‘My Poetry Is Filthy — but Not I’

Steve Coates in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_09 Dec. 14 20.46 You have to admire a scholar who can produce a small library of erudite, elegant and accessible books on American history, the New Testament and his own powerful brand of Roman Catholicism, winning a Pulitzer Prize along the way. And you have to be impressed by a plucky Spanish provincial, in the dangerous days of Nero and Domitian, who could manage to earn a handsome living writing dirty poems for the urban sophisticates of ancient Rome. But can you condone what they get up to under a single set of covers? “Martial’s Epigrams,” Garry Wills’s enthusiastic verse translations of Marcus Valerius Martialis, Rome’s most anatomically explicit poet, offers a chance to find out.

The pairing is not as counterintuitive as one might imagine. Wills, who has a Ph.D. in classics and who once taught ancient Greek at Johns Hopkins, has long kept a foot in the ancient world. His Pulitzer winner, “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” brilliantly analyzed Lincoln’s greatest speech in terms of the conventions of ancient Greek funeral orations, and he has also translated the Latin of St. Augustine’s “Confessions.”

Martial, though, was no saint. Arriving in Rome around A.D. 64, he spent much of the next four decades composing short topical verse about life in the big city, an urban panorama as broad, as varied and as full of depraved humanity as any to have survived from classical times.

More here.