Sunday, January 07, 2007

'S Latin, innit?

A few people have asked me about the post-title of that picture of the spilled load of cases of Grolsch that I put up the other day.

"Sunt lacrimae rerum" is a famous line from Virgil's great epic poem 'The Aeneid'. Aeneas, the hero, refugee from the sack of Troy, is taken in by Dido, Queen of Carthage, after suffering the shipwreck of his fleet off the north African coast. He sees a mural in her palace depicting the fall of Troy, and mutters these words.

It means something like: "Here's something to cry over."

Except that it is so much more resonant and elusive than that. The verb, "there are", is placed (unusually for Latin) at the beginning of the sentence, making the statement all the more blunt and powerful. There is an inversion of the expected word order/grammatical relation of the two nouns, so that instead of "a matter of tears" we get "tears of things". It feels like a general statement rather than a particular observation: 'rerum' ("things") is such a broad, undefined concept that it can suggest not just the subject matter of the painting but all things - all human existence, the world. And there is a kind of implied equivalence between "things" and "tears", as if to say "everything is tears".

Latin is a wonderful language.

I've been noodling around with something on this incident for the past few days:


Aeneid, Book I

Aeneas saw a world of tears
In the paintings on the wall,
Wept his own tears
(Behind his hand, for shame)
Remembering real horrors
Behind the artist's quaint tableaux:
The city taken, comrades killed,
Home and history vanished
In a single night of slaughter,
Beginning a lifetime's exile.
For the Carthaginians it was only
A diverting tale; for him
His life, his loss.

And Dido, seeing his pain,
Wanted him all the more...


Footnote: I had originally (lazily) labelled this as 'Aeneid, Book IV' - because that's where the romance between Dido and Aeneas famously reaches its climax. However, the comment on the murals of the fall of Troy is the prelude to Aeneas' recounting his adventures to the queen in Books II and III, and actually takes place towards the end of Book I. I have (a month or two late!) corrected myself.

"I could have been a judge if I'd only had the Latin."

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