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Spring 2018

The Best Classical Latin Poet You’ve Never Heard Of

book cover imageThe Elegies of Maximianus
translated by A. M. Juster.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.
Hardcover, 240 pages, $65.

Michael Fontaine

Before he killed himself, I befriended an old man some years ago who had published several books on the right to death and the dignity of suicide. When he fell at home and broke his back, he rejected the operation a hospital doctor offered him as absurd, a one-way ticket to degradation and dependency. He was ninety-two; how many years did he have left, anyway? An atheist, the man went home, swallowed a bottle of barbiturates, and ended his life.

Some were stricken with grief; others thought his decision made perfect sense. Thoughts of his terrible situation came flooding back to me in the opening pages of this book. Heu senibus vitae portio quanta manet! exclaims Maximianus: “Alas, how much life remains for old men!” Linger over that a second. Maximianus is not saying that the “portion of life” that old people still have to look forward to is too little, but too big. And with this single line, it’s clear that Maximianus is the best classical Latin poet you’ve never heard of.

Why his melancholy? Look at how the elegy begins, in A. M. Juster’s splendid new version:

Jealous old age, why hold back hastening the end
     and why come slowly for this weary body?
Release my wretched life, I beg, from such a prison!
     Death is rest now, my life a punishment.
I am not who I was; my greatest part has perished.
     Fatigue—and dread too—cling to what survives.
Life is grave during grief, most dear in happy times;
     Each wish to die is worse than any death. (1.1–8)

Maximianus has no truck with the sunny view of old age that you find in Cicero or AARP, The Magazine; that is for children. He is with Ecclesiastes: old age is nothing but the evil days when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them. But it’s worse, because unlike the biblical sage, Maximianus has no god to believe in. It is simply horror upon horror until you die. Looks fail, the muscles fail, erections fail, the body fails; money loses its point. You become unrecognizable.

An old man is a fright to witness, and you doubt
     a man who lacks his faculties is human. (1.143–4)

Worse, too, Maximianus believes that some phases of life just aren’t worth living if it used to be good and there’s now no hope for improvement, and he says so forthrightly. He contemplates suicide but (unlike my friend) he lacks the courage to kill himself.

Day passes without night. Within deep darkness who
     denies his jailing in a hellish place? (1.149–50)

The effect is stifling, panic-inducing. If you aren’t ready for it (and I was not), it’s like giving a shot of Jack Daniels to a ten-year-old. The march of depressing pensées is bracing, unremitting, bleak, hopeless. There is no happy ending.

Recalling bygone joys is quite rugged for the sad,
     and from the highest peak their plunge drops harder. (1.291–2)

The poet has zeroed in on a striking paradox: you alone—only you—bear all and none of the responsibility for aging, and you are powerless to stop yourself. I wonder what Descartes and the other dualists would have made of it.

Maximianus lived in sixth-century Italy and he knew Boethius. That’s about all we know. We don’t even know if the voice speaking to us in his six elegies is that of Maximianus or “Maximianus,” and there’s little point debating it. But his biography isn’t important. It is the power of his poetry that compels attention. At nearly three hundred lines, elegy one is his longest poem and his masterpiece. The remaining five elegies, much shorter, are more conventional. They all deal with love, with the unusual twist that in each one, the speaker is elderly. Elegy two looks back in hurt at an ex-wife who has moved on (he hasn’t); elegy five recounts a night of impotence that leads to a fight. Elegy three recalls a youthful love affair: smoldering as long as it’s forbidden, banal the instant the chase is over.

They [her parents] give us room for secret sins; they acquiesce
     to holding hands and filling days with play.
A sanctioned sin becomes cheap; lust becomes depleted.
     Exhausted hearts defeated their disease.
She, seeing no pursuit advancing, hates the cause
     and leaves dejected with an unspoiled body. (3.75–81)

That behavior has been witnessed in our times, too.

All of the poems are threaded through with sententiae, insightful aphorisms and quotable quips about the human condition. Elegy four ends with a devastating one on responsibility for our stupidity.

We’re sometimes dragged by faults and ravaged willingly … (4.59)

Juster’s new translation of all this is formal and attractive and appealing. Alternating (iambic) hexameters with pentameters, his English tracks the Latin line for line. That is doubly impressive, because syllable for syllable, Latin can convey far more meaning than English can, and when Juster is good, he is very good. Here and there are some real flashes of brilliance. “Life is grave,” quoted above, reworks a pun in lux gravis in luctu (literally, “the light of life is a burden in times of grief).” The end of elegy two, “I wept long years, as much as proper, with these tears” replicates a rhyme in the Latin. I could cite many more such examples.

The English-to-Latin match means end-stopping is frequent to the point of monotony, but that is no fault of the translator. It does, however, render some couplets obscure unless you check the Latin text that faces them, and the English does misfire on occasion. In elegy two the speaker says:

See what long life now brings: that she [his ex-wife] could think to screw
     a person whom she previously loved. (2.17–8)

This renders:

en quid longa dies nunc affert ut sibi quemquam
     quondam dilectum prodere turpe putet.

Does “screw” here mean exploit or sleep with? The erotic context leading up to this point suggests the latter, but that’s not what the Latin says. A note at the back of the book tells us that screw translates prodere and so means “betray,” but nothing in that verb corresponds to the vulgar and colloquial tone of “screw.” It is a rare instance where the translation replaces hurt with anger, and undersells the speaker’s feelings.

The facing Latin text is quirky and makes Maximianus seem more unusual than he was. Juster has stripped it of all punctuation, capital letters, and he inserts an extra blank line between couplets, which winds up emphasizing the end-stopping. In the preface he says: “I rejected well-intentioned advice and did not punctuate the text but left it as I believe it stood in the sixth century.” The impulse is understandable, but even if Maximianus did not write the question marks and commas, he meant them, and we do students today no favors by making Latin harder than it has to be.

The commentary that fills the second half of the book reminds me of the sort of notes journalists take when working on a story. Most of these notes sit between a scholarly commentator and a popular edition, and many engage with other commentaries or scholars or quote old bad ideas simply to tell us they’re bad. It does no harm to have them published, of course, but Maximianus’s haunting poetry is just as good without them.

In bringing Maximianus to us in this powerful new translation, A. M. Juster has done him, and us, a great service. Read Maximianus. You won’t soon forget him. 

Michael Fontaine teaches Latin at Cornell University.

Posted: May 20, 2018

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A “conservative character [is] suspicious of doctrinaire alteration, respectful toward history, preferring variety over uniformity, acknowledging a moral order composed of human persons, not of mere political and economic atoms subservient to the state.”

Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 1954

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