Blog Post

Neo-Latin FTW

I've recently returned from an American studies conference on "transnational poetics" at Ruhr-University Bochum.  Many of the papers were first-rate, but there was a recurrent problem, namely, a lack of certainty regarding the meaning or value of the word "transnational." What differentiates a "transnational" approach to a literary topic from an "international" or "comparative" one?

I want to give an example that I've just discovered.  While eating breakfast I was listening to a lecture on iTunesU and learned, to my surprise, that the Nobel Prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), the author of the novel Quo Vadis (1896), was not the first Polish writer to be widely read in English-speaking countries.  He was the second. 

The first turns out to be Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski (1595-1640), a seventeenth century author who was so famous during his lifetime that, like Madonna or Cher, he was a one-name superstar ("Casimir").  Pope Urban VIII appointed him Poet Laureate, and in 1632 Peter Paul Rubens contributed the title page for one of his volumes.  The first English versions of Sarbiewski's verse began appearing shortly after his death, and through the years his translators have included such eminent figures as Abraham Cowley, Isaac Watts, Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Why is "Casimir" no longer a literary-critical darling?  One word:  Latin.  Sarbiewski, like many other European intellectuals from 1500 to 1800, chose to use Latin as his primary language for literary composition.  The decision was a logical one.  Instead of addressing a relatively narrow public—their own countrymen and countrywomen—poets could choose to speak to a more diverse, farlflung audience of learned individuals, all of whom defined "literate" as "knowing Latin," corresponded regularly in the language, and were widely read in the Classics. 

This audience, it is important to note, deserves to be called transnational instead of international because it was dispersed among, and frequently displayed limited allegiance to, the nation-states of the era.  Sarbiewski might have taught theology at the University of Vilnius, and he might have been appointed court preacher by the Polish king Władysław IV Vasa, but for most of his readers those specifics would have been inconsequential.  He might as well have been based in Bologna, Rotterdam, or Grenoble.  Called the "Christian Horace," Sarbiewski would have been lionized by poetry lovers wherever he traveled in the West.

What we nowadays call the "neo-Latin canon" has almost completely disappeared from view.  The last major neo-Latin poet to reside in England, Walter Savage Landor, died in 1864, and since the days of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) few if any Anglophone poets have seriously tried to write in the language.  Today when students study the likes of John Milton and Richard Crashaw they typically ignore their Latin writings altogether, resulting in a sadly truncated sense of their literary accomplishments.

Why should we care if poets such as Sarbiewski have fallen into oblivion?  Here's my quick-and-dirty translation of "Ad Munatium" (To Munatius), the fifteenth ode from his Lyricorum libri IV (1628):

There's nothing, Munatius, nothing mortal,
I repeat, that is free of incurable boredom.
The sun, which was bright for our ancestors,
doesn't seem healthy to us, and we condemn it
when it's guilty only of a single spot.
Whatever we mortals see on immortal Olympus
we blacken with envy's dark shadow.
We are pleased neither with the sun
that lights our native ancestral heights
nor with the ancient moon whose rays
came through the window in our father's day.
Every year we thoughtlessly leave behind
our ancestors' sky and fields. Some people call
the Batavian winter mild; others are pleased
by the shining suns of Ausonia.
It's all in vain, if diseases faithfully follow
their master and if silent suffering politely
accompanies us, whether it be
by Veientine chariot or Venetian boat,
until at last we refugees find pleasing
what we have left behind.  He who
through virtue has secured his home
will never weep because of the smoke
in his father's hall.  Virtue, rich in rural leisure,
often encloses itself within its own bounds,
and it rests its quiet throne on guiltless straw.

Even if the wording here still needs some polishing, I nonetheless hope that the underlying moral is clear.  The poet argues:  It might be all the rage to complain about how terrible things are, but don't listen.  Yes, you might be restless now, but anywhere else you go you'll find yourself equally afflicted by "incurable boredom" (immedicabile taedium), and you can't escape what ails you—whether "diseases" (morbi) or "silent suffering" (tacitus dolor)—no matter how far you travel by whatever means.  Stay home, virtuously imitate your high-minded ancestors, and you'll be as happy as one can be in this vail of tears.

This message might at first seem a little odd for a neo-Latin poet to deliver. After all, it emphasizes not cosmopolitan interchange but groundedness in locality and tradition.  Presumably, if Sarbiewski wished to honor his forefathers, he could have used the Polish dialect spoken in Mazowsze, the province where he was born.  But such a train of thought isn't transnational.  It follows Volk-logic, presupposing that, to be "authentic," a poet must be true to his or her own ethnic and linguistic background. 

Sarbiewski, however, is imagining an audience that consists entirely of people who communicate using an acquired language.  Yes, everyone who reads his poem is expected to have his or her own mother tongue, group affiliations, and family ties.  He'd say that you don't, though, have to pander to each possible discourse-community directly and individually.  You can use a shared language, which belongs to no one speaker more than another, to talk generally about a dilemma that everyone faces in his or her own particular way.

When Henry Vaughan, the British metaphysical poet, translated Sarbiewski's "Ad Munatium" for inclusion in his book Olor Iscanus (1651), he made several revealing changes.  First, he takes the lines about Mount Olympus—"quidquid in arduo / Immortale mortales Olympo / Vidimus, inuidiae caduca / Fuscamus umbra" ("whatever we mortals see on steep immortal Olympus / we blacken with envy's dark shadow")—and he deletes the mountain—"Whatever in the glorious sky / Man sees, his rash, audacious Eye / Dares censure it."  Second, he alters most of Sarbiewski's place names.  "Batavia" becomes "Belgia," "Ausonia" is replaced by "Italy," and instead of a "Veientine chariot" he mentions a "Coach" in "Vienna."

Why does Vaughan do these things?  He's engaged in some none-too-subtle modernizing.  He de-paganizes the lyric by dropping Zeus's Olympus in favor of the more nebulous "sky."  Where Sarbiewski refers to regions of Europe via the names of ancient tribes that once lived there—"Batavia" for Belgium and the Netherlands, "Ausonia" for Italy—Vaughan's geographical lexicon is much more up to date.  Finally, "Veientine chariot" is a reference to the Veintine Wars of the fifth century BCE, in which the Romans repeatedly battled the citizens of Veii, an Etruscan city ten miles to the northwest.  The British poet fancifully replaces Veii with a similar-sounding but entirely unrelated contemporary metropolis, Vienna.

These emendations serve the purpose of locating the ode squarely in Christendom and in the early modern period. Sarbiewski's elegant Classical allusions, in comparison, could belong to almost any century (1) after the fall of the Roman Empire and (2) before American and European educators committed themselves wholly to instruction in vernacular tongues.  These allusions would have been readily understood, too, by most any Latin-literate author from Alcuin in 800 to Goethe in 1800.  Vaughan thinks on a smaller scale in place and time and, tellingly, imagines an English-speaking audience that, unable to read Sarbiewski in the original, is also probably insufficiently educated to catch a reference to the Veientine Wars.

The near-total erasure of neo-Latin poetry from the Western literary corpus has robbed us of a body of writing whose fundamental purpose was to speak across state borders and identity categories.  Its modes of address and its characteristic rhetorical devices could be worth revisiting in our present age, when "globalization" is all too often still synonymous with "Americanization," and when the biggest political issues facing us, such as climate change, will require cooperation between nationalist powers such as the United States, China, and Russia. To communicate internationally can leave two sides mired in their exceptionalist and particularist points of view.  Might communicating transnationally, a la Sarbiewski, constitute a way of putting differences aside and moving forward?

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English
Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.