Roman Poets in Modern Guise

I have long been fascinated by the extent to which Western culture generally and American popular culture specifically have been permeated by Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian elements: from the three Virgilian phrases on our one-dollar bill to the common practice of using a Bible to dignify even the most secular occasions, such as taking an oath in court—or the recent rather meaningless gesture of President Trump holding up a Bible in front of a church in Washington. And why bother entering any great art museum without at least a minimal acquaintance with both traditions?

For this reason, and despite a wholly secular upbringing, I have devoted many of my articles and books to such topics as Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus (1972) and Uses and Abuses of Moses (2016), in which I examine the ways in which those biblical figures have been secularized and exploited for modern political ideologies ranging from fascism to communism. Another group of works has been dedicated to such topics as Virgil and the Moderns (1993) and Ovid and the Moderns (2005), which trace Virgilian patriotism and bucolicism and Ovidian  metamorphosis and exile in their many modern manifestations in European and Anglo-American literature.

But these big names exhaust neither the Bible nor classical antiquity.  Every day when I stroll  across the Princeton campus I am reminded of Lucretius by the famous quotation that decorates the south side of Alexander Hall: [sed] nil dulcius est bene quam munita tenere /edita doctrina sapientum templa serena (for there is nothing sweeter than to occupy serene temples informed by the teachings of the wise). If my walk leads me to the university chapel where various occasions are celebrated, various  biblical figures gaze down at me from the stained-glass windows. And our daily conversation is often spiced with familiar phrases—mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body), panem et circenses (bread and circuses), or quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (who will watch the watchmen?)—that stem, whether we know it or not, from Juvenal. Catullus’ name has become a catchword for erotic poetry, and Seneca, both as a poet and a philosopher, is intimately involved in the politics of his day in Roman history.

In any case, such factors have stimulated me constantly and continuously ever since, as a teenager, I first began the study of Latin, which led eventually in college and graduate school to Greek and classical antiquity generally. On my night-table a volume of Horace’s odes shares the space at present with the Bible, one of which I consult almost daily. So it seems inevitable that this reading—of Horace, Lucretius, Catullus, Propertius, Seneca, and Juvenal, as well as the lesser works of Virgil and Ovid—should eventually have demanded a treatment of its own: a treatment that exposes the variety of ways in which classical antiquity through the words of those eight poets has entered the modern cultural consciousness and, specifically, influenced the writing of dozens of the most significant contemporary poets in English, German, French, and other languages: ranging from Andre Gide and Bertolt Brecht to T.S. Eliot and Robert Lowell. Hence Roman Poets in Modern Guise: The Reception of Roman Poetry since World War I—or, in other words, by poets of the generations for whom a knowledge of Latin was taken for granted.

In one sense, then, this book constitutes a summa of my bedtime reading over a period of some sixty years.  The dedication to my great-grandchildren, the eldest of whom is beginning her Latin lessons this summer, is meant to encourage the continuation of that family tradition, which is exemplified in the various publications by my children and grandchildren in fields ranging from medieval studies, Slavics,  Italian literature, and religious studies. But it also amounts to an invitation to the general reader, to whom the book is addressed, to experience the thrill of encounter with that great Roman past in often unexpected modern contexts.

This guest post was written by  Theodore Ziolkowski, Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature, Princeton University.

Roman Poets in Modern Guise
By Theodore Ziolkowski
9781640140776, Hardback, £61.75 or $78

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