CLASSICAL SELECTIONS UP, WITH WORLD PREMIERE SCARRIET TRANSLATION OF CATULLUS!

Have you heard?  We’re going to be in Scarriet’s March Madness!!

Six very old poems have made the cut for this year’s Madness, featuring Romanticism, old and new.  Read them as you drink old wine.

World literature, prior to the modern, English-speaking era, is not rich in wonderful English lyrics that can measure up to the best of Keats and Shelley, perhaps the chief reason being that poetic translation is a very dubious art, or that the ancient peoples really were children, whose best poems, to a great extent, are equivalent to the blockbuster film genre.

Of course there is infinite charm and interest lurking in thousands of ancient songs and fragments, but we needed actual English poems that could compete.

To find very old poems which are sexually frank is always a bit of a wonder to modern ears, but the greatest poetry features a certain amount of taste among its many merits.  Otherwise any cute, colorful, topical, humorous, randy piece of writing will do—but why should we offend the angels? Why should we leave the path?

DORCHIA (Edward Arlington Robinson, trans)
Poseidippus (c. 310 BC)

So now the very bones of you are gone
Where they were dust and ashes long ago;
And there was the last ribbon you tied on
To bind your hair, and that is dust also;
And somewhere there is dust that was of old
A soft and scented garment that you wore—
The same that once till dawn did closely fold
You in with fair Charaxus, fair no more.

But Sappho, and the white leaves of her song,
Will make your name a word for all to learn,
And all to love thereafter, even while
It’s but a name; and this will be as long
As there are distant ships that will return
Again to your Naucratis and the Nile.

LESBIA, LET’S LIVE ONLY FOR LOVE (Scarriet, trans)
Catullus (87-54 BC)

Lesbia, let’s live only for love
And not give a crap
For jealous, old lips that flap.
The sun, when it goes down
Comes back around,
But, you know, when we go down, that’s it.
Give me one thousand kisses, one hundred
Kisses, one thousand, one hundred,
Let’s not stop, even during our extra hundred,
Thousands and thousands of kisses our debt,
But let’s not tell that to anybody yet.
This business will make us rich: kisses.

O BEST OF ALL NIGHTS, RETURN AND RETURN AGAIN (James Laughlin, trans)
Sextus Propertius ( (50-15 BC)

How she let her long hair down over her shoulders, making a love cave around her face. Return and return again.
How when the lamplight was lowered she pressed against him, twining her fingers in his. Return and return again.
How their legs swam together like dolphins and their toes played like little tunnies. Return and return again.
How she sat beside him cross-legged, telling him stories of her childhood. Return and return again.
How she closed her eyes when his were wide open, how they breathed together, breathing each other. Return and return again.
How they fell into slumber, their bodies curled together like two spoons. Return and return again.
How they went together to Otherwhere, the fairest land they had ever seen. Return and return again.
O best of all nights, return and return again.

AMORES I, V (Derek Mahon, trans)
Ovid (43-17 BC)

The day being humid and my head
heavy, I stretched out on a bed.
The open window to the right
reflected woodland-watery light,
a keyed-up silence as of dawn
or dusk, the vibrant and uncertain
hour when a brave girl might undress
and caper naked on the grass.
You entered in a muslin gown,
bare-footed, your fine braids undone,
a fabled goddess with an air
as if in heat yet debonair.
Aroused, I grabbed and roughly tore
until your gown squirmed on the floor.
Oh, you resisted, but like one
who knows resistance is in vain;
and, when you stood revealed, my eyes
feasted on shoulders, breasts and thighs.
I held you hard and down you slid
beside me, as we knew you would.
Oh, come to me again as then you did!

TANTO GENTILE (trans, Dante Gabriele Rossetti)
Dante (1265-1321)

So gentle and so pure appears
my lady when she greets others,
that every tongue trembles and is mute,
and their eyes do not dare gaze at her.
She goes by, aware of their praise,
benignly dressed in humility:
and seems as if she were a thing come
from Heaven to Earth to show a miracle.
She shows herself so pleasing to those who gaze,
through the eyes she sends a sweetness to the heart,
that no one can understand who does not know it:
and from her lips there comes
a sweet spirit full of love,
that goes saying to the soul: ‘Sigh.’

WHOSO LIST TO HUNT (trans, Thomas Wyatt)
Francesco Petrarch  (1304-1374 BC)

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore.
I am of them that farthest cometh behind;
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the Deer: but as she fleeth afore,
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain:
And, graven with diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am;
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

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9 Comments

  1. drew said,

    March 5, 2014 at 2:27 am

  2. powersjq said,

    March 5, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    “World literature, prior to the modern, English-speaking era, is not rich in wonderful English lyrics that can measure up to the best of Keats and Shelley.”

    I don’t think I’m understanding what you mean here, Tom. I’m presuming that you know that when people spoke of “letters” or “literature” before the Victorine revolution in reading in the 12th c., they meant Latin, and only Latin. The rise of the vernaculars as appropriate media for the expression of subtle thoughts and refined sentiment came after Dante, after Petrarch, after Alberti.

    So do you mean the _poetry_ of ancient and early modern poems doesn’t come through very well when they’re translated into modern English? Or that Chaucer’s works, whatever their other qualities, lack lyricism? That it’s only with Milton, Spencer, and Sydney that English lyricism begins? (Let me be clear that I would approach such claims open-mindedly, though with a certain skepticism, since I think opinions about lyricism would struggle to avoid falling into anachronism.)

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 5, 2014 at 9:03 pm

      Yes, Powers, I should have been clearer: I meant reading the ancients in English translation. By ‘modern’ I include Shakespeare; I should have said Shakespeare and Shelley, not just Keats and Shelley.

  3. powersjq said,

    March 5, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    “To find very old poems which are sexually frank is always a bit of a wonder to modern ears.”

    True. But of course we’re _much_ more prurient than the Greeks, Romans, and early moderns ever were. This says more about our ears than about either poetry or sex.

    Still, I confess that I find the sex poems here much more appealing than the contemporary sex poems of someone like Sharon Olds. I’m self-aware enough to know that much of the appeal is that I “listen” differently to the poems knowing their age. I rather suspect that I would find Olds’s stuff more appealing if I encountered it thinking that it was, say, a translation of Sappho.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 5, 2014 at 9:08 pm

      I agree, Powers. Much of what we term ‘sexually frank’ is a mixture of perception, time, art, and taste, which distorts the sexually frank even as it distorts the verities themselves.


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