Tuesday, July 21, 2009

postera crescam laude

In his excellent and thought-provoking address about humanities and philanthropy (Australian Book Review, June), Professor Malcolm Gillies directs our attention to the concluding poem (Carmen xxx) in Book III of the Odes of Horace in the verse translation by John Conington, specifically to the phrase “…usque ego postera / Crescam laude recens…,” of which the fragment “postera crescam laude” has since 1854 served as the motto of my alma mater, the University of Melbourne.

At the risk of dragging you kicking and screaming into this regularly recurring in-house discussion, that Latin phrase is especially difficult to translate, and all of the following have from time to time been proposed: (1) “I shall live in freshness of fame as long as the world endures”; (2) “I shall grow into the future, still / In fame renewed”; (3) “later / I shall grow by praise”; (4) “Ever new / My after fame shall grow”; (5) “In time to come / my fame will grow ever fresh”; (6) “On and on / shall I grow, ever fresh with glory of after time”; (7) “I shall increase with the praise of after ages”; (8) “I shall grow in the esteem of future generations”, and (9) “I shall rise in posterity’s praise.” Nowadays the university seems to have settled upon the very loose (10) “
We shall grow in the esteem of future generations.”

No doubt the general, broad meaning is by now pretty clear, but the issue serves to demonstrate the brilliant economy of classical Latin, and the clunkiness of modern English in finding a satisfactory, attractive, or even true rendering of Horace’s phrase.

Context helps. In his recent commentary (2000), David West points to the remarkable strength of the poet’s voice—no false modesty there, though one might now disagree with the nineteenth-century glossist who found ‘no extravagance but much dignity’ in its tone.

At any rate, beginning with the first word of the poem, “
Exegi” (I have built), the first person dominates the verb forms, pronouns, and general thrust, so crescam here (much bolstered by that ego, and the adverbs usque, i.e. continually, perpetually, and recens, i.e. newly or freshly) therefore needs to follow suit. In other words, we shall not grow or increase, nor my fame, nor anything else of mine; rather, I (the poet) shall grow…

For Horace this is simply a statement of fact, indeed one that has across the intervening twenty centuries proven remarkably prescient, but as the motto of a university it more properly functions as an expression of hope, or an aspiration. There are, after all, no guarantees.

Postera, meanwhile, comes from the adjective posterus, –a, –um, and means coming or occurring hereafter, following, ensuing, subsequent, future, or simply later on; laude is from the noun laus, –dis (praise, commendation, renown, relating to the verb laudo, –are, –aui, –atum, I praise, etc.). These go together, and therefore mean [in] the praise, approval, honour, or commendation of what used to be called “my posterity,” in other words those who come along after me: future generations, if you like.

The problem here is how to convey all of the separate but clear, indeed harmonious components of those six Latin words, or, worse, only three of them. In English we have to mess around with “ever new,” “ever fresh,” “on and on,” “in time to come,” all of which mean rather different things from each other, and only partly or imperfectly capture certain elements of the original.

On the other hand, if you are not careful you may end up with something as grotesque as “continually and, at the same time, being ever renewed and freshened up, I shall grow in the sense of rise and/or steadily increase or even expand in the estimation of those who come after me, forever”—which in any case doesn’t rhyme.

It is of little comfort to find that the Germans, Dutch, Spaniards and French have had an even harder time with
postera crescam laude than we have.

In 1861, for example, Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Binder came up with “…
herrlich bei Enkeln einst / Wächst mein Rame” (from herrlich = glorious, magnificent, even lovely; bei Enkeln = among descendants; einst = some day (implying “with luck,” a nice touch); wachsen = to grow, lengthen, broaden, and/or shoot up, so Wächst mein Rame = my fame shall grow). The Dutch were wordier but equally sensible: “Mijn lof zal hier na altijt even frisch aengroeien” (my fame shall...grow fresh—a nod to the abundance of sea air, perhaps).

Yet these are both as stodgy as the Spanish is impressionistic: “
renovado siempre / Crescer con las alabanzas venideras” (always or ever renewed / to grow with the praises of those who come after), while the French is wholly flamboyant: “sans cesse, moi, par la gloire de la postérité, je grandirai toujours jeune” (without cease, I, by the glory of posterity, shall grow tall [or, intriguingly, lengthen (!), and remain] forever young)—but let us assume that the cheeky hint towards length and that conspicuous toujours jeune (forever young) are purely Gallic flourishes.

Which merely reinforces Malcolm’s point that it is well nigh impossible to put a price tag on all of that, so let us be gay.

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