Don’t Knock While Sloshed at Pliny’s Door!

Fresco of young man holding a scroll, 1st century A.D., Herculaneum

I am taking a break from the eloquence of Cicero to read Pliny’s relatively undramatic letters. Cicero’s court cases are almost too exciting. I am impressed and yet terrified by his bold prosecution of Verres, a gangster-governor of Sicily who stole both public and private art and  bribed the jury of the court in Rome.  I’d never had the slightest interest in Verres before.

Yet there’s something to be said for simplicity.   Pliny (61 A.D.- 113 A.D.) favors  a plain, minimalist style.  This wealthy Roman lawyer and successful politician was best-known as a writer of polished letters composed for publication. 

Among Pliny’s most famous letters are a brilliant account of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.;  a trio of ghost stories ; a charming story of a boy who swam with a dolphin; and a letter asking the emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians while Pliny was governor in Bithynia.

But I’ve especially enjoyed a witty poem by Martial quoted in a letter written on the occasion of the poet’s death.  Pliny writes that he has a whole volume of poems Martial wrote for him.  (He was one of Martial’s patrons.)

Below is my prose translation of Martial’s playful Latin poem. Here, he advises the Muse not to knock on Pliny’s “clever” or “eloquent door” while drunk (literally in an “inebriated time”). I would love to preserve  the fun of Martial’s  “transferred epithets,” i.e., adjectives transferred from persons to inanimate objects, but it doesn’t quite work in English.   Instead of changing the “eloquent door”to “eloquent Pliny,” I prefer a magical talking door. When you’re drunk, mightn’t you hear a talking door?  But it is too wordy in English.

Here is Martial’s advice to the Muse.

Don’t knock while sloshed at Pliny’s door.  He devotes whole days to harsh Minerva, while he prepares a case for the ears of 100 men (the centumviral court where wills and property cases are heard).  Posterity and the ages will compare this to the writings of Cicero.  But it’s better to visit when the evening lanterns are lit:  this is your hour, when Bacchus (god of wine) maddens, when the rose rules, when the hair drips with unguents.  Then let even the severe Catos* read me.

*Cato was a stern moralist

We Will Always Miss Helen the Cat

Helen, 2013.  She’s the queen of lounging!

Helen, our 18-year-old tortoiseshell, died last week.  It has been hard on me, harder than any other pet’s death.  Helen and I were like bonded cats at the pound.  We did everything together: played string, read books (sometimes aloud), watched birds, had elevenses, watched six seasons of The Americans, prepared dinner (hers came in a can), napped, and listened to music.  She was fond of “You’re so Vain” (Carly Simon), “Year of the Cat” (Al Stewart), and “Mellow Yellow (Donovan).  Cats like simple songs.

As she got older, she spent most of her waking hours sitting with me (or on top of me) as I reclined and read.  She carefully marked the books by rubbing against the corners.   She was fond of books, because I’d read poetry to her as a kitten.  She enjoyed Edward Lear’s “The Jumblies:  “Far and few, far and few,/Are the lands where the Jumblies live…”

She didn’t meow, she chirped.  It was so sweet.  She was also a survivalist:  she liked to hop in the tub and lick the faucet. And she had a strong will.  She dominated the household.  She was a  fascinating person!  She ignored other cats, but they followed her around the house.

I had so much fun with her.  But In the last few years she had health problems and surgeries. She lost too much weight, shed clumps of fur, her kidneys were failing.  All the problems of aging cats.

I miss her.

Helen forever!

In Helen’s honor, I have translated and adapted the Roman poet Martial’s poem on the death of a pet dog, Issa.  In the first line, Martial refers to  Catullus’s famous poem about the dead pet sparrow of his girlfriend, Lesbia.

I have substituted the name Helen for Issa.

My adapted translation of Martial, Epigrams, I.109

Helen is more mischievous than Catullus’s sparrow,
Helen is purer than the kiss of a dove,
Helen is lovelier than all the maidens,
Helen is more precious than Indian stones,
Helen the cat is my darling.
If she meows, you will think she speaks;
She feels both sadness and joy.
Resting in my lap she stretches and snatches sleep
so that no breath is sensed.
In order that the last light may not wholly steal her,
I am painting a picture
In which you will see a cat so like Helen
That she herself is not more like herself.
Compare Helen with her picture
And you will think each one is real,
Or you will think each one is painted.

Floor mosaic in ancient Rome, with cat and two ducks.