A book I’m currently enjoying dipping into is the recently published Line of Enquiry: Favourite Lines from Classical Literature (edited by Paul Corcoran, Trinity College Dublin Press). It’s a collection of 50 beloved gobbets of mostly ancient eloquence in both Greek and Latin, with a translation and a brief commentary on why each one was chosen by a diverse range of classicists.
Although the first excerpt is the magnificent first line of the Prologue of John’s Gospel, the rest of the quotations are thoroughly pagan in either origin or sentiment. It’s very refreshing to read these scholars’ justification for their own selections, some of which are fairly left-field, I must say, but the real delight is in coming to read them and appreciate them as they do.
What’s particularly striking about these gems of wisdom is how utterly relevant many of them remain to our times. This may be due in part to the terseness of these ancient (and anything but dead) tongues: we still value the pithy aphorism – even if Twitter has just doubled its character allowance to accommodate our modern verbosity.
It’s perhaps inevitable that Virgil predominates the Roman sources: his poetry remains one of the touchstones of Western culture. In fact, I have Virgil to thank for impressing a cardinal when I was a young student in Rome (the only time I have ever impressed a cardinal, I hasten to add). This distinguished visitor to the Scots College sat with us at supper one evening and, for what reason I cannot now quite recall, he had cause to recite part of the first line of the Aeneid: “Arma virumque cano…”
Without missing a beat, I completed the line and carried on with the next three. He was pleasantly taken aback by this display of erudition on my part (after supper, my fellow students were less complimentary) and commended whoever my Latin master had been.
My master was Mr Hogan, who taught Latin by day and played jazz trumpet by night. He had insisted we learned the first four lines of Virgil’s foundational epic since, whatever became of us in life, we would carry with us something of the glory that was Rome. The reason I didn’t miss a beat in my recitation was because Mr Hogan, with a jazz performer’s feel for rhythm, invited us to learn the scansion with tapping feet and drumming fingers. Indeed, to this day, I can almost hear the accompaniment of cymbal brushes whenever I too sing of “arms and the man”.
It was also Mr Hogan who taught me that even the smuttiest of Roman poets, Catullus, can offer us a vista which is theological as well as emotional. The famous odi et amo (“I hate and I love”) conveys the inner torture of unreciprocated love with the word excrucior. I can still see Joe Hogan (as we would never have called him to his face) point at the crucifix on the wall and say: “The heart of this word is crux, the cross. The suffering he’s going through is just like that.”
I know he was making an etymological point and not a theological one, but it worked. All these years later, I can still hold the agony of a Roman libertine and the Son of Man in one cultural reference.
And that is why it is right to celebrate and pass on these words and explain why they matter to us. After all, we live in an age when the trite and the soundbite are elevated far beyond their merits or their capacity to elevate us.
For me this is encapsulated in a heated exchange with one of the younger members of my family, some years ago. She announced, to howls of disapproval, that she had just got a tattoo (we are not really a tattoo family, you see). When I inquired what this adornment was, she replied “Live, Laugh, Love”. I immediately recognised these terse injunctions from three canvas prints hanging in their dining room at home.
“But,” she added, as if in mitigation, “They’re written in Italian.”
“Italian?” I inquired, witheringly, “The language you don’t speak?”
Thankfully the translation was correct but there were still tears before bedtime that night, mostly mine.
I suppose it’s not really the acquisition of a tattoo that bothered me, more the vacuity of the words themselves. One could even say that the desire to have words inscribed on skin is a laudable expression of that symbiosis between word and flesh which underpins our faith. Indeed, in my more whimsical moments, I have pictured new bishops booking themselves in to have their episcopal mottos imprinted indelibly on their persons.
In fact, I’ve given myself a notion. After all, I’m sure no one would bat an eyelid if I were to turn up for Mass one morning with ODI ET AMO tastefully inked across my knuckles. Well, perhaps one or two might look askance and join with Cicero in exclaiming O tempora, o mores!
Fr John Bollan is parish priest of St Joseph’s in Greenock and an honorary teaching fellow at the University of Glasgow