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Of Love and Lentils

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Alone among the ancient classical verse forms the elegy endures as a modern one. In Augustan Rome – the world of Caesar and Cicero, but also of the elegists Catullus, Propertius and Ovid – the public uses of poetry included epic history, theology, scientific reports and political theory. To write such things in verse now would look clownish, but the spirit of Roman elegy lives on and is, indeed, at the heart of what we call poetry.

Against the tenor of very confident times, the elegists of the first century bc were wry, satirical, funny, but also doubtful, depressed and conflicted. ‘I love, and I hate’, Catullus wrote of Lesbia, the woman who obsessed him. Catullus, like his fellow elegists, was fascinated by the chastened reflections and secret desires of his own mind, the paradox and irony of self-knowledge, the operation of memory, the dread of loss. The modernity of his work lies not in its strict ‘elegiac’ metre, but in its self-examination and tone: erotic, lyrical, scabrous, black; sick with love, laughing at fate, longing for home, trembling at death. This makes the poems so adaptable to translation that they closely resemble the poetry of our own times.

All this is by way of introducing Quintilius, a rather less renowned and much later Roman elegist, whose work I first discovered in the 1970s in versions by the poet Peter Russell. They seemed an intriguing link between modernism and the Augustan sensibility; but also, from  a personal point of view, to one puzzled by love and by the whereabouts of happiness, sharply piquant. His full name is Cittinus Aurelianus Quintilius Stultus (the last meaning ‘fool’) and he was born, we are told, the son of a freed Berber slave in the North African town of Sfax, in (modern) Tunisia. This was in ad 390, when the empire had long been declining into, as Edward Gibbon put it, a ‘frail and mouldering edifice’, corroded by luxury and deceit, and beset at almost every frontier by barbarian in

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Alone among the ancient classical verse forms the elegy endures as a modern one. In Augustan Rome – the world of Caesar and Cicero, but also of the elegists Catullus, Propertius and Ovid – the public uses of poetry included epic history, theology, scientific reports and political theory. To write such things in verse now would look clownish, but the spirit of Roman elegy lives on and is, indeed, at the heart of what we call poetry.

Against the tenor of very confident times, the elegists of the first century bc were wry, satirical, funny, but also doubtful, depressed and conflicted. ‘I love, and I hate’, Catullus wrote of Lesbia, the woman who obsessed him. Catullus, like his fellow elegists, was fascinated by the chastened reflections and secret desires of his own mind, the paradox and irony of self-knowledge, the operation of memory, the dread of loss. The modernity of his work lies not in its strict ‘elegiac’ metre, but in its self-examination and tone: erotic, lyrical, scabrous, black; sick with love, laughing at fate, longing for home, trembling at death. This makes the poems so adaptable to translation that they closely resemble the poetry of our own times. All this is by way of introducing Quintilius, a rather less renowned and much later Roman elegist, whose work I first discovered in the 1970s in versions by the poet Peter Russell. They seemed an intriguing link between modernism and the Augustan sensibility; but also, from  a personal point of view, to one puzzled by love and by the whereabouts of happiness, sharply piquant. His full name is Cittinus Aurelianus Quintilius Stultus (the last meaning ‘fool’) and he was born, we are told, the son of a freed Berber slave in the North African town of Sfax, in (modern) Tunisia. This was in ad 390, when the empire had long been declining into, as Edward Gibbon put it, a ‘frail and mouldering edifice’, corroded by luxury and deceit, and beset at almost every frontier by barbarian incursions. It is impossible to know how such a man became a cultivated Latin author, though he hints in one poem that his father made money ‘before the drachma crashed’. For the little that can be gleaned of Quintilius’s early life we are entirely dependent on the few extant elegies, three of which were published in English versions by Peter Russell in 1954, and republished, with another three added, in 1975. A third edition, with extensive editorial information and another three poems attributed to Quintilius, came out in 1996. The first elegy finds the poet living in the house where he grew up but, like Catullus and Propertius before him, depressed, out of sorts and worrying about his sex life. He looks back at the carefree interlude that has just come to an end, the time he spent with his sexy girlfriend Daunia. The two of them, he says, would haunt the gladiatorial arena, then return home in the evening for long bouts of love-making until ‘dawn/Made weak the once-upright flame at our bedside’. Now, because he never got around to marrying her, Daunia has absconded with ‘a rottenscum of a fellow from Rome’. The second elegy announces a change. Unable to bear the flyblown heat of Africa and the uncouth insolence of the Vandals who roam the forum, Quintilius sells up. He crosses the Mediterranean and settles at Cagnes (in Provence) where some vestige of the old pax Romana can still be found. The third elegy, entitled ‘The Golden Age’, is the longest of the six. The poet remains disgruntled at his situation: his figs will not ripen; the book he reads is replete with an incompetent copyist’s corruptions; the world beyond his door has grown so disgraceful that ‘Where once sang ancient bards, base slaves are rising to cushy jobs’; and his own devotion to honour has made him ‘more enemies than there are bum-boys in Sybaris’. Given to bouts of whore-mongering and drinking (and fierce hangovers), Quintilius finds life is out of kilter. He longs (with a nod to Virgil) for ‘the ancient rule of pastoral life’ but knows it can never come again; his belief in the gods wavers and he has acquired a wife who secretly subscribes to the new ‘“Only One God” palaver’ which has been spreading like a forest fire. In response Quintilius proclaims his own conversion to Christianity and his intention, which his friends think hilarious, of sailing to the Holy Land where he will live as a contemplative monk. We next hear of him ‘on the point of death’ from an illness that tradition attributes (as the editor tells us) to a surfeit of lentils. Rather in the style of the famous lines ascribed to the dying Emperor Hadrian, the elegy addresses the poet’s own departing soul:

Soul of mine, do not hide in Hiemp’s dismal caves, – Come back! Do not desert, poor wandering soul, your exiled master.

The poet longs to return to life – and to the old, full life of sensual enjoyment. From this it would appear that, if Quintilius ever did make that pilgrimage to Judea, he regretted it. At all events, his prayer is partially granted, for he does not die from the lentils and at some later date (the chronology of the six elegies is impossible to establish precisely) we find him in Liguria, still in reduced circumstances. A brief, delirious interlude of glut is granted him when he receives a gift-hamper from charitable friends in Gaul. This unleashes an outburst of poetry in praise of eating and drinking, whose composition gives his servants the opportunity to pilfer their share of the food. After this, or perhaps at the same time, Quintilius begins to be troubled with mental illness, for there are two additional elegies appended to the canonical six, subtitled ‘poems of his madness’. In the first he believes he is a badger (‘I am wily, I have three back doors/For borrowed wives and other emergencies)’ while the second contains lines that indicate an almost surreal dislocation of the mind, including the delusion that ‘the Wolves have taken my butterscotch’. So, a dedicated and sensitive poet, a literary scholar, a man at odds with his times, a sensualist and gourmet, a would-be contemplative, a restless, dyspeptic, disappointed fellow and finally a lunatic: this is the complex sum of Quintilius Stultus, the poet, all packed into a mere eight short poems. It is cracking material, you would think, for a module in a university classics degree – except that you won’t find one, not anywhere. A. E. Housman, classics professor and himself no mean elegist, wrote of one of the charactersaddressed in a poem by Ovid, ‘Who was Ibis? Nobody. He is much too good to be true.’ Well, Quintilius is also much too good to be true. To put that another way, he is Peter Russell’s invention. Russell was too good not to be true. Born in Bristol in 1921, he lived the life of an impeccable twentieth-century bohemian poet: ever impecunious, consistently accident-prone and – in the words of an obituarist – ‘an accomplished and devoted drinker, and tender and appreciative womanizer’. Although he was never famous, his literary credentials were gilt-edged. After war service he ran a bookshop in Tunbridge Wells, and an avant-garde literary magazine called NINE, which not only introduced Quintilius to the British reader, but also Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and J.-L. Borges. Having, almost inevitably, gone bankrupt, Russell wandered the earth for a while, living in Germany, Yugoslavia, North America and Iran, before settling in Tuscany, where he enjoyed a vivid local reputation for learning and eccentricity, until his death in 2003. His work is wide-ranging, though haphazardly published; it includes epigrams, lyrics, sonnets, translations and lengthy philosophical poems, but among the best are the poems purportedly by Quintilius, which he began to write in the late 1940s. The Elegies of Quintilius might be dismissed as exercises in pastiche, except that they are too richly imagined, and too fully inhabited by their fictional author. Quintilius is a rounded persona, but his essence is his doubleness: he evokes not only the Roman world but also the late 1940s and 1950s in Britain, which are viewed with a more jaundiced eye.

I may be a drivelling fool, a dreamer of giddy dreams But I know there’s enough on earth for everyone to eat To drink, and be merry and love: that you can’t carve it up And give out equal portions to each regardless of kind. That would work worse even than the present fiasco.

But there is more to Quintilius than a useful mask behind which Russell could snipe at the Attlee government and post-war austerity in general. He is also a homage to the great, mad Panjandrum of literary modernism, Ezra Pound, who had himself produced twelve elegies in the voice of Sextus Propertius. Although versions of actual Propertian poems, these wore much the same Janusface as those of Quintilius, exploring comparisons between what Pound called the ‘infinite and ineffable imbecility’ of the Roman and the British Empires. Russell devoutly admired Pound. At the time when he began writing as Quintilius he was also campaigning for the release of the American poet from ‘the bughouse’, where he had been detained after his pro-Fascist Italian activities during the war. Russell’s identification with the old Vorticist is strongly suggested in a sketch by Wyndham Lewis, which makes Russell look like a replica of Pound at a similar age. Additionally, his Provençal home was in a region Pound loved, and his view of society is discernibly of the right, a politics that Pound much more hysterically espoused. I am happy to say, however, that the American poet’s most corrosive trait, his violent anti-Semitism, is entirely absent from the Quintilius elegies. This poet is not rabidly right-wing, but benignly, even naïvely, conservative, yearning for the return of civilized order. The last complication I must mention is the scholarly apparatus that, increasingly with each edition, accrued to the text. This links Peter Russell’s Quintilius with certain early heroes of postmodernism such as Umberto Eco, Nabokov and, especially, Borges. As one of the first to publish Borges in English, Russell was well aware of the great Argentine’s obsession with the imaginary book, the fictitious edition. With Borgesian relish Russell tells of his poet’s lost works – The Apotheosis of the Dildo, the Ars Vomitoria – and of texts discovered in such unlikely places as the lining of an antique Swiss cuckoo clock and ‘the winding sheet of the corpse of a sacred prostitute in the recently excavated Temple of Isis in Mestre’. His expansive notes follow up Quintilius’s references and sources in barmy detail, and digress into such recondite areas as the uses of coconut oil in the late empire, and the original meaning of ‘tungsten’. Quintilius’s literary life continued after the elegies, but it began to serve different purposes for his equally long-lived creator. In the 1980s and 1990s Russell began to publish fragments of an epic work called The Apocalypse of Quintilius, recording the poet’s travels across the fifth-century world. In these he anticipates both Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, reaching the borders of China and the coast of North America. Quintilius’s life, we are told, became a tireless odyssey in search of true religion and the ideal woman. That seems to me to stray too far from the late classical Quintilius of the six elegies: the poet who hovers mischievously between antiquity and modernity, not quite sure if he is a pagan or a Christian, a restless intellectual or a disappointed sensualist – yet always a composer of ‘stubborn verses’, who could write of himself: ‘His wisdom is small, but great is the folly of rulers.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 34 © Robin Blake 2012


About the contributor

Robin Blake is editor of the memoirs of the eighteenth-century Lancashire coroner Titus Cragg, the first volume of which is entitled A Dark Anatomy (2011).

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