Richmond Lattimore Essay - Critical Essays

Lattimore, Richmond

Lattimore, Richmond 1906–

Lattimore is an American poet, translator, and essayist. He is generally regarded as a reliable and scholarly critic and translator of ancient Greek literature. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Lattimore is a lively and skillful stylist, intellectually subtle, sensitive to forms and words, and he has the eye of a good photographer. Hopkins says that while "poetry proper" is "the language of inspiration"—by which he means "a mood of great, abnormal in fact, mental acuteness, either energetic or receptive"—literary poetry, which he calls Parnassian, "is written on and from the level of a poet's mind." That may be the most important distinction between the two, and it is precisely the distinction that Lattimore makes. Lattimore is an Alexandrian poet. And in fact the peculiar configuration of our time has created, along with movements for national separation, an international literary culture that is very much like the culture of the Alexandrians: sophisticated, self-conscious, open-minded, skeptical, ironic, multilingual, and Parnassian. Its most characteristic form is the verse essay, which Lattimore is a master of: an exercise in pure style, the delight of making an artifact of words; and in interpretive wit, the play of thought over the development of an image….

Lattimore belongs to an older generation of poet-essayists; his work has the formal tautness and artistic conscience of the first post-war generation, and his collected Poems from Three Decades should establish him as one of the best poets of that generation.

Richard Pevear, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 198-99.

A great deal of Richmond Lattimore's best poetry is in his translations of Homer and Aeschylus, which is to say that he is one of the rare translators who bring all their resources to bear on projects which too many writers regard as secondary to their own work. However, Lattimore's own poems deserve more attention than they have had; some of his best work is in them, too…. They reveal a broad openness to all kinds of experience, and an enormous technical versatility, as well as the sense of an authentic human voice which all good poems must deliver.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring, 1973), p. lxi.

Lattimore believes in wisdom and the humanities and love and most of all, poetry: "Weltschmerz today can be no private thing," he asserts in an early poem, and one wants to thank him for being so good a man as to democratize his perceptions. But Lattimore is also unwilling to speak in a voice more distinctly his own … and let us enjoy tracing the undulations of an enlightened mind and heart on display….

So all too often he offers only his humane, public, democratic melancholy and, as a result, a poetry of statement—or, more often, comment….

If Lattimore finds himself in the same abyss as other poets, he falters by deciding that singing would be beside the point. And so one cannot point to anything wrong, certainly never to anything bad, in his poetry; but something is definitely missing, or at least missing in the new poems here [Poems from Three Decades]….

Lattimore wants neither to condemn nor to celebrate, but to tame. He has the proper respect for our inscrutable savagery and our exhilarating inner demons, but he distrusts or ignores what he cannot ultimately domesticate. That this taming process is no glib academic evasion, but a necessary act of hardening and surviving for Lattimore, is best expressed in the early poem "Invictus," which, in a survey of his career, stands out so outrageously as the most intensely realized of all his poems that one wonders why it is not famous on its own. In this vision, and a few other early lyrics, perhaps Lattimore has earned the right to be as dry as he has been in recent year …

Lattimore ultimately faces a world without spiritual guidance, a world so hard for poets to bear that they may be tempted to ignite those destructive inner fires which he distrusts; so he urges us to bear anyway, with faith in something else, something inward, something he would rather not fully define, except that it is "a thing in itself, positive, peremptory,/not in the shadow of a borrowed grace, not to be endured for the sake of something else."

Robert Weisberg, in Parnassus, Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 165-67.

Lattimore knows what Stevens and Jeffers knew about the essential darkness of our existences, and in Poems from Three Decades this radical reality occasionally surfaces…. His classical studies seem to have given him an especially poignant sense of both the losses and possibilities of time. I feel him growing older as the poems accumulate over the years…. If Lattimore's diction is sometimes cloying, it usually seems peculiarly fitting to his quickened apprehension of the beauty and blunder of the past. He is an archeological poet and sometimes despairs, as he does in Sestina of Sandbars and Shelters, that "our chance is gone". But in Pierre Ronsard and his Rose, Lattimore talks of his own love: "I know some flowers that never fade / until, as flowers must do, they die." This is a vision the poet had to win through to. It came hard and had to take a long time. Poems from Three Decades is a work of integrity and intelligence that ranges far in its search for something that can be viewed as real and which will suffice.

William Heyen, in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1973, pp. 237-38.