Sunday, November 16, 2014

BOOK: Jacopo Sannazaro, "Latin Poetry"

Jacopo Sannazaro: Latin Poetry. Translated by Michael J. C. Putnam. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 38. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674034068. xxv + 562 pp.

Sannazaro was a poet from Naples who lived in the late 15th and early 16th century. The translator's introduction includes a short overview of his career as a poet, which I found very interesting. His first work was in Italian, a pastoral book called Arcadia in a mixture of prose and verse; this was very influential and it's what he's best known for nowadays. But after that, all the rest of his work was in Latin; he seems to have regarded this transition as a form of progress, moving from Italian to Latin was a step forward in his development as a poet. It seems somewhat sad that even as late as 1500, after so much good literature had already been written in Italian, authors such as Sannazaro still seemed to regard it as somehow inferior and felt that only work written in Latin will really have enduring value. How mistaken they were in that — nowadays, we mostly remember Renaissance writers for the work they've done in living languages, not in Latin.

The Virgin Birth

This is an epic poem of almost 1500 lines, divided into three books. In book 1, god decides to make Mary pregnant and sends an angel to explain this to her. In book 2, Mary stays for a while at a relative's house and then travels with her husband Joseph to his birth-place, Bethlehem, as required by a census decreed by the emperor Augustus. However, as they can't find a place to stay in the town, she ends up giving birth in a nearby cave. In book 3, god sends various angels, shepherds etc. to celebrate the new-born baby Jesus, and the [tutelary deity of the] river Jordan expounds a long prophecy of his future achievements.

Considering the material, this wasn't as boring as I feared it would be. It was interesting to see this odd mixture of christian and pagan elements; Sannazaro switches very nonchalantly from the christian god and angels to pagan nymphs and back all the time; refers to the christian god as the “Thunderer” and addresses Mary as a “goddess”; there are a few mentions of the underworld, which seems to be a mixture of christian and pagan elements, etc.

It was also somewhat interesting to read this for the sake of the story itself, as I had never read any collections of biblical tales (or indeed the bible itself). On the other hand, Sannazaro probably assumed that his readers would be familiar with this stuff already, and as a result I occasionally found the story a little hard to follow.

Another downside was that, as often seems to be the case in shorter epics, there was less plot and action, but lots more speeches, than I'd ideally prefer. There is of course also the obligatory epic catalogue, namely in 2.125–234: after mentioning that Augustus had ordered a census, Sannazaro enters into a long and detailed list of Roman provinces, going pretty systematically in a counterclockwise direction. The list struck me as somewhat optimistic: apparently, even “the Cilician pirate” (2.134) will submit to the census, and “Anyone discovered in the empty desert is also enrolled” (2.207) :))

Like I suppose many other irreverent non-believers, I was of course greatly intrigued by the concept of a virgin birth, and was curious how Sannazaro would explain its mechanics. These are described in 2.369–76: “His nourishing mother had felt no stirring within her vitals or assaulting blows of a weight in descent. Her innards clung tight with bonds unmoved, much as when panels of glass receive the limpid sun. Indeed the light itself passes through [. . .] The panes remain unscathed, permeable by no blast of wind or storm, but vulnerable only to Phoebus's rays.”

Like many translations of poetry in the ITRL series, this one is also entirely in prose, but this time the prose felt reasonably poetic and wasn't unpleasant to read. I was also extremely impressed by the translator's notes, which point out countless instances where some line or phrase in Sannazaro is an echo of something from the work of some ancient Roman poet. This must have taken a huge effort to gather, and for the right sort of reader it will probably be extremely valuable.

I mostly found it interesting as an indication of the not-so-hidden costs of writing poetry in a dead language such as Latin: when asking themselves questions such as ‘can I start a line with such and such a phrase?’, ‘can I use such and such a metaphor?’ etc., the neo-Latin poets couldn't rely on a native ear for the language nor on an existing community of speakers, because the language was thoroughly dead; so the only way to be sure that you could do something was to check if some ancient Roman poet had already done it before you. They had little choice but to chew through the same limited corpus of authentic ancient Roman poetry again and again in search of elementary building blocks for their own works. I imagine that neither the poets nor their readers could long put up with this level of derivativeness, which I guess explains why writing poetry in Latin quickly fell out of favour after the Renaissance.

Piscatory Eclogues

This is a sequence of five poems, with a fragment of a sixth, that is an interesting variation on the theme of pastoral poetry: as the title suggests, they are set amongst fishermen instead of shepherds. But apart from that, it's fairly typical pastoral poetry and as the translator's notes show, for each of these poems you can find clear parallels in the work of ancient Greek and/or Roman poets.

Some poets liked to use pastoral poetry as a kind of code to comment on real people and events, with the characters in the poem being thinly-veiled versions of some real person etc., but here in Sannazaro's eclogues this mostly doesn't seem to be the case. That suited me just fine as I'm not particularly fond of literature a clef.

I liked the diversity of form in these poems: some are sung by a single narrator, in some there's two characters taking turns and trying to out-do each other, etc. My favorite among these eclogues was the fifth one, in which we see a witch cooking up a love-potion to charm a man who has hitherto been indifferent to her. I always liked scenes of sorcery; it's easy to make them seem exciting, and it makes for a pleasant change from the otherwise somewhat more leisurely tone of pastoral poetry.

A nice line from the fourth eclogue (line 91): “To be at peace in one's fatherland is welcome, but earth is everyone's grave.”

The Willows

This poem is based on one of those just-so stories with which Greek mythology was so fond of explaining the origin of various things, animals, plants and so on. In fact I don't know if Sannazaro actually based his poem on an existing Greek myth, or just invented a story of his own in the same style.

Anyway, a group of satyrs and other such horny goat-like guys invites a group of nymphs to a dance, going out of their way to reassure them that of course they won't try to molest them or anything of that sort. The nymphs' hesitant trust is soon betrayed as the satyrs start chasing them around. In desperation, they flee to a river bank, where apparently the best thing the gods can do to help them is to turn them into willows — which is why willows nowadays lean so towards the water, away from the direction where the satyrs would have been coming from. You might think that a few well-measured lightning bolts directed at the satyrs would have been a better solution, but then Greek gods are not really known for being reasonable and helpful. We can only hope that none of the satyrs was a dendrophiliac.

As is often the case with old myths and fairy-tales and the like, the more you think about it, the more horrible it is. At first it seems like a whimsical tale of the origin of willows, but on second thought it's the story of an attempted rape on a large scale; it continues with a dramatic chase scene; and ends with a grisly bit of supernatural body horror as we see a detailed description of how the nymphs' bodies turn into wood! Brrrrr.

Later he has a similar poem about the origin of the mulberry (Elegies 2.4), and another transformation into a tree occurs in Epigrams 1.48 (this time it's a boy named Cyparissus; the god Apollo sighs: “O woods, why are you expanding at the expense of my sorrow? You have Daphne, you have Cyparissus.”).

By the way, if you want more willow-themed horror, there's an excellent weird tale by Algernon Blackwood called The Willows.


These are shorter poems on miscellaneous subjects; there's plenty of poems in praise of various friends and patrons, some are on mythological subjects, some are occasional pieces, etc. On the whole, this was perhaps my least favorite part of this book, but a few of these elegies were enjoyable anyway:

1.1, on his contentment with being a minor love-poet rather than a great epic one; there are a few very nice romantic lines (55–64): “We wretched lovers are not tormented for gold or for jewels. He who can persuade his mistress will be rich. [. . .] What use a couch remarkable for its down or for its purple, unless a dear girl rests in my lap” etc.

1.3 is a touching poem on love and mortality: the poet hopes to pre-decease his mistress to spare himself the pain of living without her, and urges her not to waste time while they are still both young.

A lovely epitaph for the poet himself, 1.10.23–4: “Here, I, Actius, lie. My hope rests extinguished with me./ Only Love remains after our death.”

2.2, on the poet's birthday, in which he looks forward to his learned friends from the Academy coming to visit him; 2.4, a myth on the origins of the mulberry tree; 2.9, in which the ruins of the famous ancient city of Cumae near Naples lead him to reflect on how some day even Rome and his beloved Naples will fall into ruin; 2.10, which seems to have been written to accompany a gift of pomegranates sent to a friend: the apples sing in the first person and proclaim themselves as superior to gems, for fruit, unlike gems, does not turn the human mind towards greed and violence.

I was amused by the clever doing-it-while-pretending-not-to in 2.1, dedicated to Alfonso of Aragon: to paraphrase, the poem goes ‘if only I had more talent as a poet, how I would praise you — I would say’ and about 100 lines in praise of Alfonso follow at that point :P


This is a large number of even shorter poems, including many very enjoyable ones.

1.6, in which he's asking his mistress for “six hundred kisses” (l. 1), and very passionate ones too: “I yearn to grip your whole tongue, thrust between my wet little lips” (ll. 11–12) etc. There's another poem about kissing later (1.57, inspired by Catullus).

1.20: “When Poggio praises his country, when he excoriates its enemy, he is neither a bad citizen nor a good historian.” According to the Wikipedia, Poggio's history of Florence was a kind of continuation of Bruni's history.

From 1.31, after observing that ink is made from rust and vinegar: “Nile, this is to surpass your Pyramids! Unfortunate fate! So the juice of rust snatches our reputations from the hateful pyre?” (ll. 4–6)

From 1.35, praising Venice more highly than Rome: “If you prefer the Tiber to the sea, cast your eye on both cities. You will say that men built that one, the gods this.” (ll. 5–6)

1.40 is a funny satire of a type of person that is still common nowadays: someone who goes to extremes in scrimping and saving in his everyday life so that he can afford some extravagant bit of conspicuous consumption. In Sannazaro's poem, bonus hilarity comes from the fact that the conspicuous consumption in question is — an extra fancy grave! The project is described in great, sarcastic detail; Vetustino buys a big plot of land, hires architects, constantly changes his mind about the plans for his mausoleum, etc. :))

1.53 is a fine invective against Cesare Borgia: “Cesare, the apple of his father's eye, and his sister's, the charm, the serenity, the pleasure of his brothers, that dear little boy of the Vatican Mount, [. . .] that defiler and adulterer of his sister, the ruin, disease, and doom of his brothers, abominable beast of the Vatican Mount, who, not long ago, tainted with crime and with the evils of pillage, swallowed five hundred cities” (ll. 7–16) etc. etc.

1.56, on his birthday, ends on a bittersweet epicurean note: “Poor wretches, do we foresee what the morrow's light threatens? Let us live. No one can deceive death.” (ll. 11–12)

1.61 is about Angelo Poliziano (the name sounded familiar to me, and I eventually realized that I read an ITRL volume of his oddly pedagogical poems a few years ago; see my post from back then) and his researches into what Catullus's sparrow really stood for. (This seems to have been quite a popular topic; I already heard about it in the ITRL volume of the poems of Pontano, an older friend of Sannazaro's; see my post from back then.)

2.4 is poking fun at some guy who was hoping to win the poet's friendship by some gifts of vegetables, and thus get immortalized in verse: “O Matho, how fortunate you are to have discovered both friend and bard, how fortunate in your vegetable patch and its offerings, if, what so many valorous deeds have scarcely created for the offspring of the gods, lettuce and greens will produce for you.” (ll. 9–13)

2.10 and 2.12 are humorous quatrains featuring characters from classical mythology. On seeing Venus attempting to wield weapons, Priapus shouts “in his wanton voice, “Put them down. This is the equipment that more befits those hands of yours.’ ” :))) (2.12.3–4)

But some are much more sombre: 2.43, in which a mother mourns her only son: “Why, alas, did my parents falsely name me Laetitia [gladness] who ought to have called me Tristitia [sadness]? [. . .] compare me with Niobe whose lot has this better outcome: she was able to turn to stone.”

In 3.6, oracles tell Euno that he “will stand above kings and over dukes” — and sure enough, he did, by getting crucified.

3.8 is a short and sweet epigram against pope Leo X: “If by chance you ask why in his last hour Leo wasn't able to take the sacraments: he had sold them.”


All in all, this was quite an enjoyable book. The poems here have a great variety in terms of length, genre, form, theme etc., and many of them were pleasant to read. The translations, as usually in the ITRL series, are in prose, but by now I've got mostly used to this so it didn't bother me much. I hope I'll some day get to read Sannazaro's Italian pastoral tale, the Arcadia, as well.

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