How to Read a Latin Poem:
If You Can't Read Latin Yet

William Fitzgerald

Oxford University Press 2013
A book review by Danny Yee © 2013
How to Read a Latin Poem combines close reading of extracts from Latin poems with an explanation of their language, style and poetics and of the broader political and social context necessary for understanding them. While it doesn't assume any knowledge of Latin, it does assume a certain linguistic competence, most obviously a basic grasp of grammar and an engagement with English poetry, and some familiarity with Roman history wouldn't hurt. Fitzgerald's presentation is also rapid and dense, never repeating itself and demanding the full concentration of the reader; his style is accessible and not turgidly academic, but he doesn't make many concessions for a popular audience.

Short poems or extracts from poems are typically followed by a poetic but reasonably literal English translation and then a discussion; there are also some passages given just in translation. An introduction looks at poems by Martial and Catullus. Sulpicia, Ovid and Catullus feature as love poets. And Persius' third satire illustrates the role of obscenity, mockery and satire. Horace and Vergil get their own chapters, and then there are chapters on "poets of apocalypse" — Lucan's Civil War and Seneca's Thyestes — and "science fiction" — Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and Ovid's Metamorphoses.

For me, "If You Can't Read Latin Any More" would have been a more accurate subtitle — though even when I was studying Latin I would never have been able to read Persius without a substantial crib — and I can vouch that How to Read a Latin Poem works quite nicely for those who do have some Latin. How well it will work for those with none at all is harder to say: there's no word-for-word gloss or vocabulary list, but anyone prepared to just go with the flow and not worry too much about the exact details of the translation should be fine. And for anyone curious about poetry and language, there's plenty to be enjoyed even if they have no intention of ever studying Latin. Fitzgerald brings out, for example, the links to English poetry: up until a century or so ago, most people writing that were familiar with Latin poetry and may even have written some.

A minor gripe: For the sound of Latin poetry we are referred to a book Reading Latin Poetry Aloud which comes with audio CDs, but it would have been nice to have had recordings of the specific poems covered in How to Read a Latin Poem, perhaps provided on a web site.

May 2013

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%T How to Read a Latin Poem
%S If You Can't Read Latin Yet
%A Fitzgerald, William
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2013
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN-13 9780199657865
%P 277pp