Latin poetry is English poetry

Statistically, Rimbaud was a Latin poet during his lifetime — Graham Robb pointed this out in his TLS review of the new Pleiade Rimbaud. Pierre Assouline mentions that from Latin Rimbaud got his trick of piling words one on top of another, conventional word order be damned. (“More firmly bland than to children apples’ firm pulp” in Beckett’s translation of Le Bateau Ivre.) It’s not just the likes of Horace that the loss of Latin makes obscure, it’s most European writers up until 1900. Some of Samuel Johnson’s best poems were in Latin and unless you speak the language you can’t read some 150 poems of a titan of English literature in their original language. See also, Milton. Thomas Gray wrote some 30% of his poems in Latin. Shakespeare, with his “small Latin,” is the exception as usual. Still his Latin, small for his age, was larger than the Latin most of us have in our age. A lack of Latin makes one deaf to a constantly sounding frequency in English literature, one equivalent in its importance to the woodwinds in an orchestra: we still have the tunes, but miss this beautiful tone.

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14 responses to “Latin poetry is English poetry

  1. That’s all well and good, but there are a lot of things that would contribute to our appreciation of literature. Learning French, German, Spanish, or Russian would be a start. Also, these languages have an actual use outside a classics department.

    But if we really should learn Latin in order to gain a better appreciation of the English language, why wouldn’t more closely related dialects come first, like old english, old french, celtic and the dialect of German spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. And of course there’s always ancient greek.

    I say the buck has to stop somewhere. If you learn too many languages, your brain gets full and knowledge starts to seep out of your ears. I say no to Latin! We already have too many damn languages. I enjoy books just fine with good old fashion ‘merican.

    What we need to do is let more languages die, like Welsh. If I were a kid being forced by his parents to attend one those bilingual schools in Wales, I’d be pissed as hell. You put in a whole lot of work and the only payoff you get is not being able to distinguish between green, blue, silver or gray while talking with old people who do lewd things to sheep.

    Same goes for Gaelic by the way… I can’t tell you how many Irish people I’ve met who were forced to take Gaelic as children only to forgot all of it due to it being completely useless.

  2. Ooooh. Someone’s sensitive. The point isn’t to get a better understanding of the engligh language, it’s literally to read actual works of English literature — not precursors to english literature, nor works that are tangential to English literature: I find it rather appalling and surprising that I can’t read some of Johnson’s best poems, even though I consider him an English writer. Don’t you? Don’t you fing it amazing that if you knew Latin you’d be able to read Rimbaud’s first poems of genius?

    Learning Chinese gets me some parts of Pound. French gets me Eliot’s Dans le Restaurant. Latin gets me about 1000 poems by my favorite English writers which are currently meaningless to me.

  3. Aren’t there translations of these Latin poems into English? If so, then your beef is with not being able to read them in the original. If that’s the case, wouldn’t learning French, German, Spanish, or Russian give you access to far more literature in the original? Why bother with Latin when the pickings are so slim?

  4. P.S. I like a lot of the people of which you speak, but enough to learn Latin so that I can read them in the original… meh.

  5. P.P.S You’re damn right I’m sensitive. In fact, I’m mad! Mad that there are kids out there who have to suffer through a language invented by a bunch of sheep fuckers.

  6. P.P.P.S. Your time stamp is off. How do you expect me to simmer down when it looks like I posted an hour ago!

  7. Please don’t learn Latin, Gimpei, on my account or on this account. Just be sad about what you’re missing. I linked to a translation of SJ’s poem about learning to swim by David Ferry that’s probably better than the original… one of my top 10 poems ever in fact. Sucks that i have to rely on Ferry to translate it, though, GIVEN SJ’S FUCKING ENGLISH. John Wain’s translation of the same poem isn’t anywhere near as good.

  8. Alright. I’ve simmered, but what about the timestamp?

  9. Should be fixed now.

  10. It is! I’m a fucking genius!

  11. Ok, but have you read those original Latin poems of Rimbaud’s? I read some in French and I wasn’t impressed. Boring for the most part. Rimbaud a Paris is much better.

  12. samuelcanread

    I think the part where you say “reading the Latin poems of Rimbaud in French” basically sums up the sad absurdity of us losing Latin. The review i linked to makes a vaguely strong case for the Latin poems. I#m not qualified to judge in either language, frankly.

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