Monday, November 12, 2012

A Bit of Irony

      For Remembrance Day or Veteran's Day or Armistice Day (whatever you call it), most people around here have a public reading of John McRae's 'In Flander's Fields'. It is a moving poem and the good doctor was a Canadian who gave his life in service to his country. The poem, that as often comes to my mind, is called 'Dulce et Decorum Est' by Wilfred Owen, a British volunteer, who also died, killed in action seven days before the war came to an end.
     I mention this because his poem speaks against war and he was not someone who stayed home and wrote his anti-war poems from the safety of his living room far from the front. He wrote his poem describing the horror of the gas attack, having seen it up close, and finished with,

"If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--- My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori."

He quoted a line from Horace, which means "how sweet and fitting it is to die for one's 
country". It was taken from a poem in Horace's book 3 of Carmina, poem #2 'Angustam Amice', the entire stanza is here,

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo."

"It is sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland.
Death pursues even the fleeing man and spares
not the unwarlike of young men or the hamstrings of the timid."

How would Horace know? Somehow he managed to survive the Battle of Philipi, 
fighting on the losing Republican side, even though he fled the battle without his shield. I guess the lie started with Horace. Augustus forgave him and then he spent the rest of his 
life writing poems for the glory of Augustus and his war machine.

It is difficult to provide a translation of the title because 'angustam' is an adjective and 
'amice' is an adverb and they just do not go together. Word order in classical Latin is fluid and it is more important to Roman poetry to adhere to the meter than to keep adjectives 
with the nouns they describe and adverbs with the verbs. The title of the poem would 
always be the first few words of the poem, hence The Aeneid was never called that by the Romans, it was "arma et virumque cano". "I sing of arms and a man."

The first stanza is then,

"Angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
condiscat et Parthos ferocis
vexet eques metuendus hasta."

ignoring meter and putting it together as a modern sentence, it should go like this:

" Robustus puer condiscat pati amice angustam pauperiem acri militia et hasta/eques 
vexet Parthos ferocis metuendus."

"Let the healthy boy learn to endure patriotically narrow poverty with military discipline 
just as the mounted spearman harasses the Parthinians with the ferocity of fear."

Sounds like fun. Sign me up for that.
The Latin version of Horace's poem was taken from The Latin Library website.


Anachronist said...

I had to learn "Angustam amice" by heart. I hated the propaganda of this one so I happily not remember anything of it. A lovely analysis, thank you! It is indeed the old lie and let me also tell you this: if a politician says "oh quam dulce et decorum est pro partia mori" tell him to enlist as a private and die.

The Red Witch said...

I hope your translation was better than the one given to me. I had to read it in high school as well. I suppose it diminishes the message if I ignore the politics and consider it simply as a grammar problem.

Anachronist said...

Well, I didn't have to bother with the translation because I learned it in Latin ;p. Of course we translated it later during our lesson but still nobody was overly concerned whether we got it wrong or right.

The Red Witch said...

It was probably best read in latin. Although a lot of people struggle with understanding poetry. The class that I took on Roman elegy was soooo small even though it was an undergraduate class. I can't remember if we even had the required 8 for the class to go on.