by Eric Byrd
Barbarian that I am, my knowledge of the classic Latin poetry, excepting Ovid’s exilic Epistulae, and what bits of the Metamorphoses an English major might meet in footnotes to the Fairie Queene and Paradise Lost, amounts to no more than names on a timeline. Poets in a Landscape is the remedial introduction I needed. Scottish classicist Gilbert Highet (1906 – 1978) was one of the great critic/teacher/explainers on the Columbia faculty, alongside Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and Mark Van Doren.
Highet starts with biographical criticism of an admirable suavity. Cyril Connolly, another devotee of sensuously contemplative Latinity, said that with each poet Highet succeeded “in finding the man in the style.” Next, Highet invokes the consequent canon. He shows Goethe and Byron, Browning and Baudelaire, Eliot and Pound as they summon, echo or emulate the poets of the early empire. And as its title suggests, Poets in a Landscape is also a travelogue. In 1956 Highet and his wife, the spy thriller writer Helen MacInnes, made a tour of the conjectural birthplaces, spurious tombs and excavated villas of the Roman poets.
Their snapshots illustrate the first edition. I enjoyed Highet’s archeological capriccio: churches built upon temples; villas annexed to monasteries; crypts and ossuaries planted in the once-genial baths. Our learned cicerone surveys the layered landscape:
As we pick our way along the cobbled streets, it becomes more and more evident that this is a medieval town. It is not the Roman town at all. Juvenal’s home was a flourishing township with twenty thousand inhabitants, lying on a plain near the river Melfe. This is a cowering village of two thousand people at most, crusted along rocky slopes, comfortless and sad. Juvenal’s Aquinium was destroyed in the Dark Ages by German invaders—the tough Lombards who pushed down the Italian peninsula from the Alps, dominated some of the country for a time, and gave their name to the northern province of Lombardy. The survivors of the catastrophe built a new Aquinum some miles to the east, near a castle where they could take refuge in any later invasion; and this is now Aquino. Again and again in Italy, we see how the peaceful prosperity of the Roman empire was followed by the dangers and disasters of the Dark and Middle Ages. In a peaceful valley, among fertile fields, lie the ruins of a Roman town, often traceable only by the faint lines of its market-place or a few pillars built into a farmhouse. High above it, on the peak of a hill, wedged into the topmost crags and slipping nervously down the gentler slopes, like a cat that has run up a tree and clings there spitting at the savage dogs, is its medieval successor. The snarling face of the cat is usually a castle, on the loftiest peak of all. Rome fought many wars, but during the five centuries when she had no foreign enemies to threaten her heartland, the towns and cities of Rome grew and prospered in the rich Italian plains, unfortified and happy and secure.
Highet mentions that once the specifics of Roman engineering were lost, peasants believed the ruins to be the magical handiwork of visitant devils. The memories of the Roman poets, too, experienced fanciful mutations, persisted in strange tales. In the folklore of the lands around Naples, Vergil figured as a benevolent sorcerer, able to relight cold hearths with flame summoned from his mistress’s vagina; and Ovid, in the legends of his native Abruzzi, became an avaricious wizard who lived underground, guarding barrels of silver and gold.
Juvenal, the street-level satirist Flaubert venerated, heads the reading list ramifying from Poets in a Landscape. Then Catullus and Propertius, laureates of erotic suffering, their short lives and shorter careers marked by subjection to cruel mistresses. Tibullus is memorable for this contrast: a stoical soldier whose poetry wallows in masochism Highet finds excessive even when measured against the obsessions of Catullus and Propertius. Horace’s Odes, like Pushkin’s verses, sound untranslatable, their perfection a matter of nuanced rhythmic effects and subtly inspired diction; translated, they are platitudinous.
Perhaps it is juvenile and reductive and philistine to say that I am interested in Vergil mostly because his song of dutiful abstentions and public destiny makes him a perfect foil to Ovid, ever-charming as the “most sensual and sophisticated of the Roman poets.” Vergil’s focus on the imperially-approved legendary prehistory is countered (and, on same pages of the Metamorphoses, burlesqued) by Ovid’s absorption in the urbane, luxurious manners of contemporary Rome—its indoor conquests, droll feats, boudoirs and billet-doux—its promiscuous, even voracious, upper-class women, so recently the veiled matrons of a rustic republic (Highet finds many of the poets registers of sexual alarm). Ovid seems a suave rhetorician, full of lush wit and mercurial effrontery. He sounds like the quintessential ladies’ man, l’homme à femmes, deploying a subtle virility, and quite at home in the more intricate, feminine reaches of psychology. I want to read the Amores, comic monologues in which sophistical avowals of fidelity alternate with adulterous asides; and the Heroides, verse letters voiced by heroines pining for departed lovers, entreating future ones, and brooding upon mythic trysts.
While reading Poets in a Landscape I chanced upon a selection from Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri. This entry from September 1820, is a nice summary of Ovid’s aloof and sportive charm:
Homer, Virgil, and Dante…pour forth incredibly vivid imagery and description yet never seem to notice that’s what they’re doing; they make a show of having a much higher purpose, which in fact is the only one that truly matters to them, the one they are actually always pursuing, namely the narrating of actions, their unfolding and final outcome. Ovid does the opposite: he doesn’t dissemble, doesn’t hide anything, he demonstrates and more or less confesses what is in fact the case—he has no higher or more serious aim, really no aim at all other than to describe, to arouse and frame images, little pictures, to figure things forth, to represent, unstintingly.