Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.06.14

Stephen Bertman, Erotic Love Poems of Greece and Rome. A collection of new translations. New American Library.   New York:  Penguin Books (USA), 2005.  Pp. xxiii, 132.  ISBN 0-451-21480-3.  $13.95.  



Reviewed by Roger Rees, Edinburgh University (r.d.rees@ed.ac.uk)
Word count: 722 words

A very brief introduction to classical erotic poetry prefaces the main content of this slim paperback, an anthology of translations of first Greek, then Latin, erotic verse. The selections are arranged broadly chronologically by original language, from Homer to the Greek anthology and then from Catullus to the Pervigilium Veneris. A timeline further helps the reader to appreciate developments and context, and a glossary of geographical and mythological names and a brief bibliography close the volume. Translations are themselves accompanied by short paragraphs offering contextual help for the poet or the poem, and on occasion there are some critical remarks following the translation. Stephen Bertman, an academic classicist, is at once translator, guide and critic.

The book is clearly directed at a North American market, where it may well prove a useful resource in high school and college literature courses. B.'s considerable efforts to make the book accessible are largely successful, so a teacher could recommend the volume to students confident they should be able to benefit from it without significant further preparation in the classroom. For example, the paragraph introducing the Greek Anthology (p.50) provides in concise format some very helpful details about the origins and history of that collection before the selections that appear in the following 13 pages: or again, the paragraph introducing Horace (p.85) contains some biographical and literary-historical detail that the uninitiated should find useful.

B.'s contemporary, perky translations may also prove attractive in the market-place. His practice varies, with simple rhyme schemes generally characterising translations of shorter poems, and a less restrained prosaic form in the longer passages (with the appropriate exception of a rhyming couplets in the passages from the Ars Amatoria). B.'s introductory remarks on 'The Challenge of Translation' (ppxvi-xviii) may strike readers as somewhat precious, but in practice his "attempt to spiritually 'inhabit' the poem" (p.xvi) is proved successful by the tone and idiom of his translation. As an illustration, the clipped conversationalism of his "Then in stepped Corinna" and "But why itemize?" capture well the tone of Ovid's Amores 1.5 (p.103).

B. does not shrink from obscenity; graphic heterosexual and pederastic terminology feature. This is as much a function of the selection of poems that B. makes as of his honest attempts to do them justice, so for those who wish to highlight varieties of stylistic register and sexual orientation in classical poetry, the book will provide suitable examples.

Therefore, as an anthology of important classical erotic poetry in translation, the book should engage inexperienced students and readers with no scholastic ambition. It might well spark an interest that takes them on to further reading or enquiry, or at least provide them with a reliable appreciation of classical erotic poetry as a background for different interests.

For more critically astute readers, and/or those with or after a more advanced knowledge of the ancient world, it is less likely to be a success. The word-count inevitably imposed restrictions on B.'s selection, and on the whole I would have no quarrel with his inclusions; but the exclusion of poems such as Archilochus fr.196, Catullus 99 and Ovid Amores 1.1 gives a skewed impression of the respective genres and authors. And when only five lines from Athenian drama feature (Euripides Medea 629-33, p.42), I wonder if the genre would be better left out altogether.

B.'s decision to give each translation a title (in bold) might be helpful for those who want from their reading at this stage only a limited acquaintance, and who do not wish to be distracted or confused by reference numbers by poem of line, but for those who are trying to formulate a close appreciation of, for example, Sappho or Horace, titles such as 'A Manifesto of Love' (for Sappho fr.16) or 'Hag' (for Odes1.25) are not helpful.

The value of B.'s critical comments is very uneven. Aeneas' meeting with Dido's ghost (p.83) receives no comment; by contrast, Sappho's four-line 169a has four paragraphs. A long paragraph on Ovid Amores 1.5 argues that the poem is "an elaborate exposition on duality", with "elemental human mathematics" an organising principle (pp.103-4), but there is literally no other information, context or criticism on the poem. With more of his very good translations and none of his rather capricious criticism, I would be much more confident in recommending B.'s book to undergraduates on classical programmes.

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