is a marvellous reflection on this.

Along with all the other constantly repeated themes in fiction, drama and poetry, writers have explored our relationship with time. We want to escape time and can’t, so we sit and waste more of it by sitting down and reading books. We freeze things in time, capturing them with words or with light. Does any of this help?

Back in Roman times, the poet Horace wrote to his friend Postumus (Eheu, fugaces, Postume, Postume/ labuntur anni…) about the years slipping by and our inability to slow the passage of the years, with old old age to look forward to; Shakespeare‘s Richard II reflects, in his prison cell, awaiting his death, that he wasted time, and now time wastes him; Andrew Marvell imagines giving time a run for its money (Had we but world enough and Time/ This coyness, lady, were no crime/ ) in the famous To His Coy Mistris, whilst recognising that one will eventually be too old to enjoy love-making.

Proust writes of recapturing the essence of the past with that famous madeleine moment, and I am sure we have all had our equivalent experiences: I have often found myself astonished at the amount of detail from my past that my brain is capable of storing, as some long-forgotten nugget floats to the surface of my consciousness, triggered by I know not what.

Wells, in The Time Machine, imagines the device I’m sure everyone has fantasised about being able to play with: when would you go back to? and looks forward eight hundred thousand years, to the twilight of the human race, divided into the Eloi and the Morlocks, the impotent masters and the powerful serfs;

Once we start thinking about time, we drift into our own, individual, relative insignificance in the wider scheme of things; unless we are particularly famous or notorious, memory of us is likely to fade within a couple of generations at most… which is perhaps why Arthur C Clarke‘s The City and The Stars is so appealing: a thousand million years in the future, a computer runs the City, and individuals are born and reborn every million years or so, conjured up from the City’s memory banks. Would we feel comforted in the face of eternity, with such prospects? On the other hand, in his masterful Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon imagined two billion years of future human history, and the speed with which everything you and I were familiar with from our puny ten thousand years or so of current history vanished into oblivion was quite shocking.

And then there are visions of eternity, such as that which develops in the mind of Stephen Dedalus in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: tormented by the fears of Hell because he has ‘sinned’, he hears the description of eternity as applied to his own damnation, using the familiar trope of the grains of sand on the seashore…

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