How to Read a Latin Poem: If You Can’t Read Latin Yet by William Fitzgerald

Roger Rees on gaining some understanding of the linguistic and literary richness of Latin poetry without knowing the language

April 4, 2013

About 40 years ago, faced with declining numbers of students and charges of elitism in an educational climate where the 11-plus was beginning to have to fight for its survival, Classics departments in most UK universities began to introduce Classical studies courses and degrees. Having little Latin and less Greek was no longer a barrier to the study of Homer, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, Tacitus and the rest of antiquity’s great writers, because Classical studies degrees offered the texts in translation. The ancient languages would remain available, but by providing programmes in translation as well, Classics could shed its crusty image and open its doors to everyone. In translation, reading lists could grow, demanding that students read huge swathes of text and develop panoramic views of ancient literary culture. No Greek and Latin required; no elitism; no problem.

But there was a problem. While Classical studies has evolved into a rich and popular degree, combining the history, literature, art, myth, politics and philosophy of Greece and Rome, and like many other humanities programmes sends out plenty of graduates into the workplace, few of them can pursue a career in secondary education; fewer still in the tertiary sector. If you can’t read a Latin poem in Latin, what you can think, say, write and teach about a Latin poem in translation is restricted. In literary criticism in particular, Classical studies has a glass ceiling. The profession knows this, and has tried various means to keep Latin alive in UK education since the 1970s: the Cambridge Latin Course (not rigorous enough), the Oxford Latin Course (too hard), Minimus (just right, if you catch the pupil young enough), and intensive beginners’ courses in sixth forms and degree programmes, as well as summer schools to cater for all abilities.

William Fitzgerald has taken a different line. His is a radical, deep-end immersion in less than 300 pages, with no grammar tables - no amo, amas, amat. There is no attempt to be comprehensive, and it assumes a fair degree of critical experience in the reader. The book is a degustation of the linguistic and literary richness of classical Latin poetry. Fitzgerald flits through Latin’s case and metrical systems, flamboyantly bringing in Kipling, Wilfred Owen, Milton and Coleridge; the bulk of the book then dances selectively across the canonical hits of republican and imperial poetry - elegy, epic, lyric, tragedy and their most famous exponents. The effect is mercurial and bold. Fitzgerald animates the dead language, covering acres but often highlighting details, such as the expressive power of word order, or English derivations.

Why this poetry matters and why it is worth the effort seem to be the underlying impulse; Fitzgerald cagily casts his book as a first or early step towards learning Latin. Readers won’t learn much Latin here, but by the range and sensitivity of these chapters, they may be inspired to go on to try. But however you do it, learning Latin well enough to appreciate its finest poetry does not come quickly, a fact this book fails to mention. Some poetry lovers with no Latin would read this book with profit. Most of its readers will be sixth-formers and undergraduates, and even relatively experienced Latin students will benefit; but it will be a major achievement if the book inspires Classical studies students to learn Latin. This attempt to return to Latin without being elitist and stuffy highlights a fault line in our discipline. The glass ceiling is still there; this book helps to demonstrate how we might smash it and why we should.

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