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Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Poets and the Latin Mass

This is the beginning of Seamus Heaney's essay, "On Translating Beowulf":

As the text of Holy Scripture, the written Word of God and the ultimate source of authority, St Jerome's translation of the Bible was enshrined for centuries not as an authorised version but as the pristine word itself. Even in the 1950s, when I attended the pre-conciliar Latin Mass every morning of the school year, the beginning of the Last Gospel sounded like the first note of God's tuning fork. 'In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum.' I soon knew enough Latin to be thoroughly at home with this, with the result that the English translation ended up having less immediately persuasive power than what I then took to be the original. 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' - venerable as this English sounded, it carne across as secondary. For whatever reason - maybe because of the numinous force which Latin then possessed as the medium of the liturgy and of the Church's magisterium, maybe because of some older need for a magic language that would altogether open and close the world - for whatever reason, the Gospel heard in my own tongue sounded smaller, whereas St Jerome's version came forth like those orb-sized words of pre-Babel speech imagined by Wallace Stevens at the end of his poem 'The Idea of Order at Key West':

Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

To put it another way, when I stood up in those days at the end of the Mass and followed the priest's spoken Latin in my missal, I was becoming aware of the arbitrariness of English as a linguistic system. My Catholic education had succeeded to that extent, at any rate: the primal rightness of the Church's language had been established as a fact of the aural life. 'Adeste fideles' would henceforth win out over 'O come all ye faithful'. 'De profundis ad te clamavi, Domine, Domine exaudi orationem meam' would be prior to 'Out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord, Lord hear my prayer'. I left St Columb's College, in other words, a perfect construct of that pre-Vatican II culture, and I remain reluctant totally to deconstruct myself.

There are many other, less rarefied and literary arguments for the restoration of the Latin Mass and its attendant culture, but I think its effect on budding artists should at least be mentioned. Here is another poet's take on "that pre-Vatican II culture," in this case Dana Gioia:

RM: What was your childhood like?

Gioia: I had a happy, solitary childhood. Both of my parents worked. My father was a cab driver and later a chauffeur. My mother worked as an operator for the phone company. I was left alone a great deal. I was raised in a tightly-knit Sicilian family. We lived in a triplex next to another triplex. Five of these six apartments were occupied by relatives. Sicilians are clannish folk. They trust no one but family. My grandparents rarely socialized with anyone who wasn't related. My mother (who had been born in Hawthorne from mainly Mexican stock) had to become more Italian than the Italians to fit in. All of the older people had been born in Sicily. Many of them spoke little or no English. Conversations among adults were usually in their Sicilian dialect. It was an odd childhood by mainstream American standards but probably not too unusual among immigrant families.

Living in New York now, I often hear people describe Southern California in the typical Hollywood cliches. These popular images of glitz and glamour have little to do with the working-class Los Angeles of my childhood, which was quite old-fashioned, very European, and deeply Catholic. No, "European" is the wrong word. Very Latin. The Sicilians blended very easily into the existing Mexican culture.

RM: Was Catholicism important to you?

Gioia: Catholicism was everything to me. Growing up in a Latin community of Sicilians and Mexicans, one didn't feel the Roman Catholic church as an abstraction. It was a living culture which permeated our lives. In parochial school, we attended Latin Mass every weekday morning, in addition to the obligatory Mass on Sunday; so for eight early years I went to Mass six days a week. The hymns we sang were still the classics of Medieval Latin liturgy. As altar boys, we learned all the ceremonial responses by heart. Our nuns scrupulously drilled us in liturgy, ritual, and dogma - which we tolerated - and recounted the flamboyant folklore of saints and martyrs - which we adored.

This world seems so distant now. The Second Vatican Council unintentionally killed it. Working-class kids in Los Angeles today do not have the benefit of this sectarian but nonetheless broadening and oddly international education. In my Catholic high school the Marianist brothers drilled us relentlessly in Latin and Theology. We worked our way through most of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas' arguments. We also read Horace, Catullus, Virgil, and Ovid. We even translated the bawdy and beautiful songs of the wandering scholars. I was in the last generation that experienced Latin as a living language. Some of my teachers had attended ecclesiastical colleges in which all instruction was done in Latin. This cultural heritage opened new worlds to kids like us whose everyday lives were otherwise so narrow.

RM: What was it like to go from this working-class, ethnic background to an elite university like Stanford?

Gioia: Going to Stanford was a great shock. I had never been around people my own age whose parents had gone to college. At Stanford I experienced the shock of meeting the children of America's ruling class. It took me years to sort out my own reactions. I was simultaneously impressed and repelled by the social privilege my fellow students enjoyed. I was also naively astonished at how little their education meant to them. I felt then, as I do now, that in the circle of my friends in a working-class Catholic high school there were more serious intellectuals than among my contemporaries at Stanford. Of course, I was then - and continue to be now - most naive of all in thinking that being an intellectual has some value.

It's very true that Latin encourages a heightened awareness of language. When I was little I didn't have much exposure to Latin, but whenever I did, I would wonder why Latin needed fewer words to say the same thing, why the word "Lord" was sometimes "Dominus" and sometimes "Domine," why some of the words were so similar to English. It is taken for granted that the Latin Mass has inspired great music, but not as much attention is paid to the sheer fascination of its language.

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