30 July 2019

Only for classicists

Here is the poem Erasmus composed to go with a picture of the Child Jesus which his fellow Humanist Dean Colet had put up in the school he founded and headed at S Paul's Cathedral in London.

Sedes haec puero sacra est Iesu
Formandis pueris dicata; quare
Edico, procul hinc facessat, aut qui
Spurcis moribus, aut inerudita
Ludum hunc inquinet eruditione.

It is written, as you perceive, in Phalaecian hendecasyllables (I think I-e-su is three syllables). Quaerendum: Did Erasmus derive the use of this metre from Catullus, or from Martial? The former survived antiquity only in the Veronensian codex discovered in the middle of the fourteenth century, while Martial was much more widely known at least from the Carolingian Renaissance onwards. I think I can prove it was Martial: there is a lovely little book in the British Library containing verses by the Italian Humanist Giovanni Gigli (1434-1498), later bishop of Worcester, but, when he wrote the book in 1486/7, a writer of pure and elegant classicising verse and a seller of indulgences (a revealing combination!). It includes a very long Genethliacon dedicated to the recently-named Arthur, later Prince of Wales ... in Phalaecian hendecasyllables. And I have spotted a quotation from Martial in something else Gigli wrote: which seems to me very probably to settle the question of where this fascinating generation of circa 1500 Humanists got that metre from.

Incidentally, Gigli's genethliacon begins with a recusatio explaining that disertiores will be able to do his high subject justice in heroic measures. As people scrambled for favour and jobs in the new Tudor court, it was clearly important for him to do a quick job. Indeed, many of us, I suspect, found when we were schoolboys that hendecasyllables are just about the easiest metre in which to write Latin verse fast. I wonder if that is why Erasmus produced Phalaecians to be hung up where Colet's schoolboys would see them, so that the little chaps might be tempted to have a go at doing it themselves.


Stephen v.B. said...

Dear Fr Hunwicke,

I think you're quite right that Martial is the point of reference here, but primarily because Erasmus is using the metre as a vehicle for 'epigram' in the etymological sense: a poem to be 'written on' something, in this case (as often) accompanying a (votive) work of art.

Erasmus was, however, certainly acquainted with Catullus as well: a quick search turns up nearly 30 references to Catullus in his Adagia, e.g. 115 (suum cuique pulchrum, with a reference to Cat. 22) and 121 (simile gaudet simili, quoting Cat. 57).

(The writing of hendecasyllables in a real 'Catullan' style seems to have started with Giovanni Pontano, whose earlier poetry had been circulating since the 1450s. Erasmus was familiar with his prose works and astronomical poetry at least; I'm not sure if he had read Pontano's shorter poems.)

Oliver Nicholson said...

Hendecasyllables may be (relatively) easy in Latin, perhaps, but as Tennyson discovered are fiendishly difficult to bring off in English.