The Pleasures of Latin Poetry — In Guatemala
Greetings from Guatemala, where I’m making an unusual Latin pilgrimage. Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala, is the birthplace of one of the New World’s least-known and most intriguing poets: Rafael Landivar. In 1782 Landivar published a 15-book epic poem in Latin dactylic hexameters, the Rusticatio Mexicana, about curiosities of life in the Spanish possessions of North America. This was a vast area, stretching from El Salvador to California, Utah, and Texas. Landivar’s poem describes country life, from the cowboys and cattle herds of the north to the plantations of indigo and sugar in the Caribbean, to active volcanoes and lake-towns of Mexico. Think Vergil’s Georgics mixed with Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, set in 18th-century Mexico. I’m here to research a forthcoming article about Landivar: to learn about the landscape that produced and inspired him, and to visit his home, workplace (he was rector of the Jesuit college in Antigua), and tomb, to see what I can find.
What brought about this trip? In large part it has been my exposure to the work of SALVI and Paideia. Because of SALVI, I met Alexis Hellmer, who holds a joint appointment as Professor of the Latin language and literature at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, and at the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla, both in Mexico. Hellmer is one of the most brilliant young Latinists on the continent as well as a patient, thoughtful teacher, and his presence at SALVI’s Rusticatio Virginiana has been one of the reasons people keep coming back. Hellmer also happens to be one of the world’s experts on Landivar, and he frequently exhorts otherwise busy people (like me) to take the time to read Landivar. But there are so many things to read, of course, and amid so many other pressing concerns old books often get left behind.
But Landivar kept coming up. A section of the Rusticatio Mexicana appeared among the readings for the Paideia Institute’s Living Latin in New York City Conference in 2017. I give a specimen, just so you can see:
Urbs erat occiduis procul hinc notissima terris
Mexicus: ampla, frequensque, viris opibusque superba,
Indigenis quondam multos dominata per annos:
Nunc vero Hispani, populis Mavorte subactis,
Sceptra tenent, summaque urbem ditione gubernant. (I.29–33)
Far away from here, off in the Western lands, was a famed
City, Mexico: vast, crowded, proud of its men and wealth,
Ruled for generations by its own people;
But now the Spaniards, having conquered the people there,
Hold the scepter, and in the city their word is law.
Beyond the similarity of Landivar’s verse to Vergil’s, there was not much I could say about this excerpt when I first read it. Now, after having read the entirety of the poem, I can say that Landivar’s somewhat unsentimental presentation of Spanish rule — someone else once ruled Mexico, now it’s the Spaniards’ turn — is part of a larger, interesting pattern in Landivar’s thought. He treats power with a kind of Lucretian scientific detachment: it is part of the way the universe works, but not its most important part. The life of the land goes on.
By a happy chance, I told Jon Meyer about how impressed I was with Landivar’s verse. Meyer is one of Paideia’s anchors for the Living Latin in Rome program, as well as being something of an international man of mystery: though quite a young man, he seems to have been everywhere and have a story to tell about every place. “You know, I saw Landivar’s tomb,” Meyer replied. “In Antigua. They’ve got a nice little monument to him there.” Goodness gracious, I thought to myself. If I had been in Antigua I’m not sure I would have noticed a monument to an 18th century humanist poet. I wouldn’t even have recognized the name Rafael Landivar well enough to know that I should remember it. It would have been just another name on another slab of stone.
But hearing about a tangible monument made me think: here is a story. Neo-Latin poetry in the Caribbean. Coconut palms and hexameters. Azure waters and third-foot caesurae. It was an impossible combination, and immensely compelling for it. Turns out I wasn’t even thinking of the right Antigua: I had heard of the Caribbean island, but not the city in Guatemala, which was the old (antigua) capital of the Spanish colony there. But finding out that this was the Guatemalan city, not the Caribbean island, didn’t slow me down. Guatemala was another compelling contrast to Latin epic.
I had an opening in my schedule, flights to Guatemala City are cheap, and Airbnbs are fifteen bucks a night here. I went off and did it. And it turns out that Antigua is quite firmly on the backpacker trail, and is a minor destination for digital nomads. Life is cheap, and the internet is good.
While I’ve been doing the on-the-ground research, I’ve also been making my way through all fifteen books of Landivar’s poetry, reading it in the cafes and on the rooftops (see picture). If we want Latin and Greek to live, it has to be part of our lives. Not just as work: there are only going to be so many jobs. It has to be part of the pleasure of our lives. It’s becoming odder and odder for people to simply sit in public and read, and certainly here in Guatemala I’ve been a subject for curiosity and praise simply for reading a poet who is known — Landivar’s monument is quite impressive, in fact, and there is a major university in Guatemala City named after him — but not nearly so widely read. The reaction I’m getting is familiar to me: I’ve gotten it while reading Cicero in Arpino, Shakespeare in Stratford, and Homer in Mytilene: this is our pride, say the old folks. This is our culture. We’re so happy someone still cares about it.
And for me it really has been a pleasure. Landivar offers many of the technical perfections of Vergil, but his matter is much lighter — less teary, less angsty. Just reading him describe these streams, and these mountains, returns me to the permanent things, and the beauties that unappreciated surround us. The poetry’s beauties mirror those of the world. I love reading Landivar’s verses aloud:
Blando vitrei me murmure raptant
Usque redundantes niveo de pumice fontes,
Tuta queis Nymphae captant ad littora somnum. (XII.3–5)
Crystal streams enrapture me with their sweet murmur,
Flowing down from the snow-covered rocks,
On whose banks the sylvan goddesses safely take their rest.
Look for a more complete essay on Landivar in the near future. In the meantime, as summer approaches, don’t forget that as adults in our society, we are trying to initiate the next generation into adult life. Part of our task is to show that we are initiating them into something worthwhile and desirable. For teachers of Latin and Greek, this means showing, in our own lives, the pleasures and benefits of Classical art, literature, and philosophy. We can find them in surprising places, if we pursue them and give them time.
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