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This article is taken from PN Review 217, Volume 40 Number 5, May - June 2014.

Sisson’s ‘Carmen Saeculare’

‘Nothing is so dead it does not come back’
John Talbot
Why Sisson, when we have Eliot and Pound? Or even Geoffrey Hill, at this late date still exploring and enlarging the old high modernist mode?

One answer – there are many answers – involves not his original poems, but what Sisson recovered and discovered for English verse through translation of Latin poetry. An exemplary instance finds Sisson – uniquely among modern poets – rising to a challenge implicit in these lines of Goethe’s:

Hohe Sonne, du weilst, und du beschauest dein Rom!
Grösserest sahst du nichts und wirst nichts Grösseres sehen
                                                                (Römische Elegien, 15.26-7)

You, Sun, linger on high, and you look upon your Rome!
Never did you see anything greater, nor will you see anything greater[.]

Fine writing, but it conceals a provocation. The German not only echoes, but very nearly translates, a passage out of Horace. Nothing unusual there: what greater commonplace in Western poetry than to imitate Horace? What’s at issue, though, is a taboo connected to the particular Horatian poem Goethe evokes, that rarely-read hymn known as the ‘Carmen Saeculare’.

Execrable piece of work, the ‘Carmen Saeculare’: at best an embarrassing case of state-commissioned official poetry, at worst a shameless propaganda-piece in the service of a totalitarian regime. It gets duly (and dully) translated in complete editions of Horace. But while Horace’s other works have inspired modern poems by the score, even his most appreciative imitators have shunned the ‘Carmen Saeculare’. That Goethe dared touch it at all, ...

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