When asked a question about their contemporaries, famous established poets dodge giving an answer, for it would imply that they admired one or two particular poets above the rest. Best to shrug your shoulders and profess ignorance of the younger generation’s work.

One common evasion was that their reading was confined to the classics. W.H. Auden answered in an interview, “I tend not to read much contemporary work. I am now on a Horace jag.” And T.S. Eliot’s reply — as can be read in several of his letters — is that he does not read his contemporaries, which was obviously not true, since his being a director at Faber and Faber obliged him to read the work by younger poets before their books were published, and he too refers to reading the classical poets.

Well, let’s go on a Horace jag, too, and reread Horace Odes and Epodes, translated by C.E. Bennett, in the bilingual edition published by Harvard University Press in its ‘Loeb Classical Library’ series.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus, universally known as Horace, was born just over 2,000 years ago. Bennett’s prose translation conveys Horace’s content and, though it cannot possibly capture the original’s metrical construction and the diction that must have thrilled Horace’s native readers, the rendering does transmit a feeling of the poetry.

Remember, originality is not a gift you’re born with and need to nurture by remaining ignorant, but is released in the mind of one deeply immersed in the tradition.

The bilingual edition also ought to arouse the curiosity of some new readers to pick up a Latin primer to learn a basic understanding of the original composition with its complex metrical construction.

Bennett’s translation is preceded by a highly elucidatory chapter on the metres used by Horace. Ours is not an age interested in knowing what an “Alcaic Strophe” or a “First Pythiambic” looks like and how it shapes a line to make it a unique and memorable expression. Indeed, today’s English poets scarcely know what an iambic line looks like.

But there is always someone drawn to experimentation, whose imagination has been provoked by reading, say, a poem written in a dactylic hexameter. While the majority seek attention by stating what strikes them to be a profound idea without realising that their self-esteem is the common delusion of human vanity, there is often the lone dissident drawn to fooling around with words, for language releases unexpected meanings when the imagination combines the words in a new, strictly confining order.

Rather than taking away your liberty to say what you want, having to find the words to fit a predetermined, fixed metrical pattern, or even your own arbitrarily fixed linear pattern, gives your idea the force of originality.

Remember, originality is not a gift you’re born with and need to nurture by remaining ignorant, but is released in the mind of one deeply immersed in the tradition.

Take the contents of Horace’s poems. ‘Ode XXVIII’ from Odes Book I is about the fact that everyone was born to die. Nothing could be more banal. Horace returns to the idea of the inevitability of death, whether you are old or young, a pauper or a prince, in ‘Ode XIV’ in Odes Book II.

It’s an idea one hears in the work of poets from every generation and what distinguishes Horace — or John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins, to take two eminent poets from among the English — is the metrical choice, the distribution of the stresses that makes one’s ear — which is always alert to music (why else do singing birds delight us?) — hear more, much more, than the idea.

Or take ‘Ode I’ from Odes Book II, with its images of a war that, for one reading the poem in the spring of 2022, are shockingly like the pictures seen daily of the war in Ukraine. Two examples: “… walking, as it were, over fires hidden beneath treacherous ashes” and “What pool or stream has failed to taste the dismal war! What sea has Italian slaughter not discoloured!”

The weapons of war have changed in the 2,000 years since Horace captured those images, but the essence of the horror that his imagery makes one experience is as painfully sharp.

Students who have read the World War I poet Wilfred Owen will hear echoes of Horace’s war poems in Owen’s own poems projecting the images of horror suffered by soldiers in the trenches, and no one can surely forget Owen’s poem that explodes in its end with the Latin “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”

It’s an old lie, he seems to shout at the reader, to say that it’s sweet and glorious to die for the fatherland.

The Latin line is taken from Horace’s ‘Ode II’ in Odes Book III. Out of its context, Horace might appear to be declaring a piously held belief, but his is a mocking and ironical declaration that says that you might praise the martyr for giving his life for his country but, at the hands of Death, his fate is no different from that of the coward’s.

In another Ode, he states: “Brute force bereft of wisdom falls to ruin by its own weight.” He could have said that today, while watching the evening news, as he could have in a succeeding Ode, “…as money grows, care and greed for greater riches follow…”. But, of course, no brutal dictator listens to a poet to hear that persuasive voice expressed with such control by the poetic style.

Literature, indeed all Art, however strong its message, “makes nothing happen”, as Auden says of poetry. It does not release us from political barbarians and bigoted fundamentalists.

Take the great 1937 painting ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso, much admired by hundreds of thousands over the decades who still go to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid to look at its astonishingly alive imagery of people screaming, and of animals and babies lying killed when German Nazis and Italian Fascists bombed Guernica in northern Spain.

It’s a work of art with a powerful message. Each image in that painting could be showing precisely what happened in Mariupol, Ukraine, in April 2022.

The columnist is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas, a literary critic and fiction author

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 22nd, 2022

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