Or: The Curious Case of the Classical Cushionby Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries
It all started when a keen fan from Tasmania asked me to translate a cushion in her house.
This happens a lot.
Not necessarily being asked to parse a pillow, but I am often asked to help with Latin homework, compose mottoes and translate inscriptions.
Top Fan Julia had a tapestry cushion with Latin on it.
She diligently copied down the Latin and sent it to me:
Si vis me flere, Dolendum est
Telephe vel Peleu male si ipsi
dormitabo aut Mandata
on satis est pulchra
Ridentibus adrident, ita
The Latin looked extremely dodgy so before launching in on a translation, I did what any self-respecting scholar should always do first: I googled it. Sure enough, a search of si-vis-me-flere took me straight to several pages of chat about these pillows. It seems to be a few verses from Horace’s Ars Poetica, but badly garbled.
Quintus Horatius Flaccus AKA Horace was a poet who lived in the time of Julius Caesar and the first emperor Augustus. He is most famous for his Odes and Epodes and for coining the phrase Carpe diem! or 'Seize the day!' His Ars Poetica, 'The Art of Poetry', was actually a letter to a friend, written about 20 BC. A hundred or so years later, the orator Quintilian was the first one to call it the Ars Poetica. The Oxford Classical Dictionary describes it as ‘a most puzzling work … [saying] little that is worthy of Horace.’
So here we have an obscure passage from an obscure Latin treatise. The passage from which the pillow phrases are taken comes about a hundred lines into the letter. If you look at the cushion you can see phrases have been chopped and changed, words have lost initial letters or dropped out altogether.
Here is the non-garbled version:
Non satis est pulchra esse poemata: dulcia sunto
Et quocumque volent animum auditoris agunto.
Ut ridentibus adrident, ita flentibus adflent
humani vultus. Si vis me flere, dolendum est
primum ipsi tibi: tunc tua me infortunia laedent,
Telephe vel Peleu; male si mandata loqueris,
aut dormitabo aut ridebo: tristia maestum
vultum verba decent; iratum, plena minarum
ludentum lasciva, severum seria dictu.
And here is a rough translation:
It’s not enough for poems to be beautiful: they must be persuasive
and able to lead the soul of the hearer wherever they want.
As we grin among those who are smiling,
so we tend to well up around those who weep.
If you want me to cry, you yourself must first feel anguish
Then your misfortunes will move me, O Peleus or Telephus;
if you speak inappropriately, I will doze off or laugh out loud:
sad words require a mournful expression,
angry ones need a face full of menace,
Naughty words suit a playful mood,
serious words go with sober topics.
(By the way, Horace names Telephus and Peleus as examples of mythic characters tragic tales to tell. Telephus was a son of Hercules, famous for a fresco from Pompeii that shows him suckling from a deer. He had a miserable life which included suckling from said deer, being a beggar, almost sleeping with his mother, suffering for many years with a would not heal, etc. Peleus was a prince from Aegina – the island near Athens – and had to become an exile after accidentally killing his brother. Although he later became father of the great warrior Achilles, several tragedies were written about him.)
According to several online discussions, the guilty fabric is manufactured in China. But in the guise of cushions, upholstery, wall-hangings and curtains, it has found its way all over the world: Australia, Germany, Norway, Chile, Oxford, South Yorkshire and Tasmania.
I was at Alderley Edge School for Girls (Greater Manchester area) last week to talk about my series of books set in ancient Rome, when the librarian Ruth pointed at the heavy curtains in the hall. ‘Look!’ she said. ‘Latin curtains!’ I stepped closer and peered at the letters. Sure enough, it read: ‘Loqueris Si vis me flere…etc.’
If someone asks you to translate their cushion, and you recognise some of the words I’ve been talking about here, tell them it's garbled but that it says something like: ‘If you want to be a poet, laugh with those who laugh and cry with those who cry.’
[The Roman Mysteries books are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]