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A New Book of Verse


If someone, having browsed in the Introduction, were to suggest that A New Book of Verse sounds sort of classical, I wouldn’t immediately be bothered.

Not, I mean, if what was intended was that while you may gaze adoringly into the universe, it won’t gaze adoringly back at you, and that poets don’t possess a special kind of insight into reality, courtesy of Metaphor, Image, and Symbol, Inc., and that the poems here, by and large, are amenable to reality-checking, and that they weren’t picked for what they reveal about the authors’ personalities but for what they show about their subjects and how they’re handled—poems as speech-acts—, and that there’s a lot of shared and replicable craftsmanship, and no glass wall between Art (good by definition) and Mere—“mere” versifying, “mere” entertainment, “mere” whatever.

But of course I wouldn’t want to see Neo sidling in, with an implication of formal hardness, an ostentatious literary allusiveness, and a desire to recapture the true Greco-Roman gravitas, relieved of “the reek of the human.”

No, no Neo-ism, please. The actual poetry of Greece and Rome was very different from that. However, not knowing how a single line of Greek verse goes, I have to back away instantly from the Greek, beyond reflecting that Greek literature, as read in translation, seems to have had more than its share of sex-and-violence, the violence mostly being generated by the sexing.

A lot of Roman poetry, in contrast, was Eros without the violence, with no strong barriers between fucking and friendship and tenderness, and with a pastoral relishing of the pleasures of peace, Roman political violences being so appalling. The gods, when shown due respect, were sexually laissez-faire (if the gods do it, why not we?), and Hades was more an affair of exile, deprivation, and regret than a judicial torture chamber.

But there was an ongoing thrusting of selves against one another in those gossipy bitchy cities where anything went, if you knew where to look for it, with the warm months making loitering and assignations easier, and literally servile porters and other servants acting as facilitators—all very different from what obtained in Tudor London. Plus a sardonic eye for the looks of other players in the sex game, especially ugly, self-conceited rich men with halitosis. And anger when thwarted.

There was also less guilt. Speakers in verse could expose their innermost emotions and sexual doings in ways unthinkable in Tudor England, where sexual poaching invited heavy trouble from jealous menfolk and you would not wish to be accused of sodomy. Evidently, though, while it was OK being a top (regardless of what was underneath), being a bottom, particularly with a slave, was womanish and shaming, at least in principle. But there weren’t borders beyond which one stepped, or was thrust, into outer darkness. And in contrast to the interminable Tudor yearning and pleading, with at the apex that untouchable Virgin Queen, the life of frank achievable sexuality, enjoyed by both parties, was intellectually and socially interesting. As it was over in France for Ronsard and others.

I’ve chosen two poems each by Ovid, Catullus, Martial, and Propertius to stand in for the zone of being that I’ve sketched. Horace and Virgil are off elsewhere being nobler, with imperial approval. It seems to me a sophisticated mix, and much more interesting than the ponderous pessimism of Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” The true Classical voices in “my” eighteenth century are those of Swift, and some of the women, and, preeminently, Pope.

The sophistication, conversational ease, and raffishness of Ovid and company, so different from the improving texts whose metres were flogged into the bottoms of public-schoolboys, would have been a comfort to Byron, and helped to make possible the classical-romanticism of Don Juan, and Praed’s best poems, and Musset’s, and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, that was such an attractive feature of the Romantic decades when viewed through un-Wordsworthian eyes.

Since ten years of Latin, very badly taught, left me with nothing but a few tags like “tempus fugit,” “aequam memento,” and “vae victis,” which I could have acquired less arduously from a dictionary of quotations, I can’t tell how close in feeling the translations here are to the originals. Nor do I understand quantitative metres. But the translations feel plausible, which is what matters.

The very decidedly un-neo Ezra Pound, and J.V. Cunningham with his liking for "the trivial, vulgar, and exalted," are major presences in the Penguin volumes. And in “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” “Some French Poets,” and his long essay on Henry James and Rémy de Gourmont, all from around the end of the Great War, Pound, that indispensable animateur of twentieth-century verse, was obviously working out a pattern of culture very different from the shambles of the battlefields and the ghastly neo-classical rhetoric about Glory and how sweet and fitting it was to die for one’s country (or have half one’s face blown away).

Returning from the carnage, the Greek-and-Latin-reading F.R. Leavis, who had served as a stretcher-bearer, would mount his own campaign against the neoclassical, and draw major attention to zones in which classical and romantic attitudes intermingle. As they do in A New Book of Verse.



[Parrot, that feathered mimic]
Parrot, that feathered mimic from India’s dawnlands,
Is dead. Come, flocking, birds,
To his funeral: come all you godfearing airborne
Creatures, beat breasts with wings,
Mourn, claw your polls, tear out soft feather (your hair), and
Pipe high your sad lament.
Philomela, nightingale, the ancient crime of Tereus
Which you lament is long past—
Divert your grief at the obsequies of a rare and modern
Bird: poor Itylus’ case was tragic, but antique.
All wing-borne voyagers through the clear empyrean
Lament now, and above all
His friend the turtle-dove. They lived in complete agreement,
Their bond of faith held firm to the end.
What Pylades was to Orestes of Argos, that, Parrot,
Turtle-dove was to you—while fate allowed.
Yet of no avail your devotion, your rare and beautiful plumage,
Your adaptable mimic’s voice;
Not even the care that my darling lavished on you—
Poor Polly, paragon of birdhood, is dead.
So green his feathers, they dimmed the cut emerald; scarlet
His beak, with saffron spots.
No bird on earth could copy a voice more closely
Or sound so articulate.
Fate, jealous, removed him—that unaggressive creature,
That talkative devotee of peace,
With his tiny appetite, whose love of conversation
Left him little leisure for food,’
Who lived on a diet of nuts, used poppy-seed to encourage
Sound sleep: kept his thirst at bay
With nothing but water. Quails spend their whole lives fighting—
Maybe that’s how they reach a ripe old age.
Carnivorous vultures, kites gyring high in the heavens,
Weather-wise jackdaws, prophets of rain to come,
All are long-lived—while Minerva’s bête noire, the raven,
Can outlast generations. Yet Parrot is dead,
That loquacious parody of human utterance, that bonanza
From the eastern edge of the world.
Greedy death almost always picks off the best ones early—
It’s the third-raters who reach a ripe old age.
Thersites attended the funeral of Protesilaus; Hector
Was ashes while his brothers still lived.
What point in recalling the desperate prayers my sweetheart uttered?
Some stormy sirocco blew them out to sea.
Six days he survived, and then, at dawn on the seventh,
His thread of destiny ran out.
Yet somehow, though dying, he could still find utterance,
And the last words he ever spoke were: “Corinna, farewell!”
Beneath a hill in Elysium, where dark ilex cluster
And the moist earth is for ever green,
There exists—or so I have heard—the pious fowls’ heaven
(All ill-mened predators barred).
Harmless swans roam after food there, there dwells the phoenix,
That long-lived, ever-solitary bird;
There Juno’s peacock spreads out his splendid fantail
Amid the billing and cooing of amorous doves;
And there, in this woodland haven, the feathered faithful
Welcome Parrot, flock round to hear him talk.
His bones lie buried under a parrot-sized tumulus
With a tiny headstone bearing these words:
R.I.P. Polly: this tribute from his loving mistress:
“Articulate beyond a common bird.”

Publius Ovidus Naso (43 BC–17/18 AD) Amores, Book II, #6
Tr. Peter Green ©
For acknowledgements, see Permissions.

[Where, if it’s not too much to ask]

if it’s not too much to ask
are you hiding,
I’ve searched for you in the circus
in the parks
among the bookstalls
even in Church (!)
I have accosted
on Pompey’s Broadway
tart after tart,
as you would expect
with a succession of blank looks.
“Where’s Camerius, you low-down whores?”
One opens her bodice;
“You could find him between these pink tits
if you looked.
A job,
I reflected, for Hercules.

Why, Camerius
why arrogate to yourself this scarcity value?

If I were Europa’s bronze jailer
doing my rounds in Crete,
if I were fleet Ladas
or feather-footed Perseus,
If I rode the sky like Pegasus
or with the dazzling swiftness of Rhesus’ team
—supposing I had the sandals of all the winds
I should still feel myself sapped dry
even with fatigue
looking for you,
Come, Camerius, out with it
bare your precious secret to the day—
where are we likely to find you?
who are these girls
pliant as cream
who detain you?
to keep the tongue locked in the mouth
is to reject love’s seasoning:
love-talk enhances love-acts.
if you want to,
bolt up your mouth . . .
divulge to Catullus the whereabouts of this amour,
so we may share her.

Gaius Valerius Catullus (ca. 84–54 BC), The Poems of Catullus,
Tr. Peter Whigham
(Penguin Classics, 1966)

[To you, my parents]

To you, my parents, I send on
This little girl Erotion,
The slave I loved, that by your side
Her ghost need not be terrified
Of the pitch darkness underground
Or the great jaws of Hades’ hound.
This winter she would have completed
Her sixth year had she not been cheated
By just six days. Lisping my name,
May she continue the sweet game
Of childhood happily down there
In two such good, old spirits’ care.
Lie lightly on her turf and dew:
She put so little weight on you.

Marcus Valerius Martialis (ca. 40–104 AD), The Epigrams
Tr. James Michie
(Penguin Classics, 1978)

[Our lamplit brawl]

Our lamplit brawl last night delighted me,
And the many maledictions of your frantic tongue
When you thrust back the table and flung wine-cups—
Full ones—at me frenziedly, frantically.
Be rash, come on, attack my hair,
And mark my face with your shapely claws,
And threaten to burn out my eyes with close-held fire,
And rip my tunic and leave me bare chested!—
Indubitable signs of sincere affection:
No female is so vexed, unless by onerous love.

The woman whose raving tongue hurls abuse
Rolls and grovels at the feet of mighty Venus:
She goes out thronged around with flocks of protectors,
Or patrols the streets like a stricken Maenad:
Irrational dreams repeatedly affright the timid thing,
Or some girl’s painted picture makes her miserable.
I am a reliable analyst of mental anguish:
These are sure marks, I have learned, of a constant passion.
There is no constant troth that may not turn to scolding—
May phlegmatic girls be my enemies’ lot.

Let my peers see the wounds in my bitten neck:
This black and blue announces that I have handled her.
In loving I would grieve, or else hear grief:
I would see your tears, or else my own,
If ever your eyebrows transmit a message in code,
Or if your fingers signal some writing not to be read.
I scorn such sighs as never penetrate sleep,
I would wish to be always pale for an angry mistress.

His fire was sweeter to Paris when he had to carry
Her pleasure to Tyndareus’ daughter through Argive troops:
While Danaans prevailed, and savage Hector stood firm,
He waged most noble war in Helen’s thighs.
Either with you, or for you with my rivals,
I shall always be in arms: no peace with you can please.
Rejoice, for none is as fair as you: you would grieve
If there was one, but you may with cause be proud.

—And as for you, who spread your nets in our bed,
May your home be never quit of your mother-in-law,
And your wife’s father prove immortal. If ever
You were given the riches of our stolen night,
It was anger at me, not love for you, which gave them.

Sextus Aurelius Propertius, Poems, Book III, #8
Tr. W.G. Shepherd. ©
For acknowledgements, see Permissions.

[Call me to you]

Call me to you
at siesta
we’ll make love
my gold & jewels
my treasure trove
my sweet Ipsithilla,
when you invite
me lock no doors
nor change your mind
& step outside
but stay at home
& in your room
prepare yourself
to come nine times
straight off together
in fact if you
should want it now
I’ll come at once
for lolling on
this sofa here
with jutting cock
and stuffed with food
I’m ripe for stuffing
my sweet Ipsithilla.

Gaius Valerius Catullus (ca. 84–54 BC), The Poems of Catullus
Tr. Peter Whigham
(Penguin Classics, 1966)

[Now, O Bacchus]

Now, O Bacchus, I grovel before your altars:
Give me fine weather, father, to favour my sails.
You can restrain the scorn of frenzied Venus,
Your wine becomes the remedy of cares.
Lovers are yoked by you, by you set free:
O Bacchus, wash away this fault from my mind.
Ariadne borne to the sky by your lynxes
Bears witness among the stars that you are initiate too.

Funeral rites, or else your wine, will heal
This ill, that keeps in chronic fires in my bones.
A sober night is always wrenching for solitary lovers:
Hope and fear twist their spirits this way and that.
But if, Bacchus, your gifts as they seethe
My head will summon sleep to my bones,
I will sow vines, planting my hills in rows,
Which I will watch lest any beasts should crop them.
As long as my vats shall foam with purple must,
And new grape-bunches stain the treading feet,
What remains of life I’ll live by you and your horns:
I’ll be declared your virtue’s poet, Bacchus.

I’ll speak of your mother delivered by Aetna’s lightning,
Of Indian warriors routed by Nysa’s dancers,
Lycurgus vainly raging against the novel vine,
Pentheus’ murder enjoyed by the threefold band,
How the Tuscan sailors’ arching dophin-bodies leapt down
From the vine-entangled ship to the bed of the sea.
Of fragrant streamings for you through Naxos’ midst,
From which the throng of Naxians drink your wine.

Your neck is laden with trailing ivy berries,
A Lydian turban curbs your hair, Bassareus,
Your smooth throat shall trickle with scented oil,
And your flowing robe shall touch your naked feet.
Dircean Thebans shall beat on gentle drums,
And goat-foot fauns shall play on gaping reeds:
Hard by great goddess Cybele with towered crown
Shall clash harsh cymbals to Ida’s dances.
Before your temple-doors your mixing-bowl shall stand,
Pouring from gold the wine upon your sacrifice.

These things I shall relate in no lowly style,
But in such breath as thundered from Pindar’s lips.
Only set me free from despotic service,
And conquer this unquiet head with sleep.

Sextus Aurelius Propertius, Poems, Book III, #17
Tr. W.G. Shepherd ©
For acknowledgements, see Permissions.

[Because you glorify death, old Stoic]

Because you glorify death, old Stoic,
Don’t expect me to admire you as heroic.
What does your high-mindedness amount to but a few broken-handled jugs,
A cheerless, fireless hearth, some moth-eaten rugs,
A bare bed-frame, a cut-down toga (worn day and night) and bugs?
What a spiritual achievement—to be able to do without straw for your bed,
Sour red wine and cheap black bread!
Come off it! Imagine yourself tucked up asleep
Under thick purple quilts, on pillows bulging with the wool of Leuconian sheep,
In the arms of a red-lipped boy who’s just filled your guests’ cups to the brim
And made them long for a taste of him.
Ah, be honest, then you’d pray
To live three times as long as Nestor, to savour every minute of every day.
It’s easy to despise life when things go wrong:
The true hero endures much, and long.

Marcus Valerius Martialis (ca. 40–104 AD), The Epigrams
Tr. James Michie
(Penguin Classics, 1978)

[You may not feel any need]
You may not feel any need (and more fool you) to guard that
Girl of yours—but it sharpens my desire,
So would you oblige? What’s allowed is a bore, it’s what isn’t
That turns me on. What cold clod
Could woo with his rival’s approval? We lovers need hope and despair in
Alternate doses. An intermittent rebuff
Makes us promise the earth. Who wants a beautiful woman
When she never deceives him? I can’t
Love a girl who’s not intermittently bitchy. Corinna spotted
My weakness (full marks !) and saw how
To use it against me. The times she invented a headache
And when I still hung around, just threw me out,
Or pretended she’d had an affair, looking horribly guilty
When in fact she’d done nothing at all—
And having thus quickly rekindled my cooling ardour
Would suddenly switch her mood
To the ultra-compliant. Her compliments, her sweet nothings,
Her kisses—oh God, her kisses! So you too,
My latest eye-ravisher, must ensnare me at times by pretending
To be frightened: must—on occasion—say No,
And leave me there, prostrate on your doorstep, to suffer
Long hours of frosty cold, the whole night through.
Act thus, and my love will endure, grow stronger with each passing
Year—that’s the way I like it, that feeds the flame,
Love too indulged, too compliant, will turn your stomach
Like a surfeit of sweet rich food.
Had Danaë never been locked in that brazen turret, would Jupiter
Ever have got her with child?
When Juno transmogrified Io into a horned heffer
She increased the girl’s sex-appeal.
If you’re after what’s lawful and easy, then why not gather
Leaves from the tree, or drink
Water out of the Tiber? To prolong your dominion over
Your lover calls for deception. (I hope I won’t
Have cause to regret that statement.) Yet come what may, indulgence
Irks me. I flee the eager, pursue the coy.
And as for you, man, so careless of your good lady,
Why not start locking up at night?
Why not ask who it is comes tapping, ever so softly,
On your front door—or why is it the dogs
Start barking at midnight? What about all those to-and-fro missives
The maid delivers? How come your wife now sleeps
Alone so often? Why can’t you get really worried just
Once in a while, allow me to display
My skill at deception? To covet the wife of a dummy
Is like stealing sand off the beach.
I’m warning you: put your foot down, play the heavy husband,
Or I’ll start going cold on your wife!
I’ve stood it quite long enough, always hoping you’d lock her
Away out of sight, so that I
Could outwit you. But no. You clod, you put up with things no husband
Should stand for a moment. Let me have the girl
And there’s an end to my passion. Won’t you ever deny me
Entry, won’t you beat me up one night?
Can’t I ever feel scared? have insomnia? sigh in frustration?

To wish you dead? I’ve no time for complaisant, pimping husbands—
Their kinkiness spoils my fun.
Find someone else, who likes your easy-going habits, or if you
Must have me as a rival, then get tough!

Publius Ovidus Naso (43 BC–17/18 AD) Amores, Book II, #19
Tr. Peter Green ©
For acknowledgements, see Permissions.


The images can be found in The Database of Ancient Art. For more information about them, click on the titles in the list below.

  1. Portrait of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife,” fresco, Pompeii
  2. Citharista,” fresco, 1st. century AD
  3. Leda and the Swan,” mosaic, late 2nd. Century AD, Cyprus
  4. Meleager and Atalanta after the Calydonian Boar Hunt,” fresco, Pompeii
  5. Menelaus and Helen; Ajax killing Cassandra,” fresco, Pompeii
  6. Perseus with the head of Medusa,” fresco, Pompeii
  7. Mars and Venus,” fresco, Pompeii
  8. Marriage of Mars-Alexander and Aphrodite-Roxana,” fresco, Pompeii
  9. Erotic scene,” fresco, 1st c. BC–1st c. AD
  10. Matrimonial scene,” fresco, 1st c BC–1st c. AD
  11. Marine fauna,” mosaic, Pompeii
  12. Memento mori,” mosaic, Pompeii

The prosperous port city of Pompeii on the Gulf of Naples, along with Herculaneum up the coast, was buried under the ejaculations of Vesuvius in 79 AD, and forgotten for centuries. The serious uncovering of its amazingly preserved contents didn’t begin until the eighteenth century, a process not yet completed.

The sexual frankness, along with the volcanic nature of the region, made Pompeii for a while a kind of extension of the classical Underworld in the European imagination (in the eyes of some, punished like Sodom and Gomorrah), as well as offering time-travel glimpses of the lives of ordinary Romans. Its darkside arena, older than the Colosseum by a century and a half, reached downwards into the ground, rather than rising from it. For a glimpse of the fascination of the mysterious pagan region for a romantic imagination, see Gerard de Nerval’s sonnet “Myrtho.”

The images on this page are best visually when accessed through the thumbs.

#1 The online narrative would appear to be that they’re a couple of plebian origins whose bakery has done well and who have ascended socially. She’s holding a wax writing-tablet and stylus, implying intellectuality. He holds a sealed scroll, related to a civic office that he held. They feel like bonded partners, and are touchingly nervous, like nineteenth-century country cousins having their first photograph taken. You do feel so helpless sitting there and looking at the back of the canvas on which the portraitist is seeing heaven knows what in your face.

#3 From a Roman villa on Cyprus. The swan looks unswanly enough to be Zeus in one of his sexual-tourist disguises, but is perhaps a trifle funny, she being so unperturbed by its focus on that magnificent culus of hers. This isn’t W.B. Yeats” “Leda and the Swan,” with its “sudden blow, the great wings beating still,” and the “terrified vague fingers,” etc. The image looks like one that would have been reproduced for consumption in mainland Italy.

#4 This apparently is what it’s about:

The goddess Diana has taken insult over the Calydonian king's failure to pay her tribute during the harvest festival. To avenge herself, she sends a ferocious boar to ravage the land. The king's son Meleager, accompanied by the bravest warriors, seeks to destroy the creature. Atalanta, the beautiful virgin huntress, joins the hunt and is the first to wound the boar with her arrow, much to the chagrin of her male competitors.” (Web)

The figures have the authority of ones seen at the time rather than imagined in the Renaissance. Meleager isn’t Michaelangelo’s David. Atalanta, wearing her own gear, is firmly herself as against the two men and the draped woman, and uninterested in Meleager sesually. And she’s fiercer than lovely Diana. She enjoys unallegorical killing. (“Me he made a hunter,” Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game.) The boar is a plain dead boar, not an inflated monster out of nightmare, but would have been a compact lethal forocity while alive.

#5 Two episodes in the Trojan War mythos.

Menelaus was the husband of Helen, snatched away by Paris to Troy. Why he is pulling her hair I do not know. This isn’t Christopher Marlow’s “face that launched a thousand ships/ And burnt the topless towers of Ilium.” This is a small plain woman being displayed naked and vulnerable in front of her husband’s fellow soldiers in full gear.

The lovely Cassandra had the gift of prophesy, but with a curse put on her so that no-one believed her. Winston Churchill was a Cassandra in the 1930s. Why she is being killed, and who the bearded older man is, I do not know. These myths can be as various in their presentations as the Gunfight at the OK Corral, and you can’t talk about which is the real one, though of course it’s the one in My Darling Clementine.

#7 Mars and Venus, that ever-popular subject. Mars, his face curiously modern, looks a bit apprehensive as she reaches for him.

#8 Roxanna, a princess, was, it appears, a wife of Alexander the Great. The marriage here doesn’t look like a happy occasion, and Alexander is certainly no great shakes priapically, as would have been noticed in a city abounding in images—painted, sculpted, on medallions—of great big bold cocks. Romans were not particularly inclined to revere the Greeks, whom after all they had conquered. Satirical?

#9 An extraordinary work that could have been painted a week ago, its elegance bringing to mind the elegance of Picasso at times in his Neoclassical phase.

#10 Is he telling her that tonight he really does feel like having the boy slave whom she likes so much?

There are no classical or romantic subjects, only classical and romantic attitudes and treatments—on a spectrum, not on either side of a frontier fence.

Alberto Angela’s fascinating but sanitized A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome (2009) needs to be accompanied by Fellini’s Satyricon.

The modern myth system that most corresponds to the Classical for me, I realize, is “Hollywood” in its great days, with its plethora of type situations and characters, its absorbing narratives about larger-than-life actors, its studio deities on the heights, its period collages (“Middle Ages,” “American Revolution,” etc.), its inseparable mix of fictiveness and factuality, its apotheoses and wipe-outs, its feuds and rivalries, its wealth, its sex, its glamour, its metamorphoses.


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