A book I’m currently enjoying dipping into is the recently published Line of Enquiry: Favourite Lines from Classical Literature (edited by Paul Corcoran, Trinity College Dublin Press). It’s a collection of 50 beloved gobbets of mostly ancient eloquence in both Greek and Latin, with a translation and a brief commentary on why each one was chosen by a diverse range of classicists.
Although the first excerpt is the magnificent first line of the Prologue of John’s Gospel, the rest of the quotations are thoroughly pagan in either origin or sentiment. It’s very refreshing to read these scholars’ justification for their own selections, some of which are fairly left-field, I must say, but the real delight is in coming to read them and appreciate them as they do.
What’s particularly striking about these gems of wisdom is how utterly relevant many of them remain to our times. This may be due in part to the terseness of these ancient (and anything but dead) tongues: we still value the pithy aphorism – even if Twitter has just doubled its character allowance to accommodate our modern verbosity.
It’s perhaps inevitable that Virgil predominates the Roman sources: his poetry remains one of the touchstones of Western culture. In fact, I have Virgil to thank for impressing a cardinal when I was a young student in Rome (the only time I have ever impressed a cardinal, I hasten to add). This distinguished visitor to the Scots College sat with us at supper one evening and, for what reason I cannot now quite recall, he had cause to recite part of the first line of the Aeneid: “Arma virumque cano…”
Without missing a beat, I completed the line and carried on with the next three. He was pleasantly taken aback by this display of erudition on my part (after supper, my fellow students were less complimentary) and commended whoever my Latin master had been.
My master was Mr Hogan, who taught Latin by day and played jazz trumpet by night. He had insisted we learned the first four lines of Virgil’s foundational epic since, whatever became of us in life, we would carry with us something of the glory that was Rome. The reason I didn’t miss a beat in my recitation was because Mr Hogan, with a jazz performer’s feel for rhythm, invited us to learn the scansion with tapping feet and drumming fingers. Indeed, to this day, I can almost hear the accompaniment of cymbal brushes whenever I too sing of “arms and the man”.
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