Name that Latin/Italian/Greek/English poem! About death!
February 27, 2012 11:36 PM   Subscribe

Name that Latin, Greek, or Italian poem... Can you identify this poem from my senile grandfather's sparse details?

I had a long told with my charming, Italian-immigrant, unfortunately senile grandfather yesterday. He mentioned a poem he loves, which is very sweet and sad, about a father standing before the grave (or tomb or urn) of his son.

(Note: I specifically asked if it was Keats' Ode to Grecian Urn, and it is not.)

I would love to know what this poem is so I can read it, and maybe read it to him in the hospital.

The catch is that my grandfather is a non-native English speaker who is very well versed in Italian, Greek, Roman, and Latin poetry. He speaks Italian, English, and some latin. He switches between them in conversation, and this is happening more and more as he ages. So the poem could plausibly be in any of these languages. Because he loses his train of thought quickly, he wasn't able to give me any more details.

Any suggestions fromt the hive mind are very, very apprecaited! Thank you!
posted by BusyBusyBusy to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It must be "Multas per gentes": Catullus 101. Exactly as your grandfather described: Catullus has crossed lands and seas to stand before his brother's tomb to bid him farewell "...Ave atque vale". Beautiful poem.

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora uectus
Advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
Vt te postremo donarem munere mortis
Et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
Quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
Heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
Nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
Tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
Accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
Atque in perpetuum, frater, aue atque uale.

Here's one translation:-

"I've come through many countries and across many seas,
my brother, to do these sad obsequies,
to bring you posthumous presents and hopeless wishes
and make a useless speech to your dumb ashes;
My poor brother, since fate has callously
taken you, and cheated me of your company
here are these merely conventional things,
traditional sad funeral offerings:
take them — all wet with your brother's tears — and my
last greeting and everlasting goodbye."
posted by genesta at 11:46 PM on February 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

On My First Son
Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years tho' wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say, "Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:48 PM on February 27, 2012

I also popped in here to suggest Catullus.
posted by 200burritos at 3:42 AM on February 28, 2012

I think it may be Catullus too, but another less likely option could be Pianto Antico, by Giosuè Carducci:

L'albero a cui tendevi
la pargoletta mano,
il verde melograno
da' bei vermigli fior,

nel muto orto solingo
rinverdì tutto or ora
e giugno lo ristora
di luce e di calor.

Tu fior della mia pianta
percossa e inaridita,
tu dell'inutil vita
estremo unico fior,

sei ne la terra fredda,
sei ne la terra negra;
né il sol più ti rallegra
né ti risveglia amor.
posted by lydhre at 4:09 AM on February 28, 2012

> another less likely option could be Pianto Antico, by Giosuè Carducci

Why "less likely"? It's the first thing that occurred to me when I read the question (and one of the best-known and most beautiful poems in the Italian language), and however well he knows Latin, surely poetry in his native language was learned earlier and is closer to his heart. Here's a translation (from the Penguin Book of Italian Verse):

The tree to which you stretched your baby hand, the green pomegranate-tree with its fine scarlet flowers,

  has just grown green again in the deserted, silent courtyard and June is reviving it with light and heat.

  You, flower of my stricken, dried-up plant, you the last only flower of my useless life,

  you are in the cold earth, you are in the black earth, nor does the sun any longer delight, nor can love wake you.
posted by languagehat at 9:07 AM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, less likely, to me, because it IS so recognizable. It's unlikely that the op's grandfather could have confused Pianto Antico with anything in Latin or Greek, given that there is essentially no chance that he could have read it in those languages. Catullo on the other hand could go either way. But I do agree that Pianto Antico fits the theme to a T, especially the sweetness of the poem.
posted by lydhre at 11:33 AM on February 28, 2012

The grandfather didn't say what language it was in, though - I think that's the OP listing possible languages based on the languages his grandfather knows.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:46 PM on February 28, 2012

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