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Learn the Language of Poetry

If a friend has ever annoyed you by insisting that a favorite band’s music is much better live, you might feel the same about reading poetry in its original language.  There’s a certain analogy, since (1) firsthand experience admits of no substitute, and (2) you really only have your friend’s word for it.

With poetry, at least, we can approach appreciation for the firsthand experience through some clear (and at times uncanny) analogues. Recently I wrote about how the musical Hamilton gives us insight into Classical poetry. Now I’ll revisit the topic to discuss a few more techniques that poets like Homer, Vergil, and Miranda have used to great effect.

The Ordering of Words

Withholding a word is a powerful way to lend emphasis or surprise to an important thought. In “A Winter’s Ball,” Aaron Burr asks and then answers for the audience, “Now Hamilton’s skill with the quill is undeniable, but what do we have in common? We’re reliable with the –”

Company: “Ladies!”

It’s a huge laugh line, one predicated on the surprise of the final word. This is a variety of enjambment: the unbroken continuation of a sentence through a line break. There’s a classical example at the outset of the Iliad:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην . . .”

Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed . . .” (trans. R. Fagles)

That one word I included from the second line is an adjective (“accursed, murderous, doomed”) that modifies the first word of the entire poem (“μῆνιν,” ‘Rage’).

Because Latin and Greek are inflected languages – which means, among other things, that word order is several times more flexible than in English – translators struggle with lines that affect the reader through precise word placement. In English, we are pretty much required to front-load adjectives. We could never pull off something like the opening of the Iliad, but we can at least understand the force it must have had when we compare it to “Ladies.”

A more surprising example surfaces in the Roman poet Vergil, when he gives us a line that some of us still remember as he wrote it: “Labor omnia vincit,” “Work conquers all.” But would this slogan still be, say, the state motto of Oklahoma if it were remembered in full?

Labor omnia vincit

Improbus . . .

In the second line, Vergil qualifies “labor” with a word that translates as “not good, bad, wicked, reprobate, abandoned, vile, base, impious, bold, shameless, wanton.” (Personally, I like “crooked” since this sets it off against its opposite “probus” or “upright.” Then again, “crooked” has no manifest negative in it, as improbus has. That’s translating for you.)  This sort of delayed revision, where we give the audience an idea and then substantially qualify it a line later, is often unworkable in English.

In addition to surprise, enjambments lend stress and gravity to introductions. Consider “What’d I Miss,” the opening to Hamilton’s second half. Aaron Burr sets the stage for the newborn American government and then starts talking about “someone”:

You haven’t met him yet, you haven’t had the chance,
‘cause he’s been kickin’ ass as the ambassador to France.

But someone’s gotta keep the American promise;
You simply must meet Thomas. Thomas!

Act II describes our new antagonist before even telling the audience what we’re supposed to call him. This way, the name satisfies a curiosity of the listeners. Arranged the other way, the audience would have to remember this person’s name while learning why we’re supposed to care about them. Even in the case of a name like ‘Thomas Jefferson’ (not hard for most Americans to remember), the enjambed arrangement capitalizes on the name’s celebrity status by building our anticipation.

We find a remarkably apt analogue in Vergil’s epic the Aeneid. Critics often divide the twelve-book epic in two halves: 1) extensive wandering, like Homer’s Odyssey, and 2) violent battles that remind us of Homer’s Iliad. When the setting changes at the top of Book VII, the audience encounters one particular local prince (lines 54-57):

multi illam magno e Latio totaque petebant
Ausonia; petit ante alios pulcherrimus omnis
Turnus, avis atavisque potens, quem regia coniunx . . .

“Many men were pursuing her [the princess Lavinia], from great Latium
And all Italy; but the most prepossessing beyond all the rest seeking her was
Turnus, powerful in his forbears and ancestors, whom the royal queen &c. . . .” (Trans. yours, truly.)

This infamous Turnus shortly becomes Aeneas’ fierce rival for the princess Lavinia and the kingship of Latium. As in the case of Thomas Jefferson, we hear about the major character before we can identify him: His reputation literally precedes him. (Incidentally, my translation only preserves the enjambment effect by changing several minor syntactical details.)

Word order is also a useful tool on more subtle levels. See, for example, “Meet Me Inside,” where an irate Washington scolds Hamilton,

Your wife needs you alive, son, I need you alive—

Washington incorporates the latent idea of Hamilton’s son in his demand that he stay alive. This idea is absent grammatically, but just glancing at the line brings the sense of his son into the mix. Placing words near each other in a phrase connects apparently unrelated concepts because we tend to associate location with other ways of “being close.”

It works in reverse, too, when a poet separates words from each other. Consider the penultimate sentence of Horace’s first Ode. Google gives us a presumably popular translation  by A.S. Kline:

But the ivy, the glory of learned brows, joins me to the gods on high: cool groves, and the gathering of light nymphs and satyrs, draw me from the throng . . .

There’s not any remarkable word order in this slice. Consider, however, the original Latin, with a few key words in bold:

Me doctarum hederae praemia frontium
dis miscent superis, me gelidum nemus
Nympharumque leves cum Satyris chori
secernunt populo, si neque tibias
Euterpe cohibet nec Polyhymnia
Lesboum refugit tendere barbiton.

Horace is at pains to literally separate (secernunt) himself from the people.  Whereas English combines the two into a brief phrase (‘draw me from the throng’), Horace makes use of his inflected language to insert an entire line in-between. English could only pull that off by imposing a strained, awkward character on the text that is foreign to the original Latin.

Homer does something similar thing at the outset of his Iliad, when he asks that the Muse recall the first quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles:


“[Recount to me, Muse,] that very first moment when they stood apart in strife,
Agamemnon the lord of men, and god-like Achilles.” (Author’s translation.)

There are the two agonists, avoiding each other in that final line like the plague. Through word order, poetry can reflect the original language’s content in its very structure.

That Indefinable Sense

In addition to more specific techniques, I’d like to gesture towards the wide world of “effect.” Although less elemental and less definable, it is responsible for much of the moment-to-moment delight of poetry as the poet meant us to read it. By selecting from the entire palette of features that language offers – inflection, connotations, sounds, sentence structure, articles – poets can make ordinary content flawless and bring ageless phrases to life.

Consider Jefferson’s brag in “The Room Where it Happens”:

I arranged the meeting;

I arranged the menu, the venue, the seating.

It’s a great line: It stacks the components of the famous dinner compromise and paints a scene for the audience, while all the while escalating Jefferson’s sense of self-importance.

The listing effect (‘the menu, the venue, the seating’) reminds us of remarkable lists that have survived from antiquity. In the comedy Menaechmi, by the Roman comedian Plautus, one character recounts:

“Di me quidem omnes adiuvant, augent, amant” (Menaechmi, l. 551).

Roughly, this means, “Indeed, all the gods help me, cause me to prosper, love me.” The alliteration makes the Latin visually impressive, but a just translation is difficult for less definable reasons. It’s hard to render the sense of “augent” (’cause me to prosper’) without throwing off the slick parallelism, while the fronting of “me” in Latin (which means what you’d guess it means) allows for the verbs to stack with a sense of superfluity. The original language reflects exactly what the character has experienced that day. Finally, the quick succession of three words suggests another Latin list, viz. – “veni, vidi, vici” – so striking that English speakers quote it regularly.

Stunning lines needn’t be lists. Consider the effect of Hamilton floundering when Washington tells him that he’s not running for President. “No, sir, why?” Three disjointed monosyllables reflect the (for once) speechless Hamilton. Ovid uses stylized language to express his character’s mental state in Book I of Metamorphoses, when the girl-crazy Apollo cries before a nymph that has lately changed into a tree, “semper habebunt / te coma, te citharae, te nostrae, laure, pharetrae” (l. 558-9). Every italicized word in that second line is direct address, showing us that his mind is utterly consumed with her.

Epithets, Epithets, Epithets

Ironically, one of classical poetry’s most memorable features is easy to translate but impossible to convey: epithets. You know the ones–when you’re reading Homer and words are always “winged” or the sea is always “wine-dark” or Achilles is always “swift-footed”:

πόδας ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεύς . . . (Il. 1.84)

The “winged words” epithet is so notorious that the phrase in Greek, “ἔπεα πτερόεντα,” was a book title back in 1805.

Hamilton uses only one epithet-like phrase, but it’s uniquely striking and infamous: “Aaron Burr, sir.”

Miranda could have just left it at the name every time Burr appears onstage, but he insists on completing the rhythm with “sir.” This constant counterpoint becomes a hallmark of the show’s rhythm, much as epithets structure Homer’s verse. It gets to the point where its absence, as at the beginning of “We Know” or the final lines of “The World was Wide Enough,” is troubling and signals something amiss, like on the rare occasion when a TV news program broadcasts with no music.

Why repeat the rhyme? A couple of possibilities come to mind. First, the rhythm is a comfortable stroke of familiarity in a dense, three-hour show. It lends unity to the Hamilton’s 22,000-odd words, providing an aural through-line. The sonorous consonance is pleasing to hear in itself, surfacing throughout the dialogue. Even the effect of its absence is an argument in favor of its use.

Also note the varied delivery. Even though much of the time the “sir” is “just there,” Miranda plays with it constantly in songs like “Story of Tonight: Reprise,” “The Room Where it Happens,” and “The Election of 1800.” This fun variation reminds us that characters don’t always speak the same cadences, even when the language is identical. Keep this in mind when reading the classics, especially since the tradition and original context for Homer’s epic poetry was in fact oral performance.

Notice that no one decries “Sir” epithet as just filling out lines or accommodating meter — derision that cynics often aim at Homer. Instead, we effortlessly accept the repetition as a convention of the genre and enjoy what Miranda does with it. I can only imagine that the Greeks thought the same of Homer’s poetry.

And Now

Okay, so this article hasn’t taught you to read Latin or Greek.  (John Adams sympathizes.) We no longer live in a world where you can’t even start college without translating one of the Greek gospels into English–or Latin.  Some ineffable surprises in Ovid, Homer, and Catullus are, sadly, still latent. You do have a frame of reference, though, for the next time you read a laboring classical translation and wonder what all the fuss is about.

Author: Noah Diekemper

Noah Diekemper studied Latin and Mathematics at Hillsdale College (B.S.) and Data Science at Loyola University Maryland (M.S.). Motivated by a desire to preserve and share knowledge, he contributed to Goodtruebeautiful.net and has also been published in The Critic, The Federalist, Intercollegiate Review, and The Baltimore Sun.

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