‘The Scholars’, or Musings on Censorship

W.B. Yeats –

BALD heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
They’ll cough in the ink to the world’s end;
Wear out the carpet with their shoes
Earning respect; have no strange friend;
If they have sinned nobody knows.
Lord, what would they say
Should their Catullus walk that way?

W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) wrote this poem decrying the way that scholars in the past, though not so much now, worked to sanitize poetry that they found unsuitable for students. Catullus, the first century BC Roman poet, wrote poetry that would be considered extremely vulgar even by today’s standards. He was not wholly vulgar, many poems of his are actually quite sentimental and chaste – 101 is a good example of this. But he is better known for his affairs with Lesbia (Clodia Mettuli) and his homosexual lover, Juventius.

Truly, one cannot read such poetry censored and still retain the true meaning of the poem. In Yeats’s time, as well as before, side glossed translations of ancient poetry often obscured the more erotic bits by translating them into French or Italian. This is as if to say that if one is so corrupt as to speak Italian, then they are already beyond saving from vulgarity! It is worth noting that the Latin itself was almost always untouched. So, if one was advanced enough not to need translations, they could enjoy the first and final line of Catullus 16:

Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo

Catullus was certainly not one to restrain himself, especially when addressing his critics. As such, he is probably the best purveyor of concentrated eroticism in Latin literature, although Martial occasionally presents a formidable challenge.

Yeats bemoans scholars covering the real poetry with their coughed ink, that is, their redaction. Have they forgotten what it was like when they were fiercely in love? The world is more chaste to old men as they are more chaste. They did not spend so much time pacing on the carpet of their study in their youth, but time has changed their perspective and made the past opaque. They have no ‘strange friend,’ they populate their studies and libraries with like minds and parrot their identical ideals.

This happens now in universities, but the ink they cough represses not poetry but dissenting political opinion. But I digress.


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