Friday, October 8, 2010

Petronius' "filthy pleasure"

Ben Jonson's translation

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustfull beasts, that onely know to doe it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay,
But thus, thus, keeping endlesse Holy-day,
Let us together closely lie, and kisse,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleas'd, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

of Petronius'

Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas,
et taedet Veneris statim peractae.
Non ergo ut pecudes libidinosae
caeci protinus irruamus illuc;
(nam languescit amor peritque flamma);
sed sic sic sine fine feriati
et tecum jaceamus osculantes.
Hic nullus labor est ruborque nullus:
hoc juvit, juvat, et diu juvabit;
hoc non deficit, incipitque semper.

Anyone with any Latin will see how literal Jonson's translation is. But onto Petronius' fastidious Epicureanism there is an overlay of Judeo-Christian shame and guilt (rubor needn't mean more than blushing nor taedet more than being wearied). Both of course have the same strategy, that of never finishing something to be free from distasteful consequence. And neither could have anticipated our lucky escape from the Heat-Death of the Universe (law of entropy) to a continuing Big Bang or Inflationary Epoch. We who together closely lie and kiss come as close as mortals can to the happy figures on the Grecian Urn.

Petronius' hendecasyllables are quite artful but to a startlingly regular iambic line Jonson has added rhyme—rhyme which in the last couplet highlights the binary of finishing and beginning ("never"/"ever"). He also has a "kisse" that explodes into the aural experience of the poem and continues to live and last in the next (and last) three lines of the poem with its resounding echo "this".

As I said at our last meeting, to call anything the greatest out of such a large field is to be rhetorically provocative. What I wish to provoke with this evaluation is the deep musical satisfaction of a poem without "deep" image, indeed virtually without image of any sort whatsoever ("like lustfull beasts"). This is high heresy to all poetics since 1798 ("Lyrical Ballads"). This is all Goatfoot and Milktongue—Twinbird has flown the coop! And what would be a numbing metrical regularity (only disturbed at the outset by the trochee "Doing") is transcended by a flexibility of phrasing that spills over these feet as a high wave over rocks.

a filthy pleasure is
and short
and done
we straight repent us of the sport

Rather than re-lineate the whole poem this way I offer a challenge … or an exercise, a challenging exercise. Set your metronome at 40 bpm and read the poem. I take 30 beats. (Note: not every line has three beats, and key words often occur off beat.)


Terry said...

This is a brilliant translation, Tim, thanks for bringing to our attention. Some may be familiar with Helen Waddell's work on medieval Latin lyrics, of which this poem by Petronius was included in her anthology. (I read her work on the Desert Fathers when I was in college). For comparison's sake, I attach her translation:

DELIGHT of lust is gross and brief
And weariness treads on desire.
Not beasts are we, to rush on it,
Love sickens there, and dies the fire.
But in eternal holiday,
Thus, thus, lie still and kiss the hours away.
No weariness is here, no shamefastness,
Here is, was, shall be, all delightsomeness.
And here no end shall be,
But a beginning everlastingly.

Tim said...

How interesting that Waddell included it in her Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. Petronius is hardly medieval, but his inclusion suggests that he or at least "Foeda est" was once considered so. It also brings up the question of how original Jonson's christianizing/de-epicureanizing may have been. We know from Walsh's introduction and testimonia how oddly popular Petronius was with early Christians (and later). Maybe "Doing" is in a long line of this reception.