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24.7.19 Human Chain

Human Chain
Maser, ‘Don’t Be Afraid’, Dublin, 4 December 2013. Source: Twitter @MaserArt

One of the things about Latin literature is that you can’t fault it for influence. A bit of Latin can be used and re-used by different writers, artists, and musicians across years and even centuries to create a kind of collage, greater than the sum of its parts.

When Queen Dido is falling in love in Virgil’s Aeneid (completed in 19 BCE), she confides to her sister Anna that she is ‘recognizing the traces of an old flame’ (Book 4, line 23). Dido is a widow, and after many years someone new has shaken her into thoughts of new love.

Thirteen hundred years later, this is the line that Dante Alighieri, a Florentine poet, will remember when his Virgil, now re-imagined as the poet’s guide through Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy, disappears at the edge of Paradise. Virgil, as a pagan, can, in the scheme of the poem, only go so far. Dante has just caught sight of Beatrice, and he turns to Virgil ‘as a child to his mother’ to tell him that he too is now ‘recognizing the traces of an old flame’. But Virgil has disappeared, and Dante is left alone.

I turned around and to my left—just as
a little child, afraid or in distress,
will hurry to his mother—anxiously,

to say to Virgil: ‘I am left with less
than one drop of my blood that does not tremble:
I recognize the signs of the old flame.’

But Virgil had deprived us of himself,
Virgil, the gentlest father, Virgil, he
to whom I gave my self for my salvation;

and even all our ancient mother lost
was not enough to keep my cheeks, though washed
with dew, from darkening again with tears.

(Purgatorio 30. 43–54, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, taken from the Digital Dante project at Columbia University)

Or take Jesus’ words to his disciples as their boat is tossed in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. In the Latin version of Matthew’s gospel (itself a translation from Greek), he says nolite timere, ‘don’t be afraid’ (Matt. 14:27). When visiting Bulgaria for a friend’s wedding last summer, some friends and I visited the Boyana church in the forested hills above Sofia. Inside the small, dimly-lit space there is a series of amazing medieval frescoes, still intact, including one showing a few men huddled anxiously in a boat, the sea a mass of big blue-white spirals underneath. A man stands calmly in the stern, halo on his head, one arm raised as if he’s teaching a class.  

Jesus’ words are those, slightly adapted from the plural to the singular, which Seamus Heaney put in a text message to his wife just before he died in 2013: noli timere. The artist Maser then transformed those same words, in English, into a piece of street art ‘for good people in bad times’ at the height of a bitter recession. How many re-imaginings is that? A Latin translation of a Greek text which, in Latin, became part of one of the most influential texts in European and world history; then changed from plural to singular and put into a text message, and then put into English on the side of a Dublin pub. In both the Dante and the Maser examples, there is also a final stage: what each reader or viewer takes from the words into their own experience. Whereas the first remains in what you might call high literature, Maser’s work of art puts a famous phrase at street level. I’m sure there were lots of Dublin commuters with a lot on their minds in December 2013, who knows if the Maser’s mural gave some of them a boost. At any rate, the chain of influence goes on and on.