The young writer's version of the classical lyric poet is inflected with the eccentric innovation that marked his own work
Besides the dazzling original poetry for which he's celebrated, Gerard Manley Hopkins produced a small number of translations from the Greek and Latin poets. This week's poem, "Persicos odi…", is one of his two Horace translations. It was written early in his career when, after leaving Oxford in 1867 with a double-first in Classics, he spent a semester teaching at Newman's Oratory School, Birmingham. "Persicos odi…" (Book 1:38) is a remarkably textured little lyric. Despite its formality, the poem has a soundscape full of characteristic Hopkins timbres.
That fatherly, even priestly, apostrophe ("Ah child") initially sounds a rather stifled Victorian note. Hopkins's "child" is less casual and more neutral than Horace's "puer" and lacks the sexual undertone which might be inferred from the original. Hopkins's seriousness of purpose is evident, too, in his choice of the word "art" to translate "apparatus", rather than the more usual "ostentation". Despite this so far sedate linguistic palate, he pulls off a lovely surprise with the coined compound-adjective, "Persian-perfect". The homonymic "per" of the first syllable of both words intensifies their trochaic mirroring, and evokes the entwined patterning of a tile or carpet, reminding us, ironically, how beautiful and logical Persian art may be. The rhyme scheme has a similar effect: Hopkins picks an ABAB pattern, but the A and B rhymes in both verses are so similar that the sounds seem to coil around each other.
The alliterative show goes on with "Crowns composite and braided bast". Hopkins seems to be emotionally entangled with these images, so intrigued, in fact, that he separates the "coronas" from the "bast" (which threads them into a garland) and then folksily repeats the subject of his sentence in line two with the pronoun "They".
Those "Persian" excesses which positively offend Horace merely "tease" young Hopkins. The Celtic knots of the alliterative phrases he ties throughout the translation tease us readers with the suspicion that ostentatious word play doesn't displease him at all. But the thought moves on, and in the last line-and-a-half of the first stanza, Hopkins becomes cryptic: "Never know the part/ Where roses linger last". The "part" the boy is to avoid might be some part in a play or a song, or it might suggest a part of the body. Without the Horace poem to hand, a reader probably wouldn't immediately grasp the primary meaning of "part" as "place". Hopkins seems to have chosen the word deliberately for its range of meanings. The roses, consequently, may not only be roses, but slow-fade blushes. At the same time, there's clearly an aesthetic imperative here. The last rose is a dangerously melancholy and decadent symbol. Its pursuit, whether by young poets or young lovers, is best avoided.
The second stanza sounds extraordinarily modern. Serendipity is responsible for the echo which relates "your place and mine" to the invitation, in today's vernacular, "your place or mine?" As in the original, the real emphasis is the social position of the speaker relative to that of the boy addressed. Myrtle, the antithesis of luxury, may symbolise an equality achieved despite the difference in the social position of the speaker and the child; or it may be appropriate to each for entirely separate reasons.
Hopkins's innovative master-stroke is the addition of "glasses" to the tavern scene. Yet the phrase "tackled vine" is no less striking. All the meanings associated with "tack" and "tackle", not excluding the association with male genitalia, seem captured in that marvellously characteristic word. The conjuring of the two glasses purposely "set" in the shade of the vine is intensely suggestive, an erotic icon as well as an image of controlled lavishness. It's a brilliant pictorial conclusion, and a foretaste of the quality of the work Gerard Manley Hopkins will produce in his maturity.
"Persicos odi, puer, apparatus"
Ah Child, no Persian-perfect art!
Crowns composite and braided bast
They tease me. Never know the part
Where roses linger last.
Bring natural myrtle, and have done:
Myrtle will suit your place and mine:
And set the glasses from the sun
Beneath the tackled vine.
Horace Odes, Book 1:38
Persicos odi, puer, apparatus,
displicent nexae philyra coronae,
mitte sectari, rosa quo locorum
Simplici myrto nihil adlabores
sedulus, curo: neque te ministrum
dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta