Saturday, September 10, 2005


Huysmans on Vergil and Horace

Chapter four of Joris Karl Huysmans' novel A Rebours (Against the Grain, 1884) contains a miniature survey of Latin literature, from the idiosyncratic point of view of the protagonist, Duc Jean Des Esseintes. I will post some of Des Esseintes' critical opinions in the days and weeks to come, from John Howard's translation.
The gentle Vergil, whom instructors call the Mantuan swan, perhaps because he was not born in that city, he considered one of the most terrible pedants ever produced by antiquity. Des Esseintes was exasperated by his immaculate and bedizened shepherds, his Orpheus whom he compares to a weeping nightingale, his Aristaeus who simpers about bees, his Aeneas, that weak-willed, irresolute person who walks with wooden gestures through the length of the poem. Des Esseintes would gladly have accepted the tedious nonsense which those marionettes exchange with each other off-stage; or even the poet's impudent borrowings from Homer, Theocritus, Ennius and Lucretius; the plain theft, revealed to us by Macrobius, of the second song of the Aeneid, copied almost word for word from one of Pisander's poems; in fine, all the unutterable emptiness of this heap of verses. The thing he could not forgive, however, and which infuriated him most, was the workmanship of the hexameters, beating like empty tin cans and extending their syllabic quantities measured according to the unchanging rule of a pedantic and dull prosody. He disliked the texture of those stiff verses, in their official garb, their abject reverence for grammar, their mechanical division by imperturbable caesuras, always plugged at the end in the same way by the impact of a dactyl against a spondee.

Borrowed from the perfected forge of Catullus, this unvarying versification, lacking imagination, lacking pity, padded with useless words and refuse, with pegs of identical and anticipated assonances, this ceaseless wretchedness of Homeric epithet which designates nothing whatever and permits nothing to be seen, all this impoverished vocabulary of muffled, lifeless tones bored him beyond measure.

It is no more than just to add that, if his admiration for Vergil was quite restrained, and his attraction for Ovid's lucid outpourings even more circumspect, there was no limit to his disgust at the elephantine graces of Horace, at the prattle of this hopeless lout who smirkingly utters the broad, crude jests of an old clown.

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