Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Burns night and Martial

The 25th of January is the birthday of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet. Since the early nineteenth century this has been celebrated by Burns suppers, at which Haggis is eaten (which is almost certainly much nicer than you imagine), whisky is drunk, and Burns' poetry is read. I am taking students through an older poet tonight, Ovid, so I shan't be partaking of haggis (though a single malt in the pub afterwards will be had). But I went to a Burns supper hosted by friends on Saturday night, and took to read the poems discussed in the following.

In 1782, James Elphinstone, described in the Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen of 1856 as "a miscellaneous writer", published a poetic translation of the Roman epigrammatist and satirist Marcus Valerius Martialis, better-known in English as "Martial". Five years later, Burns published his response to The Epigrams of M. Val. Martial in Twelve Volumes. It's safe to say that he wasn't impressed.

On Elphinstone’s Translation of Martial’s Epigrams (1787)

O Thou whom Poetry abhors,
Whom Prose has turned out of doors,
Heard’st thou yon groan? – proceed no further,
’Twas laurel’d Martial calling murther.
(The last word may have more impact if you pronounce it after the fashion of STV's long-running crime drama series, Taggart.)

Not many people were impressed by Elphinstone. According to the Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, the work was widely ridiculed. Fortunately, through the magic of Google Books, the work is available online, so we can find out what the fuss was about.

Elphinstone has messed around with his materials. His arrangement of Martial into twelve books doesn't match that commonly employed today, which has fifteen books plus On the Spectacles, Martial's collection of epigrams on the opening of the Colosseum. It appears as if Elphinstone has rearranged Martial's work on thematic grounds. This, of course, makes it hard to find the epigram one is looking for, as Elphinstone has only provided a one-way concordance. But it is possible to find what one is looking for with patience.

And so (partly because I'm familiar with it as it gets used for teaching), I lit on Epigram 3.51 (Elphinstone's 6.38) as a means of looking at what Elphinstone did. First, here is the Latin.

Cum faciem laudo, cum miror crura manusque,
dicere, Galla, soles "Nuda placebo magis",
et semper uitas communia balnea nobis.
Numquid, Galla, times ne tibi non placeam?

Galla is a name Martial uses a lot - she appears as an object of desire, as someone who is going through a string of intellectual husbands who turn out to be latent homosexuals and crap in bed, and as a prostitute. But the likelihood is that this is a generic name, and the various Gallas are not meant to be the same person.

And now, Elphinstone:

When, Galla, thy face, hands and legs I admire,
Thou say’st; I, when naked, more pleasing shall be.
Yet, one common bath, I full vainly require:
Dost fear that I shall not be pleasing to thee?

This is about as racy as Elphinstone gets. (Martial gets racier, but Elphinstone sanitizes him.) And, reading this aloud, I can understand why everyone objected so much to Elphinstone's translation.

Here, for something more prosaic (in the literal sense, but perhaps also taking some of the fun out of Martial), is D.R. Shackleton Bailey's 1993 Loeb translation):

When I praise your face and admire your legs and hands, Galla, you are apt to say: "You’ll like me better naked." And yet you always avoid taking a bath with me. Can it be, Galla, that you are afraid you may not like me?

And finally, here is a translation of it by me. Inspired by Roz Kaveney's recent translations of Catullus as Shakespearian sonnets (a few of which I published in the latest issue of CA News), I thought I would see if Martial could be adapted into limericks. I think it works quite well. It's a bit more vulgar than martial is in this poem, but given how vulgar he is elsewhere, I think he'd approve. (Since the etymological derivation of 'Galla' is 'a female Gaul', I have changed the addressee accordingly.)

To Frenchie

When I praise all your visible parts
You say "Nude, I’m a real work of art".
Share a bath to unwind?
That you always decline.
Are you scared that you won’t like my arse?

I have more Martialian limericks. You have been warned.