Read a Latin Poem at the BM . . . and Pompeii coming to a cinema near you!
Our Latin poetry trio -- that's Peter Stothard, Llewelyn Morgan and me -- have had a regular gig at the Cheltenham Literary Festival for some years now on "how to read a Latin poem in Latin". The format is basically this.
We choose a bit of Latin text .. we've done Horace, and Virgil, and Juvenal in the past .. we put it onto a handout and a powerpoint with a literal "interlinear" translation, and we take the audience through it, explaining how the poetry work IN LATIN. Sure, we give a bit of background etc, situate our poets in their cultural and political context, but the main aim is to explore how the language and metre works. What's amazing is that it works, and even people who know little or know Latin seem to get a real lot out of it.
We each have our different roles in the line up. Peter is the guy who keeps us firmly on track -- and reminds us from time to time to STICK TO THE TEXT. Llew is the real expert literary voice, and the "metre man" (he will explain to even the most sceptical why the absence of a caesura in line 22 makes all the difference). And I am somewhere in the middle.
Anyway last night we ventured -- with some trepidation -- to take our road show to the British Museum. The poet we had chosen to get the treatment was Virgil.
It was a tie in event with the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition. There are in fact almost 40 quotes from Virgil's Aeneid scrawled on the walls of Pompeii. But, as we pointed out, some two thirds of them are actually the first lines of Aeneid Book 1 and Aeneid Book 2: arma virumque cano, and conticuere omnes. They are classic quotes in other words -- and dont necessarily mean that large numbers of the Pompeian population had read the poem cover to cover (as it were). They are rather like "to be or not to be", a phrase which hundreds and thousands have scrawled on walls and desks, without ever having opened a text of Hamlet.
So the text we chose last night were the first dozen lines of each of those books, starting from the classic quotes. And the question was, what MADE those words so memorable. OK, it is partly the simple fact that they are the opening words of the books; but there has to be more to it than that -- not all opening lines go viral, even in the most renowned works of literature ("If music be the food of love" yes ... "Tush never tell me" (Othello), no).
My part of the answer was to stress how arresting and surprising the words must have been on first hearing, before they had become weighted down with "classic" status, and so treated a bit too reverently. "Arma virumque cano" must have sounded like the most over the top, self-confident, in your face, bit of boasting you could get from a poet. (Read: I am going to do both the Iliad and the Odyssey in one, and just look at the that first person singular in cano). And Llew was brilliant on why conticuere omnes hit the spot much more powerfully that "they all fell silent" (the compound, the tense, the instantaneity . . . )
I think a good time was had by all, and it will soon be on-line so the rest of the planet can listen if they are so minded.
There are more Pompeii and Herculaneum events coming up at the BM, by the way -- AND outside. In fact there is a great and brave experiment I'm involved with on June 18th, to bring a broadcast from the exhibition to local cinemas -- getting up close to the objects, plus some backstory from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum themselves. (For Cambridge types there are still some seats left at Cineworld -- grab 'em).