Roman Grand Guignol

Lucan's 'Civil War'

translated into English verse by P.F. Widdows
Indiana University Press, 294 pp., $47.50

There has been no English verse translation of Lucan since 1853, but our age is so much more sympathetic to the baroque in art and literature that a new one is obviously needed. Mr. Widdows, as I shall try to show, successfully supplies the need.

Why is Lucan an important poet? Five famous Roman authors of the first century of the common era came from Spain. Three of these belonged to a rich family that came from Corduba (Cordova), the Annaei. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was the author of a witty and entertaining account of the rhetorical training that then formed the staple of Roman education, and of the various declaimers. The influence of that training upon his son Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) and his grandson Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (Lucan) was pervasive. The Spaniards are right to begin their histories of their literature with these men, for the baroque poetry of the two last has an obvious affinity with the work of Gongora, of Goya, and indeed of Luis Buñuel.

The younger Seneca was the confidant of the younger Agrippina, the second wife of the Emperor Claudius and the mother of the Emperor Nero. At the beginning of Nero’s reign, he was not only the leading man of letters, but also one of the richest and most powerful men in Rome. His main literary achievement lies in his prose writings as a Stoic philosopher and moralist; but he was also the author of tragedies dealing with the same Greek myths that were the subject matter of the Greek tragedians, and intended, it would seem, for recitation rather than for stage performance.

At this time an author’s private reading aloud of his productions to a select audience was of prime importance, and this encouraged authors to aim at an immediate emotional effect in much the same manner as an orator or a declaimer. Seneca’s Stoic philosophy furnished him with a dogmatically determinist view of human life that serves as a perfect background for his exploitation of its ironies and horrors. His tragedies are melodramatic to a degree, filled with ghosts and atrocities, as well as with sententious moralizing that escapes dullness only through the amazing skill and fluency of the writing and the dexterity and conciseness with which one rhetorical point after another is scored up. Sharply reacting against the calm serenity of the classical writers and the smooth and polished manner of the Augustan age, Seneca writes, in both prose and verse, short, staccato sentences, full of paradoxes and antitheses; as the seventeenth-century biographer John Aubrey put it, “Seneca writeth as a boar pisseth, scilicet, by jerks.”

At the time of the Renaissance, when few people understood Greek at all well, these were the only ancient tragedies available, and in consequence their influence on Renaissance drama was immense, as T.S. Eliot showed in one of his most famous essays, “Seneca in Elizabethan Tradition.” During the ascendancy of Romanticism, always hostile to rhetoric, Seneca’s stock was low. But lately…

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