7 December 2021

Horace and the Vigil of Mary Immaculate: mainly for classicists

December 8 will be the birthday of one of the greatest Roman poets, Quintus Horatius Flaccus. It would be beautifully appropriate if, during these days which precede the celebration of the Immaculate Conception, I could share with you his words on that Immaculate Conception of our Lady. But ... I can do something very much like it.

Readers of my posts on the Hymns of the Roman Breviary will remember my strong preference for the versions of the old hymns which appeared in all the Medieval Breviaries (including Sarum); and in the present Benedictine Breviary; and in the post-Conciliar Liturgia Horarum. Those texts were not in 'pure' Clasical Latin, but in Christian, Liturgical, Patristic, Latin. But this was all changed in the 1620s at the order of a superb classicist, Urban VIII, who wanted them to be in the grammar and metres of Augustan Latin. I believe that this change should not have been made, and I applaud the resolution of Vatican II to reverse it. But there can be no doubt about the brilliance of the enterprise, in itself and in its own terms, and about the sparkling, classical erudition and inventiveness of Papa Barberini and his helpers.

One of his collaborators was a Polish Jesuit Matthias Sarbiewski. He was an enthusiastic admirer of Horace, and wrote poetry himself in the Horatian style and often with allusions to Horace's text. The following has its origins in Horace's Odes, III 28.

Quid muti trahimus diu
Segnes excubias? Suggere postibus
Dereptum, ROSA, barbiton.
Nos arguta manu fila docebimus:
Tu buxum digitis move,
Et mutis animam suffice tibiis.
Nos cantabimus aureos
Stellarum vigiles sistere lubricam
Mundi sollicitos fugam, et
Palantum choreas ducere syderum.
Tu rerum dominam canes,
Et sparsam Zephyrorum arbitrio comam
Nudis ludere bracchiis,
Et nimbos volucrum fundere crinium.
Addes et teretes pedum
Suras non humilem lambere Cynthiam;
Et sutas chlamydum faces,
Indutique togam Solis amabili
Emirabere fistula:
Donec virgineis laudibus, et suis
Placatus, resecet moras,
Et currum madidis flectat ab Indiis.

I could not begin to translate this; Horatian Latin is not only a different language; it is also a radically different sort of way of using words to convey meaning. Translations are either distant paraphrases or else they sound like gibberish.

But lines I have emphasised above, it seems to me, are a superb piece of classicising Latin describing the baroque iconographical conventions of Maria Immaculata. Horace advises his friend Rosa, as they meet in the twilight of a Vigil of our Lady, to sing of the Mistress of Things; of her locks, scattered by the will of the Zephyrs, playing upon her bare arms and pouring forth clouds of flying hairs; with unhumble Cynthia licking the smooth ankles of her feet.

Horace, just like his Polish imitator, rejoiced in a Callimachean allusive intricacy accessible only to his fellow-erudite. Indeed, oderunt profanum vulgus et arcebant.

Her Immaculate Heart will prevail!


Tom Waggener said...

Beautiful post. Thank you. Tom Waggener USA

QuireMan said...

The same Urban VIII who held seances in the Vatican.

Joshua said...

To be fair, His Holiness, anxious to ward off prognostications of his impending demise, was led astray by a heterodox Dominican astrologer; and surely summoning Fra Tommaso Campanella OP to the Papal palace in the summer of 1628, then retreating with him to a sealed chamber wherein aromatics were sprinkled, curious incense burnt, silken drapes hung, candles and torches lit, music "Jovial and Venereal" played to drive away bad air, liquors drunk, and various stones, plants and colours utilized to draw down upon Urban VIII positive astral forces - all of which was classed as safely philosophical, but proved highly embarrassing to the Vicar of Christ when an account of this seemingly syncretic act (a sort of presage of the antics of St John Paul II and sundry pagans at Assisi) was published the year after. No doubt in his bowings before Pachamama, Bergoglio was merely following in Santo Subito and Barberini's footsteps. Who knew that syncretism had such a pedigree at the Vatican? ¡Hagan lio!

[Many thanks to "A Companion to Astrology in the Renaissance", a volume I never expected to consult in order to discover the details of a Papal seance.]

Joshua said...

To make my first sentence make some sense, please insert ", may be deemed innocent though bizarre" before the hyphen!

I seem to have indulged in a Pauline anacolouthon, in honour of the Successors of the Princes of the Apostles.