Incense and patchouli

Here is Nisbet & Hubbard on an unusual, arresting word used by Horace at Odes 2.7.8, malobathro. It’s a fascinating word in itself, as N&H explain, a borrowing from Sanskrit interestingly distorted in the process of transfer. It reminds me a bit of how we got “orange” from “naranj”.

The clever explanation of the Greek loss of ta-, as N&H say, comes from Eduard Schwyzer; meanwhile Bertold Laufer suggests that the source of μαλάβαθρον was what we call patchouli leaves, which Henry Yule in Hobson-Jobson records as being “sold in every bazar in Hindustan,” and “used as an ingredient in tobacco for smoking, as hair-scent by women, and especially for stuffing mattresses and laying among clothes as we use lavender.”

“In a fluid form,” Yule continues, “patchouli was introduced into England in 1844, and soon became very fashionable as a perfume,” especially popular on the hippie scene in the 1960s and ’70s. In Horace’s poem the malobathrum, not so differently, is a fragrant oil worn in the hair at symposia or drinking parties, and it features in Horace’s reminiscence of a scene from his younger, wilder days. In the tiny poetic forms of his lyric verse Horace selects his words very carefully indeed, and while thinking about this poem for a Natalie Haynes programme recorded last week I got to wondering what he saw in this peculiar word.

Let’s start with Odes 2.7.

The poem welcomes an old friend and comrade back to Rome after a long absence. Many years before, Horace and Pompeius had shared the experience of fighting for Marcus Brutus against the forces of Mark Antony and the future Augustus, the assassins of Julius Caesar against his heirs. After the crushing defeat of the “tyrannicides” at Philippi in 42 BC, Horace had made his peace with the victors and returned to Rome, before long finding a patron in Augustus’ right-hand man Maecenas, and enjoying the literary celebrity that followed. But Pompeius, so this poem tells us, had continued the fight against Augustus, perhaps with Sextus Pompey (to whom he may have been related) until his final defeat in 36 BC, and subsequently with Antony when he and Augustus came to conflict.

Now, finally, in middle age, Pompeius is back home, and Horace throws a party for him, or perhaps give him a party in poetic form in lieu thereof. The general scenario has parallels elsewhere in the Odes: in 3.14, for example, Horace contrasts his peaceable state of mind in a Rome ruled by Augustus with his youthful bravado at Philippi; while in 1.7, addressed to L. Munatius Plancus, founder of the city of Lyons, Horace again seems to contrast the violence of the Civil Wars with the peace and friendship represented by a drinking party. The lyric poetry that Horace is writing spends a lot of time in the symposium, but Horace lends the act of drinking with friends a greater significance: his poetic symposium, a place where Pompeius, Plancus and we the readers come together as friends, is a space where Romans can forget about their differences and rediscover what they have in common. The oblivion brought by consumption of alcohol becomes a metaphor for Rome’s rejection of past conflict. Friendship, restored after the moral chaos of civil conflict is important throughout Horace’s poetry. Here in 2.7 the last word is amico: a friendship has been restored out of the turmoil of Roman fighting Roman.

Malobathrum, patchouli, is what I’m really concerned with, though. Here’s the whole poem, with David West’s translation slightly adapted, the malobathrum at l. 8:

O saepe mecum tempus in ultimum
deducte Bruto militiae duce,
quis te redonauit Quiritem
dis patriis Italoque caelo,

Pompei, meorum prime sodalium,               5
cum quo morantem saepe diem mero
fregi, coronatus nitentis
malobathro Syrio capillos?

tecum Philippos et celerem fugam
sensi relicta non bene parmula,                    10
cum fracta uirtus et minaces
turpe solum tetigere mento;

sed me per hostis Mercurius celer
denso pauentem sustulit aere,
te rursus in bellum resorbens                    15
unda fretis tulit aestuosis.

ergo obligatam redde Ioui dapem
longaque fessum militia latus
depone sub lauru mea, nec
parce cadis tibi destinatis.                          20

obliuioso leuia Massico
ciboria exple, funde capacibus
unguenta de conchis. quis udo
deproperare apio coronas

curatue myrto? quem Venus arbitrum         25
dicet bibendi? non ego sanius
bacchabor Edonis: recepto
dulce mihi furere est amico.

You and I have often been led to the edge
of doom with Brutus in command,
and now who has made you a Roman again
and restored to your ancestral gods and Italian sky,

O Pompeius, first of my friends, with whom
I so often broke into the lagging day with neat wine,
head garlanded and hair sleek
with Syrian malobathrum?

With you I knew Philippi and speedy flight,
leaving my little shield behind, shame to say,
when virtue snapped and the chins
of blusterers touched the base earth.

I panicked, but swift Mercury carried me off
in a dense mist through the enemy ranks,
while a wave sucked you back into war
and swept you along in a boiling sea.

So pay to Jupiter the feast that was vowed,
lay down your body weary with campaigning
here under my laurel tree, and have no mercy
on the casks of wine I have reserved for you.

Fill up the polished Egyptian cups with Massic
for forgetfulness and pour fragrant oils from full shells.
Whose business is it to run
for garlands of moist celery

and myrtle? Whom will Venus choose as master
of the wine? l shall run wild as any Edonian
at her Bacchic orgies. My friend is back.
What joy to go mad!

In the second stanza, with a few deft strokes, Horace sketches that youthful existence he led with Pompeius in Brutus’ camp, the informality of sodales, “mates”, the drinking initiated far too early in the day, garlands, Horace’s hair still full and sleek (at Epistles 1.20.23 a couple of years later, as West notes, Horace is praecanus, prematurely grey), and the indulgence of malobathrum. I think this exotic word, and the substance it denotes (“Syrian”, as Nisbet & Hubbard remark, could imply a source much further east), suggests in its own right not just a place apart, far from the “Italian sky”, but also a distant, irrecoverable time. Smells are notoriously evocative: for research purposes I have been sniffing patchouli oil, and it’s a scent that stays with you. I don’t know if the name of a scent can share any of that evocative power, but I do think that Horace, on the tiny canvases he allows himself in his lyric poetry, gets as close as any poet to making words do for us what a scent can.

Here one exotic vocabulary item, as exotic to read as to smell, vividly evokes… what? Long-distant youthful abandon, it seems to me, time out of mind.

 

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

5 responses to “Incense and patchouli”

  1. The Shaved Poet says :

    Another wonderful article. I hope you don’t mind me commenting all the time (I feel like a blood-sucking leech). But ah Horace, the greatest Latin poet, maybe because, like a Greek, he is full of innovation/variety. Reserving the right to be arrogant, I can’t wholly agree with your conclusion. I ask myself “What would Horace’s etymology look like?”. I think he would see a Latin adjective (malum/evil) and a Greek noun (Bathron / threshold), the association underscored by a similar Latin declension for both (ending o). So malabathro connotes a bad beginning or precipice, characteristic of a misspent youth and a drunken riot, which also characterise the beginning and end of the poem. The poet is playfully reliving his naughty and dangerous youth, and yes, it comes with a fond, Romantic glow. In conclusion, the tone of the word is ambivalent, and that pretty much fits the poem, Alcaic stanzas with a cobra-like swing and sway, poised for a strike. The ambivalence is highlighted by the metrical equivalents of malobathro: dis patriis, turpe solum, unda fretis, parce cadis, deproperar(e), dulce mihi. It’s a wonderful poem.

    • The Shaved Poet says :

      I should add, malabathron in Greek has a short initial a, same as Latin malum, yet the Latin malobathrum has a long initial a, so if I’m right, Horace both obeys and disobeys the alcaic meter at the start or threshold/foundation/edge of the line i.e. it enacts a bad bathron. Far fetched? Maybe Horace and his friends had a private joke about malobathrum – it was a bad move whenever they smeared that eastern stuff on their Roman heads, because the associated drinking led to a wild night.

  2. The Shaved Poet says :

    Oh Blush.

    If it was a joke between Horace and his elitist chums, it probably went along the lines “malabathron malum bathron”, and of course the idea of something you rest your feet on being put in your hair is picked up in the next stanza, where the face ends in the dirt (turpe solum). All mere speculation of course but it fits what we know about Horace.

  3. The Shaved Poet says :

    Just a few more words to establish the likelihood of a deliberate effect.

    I count 36 Alcaic odes, amounting to 300 stanzas. In thirteen of those stanzas, there are 13 instances where a noun and its adjective occupy the same metrical position as malobathro, and there are just two other odes where it happens twice:
    3.3 – Roma ferox, omne sacrum
    3.4 – fronde nova, omne nefas
    These are big ‘prophetic’ poems. In the first of these, the two stanzas are separated only by one other stanza, so it is a rare phenomenon in 2.7 where we have dis patriis and turpe solum separated only by malobathro (which looks uncannily like another noun and its adjective). I note also that turpe solum is almost the same meaning as malo bathro.

    So, in summary, a deliberate effect is more likely than not.

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