Incomprehensible Lesson – Poems by Fawzi Karim – English Versions by Anthony Howell

Very pleased that a new book of my versions of the poems of Iraqi poet Fawzi Karim have just come out from Carcanet


Incomprehensible Lesson:  poems by Fawzi Karim in versions by Anthony Howell after translations made by the Author. Born in Baghdad in 1945 and now living in London, Fawzi Karim is has established a reputation as a major figure in contemporary poetry.  Plague Lands, his first book of poems in translation was a Poetry Book Society recommendation for 2011.

Anthony Howell’s first collection, Inside the Castle, was brought out in 1969. His most recent book of poems is From Inside, The High Window Press, 2017.

Incomprehensible Lesson explores the experience of becoming at home in London, a period of transition, from a sense of exile to a sense of uneasy belonging. The book is prefaced with an introduction by the poet.



Close to my home in Greenford,

The carriages roll to a halt. After long moments

They go on to bisect London.


The line takes me (questions harass) ‘Where?’

To streets, buildings, parks marred by repetition,

So that I prefer my own blurred reflection.


Then I return by the same red line,

Musing how, from Waterloo Bridge,

The scene’s perfection amazed me:


Seemed an artistic print, framed in an exhibition,

How the tourists milling there

Scattered such colours – like a wedding breakfast –


Was it some performance on TV?

A lady at a party broke through my precautions.

I found myself once more in the role of exile.


The line goes on and on.  The years

Sit across from me.  I take out my passport.

They want to share its pages.



Our first book Plague Lands was published in 2011, also by Carcanet.

For reviews of Plague Lands and further details, please click on this link to reviews

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Saturday 23 February 2019 – at 7.30 at The Room, 33 Holcombe Road, Tottenham Hale, London N17 9AS  – more info on website

free with refreshments, hosted by Anthony Howell

Featuring Keith Hutson, Anthony Costello, Alan Price and Lorraine Mariner

KEITH HUTSON has written for Coronation Street and many well-known comedians. His two poetry pamphlets are ‘Routines’ (Poetry Salzburg 2016) and ‘Troupers’ (a Laureate’s Choice, published by smith doorstop 2018). His debut full collection, ‘Baldwin’s Catholic Geese’ is published in February 2019 by Bloodaxe. Carol Ann Duffy says: ‘These poems illuminate something timeless about ambition and the human spirit. Keith Hutson is a wonderful talent. His hard-working and technically-assured poems arrive all-of-a-piece, centre stage’. Keith is a co-editor at Poetry Salzburg, and he hosts the popular WordPlay events at the Square Chapel Theatre, Halifax where he is poet-in-residence.
ANTHONY COSTELLO’S poetry collections include The Mask (Lapwing Publications) and Angles & Visions (The High Window Press). He is the editor of Four American Poets (The High Window Press) and a co-translator of Alain-Fournier:Poems (Carcanet). Anthony’s latest pamphlet is I Freeze, Turn to Stone: The Poems of Vincent van Gogh (Poetry Salzburg). He was editor and publisher at The High Window from 2016-2018.

ALAN PRICE was born in Liverpool and now lives in London. He is an ex-librarian, poet, scriptwriter, short story writer, film critic for the online ‘Filmuforia’ blogger at In 1990 he scripted the film A Box of Swan that was broadcast on BBC2. Alan’s debut collection of poetry ‘Outfoxing Hyenas’ was published by Indigo Dreams in 2012. This was followed in 2016 by Angels at the Edge nineteen prose poems inspired by Walter Benjamin’s comments on an Angel picture by Paul Klee. This pamphlet was published by TheTuba Press. The chapbook ‘Mahler’s Hut’ was published in 2017. And his new book of poetry, ‘Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady’ (The High Window Press) came out in May 2018.

LORRAINE MARINER’S pamphlet ‘Bye For Now’ was published by The Rialto in 2005 and in 2007 her poem ‘Thursday’, about the London Bombings on 7 July 2005, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. Her first collection ‘Furniture’ was published by Picador in 2009 and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize. Her second collection ‘There Will Be No More Nonsense’ came out with Picador in 2014. She lives in London and works at the National Poetry Library, Southbank Centre. In 2016  she edited “Ten Poems About Friendship” for Candlestick Press.

In the Room, Sadiq Toma is also exhibiting his striking ABSTRACTIONS. So come along to the reading and see the show at the same time.

All enquiries – 0208 801 8577

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The Forbidden Rose

Honoured to have my poem set to music and sung so sweetly. I find it plays better on Youtube at 480 p.

Battista Pradal (1964) The Forbidden Rose, for Tenor and Cello. Poem by Anthony Howell. Alessandro Cortello, tenor Riccardo Pes, cello…

A page for the cellist 

The poem comes from my collection Silent Highway

This Anvil book is supposed to be available from Carcanet, but I am rather pleased to discover that the first edition appears to have sold out. Should be available still on Abebooks or Amazon.


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The monkeys are in among the mangoes.

As for the lovely one, she is emerging from

Under the trees, the trees laden with mangoes

And monkeys.  She’s ambling out of the grove


Bearing the nail marks left by the man who

Meets her approval.  Yes, they’re clearly there,

As if engraved on cheek and shoulder.

One monkey bolder than his brothers


Pulls at her wrap.  Perhaps he confuses

Her breasts for the ripened fruit he adores.

He wants to climb all the way up her,

But all he has done is expose her.


Swatting him as if he were a fly,

She’s rid of the pest, for just

As the first fly contains the seeds of all

The flies to come, were it not for her whisk,


So the first monkey you allow, letting him

Climb your leg to get at your mangoes,

Contains the desires of all the inappropriate

Fellows who would feast on you.


Note that this celestial girl

Is tall as a tree herself, and that a princess

Shelters beneath her, a bit in her shade,

As if protected by an elder sister.


Celestial beauty from Khajuraho, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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The Bobos never man the barricades or burn the town.

They’re unimpressed by crowds that weaken their identities.

The very verb ‘to man’ offends their feminist vocabulary.

What matters more, to them, is ridding us of fossil fuels,

Wicked oil wells, pits and chimneys belching smoke

That casts its omnipresence over second homes in Tuscany.


The Bobos set up N.G.O.s to rescue baby polar

Bears from Alaskan paedophiles with kinks concerning fur.

They want to help their children transition from their genitals

To vegetables: that’s liberal, that’s caring, that’s aware.

Swastikas just photo-shopped onto Hebrew graves –

What a conspiratorial thought! Think it, you’re a Nazi.


The Bobos shudder. What they feel intensely must be true.

All their dinner-party buddies feel those feelings too.

Art’s for Grace, ten minutes worth, then proceed to property.

The Gilets Jaunes are on their own, completely unimpressed

By who these enlightened Bobos are – who always know what’s best

For them is good for all of us – those crowds are just the rest.


Bohos are bourgeois bohemians – Macron is their president.


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To wander through this mortuary of art

Underneath a flyover at Clignancourt

Is sad not solemn – unlike Père Lachaise –

For this is where the unmemorable makes its unsung exit.


Bland landscapes on hardboard, lifeless drawings

From life, natures mortes that never grew

Or ever drew a breath. Portraits of abusive uncles

And unfeeling aunts: images nobody wants,


Stacked at your feet. Stepping back on a frame,

The only way you’ll pay for it. Art

That declines eternity, helpless daubs, transitory,

Unremarkable, bleak; and so depressing for the genius


Browsing in and out, uncertain of his catalogue.

He reasons, there can be no fear

Worse than that my visions, scenes, designs

May end up here; crushed against


The next poor corpse in a stack. Give or take

A generation, several shifts of taste, the vagary

And sheer caprice of fashion may well lead the work

To experience a meagre spell in purgatory,


Among old lamps, used pipes and chandeliers,

Before the dealer’s annual clear-out

Shoves it in the winter stove to crinkle

Rather than flare in the last oblivion of fire.


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Statius: Silvae


Sleep, Silence’ child, sweet father of soft rest,

Prince, whose approach peace to all mortals brings,

Indifferent host to shepherds and to kings,

Sole comforter of minds with grief opprest;

Lo, by thy charming rod all breathing things

Lie slumb’ring, with forgetfulness possest,

And yet o’er me to spread thy drowsy wings

Thou spares, alas! who cannot be thy guest.

Since I am thine, O come, but with that face

To inward light which thou art wont to show,

With feigned solace ease a true‑felt woe;

Or if, deaf god, thou do deny that grace,

Come as thou wilt, and what thou wilt bequeath,

I long to kiss the image of my death.


Drummond of Hawthornden


The above is a version of a poem by Statius


Publius Papinius Statius was the foremost exponent of ‘occasional’ verse in the “Silver Age” of Latin poetry.  Each of his Silvae address a particular event, such as the inauguration of a newly built swimming-pool or the completion of a major road.  Often Statius has a particular patron in mind, for instance, the owner of the villa where the swimming-pool is being installed, or the emperor who has decreed that the new road should come into existence.  Detractors might accuse the poet of being the first ‘spin-doctor’ – putting a favourable gloss on some official announcement – maybe folk were grumbling about how much the road had cost.  He could certainly spin things out.  Where Martial, his contemporary, prided himself on his brevity and refined the terse and pithy epigram, Statius favoured the encomium, which makes a virtue out of discursiveness.  His ode to the Via Domitiana is nearly as long as the road itself.

He asserts that he extemporised, being more than willing to declaim, when moved to do so, during the event in question, and jotting the poem down, with few alterations, over the next few days.  This makes him something of a “performance poet”.  He was probably born in the AD fifties, a decade or two after the death of Christ.  But whereas Christ was the instigator of deceptively simple but deep pronouncements such as “Love thy neighbour” and “Turn the other cheek” – pronouncements that sound appropriately archaic – Statius’s writing reminds one of features for “House and Garden”.  His descriptions have an almost photographic accuracy about them and constitute a unique source of information for architectural historians researching into the building techniques and design that characterised his day.  His style is gushing and he knows how to chat, or, rather, how to chatter.

He was the son of a ‘scholar knight’ who had lost his equestrian status, possibly because his studies in religious lore had led him to neglect matters of finance, though he did tutor the emperor in this esoteric subject.  Papinius Senior was also a professional poet who had distinguished himself in several minor competitions, in Greek more often than in Roman verse.  The family were of Greek origin, from South Italy, and Statius considered Naples and its vicinity “Capua and Puteoli” to be his true heimat, and indeed he retired there towards the end of his life.  Then as now, the careers of poets were advanced by competitions, though the adjudication of these was focused on live performances rather than on submissions.

In his father’s lifetime, Statius won at the Augustalia, which was held in Naples, as had his father before him.  The high point came when he won at the Alban Games, reciting to a circle of courtiers and to the Emperor himself, in the amphitheatre above the crater which contains Lake Albano – “the Mirror of Diana”.  This magical little amphitheatre can be found in the gardens of Domitian’s summer palace in the Alban hills, a few miles from Rome.  It is now the Pope’s summer residence.  Domitian pronounced himself the high priest of his own divinity, and the Pope is still ‘Princeps’ – as were the emperors of old.

Statius married Claudia, the widow of a poet (it is not known who he was).  She had one daughter and appears to have supplied her second husband with her own ambitious drive while still promoting the work of her first.  In his heyday, Statius owned a small estate at Alba Longa, equipped by Domitian with a water supply – an estate which may actually have been a gift from the Emperor to his father.  He completed one epic – the Thebaid – embarked on another, and, being strapped for cash, according to Juvenal, he composed the libretto for a piece to be performed by Paris, the greatest mime ever seen in Rome.   But then things began to look less rosy.  Domitian had ordered the assassination of Paris in ‘83 for carrying on an affair with his wife Domitia, from whom he had separated – in order to have a fling with his niece Julia – only to demand a reconciliation with Domitia after Julia had died while having an abortion.  Paris was the loser in this imbroglio, and any friend of Paris might well have felt uncomfortable in Rome after his death.  Statius failed to win the Capitoline Games, the most coveted award of the epoch, some time after this.  He attended banquets given by the Emperor, but at one infamous banquet, a funerary atmosphere prevailed and the guests dined off their tombstones.  A reign of terror had begun.  Statius completed the last two books of his Silvae from the comparative safety of the Neapolitan hinterland.

As well as meaning ‘a wood’, silva can mean matter, and may denote undergrowth as well as trees.  The phrase ‘raw material’ comes to mind, and indicates unworked or improvised expression.  There is something here of the minstrel in Asterix who usually gets gagged and tied to a tree at feasts.  The suggestion of ‘non-finito’ may of course be a pose – “oh, it’s just a little something I tossed off the other day!”  Much of the material seems highly wrought by contemporary standards, though there are some bizarre shifts of tense and instances of scrambled metaphor that may point to rushed construction.  Silva also suggests a miscellany, as Ben Johnson used The Forrest for a heterogeneous collection of odes, epistles and songs, and as Robert Louis Stevenson subsequently used Underwoods – also to describe an assortment of literary pieces.

The subjects Statius deals with include an equestrian statue of Domitian, the locks of the Emperor’s favourite eunuch (later Domitian prohibited castration), and an imperial banquet.  Statius has been decried as the greatest toady ever to have spouted.  D. A. Slater, writing an introduction to the Silvae in 1908 goes so far as to maintain that it would have been better for the poet’s reputation if time had buried the seven ‘court poems’, written by Statius ‘with a view to his advancement in high places.’  There is however something neatly ironical about the praise he lavishes on the tyrant to whom he was the laureate.  David Salle, the American artist, has said of the films of Douglas Sirk, that they so extravagantly endorse the dynastic environment of their characters – oil magnates, play-boys, tycoons – that they satirise by exaggeration.  Burgeoning grandeur subverts its vaunted intent and proves deflationary.  Statius works the same double-take, I feel, and it’s a view shared by A. J. Boyle in his Penguin introduction to the Silvae:

“…deft in its control of nuance and hyperbole – and more complex in the demands it makes of its readers – is the encomium on Domitian “IV.2), a text that has been seriously misread.  Many still find evidence in this poem for the conventional view of Statius as imperial bootlicker.  The poem is in fact a paradigm of ironic eulogy.  From Virgil onwards imperial panegyric was a necessary and complex discourse more often defined by latent, critical irony than self-seeking adulation: the mode of double-speak in an age of tyranny.  The poet who indicted the abuse of monarchial power in the Thebaid was under no illusions about Domitian.”

xxxxxxxxxxRoman Poets of the Early Empire “Penguin Classics, 1991) – edit. A.J. Boyle  xxxxxxxxxxand J.P. Sullivan, p.221.

Other subjects are less fraught with danger.  These are addressed to patrons who were clearly friends.  There’s a poem to Melior’s parrot, another on a cheap book received as a gift, and one on a lavish wedding.  The Silvae are characterised by ingenious thought processes and some reveal deep feeling – as we find in the poem to his deceased father or in the one to his wife, exhorting her to leave Rome.  They also exhibit an astute sense of how to use detail to conjure forth an image, while the poet’s ability to control the forms he employs is never less than impeccable.  Admittedly, he is a mannerist – the restrictions on content demanded by an autocratic imperium obliged Statius to work in this vein.  Ernst Robert Curtius provides us with a definitive characterization of what it means:

“The mannerist wants to say things not normally but abnormally.  He prefers the artificial and the affected to the natural.  He wants to surprise, to astonish, to dazzle.  While there is only one way of saying things naturally, there are a thousand forms of unnaturalness’.

European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages “Bern, 1948) – trans. W.R. Trask, London 1953, p. 282.

The capricious extravagance of mannerism is a strategy for escaping from the doldrums of a standard classicism that tends to be the legacy of any “Golden Age” (in this case that of Virgil and Horace, a century before).  And where the mannered style concerns stanza-form in the poetry of another empire – I’m thinking of Swinburne in the Victorian age – for Statius it concerns a capacity to exaggerate the figures of rhetoric.  He rises above the prevailing orthodoxy by the sheer number of classical allusions he can pile on, usually with a fair degree of wit.  He can also imbue a trivial event with an epic mythology.  But this gives him a handle on the ordinary.  So, ironically enough, the mannerism that gives him such a stylish style also opens the door to a species of naturalism, for in fact he is one of the first poets to describe the humble and mundane occurrences of everyday life – the gift of a book, the shape of a tree in a garden.

In 2002, Bill Shepherd and I began to put together a selection of the poems of Statius. These were published by Anvil in 2003 and are now available from Carcanet.

We shared an appreciation of this poet but our methods of translating him occupied different ends of the spectrum.  Bill’s own grasp of Latin was excellent, and his translations remain accurate and well-researched.  Also, because he was a fine poet, they are evidently poems in their own right, informed by an aware ear and a confident grasp on scansion and form that does justice to the originals.  Rather than translations, my own attempts may be better referred to as versions or imitations. My Latin is less than rudimentary, despite years of learning the declensions in various abysmal class-rooms.  I make poems from these Silvae in order to appreciate them, since I cannot really get to their original felicities.  I work from whatever cribs I can get hold of, read ‘between the lines’ and try to make the best poetry I can out of clusters of words that veil as much as they disclose.  I work at that which inspires me in any poem, and sometimes abandon my attempt before getting to the actual conclusion.  Some of the poems I have had a go at were also translated by Bill, and there are others neither of us ever found a way into, so this is by no means a thorough or comprehensive rendition of the Silvae into English.  However, it does represent a homage by two poets to one whose work remains relevant nearly a thousand years after his death.  Or maybe it’s his irrelevance that we appreciate.  His work is not informed by the satirical savagery that we know from Juvenal, he lacks the salacious obscenity of Martial, and he is not a consummate story teller like Ovid.  But for Dante he was ‘il dolce poeta’, and he has his place in Chaucer’s House of Fame.  He has a certain grace.  It’s a matter of elegance, and of diffidence.  The classical parallels are piled on in accordance with rhetorical theory and its demand for high-flown examples of similar mythological occurrences.  We get great lists of them, yet they are delivered with a self-deprecation that belies belief in the system purportedly being promoted.  Statius has a non-heroic view of himself.  This enables him to become his own anti-hero, an anxious man who whinges sometimes, and attempts to list his successes while he can’t help but call to mind his disappointments.  At the court of someone a bit like Saddam, he is trying not to put a foot wrong, and suffering from insomnia in the process.  The tone of his voice can sound distinctly modern.

Anthony Howell, February 2003




O Hippocrene, your chill source on Helicon

Is actually too sober for my present strain,

And far too often have the weary muses

Scratched their heads to find me happy uses.

Phoebus will not do, since he’ll have sunk,

While Bacchus gets so nasty when he’s drunk,

And everyone would find it too mechanical

If I should call on Hermes with his tortoise-shell.

My poem must rely upon some other set:

Lovely girls emerging from the water-jet,

And Vulcan, coming reddened out of Etna

With every smith, from Timbuctoo to Gretna,

Who ever felt that he could use a bath.

My own ongoing epic on the wrath

That shook the town of Thebes is inappropriate:

I need a lighter touch if I’m to dedicate

This swimming-pool with some degree of flair,

Which is of course the reason why I’m here.

Tilt the jug more, don’t be such a kill-joy,

Tilt again, and let me drink my fill, boy.

Loose the heavy toga of dull care,

And I’ll proclaim this pool beyond compare:

A place of gleaming stone and dazzling water

Whose muse is young enough to be my daughter.

Wound about with ribbons and with ivy,

She makes Etruscus feel distinctly divey

When she saunters in without a fig-leaf

To splash him till he has her by the midriff.

Goddesses of ocean, turn away

From riding dolphins on the open sea.

Your salty hair’s been blown awry by blusters:

Fix it up with ivy-berry clusters

And glide towards us, wearing not a stitch,

Just as when you make the satyrs itch

By deep inlets.  Not that I would hail

Those of you who’ve left a lurid trail

Behind you as you gaily cleave the wave:

I’m going to ban Salmacis for her treachery,

Who’d have our lads effeminised by lechery;

While that Oenone should be kept in wraps,

Whose fountain’s dry since love turned off the taps;

And Dryope had better be prohibited,

Who told poor Hylas not to feel inhibited.

I wouldn’t want it said that our young men

Were here one day then never seen again.

Instead, I’ll send a cordial invitation

To each naiad of our Latin nation:

No less fluid, more to be relied on;

Those who use the Tiber’s flood to ride on;

Those who, with the Anio, choose to go

Plunging into virgin pools below,

And others welling from the Marsian snow:

Their services are welcomed by my song

Because their pressing ripples bowl along

The airy ducts above our countless arches,

Eager to ensure no Roman parches.

Nymphs with magisterial abilities,

Sylphs aware of state responsibilities,

Sprites who never dawdle in their tracks

Need upon occasion to relax:

Rest assured, girls, here we’ll get you blotto:

All the guides rate this a five-star grotto.

Venus even took her husband’s hand

And guided it to where it might command

A fiercer warmth, exhorting him to stoke

His furnaces with flaming hearts for coke,

And used the torches of her chubby acolytes

To ignite the votive flames and pilot-lights.

Here the marble quarried out of Thasos

Has no place, nor Carystine asbestos,

Nor its cipolino; there’s no call

For onyx, and no snake-stone used at all.

Here instead we find a gleaming brown

Porphyry from Algiers, and milky stone

Flecked with drops of Attis’ blood from caves

King Midas mined with his Synnadic slaves.

The architraves are of a deeper hue

Than linen dyed at Tyre: they’re almost blue,

And interrupt that dado of Sage Derby

Picking out the marble from the porphyry.

Floors and ceilings shine, while Aesop’s fables

Crowd the stained-glass windows in the gables.

Furthermore, the altar-fire appears

Impressed by this magnificence and swears

It knows its duty is to fit the bill:

It’s not a bonfire, it’s a charcoal-grill

Whose embers fail to glow when it’s so bright

On every side the dazzle hurts the sight.

Indeed the sun pours in with all his might

And burns himself upon these baking stones.

Luxurious? I swear the only bronze

You’ll find is on those girls without bikinis

Putting oil on Claudius’s penis.

Water pours from silver into silver,

Laughs and gurgles, or delays its rill there,

Poised upon the brink as if it gazed

Into its own loveliness, amazed

At what it saw and loathe to quit the pool.

Through the columns, I can see the cool

River’s blueness, twinkling in its reaches,

Where it touches incandescent beaches,

Unpolluted, and without an undertow:

Who would not be tempted to undo

His interfering togs and take dip?

Cytherea should have been washed up

Against these shores: Narcissus might have clipped

His image here: Diana would have stripped,

Hardly caring whether someone saw her.

Now however we should try the sauna.

I believe its temperature’s built up

Since I can hear the ventilator’s flap

Inviting us to lounge around and sweat,

Or even try a damper sort of heat.

A visitor from any swank resort

You care to name would never dare to snort

At what’s been laid on here for private use,

And no one could aver that I abuse

The Baths of Nero, larger though they are,

By saying someone hotfoot from that spa

Might be prepared to do it over here.

Claudius Etruscus, your relations

And your friends extend congratulations:

We admire your taste, your ingenuity,

And wish your baths and you a perpetuity

Of noble banquets and successful chases

Round the poolside. May the blessed graces

All combine to celebrate your nights

And urge your rocket on to greater heights.


A.H.  Statius: Silvae

Available here and here

P.S. Statius suffered from insomnia – as you can see by the version of his insomnia poem done by Drummond of Hawthornden. At the end of our book, Bill and I included some seven different versions of this poem, translated down the centuries.

Also, here is a very thorough and perceptive review:

Statius: Silvae. A Selection. Versions by Anthony Howell and Bill Shepherd. Pp. 94. London: Anvil Press, 2007. Pb. £7.95.

After a long period of critical neglect, the Silvae of Statius (c. 50-91 CE) have lately attracted considerable scholarly attention. But the perception that Statius’ style is too difficult for all but the hardiest students has tended to keep this collection of short, descriptive, and panegyrical poems away from translators’ hands as well as from the classroom. Anthony Howell’s and Bill Shepherd’s sharp new English versions are much to be welcomed – especially in relation to the critical reception of the Silvae during the past 500 years. Known in the Middle Ages only for his two epics, the Thebaid and the fragmentary Achilleid, Statius was discovered to be the author of this third, very different type of work when Poggio Bracciolini found a manuscript of it in Germany. (Poggio had it transcribed by someone he subsequently castigated as ‘the most ignorant of scribes’, and it is this corrupt transcription that has survived to form the basis of all subsequent editions.) Although initially greeted with enthusiasm throughout Europe, the poems were quickly found suitable for a more select audience, appealing particularly to learned poets such as Ben Jonson, whose Forrest and Underwood collections (significant names here) show traces of influence. The problematic nature of the text, varying with each new edition, was a major factor in Statius’ uneven critical reception. Also contributing to his fall from medieval grace was the poet’s newly discovered personal identity. At first believed to be a rhetorician from Toulouse, the Silvae now revealed Statius to be from Naples. Because some of the Silvae are panegyrics in praise of the emperor Domitian, he was also seen as a court poet. This did his his reputation little good, for the discovery and publication of the Silvae coincided with the humanist publication of Tacitus and Suetonius, who represented Domitian as a cruel tyrant. Thus Statius’ highly wrought style was increasingly associated with falsity and political corruption.

The most significant early attempt to translate Statius into English was a 1648 version of the first five books of the Thebaid; its author, Thomas Stephens, also published a Latin edition of the Silvae with an English commentary in 1651. Both were produced as school texts, and their fortunes were not helped by Stephens’ royalist sympathies and their publication dates respectively in the middle and the aftermath of the English Civil War. Even so, Pope knew the translation and was influenced by it when he himself translated the first book of the Thebaid in 1712. And, as Stuart Gillespie has shown (T&L 8 (1999), 157-75), in the course of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Statius became something of a touchstone for English Augustan taste, in that translators regularly tackled individual passages and episodes from the epics, yet felt free to tone down, by careful omissions and substitutions, the ‘unnaturalness’ of Statius’ style. The Silvae attracted a few translators, the first to be published being John Potenger (1647-1733), whose version of 5.4, the so-called ‘Ode to Sleep’, is printed in the present volume. Eventually a steady decline from this eighteenth-century prominence set in, until, in the mid-nineteenth century, an influential essay by M. Nisard, a Parisian professor of Latin, made Statius emblematic of the social and political decadence of the post-Augustan age by portraying him as a fop who minced around court in a Greek cloak, at Domitian’s beck and call. Although many of the details of Nisard’s essay had no foundation in surviving evidence, it was widely quoted on both sides of the Atlantic. At best, Statius was the ‘greatest poet of the Decline’, to quote North Pinder, editor of Selections from the Less Known Latin Poets (Oxford, 1869).

Dissent from this orthodoxy begins to makes itself felt from the end of the nineteenth century, and late in the twentieth the stabilization of the text by Courtney (1992) and Shackleton Bailey (2003), along with excellent commentaries on individual books by H.-J. Van Dam (1984), K. Coleman (1988), and B. Gibson (2006), have made the poems more amenable to translation. An interest in political irony and ‘doublespeak’ has also contributed to the renewed, if still limited appreciation of these poems. In the past decade three translations of the Silvae have appeared: Shackleton Bailey’s Loeb prose version (2003), Betty Rose Nagle’s scholarly verse translation, with notes and introduction (2004), and now Howell and Shepherd’s selections, which are to be understood, to use their own terms, as ‘versions’ or ‘creative translations’.

In their introduction Howell and Shepherd admit to taking pleasure in the Silvae, a refreshing change from the apologetic tone that characterizes the introductions to the Loeb Silvae by Mozley (1928) and his successor Shackleton Bailey (2003), who work on the assumption that Statius is second rate. As Howell explains in the introduction, he and Shepherd in their separate but complementary versions approach translation from ‘different ends of the spectrum’. Shepherd has more grasp of Latin; Howell admits to ‘less than rudimentary’ knowledge, and has to work from cribs, explaining: ‘I make poems from these Silvae in order to appreciate them, since I cannot really get to their original felicities.’ The improvisational quality of his versions nonetheless reflects an important feature of Statius’ Silvae, their claim to be extemporaneous compositions. Shepherd for his part concedes that his Latin was rather rusty when he embarked on the translations, so he made use of dictionaries and also previous renderings.

Howell and Shepherd thus confront in their introduction the question of how far it is possible to gain access to the work of an ancient author without detailed linguistic knowledge. Howell and Shepherd would argue that this is perfectly possible. Indeed Howell describes the act of translation as a spiritual experience akin to metempsychosis. By immersing himself in Statius’ work he eventually enjoyed a ‘transpersonal experience,’ trying to see for himself, ‘in his own persona and style, what Statius sees’. And Howell and Shepherd are largely successful in the challenging project of transferring Statius to a modern idiom without losing some of the poetry’s particularity to Roman times. Thus their first poem, based on 1.5, a description of the new baths of Claudius Etruscus, is given a modern ring with its title ‘The Dedication Of The Swimming Pool’ and its jaunty rhyming couplets. The title conveys Statius’ smartness, his capacity to shock the cultured world in which he moved with his new poetic themes and style.

Admittedly lack of knowledge of Latin sometimes leads to oddities. In ‘Melior’s Plane Tree’, based on Silvae 2.3, Howell, describing the tree’s planting, renders Statius’ ‘deposuit iuxta vivamque aggessit harenam’ as ‘this he brings towards him, heaps its crest / with sand which quickly sets’, which is nonsensical – Statius refers to the piling of sand around the tree’s base, not its crest. (However ‘vivam’, literally ‘living’, is an unusual epithet for sand, and Howell’s suggested interpretation is ingenious.) But such infelicities are rare. The versions of Statius are often inspired, both through a brilliant choice of diction which acknowledges Statius’ love of metaphor, paradox, and wordplay, and through the rhythmic cadences of their verse. Their selection captures the shifting registers of the Silvae, both its often intimate style of address and its elevation.

Ok, I am going to defend myself here. What I am suggesting is that the god pulls the crest of the tree towards him, bends it over and heaps it with sand, so that, as it subsequently grows, it rises again from the water. And I am right! (A.H.)

It can be instructive to compare their versions with the more literal new Loeb prose translation of Shackleton Bailey. Howell’s ‘On a Tame Lion Killed in the Colosseum’ (based on Silvae 2.5) begins ‘God knows what it cost you to control / Your temper, make a velvet paw the rule’ (‘quid tibi constrata mansuescere profuit ira?’). Shackleton Bailey follows Mozley closely in offering ‘What has it availed you to smooth your rage and grow tame?’ Both renditions are metaphorical (‘velvet paw’/‘smooth’), but Howell provides the more compelling image and the more vivid opening. Howell’s conclusion to the Sibyl’s panegyric of the emperor in ‘Domitian’s Road’, where she claims that if the emperor were to control the chariot of the sun then ‘Libya would be florider than Florida’, not only evokes Statius’ love of wordplay but captures the ambiguous tone of his panegyrics, allowing for the possibility of latent irony within the Sibyl’s effusive praise. In this poem too the river god Volturnus speaks with a ‘gravelly voice’ (where the Loeb has a ‘hoarse throat’, unresponsive to the gravel river bed), and his speech ends with the jokily Latinate word ‘gurgitate’. The sometimes lush beauty of Statius’ verse is also brought out. Here is Shepherd’s sensuous rendition of the conclusion to the humorous ‘Melior’s Parrot’ (2.4):


And he does not go ingloriously

Into the shadows: his ashes fragrant with Assyrian balsam,

His tenuous feathers breathing the scent of Arabian herbs

And Sicanian saffron, spared the weary dullness of age,

He will mount among perfumed flames, a more auspicious Phoenix.


Shepherd follows the syntactic layout of the poem’s final lines, copying for instance Statius’ use of enjambment to emphasize the shift to consolation – ‘at non ingloriosus umbris / mittitur’ – though with different word patterning. Likewise he attends to the effect of the central position of ‘phoenix’ in Statius’ last line (‘scandet odoratos phoenix felicior ignes’) by isolating the word at the poem’s end. ‘Tenuous’ is an inspired choice for Latin ‘tenues’ in that it both plays upon the sound of the Latin word and suggests its metaphorical association with life’s fragility.

Shepherd’s translation of 4.5 brings life to perhaps one of the least successful of Statius’ poems, a Horatian ode which is pedestrian in its handling of the Alcaic stanza. Shackleton Bailey offers: ‘No bleat of a thousand woolly flocks, no lowing of cow for her sweet paramour; the fields are mute save when they echo to their owner should he sing.’ Shepherd:


No woolly thousands bleat,

No cow moos for her paramour,

The mute fields resound only When their master is moved to sing


This is fairly close to the Loeb, and indeed borrows the nice touch of the cow’s ‘paramour’, but the bovine alliteration and assonance are humorously expanded in the next two lines. Shepherd does not try to replicate the Alcaic metre except in organizing the verse into short stanzas. Statius has always been admired for his metrical skills, particularly in the hexameter, in which most of the Silvae are written. Overall both Howell and Shepherd write in a rather loose unrhymed verse, attempting to give a sense of Statius’ metrical fluency through the manipulation of line length and verbal and syntactic patterning. As the ending of 2.4 (‘Melior’s Parrot’) demonstrates, Shepherd generally tries to follow the linear progression of Statius’ poetry and to replicate prominent stylistic features, whereas Howell is more free and expansive.

One of the delights of this publication is its organization as a poetry collection. This is an aspect of the Silvae that is often overlooked. Although Statius claims that each poem was improvisational, written quickly for specific occasions, thought and care went into assembling the individual poems into books, each with its individual preface. Careful organization is also apparent here. Howell and Shepherd frame their volume with translations of 5.4, the ‘Ode to Sleep’. They wittily place at the start a paraphrase in sonnet form by the seventeenth- century Scottish poet Drummond of Hawthornden (another suitably sylvan name for a collection of ‘Woods’); John Potenger and J. V. Cunningham come at the end, with Statius’ Latin poem concluding the volume. Overall the selection also gives a sense of the variety of the poetry books of the Silvae: description, consolation, lament, epistle, panegyric, the lyric ode are all represented here. A sense of this poetry’s tonal range is evident too: Howell and Shepherd are alert to Statius’ humour and wit, a quality often overlooked by translators and critics, as well as to his emotional depth.

The fact that this is a joint venture by two rather different hands adds to the variety. We are invited to compare different versions of Silvae 1.6, 4.2, and 5.4. Poem 1.6, for instance, is a hendecasyllabic poem which describes a Saturnalian spectacle put on by Domitian in the Colosseum. It begins with the poet’s dismissal of the more sober deities of the Roman pantheon:


Et Phoebus pater et seuera Pallas

et Musae procul ite feriatae;

lani uos reuocabimus kalendis.


Here is Shepherd’s fairly literal version of these lines:


Go, keep holiday far away,

Father Apollo, stern Pallas, you Muses:

We’ll call you back on January first.


Shepherd retains the short lines of the original (in hendecasyllables), but he changes the word order to give a more natural syntax and pleasing rhythm; he also anglicizes Statius’ ‘Kalends of Janus’ to ‘January first’. And here is Howell:


We can’t count on decent weather, dears.

The ancien regime is not invited,

Austerity will see her measures flouted,

And as for our nine solemn dowagers,

They’ve been sent to winter in the south.

The old cats – wish them a good riddance!


Instead of Shepherd’s (and Statius’) formal poetic invocation, Howell has expanded the opening lines and has introduced a different voice, cynical, droll, not easily impressed – the voice of ‘elegance and diffidence’, as he describes Statius in the introduction. He has departed from the Latin; but at the same time he has brilliantly captured the elusive tone of Silvae 1.6 as imperial panegyric, or an evocation, as Shepherd paradoxically puts it, of ‘an evening of appalling fun at the Colosseum’ when flamingos and pheasants were dropped among the spectators as ‘lucky prizes’ and the evening shows were illuminated by a ball of fire suspended over the arena.

Howell and Shepherd may not be professional classical scholars, but they are astute, intelligent readers of Statius’ Silvae. Their introduction provides an excellent exposition of Statius’ work, and is bold in its appreciation of this poetry’s characteristics. They make a powerful case for the modernity of their original. With admirable succinctness they describe its nuanced quality, its paradoxical shifts in register, its rich mythological texture. They point out the almost photographic quality of Statius’ descriptions, his ability to endow the ordinary occurrences of everyday life with special significance, his innovative engagement with literary tradition and genre. As twenty-first-century readers of Statius they also importantly appreciate the possibility of subversion in panegyric, and note his skilful use of irony. All in all, this selection makes a significant contribution to the renewed interest in the Silvae as a major work by a major Roman poet. These versions may falter here and there, and less than half of the Latin poems are represented. But readers who need a complete translation can go to the more literal Loeb or to Nagle; Howell and Shepherd give us the Silvae as poetry.

Carole E. Newlands

University of Wisconsin, Madison DOl: I0..H66/E0968136108000435

Published in Translation and Literature, Spring 2009, Volume 18, Part 1

A.H.  Statius: Silvae

Available here and here

And I am very pleased that another of my Statius versions is included in this great High Window anthology

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