Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Latin in the Levant: Two Poems in Latin by Byron

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Latin in the Levant: Two Poems in Latin by Byron

Article excerpt

Byron had embarked on his post-university travels to the Levant with his Cambridge friend, John Cam Hobhouse, in 1809; by the end of February 1811, with Hobhouse having left for England some months before, Byron was living in the Capuchin convent in Athens and reporting that 'for want of better employment I began several plans of scribbling'.1 Notwithstanding his claim in the same letter to have destroyed everything written hitherto except the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, his comment heralded an intense burst of creative Latinity in Athens and in the months immediately after his return to England. The product was a small cluster of translations and compositions, notably two surviving Latin poems examined below.

Byron's literary imagination and compositions were always susceptible to the contingent: 'The Horace I found in the convent', he said, so, in addition to translating prayers out of the Mass ritual, he opportunistically turned to Horace.2 The prime piece, the first drafts of which date to March 1811, was his only major mature exercise in classical translation, Hints from Horace, for which the subtitle was the comprehensively self-explanatory 'Being an Allusion in English Verse to the Epistle "Ad Pisones de Arte Poetica" and Intended as a Sequel to "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers"'. According to R.C. Dallas, Byron felt that a satirical work of literary criticism based on Horace 's Ars Poetica would mine the same popular seam as his continuingly successful English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, of which third and fourth editions had been issued in his absence.3 In the event, Hints from Horace had a chequered history: revised then shelved after Byron's return to London, it was revived in 1820, only to be abandoned again and published posthumously in 1831.

Byron in Athens utilised Horace further in producing a (now lost) translation into Italian of Horace's famous Exegi monumentum ode (Odes 3.30) and a somewhat free 'imitation' in English of the first eight lines of Satire 1.4, Horace's programmatic discussion and defence of the satiric genre.4 The satire's direct relevance to Horace's broader consideration of the poetic art in the Ars Poetica may explain why Byron's fair copy of his fragmentary version of Satire 1.4 was found bound up in a corrected manuscript of Hints from Horace.5 A letter to William Gifford of 1813 contains a witty, selfreferential glance at Satire 1.4's criticism of the Roman satirist, Lucilius, for dictating two hundred lines in an hour while standing on one foot (stans pede in uno), when the lame Byron remarks that The Bride of Abydos was the work of a week and 'scribbled "stans pede in uno" (by the bye [sic] the only foot I have to stand on)'.

What has not received sufficient attention is that also in this period Byron was engaging in Latin composition. First, he is credited with a Latin epitaph for the stone placed in the so-called Theseion (the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens' agora) over the body of a recently deceased English Protestant, George Watson, whom 'nec animi virtutes corporis vires juv[entutis] ver [nec haec] salube[rrima regio] cons[e]rvarent' ('neither excellences of mind, strength of body, the spring of youth nor this very healthgiving region could save from death').7 Of considerably greater interest, however, is that on Byron's own dating, while he was working in the convent on Hints from Horace, he was also producing the first fair copy of one of apparently only two extant examples of his verses in Latin, an epigram on Lord Elgin ('Lines Associated with The Curse of Minerva'). Then, a few months after his return to England, he wrote a Latin elegy for John Edleston, his 'more than friend' (CHP, II, 96).

There is a significance not to be undervalued in Byron's turning for intellectual stimulus to Latin works in such a concentration, while emphatically situating his lodging at the heart of the ancient city of Athens:

I am living in the Capuchin Convent, Hymettus before me, the Acropolis behind, the temple of Jove to my right, the Stadium in front, the town to the left, eh, Sir, there's a situation, there's your picturesque! …

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