Henry Stead: Moretum


Image © Becky Brewis

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Readers of The High Window‘s current translation feature will see Henry Stead’s stunning version of Seneca: A choral ode from Medea . (Those who have not yet done so can find it by following the link.) Henry also submitted his version of the intriguing Latin poem Moretum. Unfortunately, it was a little too long to be included. However, we take the opportunity here to publish it as a supplementary feature  before moving on to the spring issue which is being prepared for March.

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The Latin poem, Moretum,  in a  version by Henry Stead

The Moretum is a curious poem once ascribed to Virgil. It is a consciously uneven parody, which plays on the epic style and lurches in tone and register from the fanciful to the realistic, from the celestial to the sewer. It is unique insofar as it focusses at some length on an otherwise invisible aspect of ancient Roman life, the lived experience of the labouring poor. In it we spend the morning with an unlikely hero named Simylus, which literally means something like ‘little sub-nose’ (or ‘Screwface’), from the moment he wakes to his setting out to drive the plough.

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Night is now twice five_winter hours old

and the day is sung in_by the night watch bird

 

Screwface__a farmer of a narrow strip of land

wakes full of fear of the hunger of the day

 

Wearily he lifts each limb from his cheap bunk

and fingers his way through the artless dark

feeling for the hearth_which hurts when found

 

Some_little twigs_a log end in the grate

eyes of mined coal_covered in ash

Here_with head bowed down

________________________he brought the lamp

and needling out the stub of charred wick

stirred a slow flame with a volley of puffs

 

At last with the blaze begun__he stepped

back__and with his cupped hand__protected

the lamp flame from wind drafts__and

with a curious key

____________unlocked the pantry door

 

On the ground was poured

____________a poor mound of grain

______from it he scooped what his bucket could hold

which ran to twice eight pounds in weight

 

Then he goes and stands over his mill__and sets

his trusty lamp on a small shelf

made just for that purpose

______Freeing both arms

from his clothes__and now bound in the hide

of a longhaired goat he sweeps with its tail

the grinding and bed stones of the quern

 

Now he summons his hands to the job

______each with its own task

____________the left for guidance

the right intent on labour_____This one spins

______the grinding stone and drives bruised grain

down from the rapid clashing of the stones

 

Sometimes the left relieves its tired sister

______they take it in turns

_______________Now he sings folk songs

and soothes his own labour with rustic airs

Sometimes he shouts to Rubbish__his only slave

African by blood_her whole body testifies

to her native land

_________tight curls_full lips_skin black

broad chested_breasts small_taut stomach

with slender legs_and lavishly spacious feet

______It is Rubbish he shouts at

________________________commanding her

to bestow flames upon chill water

 

After the grinding work was duly concluded

he transferred the flour to a sieve

and shook it

 

The dark chaff stays put on the upper level

the clean (sincere) sinks through sieve holes

and the cleaned out flour (Ceres) falls below

 

He collects it__no delay__on a smooth

board, and inundates with tepid waves

He kneads the now-mixed flood and flour

and turns the mixture__hardened by hand

bonded with wet__and sprinkles the lumps

with salt

______Now he lifts each worked ball

and_with his hands_shapes a disk

and scores each disk into segments of four

Then he lays them out in the fire (in a spot

thoroughly cleaned by Rubbish)_ and covers them

with tiles

______upon which he spreads fire

 

And while Vulcan and Vesta carry out

their duty__Screwface does not stand idle [1]

No_for fear that Ceres alone might not woo

his taste-buds_he gathers additional ingredients

______But no meathook hangs above this man’s hearth

______missing are the salt hard strips of pig flesh

Strung through the middle__though

a pierced wheel of cheese

____________and an aged bundle of dill

Our prophetic hero

______seeks out

____________the perfect condiment

 

Next to his cot was a garden_protected

by wicker__strengthened by slender reed canes

small in size_but teeming with all sorts of herbs

It lacked nothing that a poor man might need

Even his landlord from the poor man asked much

And it cost him nothing

__________________but a little care

If festive day or a day of rain___left him free in his cot

if the plough work stopped___whatever the reason

______that time was spent in the garden

He knew just where to position his plants

and how to sink seeds in the occult ground

how to channel water from the nearby stream

 

Here greens_here the spreading arms of beetroot

and robust sorrel_here mallows here horseheal

Here skirtwort and headed leeks

and lettuce too__a welcome rest from richer foods

and root of asparagus that sprouts many spears

and the heavy pumpkin swelling into its fat belly

 

All this is not for the master (for who more frugal

than Screwface?) This crop is for the people

 

Each market day he carries bundles

___________to town__on his shoulders

Later he walks home with light neck

______weighed down only by coin

_______________Hardly ever__you see__did he buy

produce from the market

 

Red onion and his patch of chives defeated hunger

and watercress___its bitterness

 

contorts the face

and chicory and rocket__stimulant of sluggish Venus [2]

 

Thinking about this__or something or other

he entered the garden

__________________first__lightly with his fingers

he dug down into the earth and pulled out four

garlic bulbs with thick fibres__then he plucked

slender fronds of parsley and stiffening rue

and coriander shivering on its stem

 

After collecting these things he sits down

next to the happy fire and with a clear voice

calls the slavegirl for his mortar bowl

 

One at a time he exposes garlic heads

from their knotted bodies_and strips off

their outer skins_scattering the discarded

husks all over__tossing them to the ground

He wets each bulb_freed from its skin

and casts it into the circular hollow of stone

 

On these he sprinkles grains of salt__cheese

is added__hardened with eaten-up salts__he

tosses in the chosen herbs and with his left

hand secures the bowl to his hairy lap_ his

right__with a pestle__first softens scented

garlic___Then he pounds all evenly into a mixed

paste___His hand spins___Little by

little__and one by one__each ingredient loses

its individual power

______the colour from many is one [3]

 

Not completely green__the milky bits fight back

nor does it gleam like milk__challenged by so many herbs

 

Often the sharp stench stings his open nostrils

and he curses his own meal with a screwed up face [4]

Often he wipes his crying eyes with the backs

of his hands and furiously curses the innocent smoke

 

But the work goes on___No longer does the pestle

move in jolts_but_with a new heft_makes slower circles

 

Now he drips in drops of Palladian olive__and

splashes the paste with scant vinegar__Again and

again__he mixes together and draws out the mixture

 

Then at last__with two fingers__he scrapes

around the edges of the mortar__bringing

the furthest parts together__into a single mass

so that both the means of production (mortarium)

and the name of the dish (moretum) should fit

 

Meanwhile diligent Rubbish digs out the bread

________which he gladly receives in his hands

Now that the fear of hunger is expelled

Screwface__secure_in the new day

wraps his legs in a pair of greaves and

covered with a raw hide helmet__brings

his docile cows__under their leathern yoke

He drives them into his field

and buries his plough in the earth

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Notes:

[1] Vulcan, the blacksmith god, presides over fire; Vesta is the goddess of hearth and home. Ceres, goddess of agriculture, is often used in Roman poetry to mean grain, corn, even bread.

[2] Venus is the goddess of love. Rocket was considered to have aphrodisiacal qualities.

[3] n.b. This is somewhat bizarrely the source of the motto of the United States of America e pluribus unum. Other classical sources are often given but only this one is a direct quotation.

[4] simo vulto – ‘with a screwed up face’ points playfully to the name of our ‘snub-‘ or ‘flat-nosed’ (simo) hero, Simulus or [here] Screwface. It is, we are led to believe, from the intolerable smell of his cooking that he is so named. Rubbish is in place of the original’s Scybale, which has a similar meaning.

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Henry Stead grew up in Devon and now lives and works in London as a poet, translator and educator. Author of A Cockney Catullus (OUP, 2016) , co-author of A People’s History of Classics (Routledge, 2019), and a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Open University, he works mainly on the reception of classical culture in Britain until 1956. He has co-edited Greek and Roman Classics in the British Struggle for Social Reform (Bloomsbury, 2015), and currently conducts a research project called ‘Brave New Classics’, exploring the intersections of classics and communism.

Becky Brewis’ work is about memory and the grubby handling of images over time. She  was selected by Tina Keane for Visions in the Nunnery 2018, a biennial showcase of moving image and was shortlisted for the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2017. She  is currently artist in residence in the Centre for Philosophy and Visual Art at King’s College London.  See her website  for past exhibitions and residencies.  Instagram: @becky_brewis

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