I, Catulla: What Latin subconsciously taught me
Many high school students give their teachers cards or scented candles at the holidays. I wrote my teachers poems. And no one amassed a larger body of my work than my high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Bender.
Over the course of three years, I wrote reams of translations, essays, and parodies inspired by my Latin classes. I couldn’t help myself, really; the material was so rich, the concentration so directed, that not a class went by where I wasn’t inspired by a character, phrase, or technique.
It all came to a head my junior year when I took AP Latin. That’s when we got to the good stuff -- poetry, mainly Horace and Catullus. Everything I loved came together in this one subject: grammar, syntax, vocabulary, scansion, meter, rhyme, imagery, humor, drama, and interpretation. The challenge of making ancient texts accessible to a modern audience fascinated me, and it elevated rote translation homework to the nobility of art.
At the end of the semester, I compiled a little book for Mrs. Bender as a thank-you gift. Titled “I, Catulla: One Latin Student’s Lasting Impressions of Catullus, Horace, and Everything in Between,” the teeny volume comprised six poems, two parodies, and a parting thought. I handed it over to her with great contentment, waved goodbye, and forgot about it.
Cut to 13 years later, when I took a poetry course as part of my graduate writing program. As I pored over our English texts, scribbled notes in the margins, and tapped out iambic pentameter on my thigh, I felt a familiar stirring somewhere in the back of my brain. Writing poetry was whacking a pleasure button I’d long forgotten. Suddenly I was back in the small classroom overlooking the courtyard at my high school, scanning sentences on the board, parsing passages on thematic as well as molecular levels. I heard pencils scratching, loaders scuffing, girls giggling.
It was then I remembered my little book of poems.
On a whim, I emailed Mrs. Bender and asked if she by any chance had kept my gift to her. A week later, I received a fat envelope in the mail that contained a photocopy of every special piece I’d ever written for her, from an award-winning translation to a Christmas poem not even connected to our class. And there, right on top of the stack, was a standalone poem I did not remember writing -- a translation of Horace Odes III.30 with the end line of I.1 tacked on for emphasis. Here’s how it reads:
I have finished a steadfast monument
more enduring than bronze, and loftier
than regal tips of royal pyramids.
Neither erosive rain nor winds, north-sent,
destroy it, nor can the raging warrior
of countless years -- the flight of time -- corrode.
I will not -- can not! -- die entirely,
for much of me avoids mortal demise.
Instead, my words (and thus my soul) will thrive,
made fresh with future praise as long as he
who worships questions gods within their skies.
I will be sung as one still much alive;
though rustic people heralded my birth,
the royal lines exalt my lasting fame.
O Muse, gain from my achievement rich pride,
and willingly fashion of Delphic earth
a laurel crown befitting my great name!
For I will strike the stars, my head held high.
-- Horace Odes III.30, I.1; trans. Julia Rocchi
I read it once. I read it again. I sat with it in my hands, looking at the undated paper, repeating the words, wondering if I had not just written this the other day and somehow slipped it in the pile.
Because here was a work I composed when I was around 16 years old, based on literature two millennia older than that, and yet the theme and voice and construction felt as familiar and fresh to me as notes I’d jotted yesterday. There was the iambic pentameter I love to scan. There was the rhyme I thrill to include. There was the artist’s statement I constantly refine. And, most telling, there was the fervent, desperate hope that the work would outshine -- and outlive -- me.
In this print-out I’d first produced on my parents’ computer, I saw my entire essence as a writer foretold. At age 16, long before I’d found the words to express my drive, I had heard a kindred spirit echoing across dusty centuries and strove to apply it to my own life in rhythm and verse.
If that’s not a sign you’re on the right path, what is?
Prayer #280: Human Declension
To the Great Translator:
On accusative days, I’m acted on by others, in that they direct and I object.
On dative days, I’m more willing to receive, in that they direct and I accept.
On nominative days, I am a subject all my own -- the lead, the actor, the one who calls the shots.
On ablative days, I become the means -- not the doer, not the deed, but the way.
And on genitive days, I simply am possessed.
But to You, I remain in vocative -- a call, a cry, a name that disappears in the wind and leaves its intonation behind. You capture my substance and my essence. You convey my meaning. You change me in form, but not in ending. For when my piece concludes, Your translation will persist, and the final work is not yet one I know.