8 December 2010

Horace and Mary Immaculate: mainly for classicists

December 8, as I mentioned earlier in the day, is the birthday of one of the greatest Roman poets, Quintus Horatius Flaccus. It would be beautifully appropriate if I could share with you his words on the Immaculate Conception of our Lady. But ... nevertheless, I can do something very much like it.

Readers of my many ranting posts on the Hymns of the Roman Breviary will remember my strong preference for the versions of the old hymns which appeared in all the Medieval Breviaries (including Sarum); and in the present Benedictine Breviary; and in the post-Conciliar Liturgia Horarum. Those texts were not in 'pure' Clasical Latin, but in Christian, Liturgical, Patristic, Latin. But this was all changed in the 1620s at the order of a superb classicist, Urban VIII, who wanted them to be in the grammar and metres of Augustan Latin. I believe that this change should not have been made, and I applaud the resolution of Vatican II to reverse it. But there can be no doubt about the brilliance of the enterprise, in itself and in its own terms, and about the sparlking, classical erudition and inventiveness of Papa Berberini and his helpers.

One of his collaborators was a Polish Jesuit Matthias Sarbiewski. He was an enthusiastic admirer of Horace, and wrote poetry himself in the Horatian style and often with allusions to Horace's text. The following has its origins in Horace's Odes, III 28.

Quid muti trahimus diu
Segnes excubias? Suggere postibus
Dereptum, ROSA, barbiton.
Nos arguta manu fila docebimus:
Tu buxum digitis mone [leg. move?],
Et mutis animam suffice tibiis.
Nos cantabimus aureos
Stellarum vigiles sistere lubricam
Mundi sollicitos fugam, et
Palantum choreas ducere syderum.
Tu rerum dominam canes,
Et sparsum Zephyrorum arbitrio comam
Nudis ludere bracchiis,
Et nimbos volucrum fundere crinium.
Addes et teretes pedum
Suras non humilem lambere Cynthiam;
Et sutas chlamydum faces,
Indutique togam Solis amabili
Emirabere fistula:
Donec virgineis laudibus, et suis
Placatus, resecet moras,
Et currum madidis flectat ab Indiis.

I could not begin to translate this; Horatian Latin is not only a different language; it is also a radically different sort of way of using words to convey meaning. Translations are either distant paraphrases or else they sound like gibberish.

But line 11 onwards, I will reveal, is a superb piece of classicising Latin describing the baroque iconographical conventions of Maria Immaculata. Horace advises his friend Rosa, as they meet in the twilight of a Vigil of our Lady, to sing of the Mistress of Things; of her locks, scattered by the will of the Zephyrs, playing upon her bare arms and pouring forth clouds of flying hairs; with unhumble Cynthia licking the smooth ankles of her feet. (Geddit?)

You see what I mean? In fact, Horace, just like his Polish imitator, rejoiced in a Callimachean allusive intricacy accessible only to his fellow-erudite. Oderunt profanum vulgus et arcebant. That's why I said: Mainly for classicists.


Michael McDonough said...

Fr. H,

Your post this morning got me to check out various allusions you made, starting with "Callimachean": a true learning experience for me. But after so much study, I eventually got distracted, and seeing a portrait of Urban VIII on Wikipedia, I could not resist playing the school-boy, and the product of that distraction you may find here:


I am sorry if this detracts from the serious and scholarly quality of your blog: si delendum est commentarium, sic fiat.

Sir Watkin said...

Two instances of a nice little Horatian echo, referring to the the Marriage at Cana of Galilee, are noted at http://laudatortemporisacti.blogspot.com/2009/12/horaces-best.html

From the Missale Gothicum:

"Converte ad te quaerendum stupidas mentes hominum, qui nuptiale convivio vertisti latices in Falernum."

And Prudentius, Hymns 9.28:

"cantharis infusa lympha fit Falernum nobile."

Joshua said...

Indeed, Our Lord left the good wine till last, the very choicest Falernian. (Mystically, this applies to the new wine of the Gospel.)