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The Dead Poets Society –

Updates on five ancient authors

Munich, 03/31/2011

By no means all the authors of the Classical Age can be characterized by Winckelmann’s famous tag “noble simplicity, quiet grandeur”. In those days, as later, real poets seldom chose the mealy-mouthed option. Partly because they do not fully conform to Winckelmann’s criteria, many of them have been regarded as superficial lightweights, and are now little read. In a series of five volumes on the works of Aristophanes, Catullus, Horace, Virgil and Ovid Professor Niklas Holzberg, a classical scholar at LMU, shows that no such reservations apply to these poets. Holzberg’s translations of their works are precise and direct. He makes no attempt to disguise bawdiness as romantic rapture or turn a dirty joke into a sigh of yearning. After all, the poems of Catullus, to take one example, are among the most obscene texts in the Classical canon. “My work is part of quite a recent trend, which tries to place the erotic literature of the Greeks and Romans in its contemporary social context rather than judging it from the standpoint of modern norms,” says Holzberg. “Of course, Catullus’ verses are full of indecencies, but that also makes them very entertaining. At the same time, the poetic fabric of the text – style, meter, range of cross-references to other works, and overall handling of the material – is of a very high literary quality. These five poets have survived because they still speak to us, on a very human level, across the centuries that divide us from them.” And even Catullus, like every lover since, was sometimes forced to change his tune: “I hate and I love. How is that possible, perhaps you wish to know?/ I cannot tell, but I feel it and I suffer cruel torments.”

What exactly was Aristophanes up to? For many of his interpreters, it is clear that his comedies were motivated by a deep-seated antipathy to the politics of his native Athens, nearly 2500 years ago. In his plays, so much is rotten in the state of Athens that only drastic actions offer any hope of saving the situation. Recall that in Lysistrata the women decide to renounce sex in order to force the men to bring the Peloponnesian War to an end. In Plutos, the poor become the prosperous because the blind Plutos, the god of riches, has his sight restored -- and recognizes that he had always bestowed his bounty on the undeserving.

“These solutions are of course completely unrealistic, so it is difficult to see the plays simply as a critique of the State,” says Holzberg. “For my part, I am convinced that the comedies, in the form in which they have come down to us, should be interpreted as invitations to laugh, at everything and everybody. Unfortunately, many Classical scholars find it hard even to think of laughter when they read these ancient texts. The plays have been around for nearly 2500 years and have been extensively analyzed and interpreted, but a crucial element in all of them – their humor – has received too little attention.”

That the plays of Aristophanes still hold their place on the modern stage is due to the literary genius, forthright style and ageless wit of their author. The grandiose remedies for social ills at the heart of his plots may be highly impractical, but they still make an audience chuckle and more. Another antique poet, Catullus, who lived in Rome in the 1st century BC, is also noted for his biting wit. The work of Catullus is not for timid souls. We know virtually nothing about him, but he left a single collection of poetry that has echoed down the centuries. A slender volume, it nevertheless retains its power to shock.

“Many of his poems are among the most blatantly obscene works in the corpus of erotic poetry that survives from Classical Antiquity,” says Holzberg. “But that‘s not all. Even in texts that seem harmless at first sight, one comes across puns and innuendos that have clear sexual connotations. On the other hand, that also makes his verse so amusing, provided one is prepared to laugh at poetry that is full of lewd jokes.” Classical philology has always had difficulty with Catullus, and has tended to propagate an idealized view of the poet and his work. This was done by ignoring some of the poems altogether, and branding others as failures. “Most of the Classical philologists who selected on the basis of qualitative criteria had no feel for Catullus’ ability to make his readers laugh,” says Holzberg. “I, on the other hand, find that his gift for comedy is one of the most striking aspects of his poetry.”

One of Catullus’ contemporaries, Horace, left behind a much larger body of work than he did. We even have pen-pictures of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, written by friends and by the poet himself, but the contours of his personality remain tantalizingly vague. Holzberg approaches this renowned Roman poet by reading and interpreting his work chronologically.  “This is how his contemporaries got to know his work,” he says. “They were forced to read in a linear sequence, as they unrolled a papyrus scroll to reveal the text.” Linear reading is no easy task for the modern interpreter either, as there are four sizeable groups of poems to be considered – the Satires, Epodes, Odes and Epistles.

The impact of a poem often depends not so much on what is being said as on how it is said. The greatest of Roman poets is famous for a practical guide to agriculture in verse and a collection of pastoral poetry. But Publius Vergilius Maro, better known to us as Virgil, also shows compassionate understanding and extraordinary sympathy for the actions and emotions of all his protagonists. Nowhere is this clearer than in his great epic the Aeneid, the grandest version of Rome’s foundation myth. “Every reader who is alive to this tone of voice will fall under Virgil’s spell,” says Holzberg. “It is what allows the poet to bridge the centuries that separate us from him. He speaks simply and directly to us, and with wit and humor.”

The fourth Roman poet who appears in the series (in English: “Ovid. The Poet and His Work”, Cornell University Press, 2002) needed more than a sense of humor to cope with the unhappy situation in which he spent his final years. Publius Ovidius Naso, Ovid, was exiled to Tomi on the shores of the Black Sea by the Emperor Augustus, but once there he refused to keep quiet.  “Any scoundrel with a ready sword can cut me down/ But when my life is snuffed out, my fame will still burn bright; / As long as steadfast Rome gazes in triumph from her seven hills/ On the wide world of her conquests, my works will be read.” This prophecy has come true. Ovid’s poetry has inspired writers, painters and composers since his death, and is still read today.

His most influential work by far has always been the Metamorphoses. Indeed this is certainly the most popular Latin poem ever written. It is a compendium of more than 250 mythological stories, told in over 10,000 lines. At the center of all of these episodes is a fantastic transformation: the metamorphosis of the protagonist by a deity. “It is certainly true that the last two millennia have produced more complex texts of much greater contemporary relevance,” says Holzberg. “But the Metamorphoses is written with such verve that it remains one of the great classics of world literature. If Holzberg were forced to choose his favorite from the antique canon, it would no doubt be Ovid’s masterpiece, and he has devoted one of his books to this work alone.

Ovid also has repeatedly been regarded as too frivolous for serious consideration, but has always managed to overcome this prejudice. “He wrote for the Roman public in the reign of Augustus,” says Holzberg, “but his characterizations are so vivid that they have a strikingly modern cast, which makes him appealing to readers today. All five poets speak with a recognizably human voice, the Vox humana, and with great poetic mastery. The combination makes them truly timeless, and therefore still relevant for the 21st century. This is literature that stands at the beginning of our tradition: it is at once innovative and plain, elemental and classical.” (suwe/PH)


Aristophanes. Sex und Spott und Politik
Niklas Holzberg
C.H. Beck Verlag, 2010, pp 240
ISBN: 978-3-406-60592-5

Horaz. Dichter und Werk
Niklas Holzberg
C.H. Beck Verlag, 2009, pp 240
ISBN 978-3-406-57962-2

Ovid. Dichter und Werk
Niklas Holzberg
C.H. Beck Verlag, 2006, pp 220
ISBN: 978-3-406-41919-5

Ovid. The Poet and His Work
Niklas Holzberg
Cornell University Press, 2002, pp. 217
ISBN: 978-0801437540

Vergil. Dichter und Werk
Niklas Holzberg
Beck Verlag, 2006, pp 228
ISBN 978-3-406-53588-7

Ovids Metamorphosen
Niklas Holzberg
Beck Verlag, 2007, pp 128
ISBN 978-3-406-53621-2

Catull. Der Dichter und sein erotisches Werk
Niklas HolzbergBeck Verlag, 2002, pp 228
ISBN: 978-3-406-48531-2

The poem by Catullus cited above can be found in:
Applaus für Venus. Die schönsten Liebesgedichte der Antike
Niklas Holzberg
Beck Verlag, 2004, 173
ISBN 978-3-406-51502-9


Professor Niklas Holzberg
Institute for Greek and Latin Philology
Phone: +49 (0) 89 / 2180 – 3783

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