A New Yorker’s Roman War against Germany
In New York in 1917, at the height of World War One, a man named Joseph Gazzam sat down to write a Latin diatribe against the Krauts. Gazzam’s Carmina More Antiquorum ad Varios Viros Hodiernos (“Songs in the style of the ancients, to various men of the present day”) featured verses in the meters of Catullus and Horace, but in lieu of extolling the graces of Lesbia and the accomplishments of Augustus, his short poems decry treasonous American Senators and a tyrannical Kaiser Wilhelm.
Gazzam knows his poetry will offend. He offers “humble apologies” for any linguistic blunders to the “shades of the Latin poets,” but he immediately adds that “no apology whatsoever is offered to any living soul for the sentiments therein expressed.” His verses more than justify this thorough disclaimer. The second poem in the collection, for example, entitled Carmen Secretum Pacificantium (“The Secret Song of the Pacifists”), begins with a stanza that vilifies American pacifists who surreptitiously praise Wilhelm during the war:
Germanis sumus in fide,
Wilhelme, dux carissime,
Clanculum te canamus!
(“We are faithful to the Germans, we sham [painted] pacifists; O, William, our dearest chief, we secretly sing [to] thee!”)
Gazzam writes that his verses here are modeled after the thirty-fourth poem of Catullus, whose literature generally deals with lighter topics like his girlfriend Lesbia and the revels of his fellow poets. In the original Poem 34, for example, Catullus writes an innocuous hymn to the Roman goddess Diana:
Dianae sumus in fide
Puellae et pueri integri:
Dianam pueri integri
(“We are faithful to Diana, we chaste girls and boys; Let us sing to Diana, we chaste boys and girls.”)
And Gazzam’s learned poetry indeed maintains many qualities of Catullus’ original. He impressively preserves Catullus’ difficult meter, and he keeps the position of the poem’s leader (Wilhelme for Dianam) in the third line. But like Actaeon, whom Diana mercilessly turns into a defenseless deer, the sense of the original verses has become almost unrecognizable. Catullus’ pious incantation to the goddess of the hunt morphs into a covert satanic ritual:
O, diaboli maximi
Magna progenies Orci,
Laudes nostras exaudi!
Amorem patriae sumimus
Coram civibus hic nostris;
Sed tu, domine, recte scis;
Tibi sumus fideles!
(“O, great son of Orcus, the greatest devil, hear our praises, (we singing secretly!) We pretend patriotism before our fellow-citizens, but thou, O, Master, well knowest: we are faithful to thee.”)
Gazzam’s poetry, despite its contemporary relevance, also seems to imitate the occasional inscrutability of ancient literature. Three poems in the middle of the collection, all imitations of Horace, employ an extended metaphor of geopolitical intrigue. The “Prince of the Serpents” colludes with the “Emperor of the Vampires” in an attempt to seize control of the former’s state. But it is unclear whether the serpents are dilatory Italians or satanic American pacifists.
One thing in these poems is clear, however, and that is Gazzam’s hatred of Germans. The final part of this cryptic triptych concludes with the entrance of “The Eavesdropper,” perhaps Gazzam inserted into his own work. He decries the duplicitous snake who has just boasted of his camouflage, and he ends the poem with an insult against his Teutonic foes:
Your ‘camouflage’ is ‘punk’;
you simulate like the ostrich.
Or like a German diplomat!
The rest of the poems in the collection have overt political themes (Ad Quosdam Senatores Infidos, Ad Quendam Magnum Imperatorem, Ad Caput Magnae Ecclesiae; “To certain disloyal senators,” “To a certain great Emperor,” “To the Head of a Great Church”) that call for hawkish American foreign policy. One poem, however, exudes a vitriolic attitude toward Germans outside the sphere of politics. This poem, Ad Professores Germanos (“To the German Professors”), calls itself “a hymn in praise of German efficiency.” After this ironic label, we find a poem smacking more of schoolboy shenanigans than of wartime hatred:
O Germani professores,
Pueros nos, tunc volentes,
Potuistis non docere
Sed, inepti professores,
Iam adultos, nos nolentes,
Bene quitis nos docere
Quod docere vos nonvultis.
Nam, O stulti professores,
Hae res bene nos docetis:
Omnia quae sunt Germana
Nobis sunt adominanda!
(“O, German Professors, while we were boys, then willing [to learn] you were unable to teach the lessons then expounded [to us]. But, inept professors, now that we are adults, and reluctant [to learn what you now teach us] you are able to teach us that which you do not wish to teach. For, O, stupid professors, this thing you teach us well: That all things that are German are to be [made] abhorrent to us!”)
These three rhyming stanzas are an ascending tricolon of insult: the “German Professors” become not just “inept” but outright “stupid.” Classical poetic forms, however, do not employ a rhyme scheme (although end rhyme becomes popular in medieval Latin verse), and this poem eschews the imitation of Horace and Catullus that Gazzam employs elsewhere. Here he appears to be less interested in showcasing his learnedness and more interested in crafting a snarkier take on Gaudeamus Igitur. And remember: Gazzam ain’t apologizing to nobody.
(It is worth noting here that the title page of the volume announces that it is “recommended to schools and colleges as more timely than any of the fossilized stuff heretofore in use.”)
But more generally, the collection exudes a kind of jingoism that we do not expect to find in modern American poetry. In fact, the belligerence found in Gazzam’s poetry is more what we would expect in the lines of the most patriotic verses of Horace (Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, for example). Gazzam’s poetry, however clever its imitation and modern its subject, is still just a little too Roman.