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Victor Plarr is most famous for a short poem called 'Epitaphium Citharistriae', which reads as follows:

Stand not uttering sedately
Trite oblivious praise above her!
Rather say you saw her lately
Lightly kissing her last lover.

Whisper not, 'There is a reason
Why we bring her no white blossom':
Since the snowy bloom's in season,
Strow it on her sleeping bosom:

Oh, for it would be a pity
To o'erpraise her or to flout her:
She was wild, and sweet, and witty -
Let's not say dull things about her.

The Latin title intrigues me. My Latin is not very good, but I would translate it as 'Epitaph of a Lyre-Player'. And the style of the poem suggests, at least to my ears, a somewhat free translation from, say, the Greek Anthology. Are my instincts correct? Or is this an original English poem which convincingly half-masquerades as having classical roots? Or is my intuition just wide of the mark on this one?

(Note: I know that Ernest Dowson, a contemporary of Plarr's, also wrote poems with grandiose Latin titles, and these poems are certainly not translations. But Dowson's poems never had the classical aroma that this poem has.)

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Terence

I suspect that Plarr was inspired by a character in the play Phormio by Terence, and that although his poem imitates the style of Classical epigrams, it is not itself a translation. My reasons are as follows:

  1. The corpus of ancient Greek and Latin poetry is small and well studied, so that if ‘Epitaphium Citharistriae’ were a translation of an ancient original it ought to be possible to track it down using modern searchable corpora.

  2. Pseudo-translations, that is, works purporting to be translations, but which are not, are commonplace, as are poems that imitate the style of another writer or genre. For example, Elizabeth Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese are not translations from Portuguese, but original to Browning, the fiction of translation being a device for distancing the writer from the work.

  3. The form citharistria (deriving from Greek κιθαρίστρια) is very rare in Latin. The more common form was citharista (deriving from Greek κιθαριστής), for example, in Cicero’s Divinations 2.133 “Non potueras hoc igitur a principio, citharista, dicere?” (“Couldn't you have said so at first, you cithara-player?”). However, citharistria appears in the play Phormio by Terence, which was adapted from the (now lost) play Epidikazomenos (the Claimant) by Apollodorus of Carystus, from which Terence no doubt inherited the spelling of the word.

In one of the subplots of Phormio, the Athenian citizen Phaedria falls in love with Pamphila, a slave who is studying the cithara:

Geta: Hic Phaedria
Continuo quandam nactus est puellulam
Citharistriam: hanc amare coepit perdite.
Ea serviebat lenoni impurissimo;
Neque quod daretur quicquam: id curarant patres.
Restabat aliud nihil nisi oculos pascere,
Sectari, in ludum ducere, et reducere.

Geta: Phaedria at once picked up a certain damsel, a Music-girl, and fell in love with her to distraction. She belonged to a most abominable Procurer; and their fathers had taken good care that they should have nothing to give him. There remained nothing for him then but to feed his eyes, to follow her about, to escort her to the school,† and to escort her back again.

† It was the custom for the “lenones,” or “procurers,” to send their female slaves to music-schools, in order to learn accomplishments.

P. Terentius Afer (161 BCE). Phormio 1.2.30–36. Translation and footnote by Henry Thomas Riley (1874). Perseus Digital Library.

Terence’s play Adelphoe (the Brothers) has a similar subplot, but in that work the slave is described as a psaltria (lyre-player) and not as a citharistria. The only other appearance of this form of the word that I am aware of is in a poem by Sidonius Apollinaris (Epistulae, book 9, letter 13), but the context is “bimari remittat urbe […] citharistrias Corinthus” (“from the town between two seas let Corinth send her cithara-players”) which does not describe an individual musician and so seems less likely to be the source for Plarr.

Dowson

The other answer notes that Plarr’s friend Ernest Dowson appeared to indicate in a letter that he believed, on first reading the poem, that it was a translation:

A note from Plarr has just come announcing his approaching arrival to “5 oclocque” and enclosing this translation of “Epitaphium Citharistriae”—

Ernest Dowson (2 May 1889). Letter to Arthur Moore. In Desmond Flower & Henry Mas, eds. (1967). The Letters of Ernest Dowson, p. 74. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

This is interesting, but it does not resolve the question, because Dowson does not explain why he thought it was a translation, nor what he thought it was a translation of. In my opinion, either Dowson was fooled by the Latin title, or more likely (since he was fond of Latin titles himself) he was playing along with Plarr’s fiction of translation.

Clarke

The poet Austin Clarke says in his memoir that Plarr’s poem was written about Mabel Beardsley, the sister of the artist Aubrey Beardsley.

During my first weeks in London, I met by chance several writers who had disappeared from public notice at the close of the ’nineties. […] A small dapper man with a cravat and monocle came over to me: ‘Are you the young Yeats redivivus?’ he asked with a smile. Then he added with a slight bow. ‘I am Victor Plarr.’

I was astonished for I had believed that he was long since dead. F. R. Higgins and I had read his short biography of his friend Ernest Dowson, the first of its kind, and we often quoted with mock gravity ‘When a poet dies, I always send a laurel wreath.

We admired his epigrammatic lines about Mabel Beardsley who was more courageous than her brother: Epitaphium Citharistriae […]

Yeats, if I am right, owed something to this poem when he wrote Upon a Dying Lady.

Austin Clarke (1968). A Penny in the Clouds, pp. 172–183. Dublin: Moytura.

If this account were true, it would indicate that ‘Epitaphium Citharistriae’ was not a translation of an ancient work, as such a work could hardly be an epitaph for Mabel Beardsley. However, I do not believe this is true, as ‘Epitaphium Citharistriae’ was written no later than 1889, while Mabel Beardsley lived until 1916. Possibly Clarke had confused Yeats’ 1917 poem, which was genuinely written in memory of Mabel, with Plarr’s, which expressed (Clarke says, but I do not see it myself) a similar spirit.

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There is indeed a Dowson connection here: Dowson, in an 1889 letter to one Arthur Moore, wrote:

A note from Plarr has just come announcing his approaching arrival to "5 oclocque" and enclosing this translation of "Epitaphium Citharistriae"

"Oh, for it would be a pity
To o'er praise her or to flout her,
She was wild & sweet & witty-
Let's not say dull things about her."

Chaste, is it not?

I am not certain what the original was, but it seems clear that it shared the title and was perhaps a bit raunchier than Plarr's version.

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