Thursday, September 13, 2018


Variations on the Eclogues

Paul Valéry (1871-1945), "Variations on the Eclogues," Collected Works, Vol. VII: The Art of Poetry, tr. Denise Folliot (1958; rpt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 295-312 (at 296-297):
My small amount of schoolboy's Latin had faded, after fifty-five years, to the memory of a memory; and as so many men, among them the most scholarly and erudite (not to mention others), had toiled in the course of three or four centuries at the translation of these poems, I could only hope to do much worse what they had accomplished so well. In addition, I must confess that bucolic themes do not excite my interest uncontrollably. Pastoral life is quite foreign to me and strikes me as tedious. Agricultural industry requires precisely the virtues I lack. I am depressed by the sight of furrows—including those made by my pen. The recurrence of the seasons and of their effects illustrates the stupidity of nature and of life, which can persist only by repeating itself. I think, too, of the monotonous efforts required to trace lines in the heavy soil, and I am not surprised that the obligation inflicted on man of "earning his bread by the sweat of his brow" should be considered a harsh and degrading punishment. This rule has always seemed to me ignominious.
Id. (at 298):
So I again opened my school Virgil, where, as is usual, there was no lack of notes revealing the erudition of some professor but revealing it to him alone, for on the whole they are wonderfully calculated to entangle the innocent pupil in philology and doubts—if, that is, he should consult them, which he is careful not to do.

O classroom Virgil, who would have thought that I should have occasion to flounder about in you once more?
How many poetic works, reduced to prose, that is, to their simple meaning, become literally nonexistent! They are anatomical specimens, dead birds! Sometimes, indeed, untrammeled absurdity swarms over these deplorable corpses, their number multiplied by the teaching profession, which claims them as food for what is known as the "Curriculum." Verse is put into prose as though into its coffin.
Id. (at 301):
Although I am the least self-assured of Latinists, the slender and mediocre knowledge of the language of Rome that I still retain is very precious to me. One can quite easily write in ignorance of that language, but I do not believe that, if one is ignorant of it, one can feel that one is constructing what one writes as well as if one had a certain awareness of the underlying Latin. One may quite well draw the human body without having the least knowledge of anatomy, but he who has this knowledge is bound to profit somewhat by it, if only by abusing it in order more boldly and successfully to distort the figures in his composition. Latin is not merely the father of French; it is also its tutor in matters of the grand style. All the foolishness and extraordinary reasoning that have been put forward in defense of what are vaguely and untruthfully called the Humanities do but obscure the evidence of the true value for us of a language to which we owe what is most solid and dignified in the monuments of our own tongue.

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