It’s as a half-caste that I bring my song to the bards’ rites

Below is the prologue to Persius’ Satires in Susanna Morton Braund’s Loeb edition.

I neither cleansed my lips in the nag’s spring nor recall dreaming on twin-peaked Parnassus so as to emerge an instant poet. The Heliconians and pale Pirene I leave to people with their statues licked by clinging ivy. It’s as a half-caste that I bring my song to the bards’ rites. Who equipped the parrot with his “Hello” and taught the magpie to attempt human speech? It was that master of expertise, that bestower of talent, the belly—an expert at copying sounds denied by nature. Just let the prospect of deceitful money gleam and you’d think raven poets and poetess magpies were chanting the nectar of Pegasus.

Nec fonte labra prolui caballino
nec in bicipiti somniasse Parnaso
memini, ut repente sic poeta prodirem.
Heliconidasque pallidamque Pirenen
illis remitto quorum imagines lambunt
hederae sequaces; ipse semipaganus
ad sacra vatum carmen adfero nostrum.
quis expedivit psittaco suum “chaere”
picamque docuit nostra verba conari?
magister artis ingenique largitor
venter, negatas artifex sequi voces.
quod si dolosi spes refulserit nummi,
corvos poetas et poetridas picas
cantare credas Pegaseium nectar.

Her translations of Juvenal and especially Persius – who is forever less attended to – are far my favorites now.  Generally when she departs from the Latin it’s for a punch that strict conformity can’t get across – e.g. here ‘nag’s spring’ for fonte caballino where caballinus is really a neutral adjective ‘pertaining to a horse’, ‘an instant poet’ for repente poeta where the adverbial repente truly does better as adjective – but I very much dislike ‘half-caste’ for semipaganus.  Lewis and Short give it ‘half-rustic, half a clown’ based off the varying senses of the root element paganus


‘Half-caste’ sounds to me too much a British empire insult and too much privileges the connotation of semi over that of paganus – which, without rousing all the dull dribblings of the ‘persona of the satirist’ arguments, still seems very much at the heart of the scene with its clear references to Hesiod (including ποιμένες ἄγραυλοι, ‘field-dwelling shepherds’, Theogony 26) and (as becomes apparent in the ensuring satires) the author’s distaste for the culture of his urban surroundings.  I prefer an Americanized ‘half a hillbilly’.

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