Martial's Epigrams

A Selection.

Marcus Valerius Martialis.

Translated by Garry Wills.

Viking. 206 pp. $24.95.


Reviewed By John Timpane


You've got to be brave to try a translation of Martial. He's been translated so often, so well, so famously, that you're going up with the big guys. Now Garry Wills, better known for his distinguished work in politics and history, has hung his coat on this very crowded hook. His collection, neither the best nor the worst, is worth reading for its best moments.

Marcus Valerius Martialis lived between A.D. 40 and 104. He was born in what we would call Spain (then called Hispania) and made his way to Rome. He became a master of the epigram, a short poem on a pointed theme. A dozen collections, more than 1,500 poems, appeared in the last two decades of his life.

Funny, wicked and fresh, these epigrams, while they speak of Silver Age Rome, with its crowded streets, dinner parties, bathhouses, publishers' stalls, politics and pederasty, have struck successive ages as very "today." Martial is an urbanite's urbanite, his world distant from ours yet strikingly similar. That's why he's translated so much.

We are living today in a translation boom. The great poetries of many lands are coming to us in fine translations that are themselves good poetry. The key with Martial, I think, is your choice of model. Short, barbed, often smutty poems - how do you want to sound? Wills takes the 1680s-1780s route, a golden century for English epigrams, the age of Rochester, Addison, Dryden, Swift and Pope. And I here praise Wills for embracing the smut of Martial, smut most smutty, smut so long absent from English versions.

Here's the problem: Wills' Martial sounds like a versifier of around 1740, one who isn't, I'm afraid, all that careful about meter or rhyme.

I subjected his Martial to the toughest of all tests: the dreaded restroom test. I rested the volume on the table next to the porcelain dais and noted how it fared. The verdict: On the whole, I wish the poetry were better. But it's worth reading for its best "hits," and it will give the reader plenty of smiles.

Here is Poem 43 from the 10th book, in Latin:

Septima iam, Phileros, tibi conditur uxor in agro.

Plus nulli, Phileros, quam tibi, reddit ager.

A literal prose rendering would be something like:

Already your seventh wife, Phileros, is buried in the field. No one's field, Phileros, yields more than yours.

Not poetry. But bite and wit are there to be mined. Phileros ("Sex-lover") has outlasted seven wives; that gives him seven estates to live off.

Agro

in Line 1 is the same word (just a different grammatical form) as

ager

in Line 2. The first means a farmer's field, but in the second the implication is "estate," both lands and finance.

The word

reddit

can mean both the agricultural "yield" and the financial one. Phileros is addressed in the middle of each line, as if to tell him, "You know you have a lucrative scam going."

Here's Wills:

You planted seven wives under your fields.

No farmer harvests greater (richer) yields.

Funny, good English, irony preserved, and (for me) this does "get" Martial's voice and tone. Phileros' name is gone, alas; forgivable. But that "(richer)" - not so good. Why explain what needs no explanation? It lames the irony. It's there only to fill out the iambic line, and that, especially in an epigram, is not forgivable.

A number of Wills' efforts stutter so. If you're going to go 18th-century, one thing you must face is that those poets were formidably perfect. Wobble even a little and the whole house comes down. Closing lines, where pressure's on for a trim, knife-blade ending, too often are the weakest. That's sad, especially in Poem 21 from Book 11, otherwise extremely good, where I am saddened by, to be respectful, a last line that was just not ready yet.

But you will also find some nice ones, as here:

I would not miss your face and lips

Or anything around your hips.

Why itemize the whole list through?

The truth is - I will not miss you.

Not bad. Or this, one of Wills' best:

The bee in amber shut, shines out.

It is a higher fate, no doubt,

In iridescent garb to be

Preserved for all eternity.

This one, actually, succeeds not by translating the whole poem, but by distilling its most beautiful point.

There are better renderings of Martial out there (Dudley Fitts', for example), but both Wills and Martial would be glad to hear that this one passes the restroom test - and, very often, the grin test.

Contact Inquirer staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com.