Praise of the simple life somewhere in a rural area, far from the busy city, has been a literary topos from the Hellenistic period well up till the 19th century. My guess is that poets taking up such a topic were far better in writing, than in tiling land and milking cows. However, dreaming away on such an idea is attractive, especially for those with a hectic life. The Late Roman poet Claudius Claudianus (360 -404 AD) – in English Claudian – has written too a poem idealizing rustic life. Claudian was a poet at the court of Emperor Honorius at Milan, writing panegyrics poem on the Emperor and his general Stilicho. This is remarkable, as Claudian was from Greek speaking Alexandria. Claudian is little read nowadays, but his unfinished poem De Raptu Proserpinae was widely popular during the Middle Ages. He also wrote a number of minor poems of which this idyll is one. How happy the man who lives far off the city on his little farm, never travelling far away. Echo’s from Claudian’s predecessors are everywhere in this poem, but the final line is a beauty.
At an age at which Germanic tribes were harassing the Roman borders and the Roman Empire internally divided between West and East, the idea must sometimes have been appealing to Honorius, that most incompetent ruler the Roman Empire ever had.
Claudius Claudianus, Carmina Minora 20
Meter: elegiac couplets
Felix, qui propriis aevum transegit in arvis,
ipsa domus puerum quem videt, ipsa senem;
qui baculo nitens in qua reptavit harena
unius numerat saecula longa casae.
illum non vario traxit fortuna tumultu,
nec bibit ignotas mobilis hospes aquas.
non freta mercator tremuit, non classica miles,
non rauci lites pertulit ille fori.
indocilis rerum, vicinae nescius urbis
adspectu fruitur liberiore poli.
frugibus alternis, non consule computat annum:
autumnum pomis, ver sibi flore notat.
idem condit ager soles idemque reducit,
metiturque suo rusticus orbe diem,
ingentem meminit parvo qui gemine quercum
aequaevumque videt consenuisse nemus,
proxima cui nigris Verona remotior Indis
Benacumque putat litora Rubra lacum.
sed tamen indomitae vires firmisque lacertis
aetas robustum tertia cernit avum.
erret et extremos alter scrutetur Hiberos:
plus habet hic vitae, plus habet ille viae.
aevum transago: to spend one’s life
arvum: cultivated land, field
puerum…senem: apposition to quem `whom the same sees as’
nitor nixus (+ abl,): to lean, support oneself
in harena qua
repto: to creep, crawl
casa: small house, cottage
tumultus –us (m.): commotion
ignotas aquas: i.e. in foreign lands, areas
lites rauci fori: the legal processes of a noisy court
perfero pertuli perlatum: to endure, suffer
adspectu fruitur liberiore poli: he enjoys the unhampered (`very free’) sight of the sky
frugibus alternis: by alternating harvests
consule: as time-reckoning from the birth of Jesus was not in use at that time, years were counted by the years consuls.
idem condit ager soles idemque reducit: a nice description, as if a pasture hides (condit) and brings back (reducit) the sun. The plural soles denote the daily rising and setting of the sun.
suo orbe: i.e. his daily round over his land
rusticus, qui ingentem quercum – (te) gemine!- parvo meminit. The oak, which the farmer remembers as little tree, is addressed
parvo: predicative dative `as a little tree’. quercus (oak) is a feminine u-stem, but an oak was apparently felt – at least by Claudian - to be masculine.
gemine: you twinborn (oak)! i.e. the oak now big (ingentem) is of the same age as the farmer (rusticus).
aequaevus: of the same age
consenesco consenui: to grow old together
nemus nemoris (n.): grove
proxima Verona remotior nigris Indis
Benacus lacum: a lake near Verona
litora Rubra: the Red Sea (litt. `the read shores’)
lacertus: (upper) arm
tertia aetas: the third age, i.e. old age
erro (-are): to wander
scrutor scrutatus: to explore
Hiberus = Iberus (inhabitant of Spain)
hic…ille: the rusticus…the traveller
Abraham Cowley (1618-1667)
Happy the man who his whole time doth bound
Within the enclosure of his little ground.
Happy the man whom the same humble place
(The hereditary cottage of his race)
From his first rising infancy has known,
And by degrees sees gently bending down,
With natural propension to that earth
Which both preserved his life, and gave him birth.
Him no false distant lights by fortune set,
Could ever into foolish wanderings get.
He never dangers either saw, or feared,
The dreadful storms at sea he never heard.
He never heard the shrill alarms of war,
Or the worse noises of the lawyers' bar.
No change of consuls marks to him the year,
The change of seasons is his calendar.
The cold and heat winter and summer shows,
Autumn by fruits, and spring by flowers he knows.
He measures time by landmarks, and has found
For the whole day the dial of his ground.
A neighbouring wood born with himself he sees,
And loves his old contemporary trees.
Has only heard of near Verona's name,
And knows it, like the Indies, but by fame.
Does with a like concernment notice take
Of the Red Sea, and of Benacus lake.
Thus health and strength he to a third age enjoys,
And sees a long posterity of boys.
About the spacious world let other roam,
The voyage Life is longest made at home.