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Sappho, Catullus, Horace, Ovid, Martial

a selection of ancient Greek and Roman poetry

The best Latin poetry loses nearly all its quality in translation and even the beginnings of its appreciation need a little knowledge of Latin. This is not entirely a truism, or universally applicable. Some poetry, like Homer and the Psalter, can be truly though partially apprehended through translations; but the spirit of Latin poetry, deprived of its own embodiment, eludes us.
A.K.Clarke Greece and Rome, Vol XI no 32 Februaty 1942

Perhaps, but it would be worthwhile to point out also that prejudices about poetry specific to a given period are equally important in falsifying the spirit of Latin poetry in translation. Flowery metaphor, normal in the Elisabethan and later periods in English poetry, was nowhere to be seen in Latin poetry. The emphasis was on clarity and forcefulness of expression, on manliness. These qualities in fact give the poetry the immediacy of plainspeaking, and accord rather well with our modern taste for less ornament and more direct expression.

At all events, the English poets were generally conscious of their classical predecessors, and built upon what the poets of antiquity had achieved, especially in terms of the themes that they treated, so a little understanding of what was going on in the poetry of antiquity is necessary for an appreciation of why certain subjects were treated, and why they were treated in the way that they were.

Sappho  (c615 BC - c550 BC?)

The works of Sappho have been largely lost, perhaps in no small measure because they were considered pornographic by the Christian inheritors of the classical written tradition of Greece and Rome, who therefore set about destroying them. Most of what is known about her poetry comes from the praise of later writers, although various fragments have survived, including some recent discoveries. That she wrote a great deal about love is, however, certain, as is the fact that her poetry impressed some of the greatest writers of antiquity, including Plato, Catullus, and Ovid. She writes of love from the female perspective, and has generally been thought to have celebrated lesbianism in her poetry, though Ovid, who was of course much closer in time to Sappho than we are, and had access to many more texts than we do, has her committing suicide for the love of a young man in his Letter from Sappho to Phaon in the Hero´des. Here we present two of the four known complete poems in translation.

Ode to Aphrodite I

  Ode to Aphrodite II  

Catullus (c84BC - c54BC)

Catullus' poetry was thought lost, a fate that befell the works of several of his contemporaries who together formed a movement which provided a vibrant 'new poetry' (in the words of Cicero) for Roman society, and which departed radically from the preceding forms. Fortunately, just one manuscript containing some 113 poems of varying lengths and in various styles was preserved in a monastery in Verona, and surfaced around 1305, when copies were made. The poems demonstrate great technical facility, and are concerned with a variety of themes, but predominantly with love and sex, often poignantly portrayed. They generally take on a very personal tone, and can be both insulting and obscene. Life in the raw, but portrayed with great dexterity.

Lesbia by John Reinhard Weguelin (1849-1927)

Verse V 


Horace (65BC - 8BC)

'To this day, no other poet has given me the same artistic delight that a Horatian ode gave me from the first. In certain languages that which Horace has achieved could not even be attempted. This mosaic of words, in which every word - as sound, as place, as concept - pours out its strength right and left and over the whole, this minimum in the extent and number of the signs, and the maximum thereby attained in the energy of the signs - all that is Roman and, if you will believe me, noble par excellence. All the rest of poetry becomes, in contrast, something too popular - mere sentimental blather.' Friedrich Niezsche Twilight of the Idols.

Horace as depicted in the Nurnberg Chronicles (1493)

Ode to a Wine Jar

Winter is Fled

Ovid (43BC - 18AD)

Ovid is the love poet par excellence, who consciously perceived himself as the inheritor of the tradition from Sappho, and who could argue with that? His masterpiece, The Metamorphoses, is the main modern source for the Greek myths, and his writings about erotic love, the Hero´des, the Amores, the Medicamina Faciei Femineae, the Ars Amatoria, and the Remedia Amoris, form one of the most complete surveys of the subject in the history of world literature. Dryden writes: '... this may be said on behalf of Ovid, that no Man has treated the Passion of Love with so much Delicacy of Thought and of Expression, or search'd into the Nature of it more philosophically than he'.

Engraving from an edition of the Metamorphoses

Amores Book I, No V

Amores Book III, No XIV

Martial (c40 - c104)

Martial is known for his twelve books of Epigrams which give us a vivid and often vulgar view of life in Rome during its heyday. Despite his claims to have lived in poverty in the city, he appears to have known most of the important people of the time: politicians, literati, poets, and he even boasts that the Emperor Domitian invited him to dinner once. He was probably a popular dinner guest for the same reason that we enjoy reading his poetry today: his wit.

Epigram Book II No XXXVI

Epigram Book X No XLVII

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