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The Grace of Seduction

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Recognizing Persius

By Kenneth J. Reckford
Princeton University Press, 2009

From kingdom to republic to empire, the ancient Romans have transfixed the imagination of the ages, inspiring bestselling novels, plays, poems, movies, and TV productions (not to mention several nations and more than a few dictatorships). Throughout 2009, we trace their pomp and circumstance in “A Year with the Romans.”

In the preface to his 1616 translation of the Roman poet Persius, the middling-intellect third-rate grind Barten Holyday resorts to a rather desperate rhetorical game in an attempt to wallpaper the faults of his work; he complains to his readers that in order for him to have made no mistakes in his translation, he himself would have to be translated – from fallible human to something more. This dubious excuse notwithstanding, scholars have found little enough to praise in Holyday’s work, the first published English translation of this poet – but they’ve echoed his underlying sentiment all the same. This is as pure a case as possible of that most terrifying of all literary types: difficult poetry.


Aulus Persius Flaccus was born (according to a scholastic tradition that looks as reliable as such things can ever be) in Etruria in December, A.D. 34 and died in November, A. D. 62, not yet twenty-eight. His family was of non-noble rank but extremely wealthy, and at age 12 Persius was sent by his mother and various aunts (both his father and his step-father having died early) to undertake his formal education in Rome. He studied under the best teachers of rhetoric and literature and poetry (his school’s curriculum included, among others, the founder of Roman satiric verse Lucilius and his most famous literary descendant, Horace) and, armed with spending money, a friendly disposition, and effeminate good looks, he quickly acquired the friendship not only of other poets (such as the lyric poet Caesius Bassus, who’s addressed in his work and would become his literary executor) but of influential people throughout Roman society. One of these was the Stoic senator Thrasea Paetus, who, Suetonius tells us, was well-known about the City for disliking – or worse, disapproving of – the young emperor Nero.

When Persius was sixteen, he came under the tutelage – and the sway – of the renowned Stoic philosopher and teacher Cornutus (the poet Lucan, an early and ardent admirer of Persius’ work, was also a student of Cornutus), who was also no great friend of Nero’s (Cornutus was banished when he dared to offer editorial advice on a projected literary work of the emperor’s). We’re told that Persius worked raro et tarde – rarely and slowly – at his verses, and there is in those verses themselves the persistent background hint that the young poet was not in the best of physical health. Well before his 30th birthday he died, and Cornutus stepped in to shape his literary legacy before handing it on to Caesius Bassus for publication – juvenilia was destroyed, and, legend has it, certain lines openly critical of Nero were altered, presumably to avoid drawing the imperial wrath down on what family Persius left behind (the poet also left behind a vast inheritance, most of which – including a huge amount of money and a huge library, including hundreds of texts by the Stoic philosopher Chryssipus – he bequeathed to Cornutus, who declined in favor of Persius’ family, although he kept the books).

That literary legacy consists of six brief works – a total of less than 800 lines of brainy, convoluted, hyper-allusive, multi-voiced hexameter quasi-satires. In one afternoon, you could recite the whole collected works of Persius with plenty of time to spare … but fully understanding those works was already a Herculean task when the young poet was alive and working. In the present age, stripped of virtually all the knowledge of classical literature which came standard with the Roman poet’s education, Persius has never looked more opaque.

But there are different kinds of so-called difficult poetry, as even poetry pikers know. There’s difficult poetry that achieves its status deliberately, when the poet goes out of his way to be obscure – and artificial difficulty, as it were, like the type worked to such a pitch by Ezra Pound at his worst. And then there’s poetry that’s difficult essentially by accident, because its poet was genuinely grappling with concepts and devices out on the borderland of language itself, as in the best of Whitman. The former kind of difficult poetry requires critical glossing because the process of understanding it is completely un-intuitive … nothing can be done without the glossing. The latter kind of difficult poetry is a different story entirely: it longs to be understood by the non-specialist reader, but its glinting obliqueness is its own worst enemy.

What’s needed in that second case is a guide, and when we think of classical literature, the names of our best guides come to us in almost unbidden pairing with their subjects. There’s Finley on Homer, Fraenkel on Horace, Shackleton-Bailey on Cicero, Green on Apollonius, de Selincourt on Herodotus. The list goes on, and now Persius is lucky enough to join it. This most difficult of Roman poets, whose style one classicist referred to as “strange, vivid, crabbed, slangy,” has found a perfect preceptor for the modern reading world: Kenneth Reckford’s Recognizing Persius becomes at once our indispensable volume on this writer.

Dryden, in his preface to his translation of that other great Roman satirist Juvenal, had at times disparaging comments to make about Persius’ tendency toward obscurity, and Reckford contends that the great man’s verdict has set the terms of understanding Persius ever since. But Reckford, a professor emeritus of Greek and Latin in the Department of Classics at the University of North Carolina, has been teaching Persius, talking about him and thinking about him, for many years – long enough, at any rate, to confidently call Dryden mistaken. Persius can be obscure, yes, but the untangling is worth the effort:

Without understanding – which requires looking up unfamiliar words like examen and trutina and cachinno, and picking up allusions (Labeonem) and peculiarities of idiom (nostrum istud vivere triste) from translations and commentaries, and trying to sort out these baffling voices and ideas, at least in a preliminary way – you cannot enjoy Persius. But you won’t understand Persius, either, unless you enjoy him, even at first, by what might be called poetry’s prevenient grace of seduction as you read out those striking phrases and lines. “O curas hominum! o quantum est in rebus inane!” They need, before anything else, to be heard.

Considering how little of his work we have, it’s remarkable how vivid and wide-ranging Persius’ sketches are; this is hardly journeyman work, despite the poet’s youth. The first satire is a scathing send-up of the poetic milieu at Rome, the pretentious hacks, the self-important flummery of readings, the senseless elevation of garbage, all excoriated from the standard ‘angry outsider’ standard stance of the genre. The second satire continues this intolerant tone, but the subject expands to encompass more of the vanities and stupidities of Roman culture in general, and the third satire amplifies this tirade still more dramatically. It’s daunting terrain, full of gestures and poses, and Reckford reads it all with reassuring closeness, as when discussing the abrupt shift in tone that happens at the third satire’s conclusion:

And Persius’s ending? After the horrors earlier it seems surprisingly mild, like a return to Horace’s gentler, more ironic mode of humor. Money, a pretty girl: not much danger here; untreated sore in delicate mouth: a comic exaggeration of sensibilities; then quickly on to fear, anger, and the Horatian blackout. But is Persius putting us on? Is he inviting us, not just to enjoy some relief after all that emotional intensity, but also to relax into an easier state of mind, a more superficially Horatian mode, in which we might laugh off our symptoms and ignore the philosopher’s healing advice? We have that choice – though we may not have it for long.

Self-knowledge – its value and difficulty – is at the heart of all Persius’ work but most visibly the fourth satire, in which Socrates berates his erstwhile student Alcibiades for his wayward life. The result is spirited, densely referential, and virtually untranslatable:

“Affairs of state handled by you?” (hear the bearded Master
say this, the one downed by that deadly drink of hemlock)
“You, qualified how? Tell me that, O great Periclean pupil.
Smarts and worldly wisdom have come early, have they,
Before your first whiskers, you with all the answers,
So when the fevered crowd is boiling with anger,
You’ll move to silence them with a gesture, and say what?
“Romans,” maybe, “this isn’t just; it’s poorly done, there’s a better way.”
No doubt you can weigh justice on those two wobbly scales!
You can trace the straight line even when it winds through curves,
Even when it staggers; you can always mark the wrong with black.
So! If your decorative face is pointless, why not stop ass-wagging
For the cheering groundlings, before you drink maddening Anticryas?
What do you consider the greatest good? To dine on rich fare, always?
To sun yourself, perpetually? This old lady will say the same thing –
Like you, all inflated: “I’m Dinomache’s son! I shine!” Yes, right.
Only crone Baucis is as sensible, selling salves to slobbering slaves.
Nobody tries to know themselves anymore, nobody!
Instead, you just stare at the backpack on the back in front of them!
Maybe you ask, ‘Do you know the estates of Vettius?’
‘Who?’ ‘The Cures millionaire, with farms wider than a kite’s flight.’
‘Oh him! He’s hated by the gods – hated even by his own gods.
When he parks his yoke at the ragged, holy crossroads shrine,
Hesitant to scrape the dirt from his jar, sighing ‘Let it be well!’
while he’s munching a salted onion still in its jacket. His slave-boys
slurp their porridge while he drains the grainy dregs of outdated vinegar.’
But if you relax after a bath and get the sun just right on your skin
some stranger will elbow you and growl, ‘How mortifying!
Brandishing your prick and butt-crack, showing all your onions!
And another thing: how come you prune and tend your chin-hair
While your little reed sprouts all hairless from your crotch?
Even if five wrestling trainers were to pluck you, that tangle of yours!
That carpet couldn’t be tamed by any plowing.’
And so we kick and get kicked in turn – it’s the way we know to live.
Down in your crotch you hide a hurt, but your golden belt covers it.
Fine, fine. Lie and fool your body, if that’s what you want.
‘When everybody tells me I’m wonderful, can’t I believe them?’
Shameless, shameless – if you do whatever your cock tells you,
If once you’re safe you drive the others from the market,
Then it’s pointless to offer your vain attentions to the public.
Get rid of what’s fake in you – give back the work that was done.
Try living on your own, see how little furniture you have for it.’

This is dense, abstruse stuff, and about these and the final two satires Reckford is at once gentle and provocative. He’s perfectly aware that he’s introducing Persius to a wider, general audience, but he’s not simply transmitting received opinion. He’s done a great deal of critical thinking about the poet, and not even the basic shorthand descriptions I’ve been using here avoid a thorough going-over:

To call Persius a Stoic is misleading. His poetry, though infused with Stoic concepts and values, is not didactic (though it shares important human insights with Lucretius’s didactic epic, De Rerum Natura). As satire, it asserts its own special autonomy, its own originality of exploration. And what is discovered is often surprising. Among other things, it acknowledges powerful and dangerous feelings of desire and fear, anger and grief, scorn and rebellion and self-disgust, that Stoic theorists and teachers too easily dismiss. The poetry does not, I think, contradict the philosophy, but it tests its results in the person of one unusually sensitive and self-aware human being.

It’s almost impossible to avoid seeing the Persius who comes through in his poems as a young man in a hurry, urgently distilling a brilliant young lifetime’s learning. Infrequently and slowly, we’re told the poet worked – and we can see it in the poems, packed as they are, strange and fast as they are. Reckford is particularly perceptive in the ways he reads the scanty facts of Persius’ life into his poetry, as in this quietly wonderful passage deducing just how much poetry went into that life:

Probably he had at least four residences to go to with his different responsibilities: (a) his family home in Volterra, where he supervised the business affairs of his mother, his sister, his aunt, and himself; (b) a villa in the countryside where, like a feudal lord, he would watch over the lives of his dependents, taking an interest in their day-to-day affairs, their needs, and their farms’ productivity, and settling disputes among them; (c) a house in Rome, for a mix of pleasure and business; and (d) a larger villa outside of Rome, where one could do official entertaining – presumably near that “eighth milestone on the Via Appia” where Persius was buried. Against such a background, what should we conclude about his life and work?

To put it simply: he probably spent most of his time not writing poetry …

And the specter of that time’s shortness – a slight, almost indefinable tic of unwellness that crops up repeatedly in the verses’ less guarded moments – also gets a sensitive evocation:

It is not, indeed, just an implied author whom we should imagine standing before us, like one of Homer’s ghosts drinking the blood that lets him speak, but an implicated author, implicated in the physicality of the very body in which he first performed his satires (if only for himself). This was a body, after all, that may have been frailer than most – that may already have given its tenant notice of his impending eviction.

Persius’ weird, idiosyncratic combination of multi-layered erudition and raw barbaric yawp has always spoken to those writers brave enough to breathe his rarefied air; Donne loved him, and Erasmus learned from him. It’s doubtful Shakespeare (with his “small Latin”) could read him in the original, but he had a faithful trot to lean on. Dryden was wary but impressed, Pope paid him the ultimate flattery of unattributed filching … but an age unlearned in Latin and unschooled in classical allusion is in danger of losing this difficult poet altogether. Recognizing Persius aims to defuse that danger, while paying it all due respect:

And this is our challenge: to dig Persius up again (so to speak), to read and reperform his satire and listen, really listen, to what it has to say. What he said of Aristophanes – that you must grow pale studying him, that you must submit yourself to the comic catharsis – shows also, I think, how he himself ideally wanted to be read, and how we should read him today: with strong laughter, yes, but also “fear and trembling.” For Persius pursues truth and integrity with a passionate self-honesty that is hard to follow.

It’s a slim volume to match its subject’s (and there’s old Chryssipus on the cover, a pensive statue Persius himself almost certainly admired in person), and like its subject’s, it’s heavily freighted with learning and insight – but with considerably less yelling, and Reckford got to enjoy his 30th birthday.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.

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