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29.4.20 'Phoebus was gone, all gone ...'

View from Three Rock Mountain, Dublin
View from Three Rock Mountain, Dublin

I was saddened to hear this week of the death of the poet Eavan Boland, and want to share with you here a little a bit about her relationship with Latin, in gratitude and appreciation. Now, it’s important to state, I think, that much of what I and others appreciate most in Boland’s work has little to do with Latin,  and that’s well and good; I don’t wish to suggest otherwise. But there is a thread there, one that runs from her schooldays through her early poetry and on to major poems and a recent translation, the last of which is my subject here. In an address to the Classical Association of Ireland in the year 2000, she spoke of learning Latin at school in Dublin under the guidance of a brilliant teacher; how her initial recalcitrance gave way to an exhilaration that fuelled her own first forays into writing.

Sitting there in the school library, as night was falling on a country where Latin had never been the language of control or colony, where the Romans had never built their roads, I could still feel the thrill of compressing something into a gerund, or a gerundive. Of watching time disappear outside the window and the whole world coming into my power through these small feats of syntax.

I can remember this kind of enthusiasm for Latin on the part of people like Boland and Seamus Heaney being a boost in my own decision to study the language at third level, but more broadly and more importantly, I think, in Boland’s engagement with Latin you find the same trailblazing voice that marked her entire career. Latin education has traditionally been, like the Trinity of the 1960s where she studied, and official Irish poetry up to more recent times, quite a male and (I imagine) slightly stuffy world. In such circumstances there is a virtue in unapologetically taking what you want from a tradition and making it your own, using it to reflect and amplify your own experience, in Boland’s case a kind of experience that wasn’t always considered fit for poetry. And in so doing you make a path which others can follow, re-imagining language in the process. Some of you may know her poem ‘The Pomegranate’, which does exactly this, drawing on the myth of Ceres and Persephone to describe the grief and gift of motherhood.

In the 1960s a scholar named Peter Dronke discovered twenty-five lines of previously unknown Latin in an old and damaged French manuscript at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The manuscript is thought to date from just after the year 1000, and the lines themselves to have been written in northern Italy a little earlier, sometime in the tenth century. What they are is a mysterious and anonymous song, written in a kind of medieval Latin, describing a woman’s dream of being visited by the ghost of her lover. The Phoebus of the title is the Sun – written in the manuscript with that characteristic Italian ‘f’ (Foebus) rather than the Greek and Latin ‘ph’ – who has ended his day’s journey and left the sky to his sister the Moon. And what follows reminds me of a Harry Clarke window: a moonlit visitation, much entreating and crying of tears, and a ghost’s inevitable disappearance. So what we seem to have here – although the author’s identity remains anonymous – is, in Boland’s words, the ‘long-ago cry of a woman finding and losing a body and soul’. And that makes it a unique piece of Latin in all sorts of ways, its author – just maybe – a trailblazing woman in her own right.

Phoebus was gone, all gone, his journey over.
His sister was riding high: nothing bridled her.
Her light was falling, shining into woods and rivers.
Wild animals opened their jaws wide, stirred to prey.
But in the human world all was sleep, pause, relaxation, torpor.

That’s the opening stanza of Boland’s translation of Foebus abierat, published in a 2008 issue of Poetry magazine, which we’re lucky to have; in her accompanying translator’s note you’ll find some concise and very useful background info. You can read both here.

Note: in this post I quote from ‘The Living Language’, Eavan Boland’s Presidential Address to the Classical Association of Ireland, published in Classics Ireland 25 (2018), and I draw upon Peter Dronke’s The Medieval Poet and his World (Rome, 1984). The photo above, © Joe King, is used with permission under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0.