How to read a Latin poem: if you can't read Latin yet.

by Fitzgerald, William, OUP Oxford & New York 2013, 278 pages ISBN 9780199657865 (£17.85).

How to read a Latin poem: if you can't read Latin yet, but you need to be quite well on the way.  This is not a beginners’ language course or an introduction to the basics of Latin but a survey of Latin poetry in which all the examples are given in Latin with English translation and then followed by an analysis.  The reader will need, however, an advanced level of literary appreciation and a willingness to persevere through highly detailed and technical analysis of a variety of Latin verse forms.  In addition the content discussed is often of an adult nature (including Catullus’ notorious poem 97) and is not really suitable for young learners.  The audience must be assumed to be undergraduate students of literature who are Latinless but need an introduction to the major Latin poets.  Fitzgerald proceeds by giving a rapid overview of the field using close readings of selected passages from a number of authors.  He covers in six thematic chapters love poetry, poetry of hate, and then Horace and Vergil; the range extends to Lucan and Seneca and ends with a treatment of Lucretius and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  The structure is to choose a representative passage, quote it in Latin, then in an English translation (usually the author’s own) and then to give a close analysis with discussion of key Latin words and phrases.  The discussions are excellent, but I am doubtful that the help given to readers with the Latin is sufficient for a complete beginner to appreciate the subtlety of the original text.  Perhaps students with good English and an intermediate level of Latin (ECFRCL Ianua or Palatium) who know their way around a Latin sentence but who are studying literature in their mother tongue or second language would be best equipped to derive most from Fitzgerald’s illuminating analyses.  His choice of passages is far from expected and shows current trends in the reading of Classical texts.  He includes Sulpicia, Persius and Martial alongside the usual Horace and Vergil, and Lucan’s De Bello Civili and a Seneca tragedy receive extended discussion.  Topics concerned with gender and sexuality are prominently discussed and the section on satire and invective includes some of the best material Roman poets can provide.  We Classicists must in the future turn our attention to students of world literature who may not necessarily have Latin among their languages, but who need to get to grips with Latin poetry in as much of the original text as they can manage.  This book points the way forward but, while the close discussions of the passages are excellent, the intended readership may well need a lot more help with the language than is given.