Tom Tulliver’s Latin: Can Maggie Save the Day?

“George Eliot is the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, and Middlemarch THE greatest novel of the 19th century.” So said an intense but lazy English professor given to sweeping generalizations and assignments to write a “journal” instead of essays. Yes, yes–I had read all of Eliot’s novels–but I could not agree with her about Middlemarch. Much as I love Eliot’s strong-willed heroine Dorothea Brooke and pity her disastrous marriage to the dim-witted scholar, Mr. Casaubon, I am uninterested in the other characters–I’m sorry, but Middlemarch is a dull town!

No, I much prefer The Mill on the Floss, a double bildungsroman that follows the fortunes of siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver. Of the two, Maggie is the more appealing, a quick-witted girl who adores her very average older brother, enjoys boys’ games, reads widely, and has, according to her mother, deplorable “brown” skin and tangled hair. When she is scolded for lack of femininity, Maggie retires to the attic and punishes her “fetish,” a wooden doll, by driving nails into its head. Tom, of course, is allowed to be unruly, and his antics, however muddy, are tacitly approved as masculine.

But perhaps Tom suffers even more than Maggie, due to–yes–the study of Latin! He is sent away to be educated privately by a curate, who imparts only two subjects, Latin and geometry. Poor Tom! The more mistakes he makes, the more Latin lines he is given.

When Maggie visits Tom for a few weeks, her curiosity helps him with Latin. Not that she has a chance to learn it, mind you, because Mr. Stelling informs the siblings, much to Maggie’s humiliation, that women only have a “superficial” intelligence. Still, she asks so many questions that Tom makes an important discovery.

…she had asked Mr Stelling so many questions about the Roman empire, and whether there really ever was a man who said, in Latin, “I would not buy it for a farthing or a rotten nut,” or whether that had only been turned into Latin, that Tom had actually come to a dim understanding of the fact that there had once been people upon the earth who were so fortunate as to know Latin without learning it through the medium of the Eton Grammar.

I would probably love the Eton Grammar: I learned Latin out of a similar book! But Eliot preaches against a classical education that befuddles or fails to inspire average students like Tom, or perhaps I should say students who do not care for languages. Maggie would have benefited from Tom’s education, and Tom from something more practical. Eliot’s attitudes were certainly progressive: she was a linguist herself (and a Latinist), but opposed the idea that a classical education was appropriate for every student.

Tom is not the only confused Latin student. Years ago, an English teacher informed me that one of my best students had referred to the Aeneid as a play.

“Close enough,” I said cheerfully.

The student was an excellent translator and could sight-read–and that was good enough for me! I had told them it was an epic, but there is much dialogue, so I understood her confusion (they were not reading epics in English class). I did mention the word “epic” several times in the next few weeks, hoping that the students would absorb it.

A Balancing Act: Rachel Hadas and Virgil

My discovery of Rachel Hadas’s Poems for Camilla, a collection of stunning poems inspired by the author’s rereading of Virgil’s Aeneid, was an example of bookish serendipity.  I adore Virgil,  yet what were the odds of my coming across Poems for Camilla?  I must have read a review, but where on earth? Hadas’s poetic meditations on lines from the Aeneid are revelatory, evocative, sometimes emotional, and more inspiring than scholarly articles.

Poems for Camilla is one of my favorite books of the year.  But I do want to address a problem with the text–not Hadas’s problem, but a proofreading problem.  Publishers are notoriously careless  when it comes to proofreading quotations from foreign languages. Latin errors proliferate in modern books, just as they often did when monkish scribes absent-mindedly erred in their copying of Virgil. And in this case, each of Hadas’s poems (except one) is headed by a Latin epigraph from the Aeneid, followed by Hadas’s own poetic meditations and reactions to the lines.  Translations of the Latin epigraphs are not included, so the majority will happily look up the translation in their favorite English edition.  It is an absorbing interactive experience!  But since I am a nerdy Latinist, I read the Latin myself.  So the proofreading errors are jarring.

I did find a few Latin errors and typos in the epigraphs.  Publishers need to hire specialists to proofread even short quotations . But wouldn’t it be simpler to scan  the Latin text from The Aeneid (can this be done?) or photocopy and paste the Latin lines?  (I don’t know if this can be done in the publishing world.)

Most of the Latin is correct here. But what is tani, I wondered when I read the  epigraph for Hadas’s  poem, “The Cause.”   Then I realized,  it was tanti (“of so much”).  I checked the Latin text in the Aeneid to make sure I was right.  Yes, I was.  So I began going directly to the Latin text of the Aeneid so I wouldn’t get stuck on modern typos. Sadly, the Latin epigraph to Hadas’ beautiful poem “No Way Out” was not just cryptic because of mistakes, but nonsensical.  I thought I must be going mad, until I compared it to the text in my Latin edition.  I underlined the three errors below so you can see them.

I won’t give a complicated explanation.

Quem (singular whom) should have been qui (plural who).  

vellant should have been vellent.  It’s a spelling mistake–the vowel a should be an e–but since everything looks true in print, I wondered at first if it was an archaic form of the subjunctive.  No, it was just a typo!

aligat (binds) should have been alligat or adligat.  A simple spelling error.

Now don’t be put off:  this is a great book. I am awed by Hadas’s  poetry.  And hardly anybody reads Latin anymore, so it will not spoil your experience.  It didn’t spoil mine.  But publishers, whether they be corporate or small presses, need to pay more attention to detail.

N.B.  WordPress no longer has a spellcheck feature .  Does that reflect a growing carelessness about detail in the larger culture?  We can all use a second pair of eyes, even if it’s only the fallible spellcheck. As it is, I’m looking through bifocals!

Reading Latin in an Industrial City & the Kissing Poem of Catullus

Many years ago, I lived and read Latin poetry in an industrial city on the shores of one of the lesser Great Lakes.  You will not have heard of this provincial city because it is tucked away in flyover country.  You would never visit because it is intensely ugly, completely flat, and usually overcast.  As we approached the outskirts in our rented Ryder truck, I was startled by the flames rising from the stacks of steel plants and factories.  It was as though they proclaimed, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

“Is this the Inferno?”  I asked my husband.

We all have to live somewhere.  We follow our spouses, we go where there are jobs, we adapt to inclement weather and pollution.  In summer there were compensations:  you could picnic on the scrubby beach and watch the the waves; in winter you were awed by the frozen waves. In summer the light was wan, while the dark winters lasted five or six months.  When it snowed in May, we took day trips to nearby city where spring began at the normal time.  

Weather is surprisingly important.  People who grew up in that city didn’t mind the sunless days. It was more difficult for those of us from sunnier places.  There were three solutions to the so-called Seasonal Affective Disorder, as I saw it: antidepressants, alcohol, or a hobby.

I opted for the hobby:  I immersed myself in Latin, the language and literature I taught for years and read for decades.  I lounged with my Catullus, Ovid, and Apuleius, surrounded by pillows, dictionaries, and endless cups of tea.  For a while, I forgot the gray skies.

Reading dead languages is a dying art.  Classical literature spans several centuries, and there is no easy “Hemingway-esque” starting point:  you begin with the complicated and sophisticated, in  a world without  Dr. Seuss or Little Women.  It’s as though you learned the basics of English and jumped into Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Macaulay, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf.   Vocabulary, dialect, style genre:  all completely different with each author.

Latin is no longer spoken, except at wacky conventions organized by the equivalent of WorldCon’s SF fans, but the literature is fun and various and more than 60% of English words are derived from Latin.  If you love dictionaries, this is the language for you.

A good Roman poet to start with is the slangy Catullus, whose charming love poems are universal.   Here is my translation of his famous kissing poem, (No. 5).   He addresses Lesbia, his girlfriend, who is sometimes thought to be the Roman adulteress, Clodia Metelli.  (Some of us think Lesbia is a fictional character.)

Here’s the poem:

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,

Let us count the rumors of old men meaningless.

Suns can rise and set;

For us, when the brief light sets,

one perpetual night must be slept.

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,

Then another thousand, then a second hundred,

Then straight on to another thousand, then a hundred,

And when we have made thousands of kisses,

we will mix them up, so that we don’t  know the count,

and so no enemy can cast the evil eye,

because he knows the number of our kisses.

Now I live in a sunny city where I continue to read my Latin. But I admit, there are times when I’d love to see the Great Lakes again.