Sunday, October 20, 2013

`Amuse the Harsh Centurion'

My copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories, a browning and brittle but still readable Penguin, is inscribed with my name and “7-24-73 Chambéry,” and dates from my first visit to France. From home I had packed Blake, a Bible and Under the Volcano. In Chambéry I found a bookstore with a few English-language titles and picked up the Melville and a paperback King Lear I no longer have. The European newspapers that summer were filled with Watergate and the latest Liz-and-Dick melodrama. Tables in the bookstore were stacked with Herman Wouk’s Le Souffle De La Guerre. I needed something to read. 

This week, rereading my old Billy Budd and Epigrams of Martial Englished by Divers Hands (edited by J.P. Sullivan and Peter Whigham, University of California Press, 1987), I came upon this in Chapter 2 of the Melville: 

“To any stray inheritor of these primitive qualities found, like Caspar Hauser, wandering dazed in any Christian capital of our time, the good-natured poet’s famous invocation, near two thousand years ago, of the good rustic out of his latitude in the Rome of the Caesars, still appropriately holds: 

“Honest and poor, faithful in word and thought,
What hath thee, Fabian, to the city brought?” 

Melville’s “good-natured poet” is Martial, Epigrams, I.iv.1-2. The notes in the Penguin edition tell us Melville is using the Cowley translation in the Bohn edition of 1865, which notes in the introduction that Pliny the Younger commented on Martial’s “agreeable spirit of wit and satire…with great candor and good nature.” This is at odds with Martial’s modern reputation for savage satire and sexual candor. Reading Martial, I’m aware of his clarity in words and thought. There’s no gaseous bloviating, no currying favor with the reader or striving after the cheaply poetic. In English, his closest cognates are Swift and Cunningham.  From the Sullivan/Whigham collection, here is R.L. Barth’s rendering of XI.3 (the original Latin here): 

 “Not only leisured men enjoy my Muse;
Nor do I offer verse to vapid ear;
But on frost-blasted northernmost frontiers,
By battle standards, my epigrams amuse
The harsh centurion; in Britain, too.
What profit? None; my purse remains threadbare.
But what deep, epic trumpets could I dare,
And what immortal poems carry through,
Seeing the gods returned Augustus home,
If they’d restore Maecenas, too, O Rome.”

One need not be a deep reader to sense Barth’s identification with both the poet and the “harsh centurion.”

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