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Poetry between Latin and the vernacular: literature and literalism in the classical tradition

Stephen Hinds

Latin literature has always been constituted by its relationships with other languages and traditions:  for ancient readers by its ever-changing relationship with Greek; for modern readers by no less constitutive relationships with the languages and cultures of vernacular Europe.  This paper brings a classicist’s perspective to the kind of cross-linguistic poetic event in early modern literature in which the correspondence between texts in different languages is so close as to approach the condition of translation, without quite being the same thing as translation; and, a little more broadly, to cross-linguistic poetic events where the very issue of movement between languages and cultures is somehow central, both formally and thematically.

Though less well known for Latin verse than his 17th century English contemporary Milton, Andrew Marvell is of especial interest for his composition of Latin and English poems in cross-referential pairs.  A reading of Marvell’s Hortus alongside his famous Garden, or of Ros alongside Drop of Dew, rather than getting bogged down in questions of priority between the two versions, can find an active sense of mutuality between them, and a point of access to some broader questions about poetic bilingualism (using the rich contextual framework of Haan 2003).  Milton’s own first definitive collection of his poetic work in 1645 was a double book, containing a vernacular volume of English ‘Poetical Works’ (plus a handful in Italian) followed by a volume of Latin ‘Poemata’ (plus a couple in Greek), with its own separate title page.  This book announces and codifies one of the preeminent early modern poetic careers across languages; and the Latin half ends, in the final sections of Epitaphium for Damon, with a programmatic meditation on the consequences of a commitment to vernacular poetry over Latin.

In 1549 Joachim DuBellay wrote a literary manifesto on the importance of responding to the classical tradition not in Latin but in French, and then, on a five year ‘exile’ in Rome, dramatized a series of poetic lapses back into Latin – finding a point of reference, like Milton later, in an analogous yet different programmatic in one of his Roman models (the exiled DuBellay lapses from French into Latin as the exiled Ovid had lapsed from Latin into Getic).  The case of DuBellay also brings a reminder of the importance for good reception practice of not allowing an overly simplistic sense of ‘imitation and source’ to generate a reductively binary literary historical narrative:  DuBellay’s Deffense de la langue francoyse is itself a close adaptation of a treatise written just seven years earlier in which the language to be championed was not French but Italian; Italian is also the unexpressed third term when DuBellay, in Rome, presents his binary choice between French and Latin.

With a background in Latin no longer an invariable part of the armoury of the modern-language scholar, we can offer our Latinity as our first (but not, I hope, our only) claim upon an adjacent field’s attention for what should be a collaborative enterprise in reading early modern literature whole.  Even with the most canonical early modern poets, their Latin writings currently receive only a fraction of the attention devoted to their vernacular output.  Nowhere does the Cambridge Companion to Marvell offer two consecutive sentences on any of the Latin pieces which make up 10-20% of his poetic oeuvre.  In my own university’s library the well-thumbed volumes of a standard modern edition of DuBellay’s works in French stand alongside the two volumes of his Latin poems – whose pages I found, after 25 years on the shelves, uncut.

The closer we can all come to a sense of ongoing line-by-line and word-by-word negotiation by poets and readers fuelled by convergences and divergences between Latin and vernacular, the more we can communicate a sense of the Classical Tradition itself as process rather than as product, involving many micro-negotiations of authors and readers, poetologically and sociologically, across language and culture.

Session/Panel Title

What Can Early Modernity Do for Classics?

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