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Latin: How I Discovered a New Poetic Experience


By Jay Paine


About a year ago, I began studying ancient Latin, and the language has forever changed how I experience poetry. After exploring a few of the Roman poets' works in the original Latin, I have realized that Latin poetry can maneuver in ways English poetry can only dream of.


Because Latin relies on case endings to show how a noun is operating within a sentence (i.e., if it's the subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.), word order does not matter. Therefore, the Roman poets were able to place words wherever they desired, and sometimes these poets would group words together to imbed a picture within their poetry. These groupings are known as word pictures. In the epic poem, The Metamorphoses, the poet Ovid peppers many of these word pictures throughout. One example comes from Book VIII, where he tells the story of Philemon and Baucis, a couple who is transformed into a tree with a twisted, double trunk. In one of the lines, Ovid weaves together the words for the couple's double-body and trunk, and by doing so, he successfully creates the image of their twisted trunk. Unfortunately, Ovid's word picture does not work in English. Since word order is necessary to show how a noun functions within an English sentence, switching around the words to create an interwoven picture causes the sentence to become incomprehensible, and it doesn't end there. Latin can employ many other poetic devices that English cannot, so there's something to be said for reading the poetry in Latin.


Now, please don't think I am saying, "Screw English poetry; Latin poetry is superior!" I am only trying to emphasize that some characteristics of poetry are unique to Latin, so if you want to experience Roman poetry in all its original brilliance, you need to learn Latin. That said, I still enjoy reading these poets in their English translations. Many translators have captured much of these works' brilliance through prose and other forms of verse. Plus, I still rely on these English translations because I have a lot more studying to do before I am proficient in reading Latin.


Lastly, I know I have only written about how Latin has enriched my experience of poetry. I did this because Latin is the only other language I have studied so far, but please note that what I have written about Latin also applies to other languages. All languages—ancient and modern—bring something unique to the world of poetry (English has its unique characteristics, too), and many of these characteristics are lost when the poetry is translated. As much as I hate to admit it, there is some truth to that statement about how poetry is untranslatable, but by studying multiple languages, I can begin to enjoy more of the fantastic experiences poetry has to offer.


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