This is a rather long post, introducing a poem. Skip to the bottom if the whys and wherefores are of no interest.
What to do with enforced retirement, a life distributed amongst several far-flung continents, what I like to think of as an active mind, and what I must admit to as social reluctance? How to pass time in a fruitful (the work-ethic background) fashion that is not counting the shadows crossing the tiles?
I immersed myself in a study of the poet, dramatist, philosopher and statesman, Lucius Annaeus Seneca. I think the stoicism appealed to me. The man was maligned by near-contemporary historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius, partly in response to political expediency, I am sure; and further damned by the later Greek historian, Deo Cassius. At the same time he was acknowledged as a Stoic teacher, and an exemplary of the ‘noble death’. How could such disparate views be reconciled? How could the man who wrote On The Shortness of Life be guilty of condemning Agrippina, his former patron, to death, and then assisting in a cover-up of the murder?
We have an enormous amount of written material ascribed to Seneca, transmitted it is true, through various voices and cultures, and thus suspect to tampering. We have some dozen philosophical essays, the moral epistles to Lucilus, a scientific treatise, nine tragedies of unremitting horror and the Apocolocyntosis, a satirical play on the pumpkinfication of the emperor Claudius. For a person who doesn’t ‘do’ living people very successfully, I felt I could know more about this man, through his writing, than I could about many of my contemporaries. I thought, perhaps if I could write my way into his head, I would be able to understand both the violent and the meditative parts of his persona.
I read scraps of biography – there is really not much known about his early life – and discovered he had been exiled to Corsica: another poet who committed an ‘error’. Happily, Seneca was recalled before he succumbed to the horrid life of an exile. I also discovered a body of work attributed to Seneca, or ‘pseudo-Seneca’, a collection of poems and epigrams allegedly written while he was exiled. I was struggling to understand my own position and feelings and hoped that once again, by getting into Seneca’s head I might find some answers.
When I began this undertaking, pseudo-Seneca was not popular amongst scholars. In fact he (or they?) was so unpopular I couldn’t find a copy of the poems, not in English or indeed in Latin. Remember I had no access to a University library or journal collections, and very limited access to bookshops. Even on the internet, especially on the internet, I struggled to find the poems. I trawled websites of second-hand books, and the early days of Project Guttenberg, not quite sure what I was looking for. Then triumph! I found a copy of Christopher J Reagan’s Concordance. Innocent that I was, I had hoped I was buying the original text and a commentary, perhaps a translation, I didn’t realise I was buying a collection of numbered lines, arranged alphabetically.
In great excitement I ordered the book and waited the endless weeks for it to be delivered. To make sure I really wanted it, the parcel spent a few weeks sojourn in the central post office of Jakarta, one of the few places I have never lived, before eventually arriving. When I opened the book, I discovered single lines with a line and poem reference number at the end. Being under-employed and under-stimulated and possibly quite mad, as well as stubborn, I set about re-constructing the 75-odd poems, line by line.
It took me months, but was oddly satisfying. I kept a separate page for each poem and gradually added lines as I worked my way from quam procul a te/aspicis heu cineres, Roma, iacere tuos! (413.3) through to Xerxes magnus adest. totus comitatur euntem/orbis (239.1).
I came to know the Latin lines intimately, line by word by line. I didn’t know what they meant, yet, but I began to recognise lines I’d already assigned (each line was repeated alphabetically, eg Xerxes magnus adest would appear three times, once under X, once under m, and once under a). The four-line epigrams were quickly dealt with, while the monster poem Spes fallax, spes dulce malum, spes summa malorum, went on for 65 lines, and nearly defeated me.
Eventually I finished compiling and rebuilding and I had the completed text, with lacunae and corruptions. I was almost disappointed when the task was over.
For my next trick, I set about translating them, with my clumsy school-girl Latin and my dictionaries. Months later I finished what I called The Poems of Exile. Some were more poetic and certain than others, while some were very scratchy indeed. I go back to my raw text from time to time and try to turn my work into poetry, but many stanzas remain that do not make sense and are far from finished pieces.
Towards the end of my translation project – some 18 months after I had conceived the daft idea – I discovered that some kindly scholars in France had put both the Latin text and their French translations online.
My school-girl French is much better than my Latin ever was, yet comparing the odd Victorian translation I had stumbled upon, and the no doubt excellent, informed and scholarly French translation, I discovered something else: I preferred my own imperfect, confused and clumsy efforts. I began to see what an art translation really is, and how it is subject to the culture and mores of its day. I realised that translation is quite a politically specific act, and the translator can colour the piece while still being ‘accurate’ to each word, to support quite different meanings. We project our world view, our prejudices and our priorities onto the text.
Even the Latin I worked with was subject to the vagaries of transmission, to time, taste, censorship and all the dangers of physical corruption. Some poems have missing lines, lacunae and disputed words. Some versions join lines together into single poems that elsewhere appear as separate pieces or at least stanzas.
Any links between my Poems of Exile and the historical Seneca are ephemeral, imaginary and possibly indulgent. Perhaps I am showing enormous cheek and hubris to refer to Seneca at all in connection with this work.
Let us agree instead that there is a fictional character, somewhere in my imagination, who has inspired these poems.
I hope to present some of these Poems of Exile on these pages from time to time, but being exile, I will begin with a grim reminder of our shared lot:
237 barbara praeruptus inclusa est Corsica saxis
Savage, rugged and isolated, the rude boulder of Corsica
is a place utterly forsaken and devastated.
No autumn fruit, nor summer crops are granted,
and old winter deprives the olive tree's gifts.
Spring showers bring no joyful growth
when only rank weeds emerge.
No bread, no fresh water, not remotest love:
only these two are here: the banned and banishment!