Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Welcome to ars latet arte, a blog written by a lapsed Latin teacher now returned to the faith.

There are plenty of Classics blogs out there, including David Meadows' superbly comprehensive Rogue Classicism, Michael Gilleland's always engaging Laudator Temporis Acti, and more recently my friend and colleague Joel Morrison's enjoyable Audio Video Disco. This one is intended solely to share my love of Latin literature, and it's worth a few paragraphs to explain why I'm starting it.

One of the first questions asked of a new acquaintance in social situations is the inevitable "So, what do". Most answers evoke a knowing "Ahh!" followed by the usual platitudes about how interesting an industry that must be, how much respect the questioner has for the profession, etc., etc. For most of my adult life, I have been forced to answer "I teach Latin", although I usually adopt the sly cop-out of "I teach languages" (I have taught Classical Greek and French as well, you see, not to mention English), only allowing my interlocutor to elicit the Latin bit on further questioning.

At any rate, when the L-word surfaces, the reaction is generally not an "Ahh!" but an "Oh", with a vaguely questioning intonation. "They still teach that these days?!?" is the traditional continuation.

"Erm, yeah, at a few schools," I reply.

Then, in most cases, my unlettered interlocutor either gently or brusquely (depending on their character) brings up the delicate matter of why on earth it's still worth studying a dead language. The ensuing catechism is one I've refined carefully over the years. In point form, it goes something like this: studying Latin...

* Broadens one's knowledge of the English language,
* Provides a wonderful foundation for learning French, Italian, Spanish, etc.,
* Serves as an introduction to the fascinating world of Roman history and culture,
* Et cetera et cetera blah blah blah.

All of these are cogent arguments (especially the et cetera one), and more or less convincing whenever I'm put on the spot. But for me there is another reason, one which, admittedly, doesn't become apparent until one has studied the language long enough to have a reasonable understanding of authentic texts. The world of Latin literature, but in my view Latin verse especially, is a source of great pleasure and no little inspiration.

Most modern poetry doesn't appeal to me at all: the trend towards free verse and deliberate obscurity has robbed it of its music, to a large extent. And music is a key idea for me: the strict metrical requirements of Latin verse, while limiting in some respects, allow the ideas to be expressed with a rhythmic power largely absent from contemporary verse. And the wonderfully loose and fluid nature of Latin word order allows for an endless variety of juxtapositions, puns, enjambments, and above all surprises.

In the hands of a real master of the craft, like Ovid or Virgil, Latin poetry (at the risk of sounding dreadfully pretentious) reaches magnificent heights while appearing effortless. And that leads us to the title of the blog, a paraphrase of a brilliant quip from Ovid, referring to the mythical ideal-woman-statue created by the mythical Pygmalion: ars adeo latet arte sua.

As with all good epigrams, an exact translation of this is impossible. The nub of the phrase is a typical piece of Ovidian wordplay, in which the multiple meanings of the word ars ("art", "artistry", "skill", "craft", "cleverness") are incorporated into a beguiling comment on the nature of great art. The closest I can get to the spirit of the original is "The skill is so deeply hidden in its own artistry." So much so that when the finished product emerges, we don't see the immense skill involved in creating a compelling collection of hexameter lines - we merely see the artistry.

This blog is dedicated to that artistry, but my intention is to point out the skill as well, as far as I'm able.

Each post (from now on) will consist of a brief passage of Latin verse, with a rough English translation followed by a look at the skill that goes into making the art. Of course, I'm hoping that such an approach will be of use to students like my own (those in the senior years of high school, or university undergraduates), but even if you don't come for instruction, I hope that some of you will come for pure enjoyment...the same enjoyment that I get from reading, and particularly from teaching, great Latin literature.

To start off with, then, that phrase from Ovid again, in its broader context:

interea niveum mira feliciter arte
sculpsit ebur formamque dedit, qua femina nasci
nulla potest, operisque sui concepit amorem.
virginis est verae facies, quam vivere credas,
et, si non obstet reverentia, velle moveri:
ars adeo latet arte sua. miratur et haurit
pectore Pygmalion simulati corporis ignes.

(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.247-255).

"Meanwhile, he [Pygmalion] successfully sculpted a white ivory statue with marvellous skill, and gave it a shape which no mortal woman can emulate, and fell in love with his own creation. It was the face of a true maiden, and you would think it was alive...and wanted, if modesty did not forbid, to be wooed. The skill is so deeply hidden in its own artistry. Pygmalion stares, and drinks in the fires of love for his pretend-body."

The English, as always, can only give you a hint of the brilliance of the Latin, in which:

Line 247: Ovid plays on the meaning of "feliciter" - "happily", and "luckily", as the statue does eventually come to life, but also "successfully". And "mira" grammatically agrees with "arte", but it is the statue itself that is really "wonderful" - a hint of hypallage.
249: "nulla" is placed at the beginning of the line to drive home the point that this is a maiden like no other...supple Latin word order to the rescue again.
250: the alliteration of the "v" sounds throughout the line is traditionally associated in Latin poetry with vividness and vigour (pardon the pun), which is splendidly appropriate here given that we're dealing with a statue that comes to life.
251: Another Ovidian pun with "moveri": the statue wants "to be moved", which can be construed either physically or emotionally (and the ambiguity, I feel, is exactly what Ovid wants).

252 we've already dealt with.
253: "haurit...ignes" - a striking image (although not a unique one in Latin verse), "drinking in the fires", which is almost an oxymoron. But the hint of Pygmalion being "drunk on love" is underlined by the emphatic positioning (at the end of the respective lines) of both "haurit" and "ignes".

This, then, is the intended format of ars latet arte. Being a family man with a young child (like my friend Joel), I won't be able to contribute to the blog all that often; once a week is my aim. I run another blog dedicated to my other great obsession, the game of football (that's soccer, folks), and I fully intend for that one to continue as well. In any case, I hope you'll find the occasional posts here enjoyable, informative, useful, or a combination of all three.

Until next time...


  1. i've had that exact same conversation too, too many times. that is a great bit of Ovid - my year 11s did it earlier in the year and enjoyed it. look forward to seeing what comes next.

  2. Thanks for delightful insight in Golden Age poetry...from us who are being charmed by Latin..
    looking forward for next!

  3. Welcome to the blogosphere! Fascinating comments.

  4. Thanks for your encouraging comments folks! Hope you've enjoyed the recent instalments.

  5. Don't forget the most important reason for studying Latin - to help pick up the ladeez!
    (from Mike's wife) ;-)