CJ Online Review| Fitzgerald, How to Read a Latin Poem

posted with permission:

How to Read a Latin Poem If You Can’t Read Latin Yet. William Fitzgerald. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 288. $35.00. ISBN 978-0-19-965786-5.

Reviewed by Ronnie Ancona, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center

Since I do know Latin, I am not the intended audience for How to Read a Latin Poem If You Can’t Read Latin Yet. With that said, my evaluation of it has been formed primarily with its target audience in mind. In my judgment, it meets admirably its purpose of introducing Latin poetry to the Latin-less reader, while also offering material that the reader of Latin will appreciate as well. It is commendable that a Latin scholar of Fitzgerald’s prominence, well-known for his work on Catullus, Horace, Martial, and the image of Roman slavery, has considered it worthwhile to write such a book. I can think of no similar work currently available.

The impulse behind this task I think will be recognized immediately by Latinists who have taught Latin literature in translation or the early stages of reading Latin poetry in the original. With the first group, one wants to provide some enticing exposure to the original language of the text (perhaps, for example, teaching the first line of the Aeneid in Latin), while carefully avoiding the sense that only reading in the original is of value. With the second, one wants to slowly and carefully tease out the wonderful possibilities of how Latin poetry works, while showing students that even their still-forming command of Latin is up to seeing this. In his Introduction (7), Fitzgerald states: "…I will be talking as much as possible about how the poems work in Latin." He thus aims his book at those reading in English translation, but addresses many of the same issues we do with our Latin students. This unique approach proves very successful. He sets the bar high, but provides the necessary help along the way.

In a fairly short book, written in an accessible and engaging style, Fitzgerald manages to cover a great deal of territory, in terms of authors, genres, themes, and reading strategies and techniques. The reader who is up to the book’s demands can learn about word order (Latin’s flexibility as an inflected language, and specific features like hyperbaton, chiasmus, and enjambment), meter (quantitative versus stressed, as well as specific Latin metrical patterns), English derivatives from Latin (which are included in parentheses after many Latin words), and verbal ambiguity (such as the many senses of the Latin word "inanis/e"). All of this occurs in the context of close readings of a variety of Latin texts, with great attention to the Latin itself, despite the necessary presence of English translations (usually, but not always Fitzgerald’s).

The book contains an Introduction, a Guide to the Pronunciation of Latin, a Prelude, six chapters, an Epilogue, a Guide to Further Reading, a Glossary, an Index, and an Index of Poems Discussed. Footnotes are kept to a bare minimum and this generally works well. Occasionally, more information would have been beneficial, such as the source for Brigid Brophy’s memorable description of reading Lucretius as "like playing chess with one hand while masturbating with the other" (231), or the name of the scholar (I assume Amy Richlin is meant) who uses Priapus as the model for Latin poets of invective and satire (79).

Fitzgerald happily does not attempt to "cover" all of Latin poetry in this slim volume, but instead presents readings of select poetry, all the while introducing the "how" of reading and interpretation alongside the "what." Through careful selection and juxtaposition of texts (displaying his own version of Horatian callida iunctura), Fitzgerald covers a lot of ground and avoids limiting himself to the more obvious organizing principles of chronology or genre.

Here is a very brief overview of the six main chapters. In "Love, and a Genre," Sulpicia and Ovid define the poles of solemnity/intensity versus urbane humor, as Catullus displays the seeds of both. In "Hate, Mockery, and the Physical World," verbal abuse is the topic, with things like polluted mouths and assholes featured, and with Catullus, Horace, Martial, the Carmina Priapea, and Persius (the most difficult selection in the book) as the sources.

The next chapter, "Horace: The Sensation of Mediocrity," introduces the Odes with their transitions, closural devices, enjambment, mosaic quality, tensions, and elusiveness. "Vergil: The Unclassical Classic," treats Vergil’s pastoral, didactic, and epic works. Its discussion of the Aeneid deftly shows why the poem has been interpreted so diversely. Fitzgerald gives his Latin-less reader exposure to the power of the original Latin when he states, "It is no coincidence that the word used when Aeneas sinks his sword into Turnus is the same as the word for founding the Roman race (condere)…" (158).

"Lucan and Seneca: Poets of Apocalypse" traces the theme of fratricide (and, by extension, civil strife) through Lucan’s Civil War and Seneca’s Thyestes, using Catullus’ Poem 101 to his brother as counterpoint. Finally, in "Science Fiction: Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Ovid’s Metamorphoses" Fitzgerald explores epic as a vehicle for two very different visions of the world.

I recommend this book highly for its target audience of Latin-less readers. In addition, it will provide Latinists with many fresh readings as well as techniques for making Latin poetry more compelling and accessible to all.