Race and Religion, Polemics and Pity

A New Edition Collects the Latin Verse of George Herbert

[Originally published January 29, 2019, in In Medias Res]

King’s College (finished 1515), looked much the same when George Herbert (1593–1633) was Cambridge University Public Orator there. (source)

George Herbert’s Latin Verse. Edited and translated by Catherine Freis, Richard Freis, and Greg Miller. Sacred Heart University Press, 2018. 314 pp., $15.00.

Here’s a poem to bring into any Latin class you’re teaching or taking. A woman has fallen for a man named Cestus, but there’s an obstacle. They’re apparently not of the same race, and he thinks that’s a problem: —

My translation

She makes a good point, but it gets her nowhere. And after begging Cestus in vain for eight more lines to look beyond her complexion, the poor woman reaches a devastating conclusion: —

Again, my own translation; the whole poem here, p. 267

It’s enough to make you cry.

Of course, there’s no way to know how the author really regarded romance between women and men of different color in his own life, but the emotions the poem elicits — a longing for a world where people are not separated by skin tones — feel as real, moving, and relevant as anything Catullus ever wrote.

What may surprise you — it surprised me — is that the poem was written by a white man from England 400 years ago, in the heyday of the transatlantic slave trade. Until recently, I had never heard of him. Who was George Herbert?

The English Neo-Latin poet George Herbert (1593–1633) was a contemporary of Elizabeth Jane Weston (1582–1612) and Joannes Burmeister (1576–1638) and, like them, a supreme master of Baroque Latin form.

Born in Wales, Herbert was orator of Cambridge University from 1620–7. Three years later, he became a parish priest in Bemerton, England. Three years after that he was dead, aged 39.

The samples and reflections that follow are prompted by a new bilingual edition of three small collections of Latin verse by Herbert, and I’m proud to make a disclosure before going on. Once upon a time, two of the three authors were undergraduate professors of mine at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. (In the following extracts theirs is the text and translation I quote; the pictures are mine.) But I wouldn’t review this book pietatis ergo alone; Herbert’s Latin poetry is worth your attention for several reasons. Have a look.

Herbert controls both sentiment and form with an ease and grace you rarely see in the Baroque era. Remember that crazy Latin anagram I quoted not long ago, the one that flips Roma around to spell out oram (shore), Maro (Virgil), ramo (branch), armo (arm), mora (delay) and amor (love)? That’s by Herbert, and it’s a good example of his command of form. An example of his command of sentiment is this consolation he wrote a friend:—

Lucus 23.9

A perfect image: the friend’s tears are the droplets of water whose trickle drives time forward. It’s a reminder that Death isn’t here yet, but he’s on his way soon enough for us all.

Here’s another, one I’d call the masterpiece in this collection (Lucus poem 19, on affliction): —

Lucus 19; the formal balance of caput and pedes is pure Baroque

Like Jonah inside his whale, Herbert utters a prayer of despair and loneliness, but unlike Jonah, his language unwittingly reveals his unsaid thoughts and wishes. The last word, vadem, suggest vadum (shallow water) — as the editors evidently realized, in choosing the translations wade and waves. And just before it, saltem (at least) hints at “let me leap” (saltare). Freud would have loved it.

But Herbert isn’t always moody, much less always sweetness and light. As the editors say (p. vii): —

The poet-priest George Herbert is a kind of patron saint of Anglicanism…. This present collection offers another side of George Herbert: the man who exchanged witty, biting poems with Pope Urban VIII and who engaged in impassioned debate with the leading Scottish reformer Andrew Melville.

An example of that biting wit is this attack on a hefty eater: —

Lucus 21 (and if you think verùm means “true,” see hack #7.)

Ouch! That’s cruel enough, but it’s also no coincidence that within caverna (cave, cavern) lurks verna (slave, buffoon). Herbert believes the glutton is a slave to his appetites.

George Herbert’s Latin Verse collects and translates Latin poems from four sources. To take them in reverse order: —

The fourth, Alia Poemata Latina, is a miscellany that gives us some of the poems I quoted above. Some are minor, occasional pieces not worth a second read, but a few, like Aethiopissa, are masterpieces. This is easily the best of the bunch.

The third, Lucus (“The Sacred Grove”), is another collection of various pieces. The crown jewel is a chain of 101 hexameters titled Triumphus Mortis (Death’s Triumph) or Inventa Bellica (War Machine) — the editors quote it in two versions, since Herbert evidently revised it. It’s a haunting mini-epic on the pointlessness of war, but it’s like nothing I’ve seen in Classical Latin. If you dream of finding heroism and glory in war, you might find the poem a useful challenge to your worldview.: —

Surely rudis is a ‘Freudian’ pun in that first line (crudepractice weapon)

The whole thing carries on in this disjointed, stream-of-consciousness fashion, and again with “Freudian” evocations of unspoken thoughts. It’s tough, but I highly recommend it.

The second source, Passio Discerpta (“The Passion Rendered in Parts”) is a sequence of 21 bizarre epigrams “ripped from” the Stations of the Cross.

Last but not least, the first and by far most interesting source is a collection called Musae Responsoriae (“The Muses Talk Back”). This is a sequence of satirical or polemical rejoinders by Herbert in lyrical form.

Andrew Melville

What you need to know to make sense of it is that in the early 1600s, the Scottish reformer Andrew Melville (1545–1622) had published a Latin poem attacking Anglicanism and Catholicism. The editors print and translate it here as an appendix, and it shows that diplomacy was not his aim. For example, Melville declares the Vatican a whorehouse that drinks Romulus’ feces: —

Bracing words when you realize that Sapphics are the basis of Gregorian chant! (image here)

Herbert’s “Muses” respond to this attack, sometimes angrily and brilliantly, others in ways that can only be called childish or stupid; the poems show that Herbert may have been a priest, but he was no choir boy. At times, he wasn’t even decent (Melville’s knowledge of Hebrew, for instance, becomes an occasion for some pointless anti-Semitic comments). And in one unintentionally hilarious epigram (31), Herbert draws a distinction between the two meanings of imponere (lay upon, swindle) that some would say is without a difference: —

To the text and translation of all these poems, the editors add about 40 pages of explanatory notes and three technical appendices. For those who, like me, came to Herbert knowing nothing of him or his age, they’re a goldmine.

George Herbert was a weird guy. On one page of this collection, he looks like a lyrical genius. On another, he looks like a smirking jackass. That bizarre contrast makes his Latin poetry a refreshing read. I recommend it.

[More information about purchasing George Herbert’s Latin Verse may be found here.]