REVIEW Anthologie bilingue de la poésie latine

Modern anthologies of Latin poetry are rare birds, but for historical span alone, number 652 in Gallimard’s prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade must be unique. Whereas, say, HW Garrod’s pre-First World War Oxford Book of Latin Verse stopped with the grammarian Phocas at the threshold of the sixth century, and M Grant’s generically broader survey Latin Literature: An Anthology of 1979 drew the line even earlier, after St Augustine, this bilingual compendium ranges well beyond Rome to include works written across Europe over more than two thousand years. Here, in a single volume, in a parallel text layout running to 1500 pages – supported by 400 pages of editorial apparatus (in French) – are 155 named authors dating from the third century BC to the present day, beginning with the potsherds of Livius Andronicus and ending with the no less fragmentary ‘Inter Aerias Fagos’ by still-living French writer Pascal Quignard. Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Catullus share covers with Boccaccio and Baudelaire, Erasmus, Thomas More, Godfrey of Cambrai and Geoffrey of Monmouth; Petronius with Petrarch; Juvenal with John Owen; Claudian with Sebastian Klonowicz. Also chosen are excerpts from anonymous or collective works such as the Cambridge Songs, Arundel Manuscripts and Appendix Virgiliana.

If this one-volume overview of Latin’s whole ‘extraordinary adventure’ is, as editor Philippe Heuzé suggests, a first of its kind, it’s nonetheless clear that questions of choice – what’s in, what’s out, and why – are as fundamental here as to any more tightly focused collection, and the simple fact that a major generalist publisher should have chosen to invest so handsomely in such a project in the first place, each new Pléiade celebrated as much for its years-long gestation as for its leather binding, silky paper and pin-sharp typography, is worth noting in itself. Little or none of the axe-grinding, taste-making or museology that motivate some anthologies is in evidence in Heuzé’s accessible and apolemical introduction, which presents the work as a ‘celebration’ justified by Latin’s ‘extraordinary flexibility’, ‘surprising stability’ across the ages (at least in poetry) – and beauty: for Chateaubriand, Latin was ‘le plus bel idiome de la terre’, a view Heuzé is happy to endorse. But there’s definitely something almost daring in the allocation of more than a third of the survey to poets born after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, for many of whom writing in Latin was itself a matter of deliberate choice (and who were in that sense more devout celebrants of the language than their illustrious Roman predecessors). There can be no pithier expression of that linguistic choice than a distich by Joachim du Bellay, 16th-century champion of French and co-founder of the other Pléiade: Gallica Musa mihi est, fateor, qua nupta marito/Pro Domina colitur Musa latina mihi – which, as well as demonstrating Latin’s lasting cultural importance, is clearly apt in a bilingual work such as this. The translations, by a team of nine, take what one might call a common sense approach, eschewing formal constraints to render the Latin into clear modern French.

Anthologie bilingue de la poésie latine (edited by Philippe Heuzé, Gallimard, 2020, ISBN 9782072743313, 1920pp, €69)


This book review was published in the October 2021 issue of the Classical Review.

For more information about this book and other titles in Gallimard’s prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, click here. To read more of my book reviews and other published work, click here.