Sunday, December 20, 2015

Persius, the Risk-Taker :: Prologue to his Satires

View of Mount Parnassus, a painting by Claude Lorrain painted in 1652 and 
entitled "Landscape with Apollo and the Muses"

I decided this time to write about Persius [34-62 AD] because he seems so much like Horace. In fact, Persius, it is said, modeled much of his work after Horace, who had died some 38 years before Persius was born. But unlike Horace, Persius never reached his full potential; he died young, at age 27.

To me, the poetry Persius left us is filled with the exuberance of his youth. Like young poets of any era, he strove to redefine poetry on his own terms, to use language in new ways and explore the limits of what it meant to be a poet. He was a risk-taker.

Thus, sometime in his twenties, he wrote this vibrant prologue to his book of satires:

1    Nec fonte lā|bra prōluī | caballīnō,
2    nec in bici|pitī sŏmniās|se Parnassō
3    memini ut re|pentē sīc poē|ta prōdīrem.
4    Helicōniadās|que pallidam|que Pīrēnen
5    illīs remit|to, quōrum imā|ginēs lambunt
6    hederae se|quācēs: ipse sē|mipāgānus
7    ad sacra vā|tum carmen ad|fero nostrum.
8    quis expedi|vit psittacō | suum chaere
9    pīcamque do|cuit nostra ver|ba cōnāri?
10  magister ar|tis ingeni|que largītor
11  venter, negā|tās artifex | sequi vōcēs;
12  quod sī dolō|si spēs reful|geat nummi,
13  corvōs poē|tās et poē|tridās pīcās
14  cantāre crē|dās Pēgasē|ium nectar.

1    No, I did not let my lips loose on the horse spring,
2    No, I do not remember dreaming on two-peaked 
3    Parnassus then bingo! waking up so bard. I’ll
4    Leave the Heliconians and pale Pirenes
5    To those eager ivy-lickin’ marble busts. Me?
6    A wannabe, bringing songs to the poets’ shrine.
7    Who got anything back but hello from a parrot? 
8    And who taught this magpie to give our talk a try?
9    Master over eloquence and wit—the bribing
10  Belly, a contriver striving for speech denied.
11  But if hope gleams with a treacherous silver coin, 
12  you’ll believe crow poets and magpie poetesses
13  were singing of Pegasus’ sweet spring waters.
                                                                         translation © 2015 by James Rumford

My translation of his prologue is a bit different from the many other translations I’ve seen. Take ‘let my lips loose on’ in the first line. The Latin is prolui. Most translators say that this word has something to do with washing: pro + luo. But what if luo is ‘loosen’? I know that proluo, meaning ‘to really let loose’ doesn’t exist in any dictionary, but what if Persius is playing on the similarity of the two words? 

Then there is the word ‘wannabe’ in line 6. Persius uses the word semipaganus, which might mean ‘half-country,’ kinda like calling some rock singer who does some country music ‘half-country.’ I have thought about what Perseus could have meant by semipaganus and, given the context, came up with ‘wannabe.’

And what is the context? It is what it means to be a poet. While Horace wrote how magically he was turned into a poem-singing swan, Persius asks, perhaps with tongue in cheek, does being a poet just happen or do I have to be touched by the gods? Do I just drink from Horse Fountain (actually Hippocrene Fountain created when Pegasus gashed his hoof into Mount Helicon in Boeotia) or do I sleep on Mount Parnassus and poof! I’m a poet? Or do the Muses of Mount Helicon (sacred to Apollo) have to inspire me or do I have to be like some cadaverous princess named Pirene, who cried her eyes out and created a fountain in Corinth?  Well, that’s what people think of men-poets: wan, almost effeminate beings who wind up being immortalized not just by their words but by marvelously sculpted effigies in marble. If not that, then being a poet is just parroting what’s already been said, and doing a bad job of parroting at that. I mean, who ever gave me the notion I could write? I know: my stomach. I write to get money, and if ever I get paid for what I write, you’ll finally believe, and so will I, that I’m a real poet able to write about the spring water Pegasus liberated from the mountainside.

There is, I'm sure, a lot more in the fourteen lines Persius wrote, but I will leave you to explore.

Persius in Prose ::

Nec labra [in] fronte caballino prolui [memini].
Nec [in] Parnasso bicipiti somniasse memini, 
ut repente sic poeta prodirem. 
Heliconiadasque Pirenenque pallidam illis remitto, 
quorum hederae sequaces imagines lambunt. 
Ipse semipaganus carmen nostrum ad sacra vatum adfero. 
Quis chaere suum psittaco expedivit?
[Quis]que picam nostra verba conari docuit? 
Venter [est] magister artis ingenique.
[Et venter est] largitor.
[Et venter est] artifex voces negatas sequi.
Quodsi spes nummi dolosi refulgeat, 
credas poetas corvos et poetridas picas 
nectar Pegaseium cantare. 


:: Latin books by James Rumford ::

For all 102 odes purchase Carpe Diem, Horace De-Poetizedfor $11.50 at 

For a Latin translation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at $12, click here: 

To find out more about Carpe Diem go to the blog of March 26, 2015; 
for more about Pericla Thomae Sawyer, go to the blog of November 22, 2016.