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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Hermaphrodite

Antonio Beccadelli

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To purchase The Hermaphrodite

Title: The Hermaphrodite
Author: Antonio Beccadelli
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1426 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 236 pages
Original in: Latin
Availability: The Hermaphrodite - US
The Hermaphrodite - UK
The Hermaphrodite - Canada
Hermaphroditus - Deutschland
  • Latin title: Hermaphroditus
  • Translated, edited, and with an Introduction by Holt Parker
  • Previously translated, including by Michael de Cossart (Antonio Beccadelli and the Hermaphrodite, 1984) and Eugene O'Connor (Hermaphroditus, 2001)
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original Latin text
  • In addition to Hermaphroditus this edition contains supplementary material, including 'Associated Letters and Poems'

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Our Assessment:

B : literary-historical curiosity, usefully presented; rather mediocre poetry

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 6/10/2010 Alastair Blanshard
Classical World . Fall/2012 Regina Höschele
Renaissance Quarterly . Winter/2010 David Marsh

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Hermaphrodite is the type of topsy-turvy virtuoso piece Renaissance humanists loved. This volume of poems juxtaposes clever and elegant Latin with filthy subject matter. It is a shiny, gilded dung-heap. (...) Holt Parker's translation deserves much praise for the way that it combines clarity, accuracy and artistry. Producing this translation was not easy. Beccadelli's Latin is not always terribly clear. Sometimes it is difficult to work out precisely what is being done to whom or who is sticking what into where. Beccadelli's contemporaries could rely on their shared fantasies to guide them through the syntax." - Alastair Blanshard, The Australian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Antonio Beccadelli's The Hermaphrodite is a collection of some eighty-odd epigrams, many of which are extremely lewd; it is divided into two parts -- ostensibly:

I have divided my book into two parts, Cosimo,
     For the Hermaphrodite has the same number of parts.
This was the first part, so what follows is the second.
     This stands for the cock, the next will be cunt.
       But, while explicit in his language (and in Holt Parker's translation), Beccadelli isn't quite so careful and orderly in his collection: it's more of a grab-bag of ball-draining, bottom-wiggling, smelly orifices, and varieties of sexual release in no particular order and ranging from fairly harmless wordplay to some extraordinarily filthy (literally and figuratively) stuff.
       Parker's Introduction begins by noting the book's reputation -- that it was:
so loathsome that it (eventually) set off the French Revolution or worse -- Protestantism.
       But Parker also warns that:
     After all the hyperbole of praise and condemnation, the reader's initial reaction may be disappointment. The truth of the matter is, despite Valla's praise of him (when they were getting along) as the best poet of his age, he was not especially good.
       Indeed, it's a long list of mediocrity Parker notes:
His Latin is at best serviceable [....] Tenses are virtually meaningless; subjunctives are used as meter demands or model provides. [...] There is a certain amount of redundancy and padding. He is also largely tone-deaf.
       Indeed, the poetry rarely truly impresses. There's the occasional clever, or at least apt, neologism -- Ursa's merdivomum ('shit-barfing') hole, for example -- and some decent verses playing on the inappropriate material collected here, including Ad libellum ne discedat ('To His Book, Not to Leave Him'), which closes:
I, verum auctoris rogitet si nomina lector,
     immemorem nostri nominis esse refer.

[Go, but if any reader asks you the name of your author,
     reply that you can't remember my name.]
       And there is undeniable shock value to some of these verses, for sure, from Ursa's ample cunt and big clit to some literally dirty (and invariably smelly) activities. But certainly the sense is that these epigrams are meant more to shock than to please or arouse -- and part of the fun of the collection is Beccadelli's teasing his readers about the worth of his verses, and how they should be taken. So he suggests Ad puellas castas ('To Chaste Girls'):
Vos iterum moneo: castae nolite puellae
       discere lascivos ore canente modos.
Nil mihi vobiscum est: vates celebrate severos.

[Once again I warn you, chaste girls,
       don't learn lascivious verse from my singing mouth.
I have nothing to do with you. Celebrate serious poets.]
       The collection includes a variety of additional material, having to do with the reactions to The Hermaphrodite -- including Beccadelli's own recantation from ca. 1435, in which he asks forgiveness and acknowledges that what he did was wrong:
Immortale mihi sperabam surgere nomen,
     si possem Vestae frangere templa daea.

[I was hoping to raise up an immortal name for myself,
     by seeing if I could smash the temple of the goddess Vesta.]
       Beccadelli does seem to have tried to pass this off as something of a youthful indiscretion; it doesn't seem to have hurt his rather impressive career much, but was obviously always a concern. Among the interesting supporting documents are several which also address the question of the extent to which what an author writes should or can be held against him; Poggio's response to an early defense by Beccadelli is particularly good, the writer noting:
I am not one of those who thinks that they can deduce a man's life from his verses. Not only is it childish, but ridiculous and frivolous, to consider someone's words and speech rather than his way of life. We all play around with words, we use jokes and witty remarks, things that if we were to act out physically, we should quite rightly be regarded as insane.
       That there are also personal quarrels and literary feuds here adds to the fun too: among the best pieces is Porcellio Pandoni's poem on The Hermaphrodite from ca. 1432, which amusingly (if somewhat self-righteously) tries to put Beccadelli in his place with questions such as:
Estne in podicibus gravitas, probitasve decusve ?
       Et femur et colei quid gravitas habent ?

[Is there any dignity in assholes, or decency or seemliness ?
       What dignity have pussy and balls ?]
       The Hermaphrodite isn't a particularly impressive verse-collection, or even great erotica, but there are a few choice nuggets here. Still, it's not first choice, either, for those who want to improve their vulgar Latin: Beccadelli's handling of the language is hardly poetic-expert (either or, in fact), and there's far too much reliance on, for example, femur for (female, surprisingly) genitalia (though its good to know that that was one of the (linguistic) peculiarities of the age); on the other hand, merdivomus is a keeper.
       This edition, part of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, provides good supporting material -- of particular interest, as the story of the reception of the collection (and Beccadelli's backing away from it) proves quite entertaining as well.
       A literary-historical curiosity, The Hermaphrodite is -- especially as presented here -- of some but still rather limited interest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 July 2010

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The Hermaphrodite: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Antonio Beccadelli, also known as 'Panormita', lived 1394 to 1471.

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