PERSIUS The Preface and Satire

William Harris



Persius is indeed very strange. He it intensely difficult to read in Latin, not so much for the ideas as for the word he uses, rare words, words never found again, ancient words mixed with slang of his day. Into this tough texture this slim young man, raised by aunts and the apt student of a Stoic Greek philosopher-schoolmaster, injects thoughts common to the Stoic intelligentia of his time, and oddly, common to the nascent Christian community in many ways. Perhaps this is why in the tenth century A.D. there is such a rash of dozens and dozens of Persius manuscripts --- for the (assumed) Christian content. Could the monks read what a modern Grad student need dictionary and commentary for?

Classicists have ignored Persius for years, claiming that he writes an "impure" Latinity with all his mixed words and oddities. But the generation which read Eliot's Prufrock with joy should have seen that Persius was a forerunner, striking out on a new way. Recently he has become interesting again, and read and even translated, although there are problems in this. How do you translate something as odd and quirky as Persius' wording without appearing un-authentic?

Would you get a better idea of the six slim Satires if I translated them in the style of Finnegan's Wake? - - - These translations were done years ago, they are fairly direct and clear, with my best efforts to get some of the snap and knee-jerk which the original has. Reading slowly and picturing the images will help.

One last point: The setting of this third Satire fits the American college scene remarkably well, a world in which aimless sons on the rich and famous dot our colleges, wasting years of their lives without aim or purpose, rotting their minds with games of no worth, their bodies with pot and cocaine. And the end is the same, not Orestes the ancient madman's cell but the Rehab. Center, and far too often a funeral procession, not quite like the Roman one, but with the same end. There is a certain timliness to Satire III after all.




THE PREFACE

I don't recall lipping a sip at Hippocrene, or a nap
In double domed Parnassus' lap at all,
That I come popping forth a proper poet. Take
Your Muses and the bookish spring of inspiration back,
Leave them at least in stone with ivy clad, to holy rites
Of Poetry I bring my home made song,
Novice myself and apprentice to the trade...
Who taught the parrot to parrot his cheery "bonjour",
And crow to abuse the words we use. 1 know,
It was our old Ph.D.., and Foundation for the Arts,
The teacher that can teach when talent lacks,
None other than - - - GUTS AND GREED

Let there shine reflected shimmer of a royalty,
Behold, inspired poetic nectar slowly drips
From male and female parrot poets' lips.



SATIRE III

"Really, this just can't, can't go on...".. the morning light
Comes through the windows bulging out the shutter slats,
While we shoot out a snore to take the froth
Off last night's undigested drinks that roll inside,
A given angle or the sun at this moment marks,
Telling across the dial, outside, the hour five.

"Where ARE you...?" The parching raging sun of hot July,
Inclining more, is cooking up the land, the lowing herd
Has moved beneath the spreading chestnut tree.
"Really..." a friend begins, "No quick, come here,
Hurry - - - a basin... Where...? " the bile runs green
"it's coming up..." You'd think a wart-hog roared.

Into thick fingers passing book and pen,
Parchment sheeetwhite with red lines neatly ruled
Across. Complaint, thick ink caked on the nib,
Thinned now with water, its color disappears,
Complaint! it spits double dots upon the page.
0 poor sad slob, and sadder every day,
We've come to this... biddy birdie, or baby
No want 'licious num-num, drink a mil-mil.
Write with a pen like this ?
These words
This whimpering sniffling. The joke's on you,
Leaking witless. Jar not cooked with green clay,
Struck lightly, proves by sound it's made no good..
Clay? It's mud! Quick, quick, back to the potter's wheel,
Around and around form him up as the slime slips down....

..........but you have fields of wheat and barley grain,
An ancient sterling saltsellar without stain,
And sets of plate for snug bites by the hearth...
You worry...? Or should you snap your lung
For Etruscan forebears double square removed,
Or greet "our" senator in proper regal dress.
Dress?..... off with the baubles to the rabble, I KNOW YOU
Under the skin. You feel no shame
Living the life of a Riley, all gone limp
Jaw hung open in old degeneracy,
No shame, idea of loss, sunk
Third time under
no
b
u
b
b
l
e
s
anymore.

Father of Gods, you could not ever wish
To punish tyrants pricked with poisoned lust
With other punishment than to see Virtue die
And know she's gone forever. Tell me, was it worse
When bronze bull roared with roasting man inside?
Or sword hung over royal head by just one thread?...
.......than when you say "I'm cracking, I'm over the edge..."
And go all pale inside, a secret thing
Your wife in bed beside you never knew.

I still remember when I was a boy, I'd give
My eyes a touch of the olive to make them smear,
Unwilling to memorize the dying speech
Of Cato --- it was great praise, to be sure
From nutty master while my father sat
Among his friends, hot in a prideful sweat.
You bet! What I really wanted to know
Was how much winning from double six eye throw,
How much snake eyes lost, pitching pennies
Into the narrow bottle neck, real expertise
Spinning the top the best in all the gang.
But you, Sir, you know the ways of catching curves
In Morals, Porticos of the Schools, the nightwatch
Of shaven, sleepless scholars munching piles
Of cabbage with their mushy porridge mess,
And u-psilon with the binary moral choice
Swinging up higher on the right-hand side......

Still snoring? Head and neck joint all gone slack,
Cheeks unstitched, yawning off yesterday's.....?
Tell me! Have you any aim in life,
Or is it enough to live for the moment now,
Following footsteps where the footstep leads,
Slinging rocks or mud at croaking fleeting crows?

Medicine can't do much when the skin is swollen and green,
Why pay the doctors thousands? Catch and check the disease.
For God's sake get the basic issues clear - - -
What are we humans, what's the aim of Life,
The shape of it, where is the hairpin turn
Best to be taken, and when? What's the right use of gold,
Of hope and prayer, what barb's on the dollar bill?
What would you give to country, family, friends?
What sort of a man did God wish you to be,
Playing what sort of role?...
Don't skew off, hear!
Just because you have cupboards of foodstuff rotting silently,
Reward for a rich case won in Umbria, and hams
Gift of a Marsian client, and wine sauce herring jars
Hardly yet opened...

One of the hairy army sergeants says:
For me, what 1 know is enough,, I don't give a damn
For nutty Solons and sad sack Socrates,
Dragging along and staring at the ground,
Chawing on mumbles and hydrophobic silences,
Balancing ---uhh--- every word ---uhh--- on lip ---aaaah
Musing on nightmares of some sick old dead one long ago
NOTHING CAN COME FROM NOTHING OR CAN NOTHING BE
REDUCED TO NOTHINGNESS. Go pale for this,
Sit and miss your dinner?
The ring of listeners roars,
And the big army boys, nose crinkled, double roars.

"Doctor, 1'm upset, a funny tight feeling in my chest,
Bad breath, and indigestion; I thought you should take a look."
Told to be quiet, take a rest, within three days
He felt his blood circulate in the usual ways.
Out to a friend's estate, asks for a decent stein
In which to drink a mild and soothing wine
Before the baths. His friend: "My boy, you're pale". "I'm not!"
"You should see how you look, pale and quite yellow.. "
"Not as much as you. Think you're my guardian?
I thought I buried him some time ago." "OK, go on, I'm done"
He takes his bath, stuffed from his meal, distended gut,
Throat fetching up an awful sulphurous fume,
A shaking gets the fellow as be bathes,
He drops his toddy, teeth begin to sound,
Chattering he spills his dinner on the floor.

Result? A fine processional with trumpets and tapers too,
Our poor fellow now looking quite relaxed
All cosmetized with powder and some sweet smells
High on a bier with feet turned toward the door,
Borne out by his slaves (smiling day-old Roman citizens).

"OK, feel my pulse, Sir, put your hand right here,
Here on my chest. Quite calm! Fingers and toes
Are warm and normal..." But if you see
A bit of fast cash or the neighbor's daughter's knee,
Your heart runs normal? If I put on a chilly plate
Coarse cabbage and plebeian rough-ground bread,
You think of your gums, that ulcer in the throat,
You would not rub it raw, get it inflamed with beets.
You're cold when fear erects a gooseflesh skin.
Now passion hots you up, the blood begins to boil,
Eyes flashing with wrath....... Consider Orestes' padded cell,
There's a case for you. What you do and daily say
Would be enough for any sane judge to put you away.



Return to Translations index

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris