Friday, July 20, 2018

BOOK: Giovanni Pontano, "On Married Love. Eridanus"

Giovanni Gioviano Pontano: On Married Love. Eridanus. Translated by Luke Roman. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 63. Harvard University Press, 2014. 9780674728660. xxvii + 385 pp.

This is the second volume of Pontano's poetry in the I Tatti Renaissance Library — see my post about his Baiae from a few years ago. My impression of this volume is much like of that one: the poems here are pleasant enough, but hardly anything to write home about, nothing terribly stirring here and nothing I'm likely to remember ten years hence.

And I'm starting to get an idea of why this is the case. I like my poets young, dying of consumption, and dipping their quills in their very heart's blood as they write their verses. But Pontano is very much not that — you could say he's the opposite of that. His poems strike me as something that was obviously written by a prosperous middle-aged guy (I cannot help imagining him with a potbelly although I have no idea if he actually had one or not :]), who had a basically stable and content life, a successful career, happy relationships with his wife, children, mistresses, etc. And the poems reflect that; pleasant, but hardly shocking. There's nothing wrong with that, but it isn't quite what I look for in poetry either.

But there is something I should definitely praise about this volume: unlike in the vast majority of the ITRL series, the translations in this book are real poems. They have lines, they even have metre. The only liberty that the translator has taken is to increase the number of lines so as to gain space (p. 334), which is fine as elegies don't rely on having a specific number of lines anyway. As a result, this book was much more enjoyable to read than nearly all the poetry volumes in the ITRL so far. Let's hope for more translations of poetry like this :)

Married Love

The translator's introduction (p. xiv–xv) has a few very interesting remarks about the elegy as a form. To me now the word has some connotations of sadness, but apparently it originally did not, and simply meant any sort of poem written in elegic distychs. They could be on various topics, and many ancient poets (e.g. Ovid) wrote love-poems in this format. However, apparently in ancient times it was unheard of to write elegies to one's wife (as opposed to a mistress), and Pontano was the first poet in history to do so, so that his Married Love is in a sense hugely innovative. I was particularly happy to see a neo-Latin author being innovative because what you usually see in the ITRL is how slavishly imitative of ancient authors they had to be most of the time.

This collection clearly spans a fairly long period of time, and to some extent we can see it as a sort of chronicle of Pontano's marriage and family life. It starts with an epithalamion (wedding-song) for his own wedding (1.2), and towards the end there are two epithalamions for the weddings of his two daughters (3.3–4). There are some nice poems written during his long periods of separation from his family, due to the wars that his employer, the king of Naples, was fighting in the north of Italy (poem 1.7 is particularly nice, wishing for the return of peace so he could go home to his wife again). Occasionally he can be boringly admonitory in giving his wife advice on how to handle the children in his absence (1.9). Eventually peace was concluded and he could return home to his family, which he also celebrated in several poems (2.3–4). There is also a nice sequence of lullabies (2.8–19), though frankly it wasn't quite obvious to me how they would help in getting a child to fall asleep sooner; but then I don't have any experience with children myself. One notable feature of those lullabies is their peculiar fascination with breast-feeding.


I used to think of Eridanus as simply the Latin name of the river Po, and indeed this is mostly what it means here, but according to the translator's note 1 on p. 351 it was originally understood as a mythological river and later identified by various real rivers (most commonly the Po) by various authors.

This collection of poems seems to have been written late in Pontano's life, after the death of his wife. There are a couple of poems addressed to her (2.1, 2.32), and Pontano clearly misses her dearly and is looking forward to being reunited with her in the afterlife. Nevertheless, he took on a courtesan named Stella as a mistress during this period, and probably the largest number of poems in Eridanus are dedicated to her. They mostly struck me as nice but somewhat conventional. One nice feature are the numerous puns based on the fact that her name means “star” in Latin (“Stella, the sky is your native land; from there, you shine brightly”, 1.18.1; “Stella's my torch in darkness that leads to night's delight”, 1.20.1). The punniest poem here, however, is 2.14, about a woman named Ambrosia: “You sprinkled ambrosia, Ambrosia, with your lips” etc.

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of fire and ice in 2.5: “You are the one who sparks in me your torches' flames,/ and you, the same you, freeze my heart with ice” etc. And continuing with analogies from physics, he compares her moods to the weather in the next poem (2.6).

Some of the most touching poems in this series show Pontano trying to cope with the increasing discomforts of old age and loneliness (2.31), especially following the death of not only his wife but their son as well (2.32). He also often defends himself against the idea that it's somehow wrong for an old man to fall in love (2.12, 2.21, 2.24). On one occasion things turn a bit mean as his Stella evidently takes on a younger lover: “You were purchased by the cash/ of an old man, and by a young man's cash,/ my girl. To a young man you'll soon pay back the cash,/ when you are old yourself. [. . .] she who sells in youth,/ in later years will be obliged to buy.” (2.26.30–4)

But there are also many more cheerful and pleasant poems, conveying an image of Pontano enjoying a calm and comfortable retirement in a countryside world of villas, rivers, and nymphs (see e.g. poem 1.40, inviting a friend to dinner at his villa; the whole poem is a lovely catalogue of rustic pleasures, and some of the dishes Pontano mentions are quite mouth-watering: “a tender suckling goat, its first horns showing, stuffed by skillful hand with cherry and with cornel berry”, ll. 27–8). And there are some poems on miscellaneous subjects; I liked 1.41, in which Pontano is trying to console a friend on the death of another friend, who apparently died in war. He recommends him to try to get over the loss by writing poems in praise of the late friend, who is now in a better place anyway. Another nice poem was 2.4, pointing out that unlike Amor, his mistress does not need a bow to shoot arrows at people; she can shoot them from her eyes and cheeks :)

For my collection of suicide-inducing quotations, from 2.22.33–4: “He lives who loves and has possession of his love./ He does not live who love's enjoyment lacks.”

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