“Brought to Heel by Pen Alone”: Beza’s Poem for St. Martin’s Day

St. Philip’s Day was two days ago, and I posted a translation of Theodore Beza’s poem in honor of Melanchthon.

Today, St. Martin’s Day, I give you another–a poem by Beza on Martin Luther. (It is worth noting in passing that Beza was one of the most accomplished Neo-Latin poets of his day. You can see this in the epigrammatic dexterity of the poem below.)

This poem, in elegiac couplets, turns on the truism about the pen being mightier than the sword. Beza’s closing comparison of Luther to Hercules is almost certainly inspired by other contemporary comparisons of the same kind–see Hans Holbein the Younger’s image of “Luther as Hercules Germanicus” attached to this post. As I noted here, Melanchthon did not like the comparison. But Beza takes turns it to his profit, using it to highlight the power of the word and the Word over physical force and violence. As Luther famously said in one of his Invocavit sermons,

[T]he Word created heaven and earth and all things; the Word must do this thing, and not we poor sinners. In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. 

For the English translation, I have used iambic pentameters (i.e., blank verse)–quite appropriate for the subject, it seems to me, for blank verse is the heroic measure.

First, the Latin:

Roma orbem domuit, Romam sibi Papa subegit,

    Viribus illa suis, fraudibus iste suis.

Quanto isto maior Luterus maior, et illa,

    Istum illamque uno qui domuit calamo?

I nunc, Alcidem memorato Graecia mendax,

    Luteri ad calamum ferrea clava nihil.

And my translation:

Rome tamed the world, the pope in turn tamed Rome,

The one by force, the other by deceit.

How much does Luther far outmatch them both,

Who brought them both to heel by pen alone?

Go on, let lying Greece flaunt Hercules;

His club is limp compared to Luther’s pen.


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