“Genius,” said Goethe, who could be credited with knowing a thing or two about the subject, “reveals itself under conditions of constraint.” All artists work with constraints of various sorts: what the public demands; what the publisher or gallery will accept and pay for; what current fashion accepts or recognizes as a fit subject for art; the limitations imposed by language, meter, and medium. These kind of constraints are generally considered consonant with great art: that the Odyssey is in dactylic hexameter and is about a hero of the Trojan War means that it fits within its era’s expectations about epic poetry, but that doesn’t make it any less great.
But there are some other constraints artists occasionally work within which are entirely more idiosyncratic, and which generally exclude an artist from being considered great. We still read Homer’s Odyssey, but not the “Lipogrammatic Odyssey” composed by Triphiodorus. In this retelling of the tale, Triphiodorus left out (leipo) one letter (gramma) in each of the Odyssey’s twenty-four books: book 1 never uses the letter alpha (no Athena! No Ithaca! No Telemachus!), book 2 avoids beta (much easier, but no baino, ballo, etc.), and so on until book 24 which omits the letter omega. By some measure the product of this kind of constraint almost has to be more impressive than the original (writing Homeric poetry without epsilons — just think about it); but there is a pretty universal consensus that this is nothing more than a parlor trick and ultimately infra dignitatem. This is not a new judgement. While the text of Homer has been lovingly copied and recopied through the ages and comes down to us, no one bothered to keep Triphiodorus alive. The Lipogrammatic Odyssey has been lost.
There was plenty of such “constrained writing” in antiquity — especially coming from those clever Greeks — but I don’t think there are any examples in Latin that are likely to stir readers quite as much as the Pugna Porcorum, a Renaissance Latin exemplar of the constrained writing school. This poem, written in 1530 by John Leo Placentius, is a tautogram, meaning that every initial letter (gramma) is the same (t’auton). It’s alliteration gone mad. In this case, it’s three-hundred-odd lines of Latin dactylic hexameter with every word beginning with the letter P.
Presumably we know what a writer would get out of applying such constraints on himself: he gets to show off. But what is the reader’s experience like? Is there any benefit to spending one’s time on such outrageous stuff as an endlessly alliterating 16th century poem about pigs? The Pugna Porcorum isn’t very long, so it’s not that big of a commitment. So I sat myself down one evening and read it through, to see what I could learn.
The first thing to note is that there really is an aesthetic value in these kind of literary constraints. Almost every line offers the pleasure of ingenuity. Placentius can’t use the basic Latin words for “street” you might know (via, clivus, callis, cardo, decumanus) because none begin with P — so he uses platea, a “square” or — how about that — a “wide street” (I didn’t know it, but it’s in Lewis and Short). And plateatim is a favorite of his, and a favorite of mine too. It conjures up the city topography perfectly: Praecipuos porcos pertraxerunt plateatim — “they dragged the head pigs through the streets.” And there is the aesthetic pleasure of seeing subject matter perfectly suited to the predetermined constraints: pigs (porci) fight (pugnant) with piglets (porcelli) over money (pecunia), privileges (privilegia), spoils (praeda), and rewards (praemia), though some have other motives like country (patria) and fame (phama). This is one of the few topics that a tautogrammatic P-poem in Latin really can do justice to. As phama indicates, there are some technical violations of the P-rule in order to bring in some F-words: fama and fanum. But they actually add to the silliness, and are a net positive. Indeed, reading the poem really is an aesthetic experience. It’s not for nothing that all kinds of avant-garde 20th century writers — notably the Oulipo school of France — embraced unusual writing constraints.
The second thing to note is: the Pugna Porcorum is hard. Latin dactylic hexameter is hard enough, but the language endures wild distortions in order to have every single word begin with the letter P. Try wading through this, the first speech in the poem, which, as a speech, is of course in indirect discourse:
Proconsul pastus pomorum pulte perorat
‘Proelia pro pecude prava prodesse; proinde,
Protervire parum patres persaepe probasse;
Porcorum populo pacem pridem placuisse
Perpetuam; pacis promi praeconia passim.’
Some background: this is a speech coming from an old leader, trying to avoid war. It’s a querula pacis, to use the term in current usage at the time. Now I’ve got my guesses as to what the passage means, but I took my time in coming to my conclusions, and I’ll say they’re not all the same as Fontaine’s, to judge from his translation:
As he munches his apple peels, the governor is pleading with them:
WARS WAGED AGAINST AN EVIL BRUTE ARE JUST AND GOOD; AND SO IT WAS THAT OUR FATHERS ELECTED TO STOP MISBEHAVIOR ON NUMEROUS OCCASIONS. FOR A LONG TIME, WE HOGS HAVE ENJOYED PEACE WITHOUT INTERRUPTION, THE EVIDENCE OF THAT PEACE IS ALL AROUND US.
I’d take that first statement to be sarcastic — “wars are good” (proelia prodesse) — with a twist identifying the sort of animal for whom wars are good: “for a wicked beast” (pro pecude prava). Fontaine appears to be taking it in a different way — something like “wars are good in proportion to the wickedness of the enemy” or “wars in front of [hence “against”] a wicked enemy are good.” But regardless, the truth is that time and again in this poem, you need to stop and read and then read again. It actually returned me to my first experiences with Latin: it was like I was a novice again, and had to translate every word and then try to piece things together. And there are some rather obscure words (proventus are supplies or stores of something; a pedum is a stick; prunae aren’t prunes but burning hot coals). And you’ll have to look up all those multifarious meanings of praestare again.
I think there’s real value in having a difficult text to slow you down — it’s a different kind of reading experience, the sort I associate with ancient languages (and Dante). I actually got a similar feeling of singleminded concentration when my children recently took out a puzzle that was too challenging for them and called me in to help. And so it’s no surprise that the title page boasts that the text was “puzzled out” by Michael Fontaine. Reading this text makes you feel like you’re doing a puzzle. Now I hadn’t done a puzzle in decades before my kids called me over that night, and I didn’t really miss puzzles, but there really aren’t many Latin texts like the Pugna, so I don’t feel I was wasting my time reading it. Indeed I feel I got some of the brain-vacation effects that a crossword might offer, but my Latin improved in the meanwhile and I learned about another time period.
The Pugna actually is interesting as a witness to another age. It enjoyed far more popularity during the Reformation than one might imagine, going through multiple editions (Fontaine lists twenty-two but notes that there are more) and ruffling quite a few feathers. The battles over privilegia do seem to be plausibly about the clergy defending their benefices against the upstart Protestants; and then there is a philomusus who is also described as a parochus (“parish priest”) and assailed as pseudoevangelicus (“false-Gospel-man”), whose plea for peace — and subsequent public burning — is the most moving (and altogether too depressingly human) part of the poem. The Latin here is also particularly good:
Protestabantur: ‘Poenis plectendum, poste patente;
Ponendum prope prunas, particulisque perustis
Profundo puteo profunde praecipitandum.’
They kept protesting that HE MUST BE PUNISHED ON A PUBLIC WHIPPING POST; HE SHOULD BE PLACED ON BURNING COALS, AND WHEN HIS BITS HAVE BURNED UP HE SHOULD BE THROWN HEADFIRST DEEP DOWN A DEEP WELL. (188–90)
The story of this pig’s burning reminds me of the story of Jerome of Prague (whose heresy trial and final burning is so movingly recounted by Poggio Bracciolini), but it could also refer to Wyclif or Hus; and the “pseudoevangelical” priest querulously calling for peace sounds a whole lot like Erasmus. In other words, there are strong echoes of some of the primary events of the Reformation. One way or another it doesn’t inspire confidence in the power of learning when it has to face down the beastly desire for blood and conflict.
And indeed, because it is a story of peace confronting war, and the oppressed becoming oppressors, and the suffering of the good, I found the story of the Pugna to be satisfying; there is real pathos here, despite the somewhat absurd constraints of the poem. Lingering over the text and reading slowly, as one must to understand it, only makes the pathos stronger. As also, in some strange way, do the absurd elements of the poem: you literally wade through an alliterative poem about pigs — what could be sillier? — to find buried at its heart a kind of lament for man’s inhumanity, echoing across the ages. It’s like putting together a children’s puzzle to find yourself staring at a dying John F. Kennedy or Iphigenia on the altar before her father. It is actually more affecting because of the incongruity between inner and outer form. I can completely understand why it affected its contemporaries so much, and how it managed to capture the attentions of moderns enough to get reprinted. And now that it has been reprinted, it has begun to find intelligent appreciators. Steven Pinker called it “ingeniously constructed” and “eternally insightful about the human condition.” Alessandro Schiesaro called it a “brilliant instance of political satire and poetic inventiveness.” The Pugna Porcorum is one of the few works of the constrained writing school — and perhaps the only tautogram — which can lay some claim not only to ingenuity, but perhaps to real genius. It should be much more widely read, and now we have the opportunity to do so. As Pinker himself observed about the publication of this poem, “Among the delights of humanistic scholarship is stumbling on an obscure literary treasure.” The Pugna Porcorum really is all three: obscure, literary, and a treasure.
A few notes about the edition. The illustrations are really beautifully done by David Beck; my only complaint is that there are not more of them. I have read the book with my children (all under five), and they wanted more pictures. But the ones we have are fabulous. Fontaine’s scholarly concluding essay is a star effort (a version of it is online here) and really makes one appreciate the poem more. His information at the end about the various editions of the poem is invaluable for establishing its textual history. Because the text is so difficult, Fontaine’s translation really aims very simply at conveying the meaning of the poem. In order to do this, he varies between slavishly literal and really quite free, but always with the intention of making the meaning clear. This is absolutely necessary, because there are innumerable places where the meaning really is not clear, and a simple translation is most welcome. It does open the door, however, for a wittier translation. There are almost infinite opportunities for alliteration, for instance, which Fontaine seems to avoid, really, despite what must have been severe temptations. When he translates “Porcorum populo pacem pridem placuisse perpetuam,” as “for a long time we hogs have enjoyed peace without interruption,” I found myself daydreaming “perpetual peace previously pleased the porcine people,” which does capture some of the absurdity — and, importantly, humor — of the original. Fontaine has chosen to eschew this — which I understand — but it leaves the door open for the person who will really try to bring the wit and absurdity out.
John Byron Kuhner is former president of the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies (SALVI) and editor of In Medias Res.