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The Golden Apples of the Sun

By: Deborah Warren
June 25, 2018

 assume you’re not a classicist. Your concept of Latin poets is that they’re mildewed, tedious, and irrelevant longueurs.  

Wrong. At least in the hands of A.M. Juster. An accomplished translator (among other very diverse things), he combines scrupulous scholarship with colloquial flair. Juster’s trademark talent is bringing little-known poetry into seamlessly modern English. The word “timeless” may put us to sleep, but it’s the mot juste for Juster’s translation of the aging Maximianus’s miseries. His very readable translation introduces us, for virtually the first time, to this sixth-century Tuscan poet.

His book, Maximianus: Elegies and Eros for Every Age, includes the Latin text on the facing page; this practice should be mandatory for any verse translation. Another plus is that, in the Latin version, Juster has chosen to omit punctuation as well as initial capitals. His rationale is that Latin was written that way. Plus, to insert punctuation often implies an interpretation which may be controversial.

This non-prescriptive approach extends to his handling of textual options where the Latin itself is debated—sometimes heatedly. Many if not most commentators, faced with a disputed or ambiguous text, insist on their own readings, in some cases with withering dismissals of other scholars’ textual opinions. Instead, Juster opts to present us with a variety of readings, mostly without taking a stand.

As for the commentary, the book’s entire critical apparatus is spectacular. This is the first modern translation of Maximianus, and it will be the definitive one: the commentary should be comprehensive. Juster is nothing if not thorough, but he’s meticulous without being daunting and off-putting. This is a balance not easy to achieve. His notes are user-friendly—pedantry and pomposity are not inviting to any reader, especially the layman. Low-profile asterisks alert us to corresponding endnotes.

Though the commentary enriches our reading, this translation can stand on its own two feet (or, as elegiac couplets, six and five feet) even without reference to notes. 

The six elegies (plus appended poems) owe much of their allure in English to Juster’s translation principles. Most significant is his metrical stance. He renders the first line of Maximianus’s couplet in hexameter, the second in pentameter. For ears (like mine) accustomed to straight pentameter, this alternation can be disorienting. Every two lines I’m asking, where’s the other syllable? or what’s with the extra foot? But not for long, partly because Juster’s syntax and scansion coincide with semantics. And here, as an example, I get to show off a bit of the translator’s art. Where heterometrical lines could collide bumpily, they flow:

Do what you can; I’ve yielded. For this reason, though,
            the foe is stronger since love simmers less.

Maximianus is much given to repetition of words, phrases, and other sentence elements for emphasis and aural effect. There are over a half-dozen fussy Greek terms for subtypes of rhetorical repetition, and, in echoing Maximianus, I bet Juster uses all of them. But he’s not content merely to hew to the original construction: Juster is a poet, and his lyrical instinct gets all the mileage Maximianus intends:

I cried, “Candida, hurry! Why delay, Candida?
             Light flees and night, unkind to trysts, returns!”

This is not a loose translation. Quite the reverse. The elegiac couplet is typically a discrete, self-contained, unit: the two lines depend on each other. The brevity of each couplet effectively limits the translator to a strictly corresponding structure, and this is a line-by-line rendering.

Given the relative independence of each couplet, Juster end-stops many of them with a period. But he lets the content dictate enjambments across stanzas—another feature contributing to the natural flow of the verse.

Speaking of “natural,” natural is Juster’s forte. A translation’s chief standard should be that the reader doesn’t perceive it as a translation—that the language doesn’t get in the way of the substance by calling attention to itself. When it comes to translating Latin, Juster is a master of idiomatic diction. His tone makes Maximinius our contemporary.

So dismiss the idea that this late-Latin poet is dusty and outdated. Via Juster’s words, we can relate to Maximianus’s complaints and longings; after fifteen-hundred years, the speaker’s issues are exactly the same as our own. The poems leap off the page and into the twenty-first century:

Here, sizing me up as a cloddish Tuscan son,
             a girl from Greece ensnared me with her tricks,

for though she faked that she had fallen hard for me,
            she made me truly fall in love instead.

Even with the speaker’s sour attitude, many passages call for pathos; Juster’s musical phrases correspond:

The nightingale sings sweeter in familiar brush,
            and for the savage beasts their lairs are sweet.

As in the garden draped with many golden leaves,
            the snake on watch does not protect its apples . . .

. . . and yet, as snowy hair envelops her with age
            and time now stains her face with deep blue marks . . .

The elegies condemn old age and decrepitude in what is essentially a series of monologues. The poet likes to apostrophize would-be inamoratas and ex-mistresses, who loom large in bitter reminiscences about his youth—his lusty heyday, his seductions, his irresistible sexual allure. Unfortunately, however, he’s aging in a pre-Viagra era.    

In Maximianus’s day, a man was entering old age in his mid-forties. Over six-hundred years earlier, on the other hand, Cicero had already made it into his early sixties and had cause for a happy outlook; his De Senectute (written in the persona of Cato the Elder) advised a positive approach to aging. But Augustan-age poets had been less optimistic: Maximianus’s pursuit of young Lycoris echoes Horace’s odes deploring senescence for his declining appeal to various girls. And for Ovid, tremuloque gradu venit aegra senectus, quae patienda diu est. Grievous age, which must be endured for a long time, approaches with a feeble step.

But don’t suppose Maximianus’s target reader is the impotent geezer. On the contrary. And let’s not omit the saucy spots; several of the elegies are decidedly edgy. When the narrator—once a strapping and physically gorgeous ladykiller—recounts his exploits, the details border on TMI. This movie rates a NC-17; some explicit passages even place it in the porn genre. Nowadays, reflecting its Greek meaning, elegy connotes a lament for the dead. In antiquity, though, Eros was prominent.

Here’s Juster’s conclusion of Maximianus’s brief sixth—and last—elegy:

Morose, I rise now as if mourned by my last rites;
                        I think I’m living partly dead this way.

The translation reproduces the lines’ ambiguity. According to Michael Roberts in his introduction, the passage hints at immortality through poetry. But no: Maximianus doesn’t view his poems as the monumentum aere perennius Horace envisions. These lines curse old age as a living death. The vanished past morphs into a memento mori. And if anyone can convey Maximianus’s bittersweet words, Juster is the man for the job.

We don’t have to agree with philologist Gian Biagio Conte that the elegies also symbolize the death of paganism’s vibrant culture. That they speak to us, here and now, is enough. For Juster, their personal import is what counts.

We might take Maximianus’s Etruscan origins—even his individual existence—cum grano salis. But Homer’s and Shakesepeare’s identities have been open to debate, too. Whoever Maximianus was, he’s alive right now in Juster’s verses.