Monday, December 27, 2010

Anni Fragiles

The last month has seen me very busy with family and work matters in the frantic lead-up to Christmas, so apologies for the lack of recent posts. In fact, it is the work of a fellow blogger, the endlessly engaging Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti, which has sparked me back into life.

Recently, Dr. Gilleland posted a set of excerpts from Ovid's Tristia, one of the two works the poet wrote during his grim exile at Tomis on the Black Sea (for the record, the Epistulae Ex Ponto is the other). Although the heavy air of self-pity which pervades the Tristia makes it, in my opinion, a little less appealing than Ovid's other work, there are still plenty of opportunities for him to display his usual masterly touch. One passage which Dr. Gilleland quoted was one I hadn't read before, but very much enjoyed. As a statement of the desires of the middle-aged for their dotage, it is beautifully universal:

iam subeunt anni fragiles et inertior aetas,
iamque parum firmo me mihi ferre grave est.
nunc erat, ut posito deberem fine laborum
vivere cor nullo sollicitante metu,
quaeque meae semper placuerunt otia menti
carpere et in studiis molliter esse meis,
et parvam celebrare domum veteresque Penates
et quae nunc domino rura paterna carent,
inque sinu dominae carisque sodalibus inque
securus patria consenuisse mea.

(Ovid, Tristia 4.8.3-12)

"Now the fragile years and that ever more sluggish time of life are creeping up on me, and now it is an ordeal for me to carry myself, in my all too feeble state. Now was the time when I ought to be living with no fear assailing my heart, with my troubles at a fixed end. And now was the time to devour that leisure which always delighted my soul, and to get comfortable in my pursuits, and to hang around a small house and the old household spirits and my father's lands, which now miss their master. And it was the time to grow old without worries, in my lady's embrace, amongst my dear friends, and in my own country."

As always, Ovid proves a master at deft word choice and subtle semantic tricks:

Line 3: the word "subeunt" has overtones of secrecy and even malice, as if the spectre of old age were sneaking up behind the poet unseen. And the verb's twin subjects are two nicely-chosen adjective-noun phrases: the "anni" - as always, a metonym for life-span or even a time of life, but hold that thought for a moment - are "fragiles". I've tried to think of a better English translation than the straight derivation (my students will know how much I abhor such a cop-out), but I'm afraid "fragile" will have to do, as no other word captures the sense of the Latin so well. And although the basic idea is that Ovid is fragile, the imagery of "fragile years" is striking. Perhaps the additional message is "I could go at any time" (with apologies to Neil Finn - what a beautiful, haunting song that is. Ovid would have loved it.) And then, of course, the comparative "inertior" applied to the predictable "aetas". Why the comparative? iners venit aetas would have been a metrically acceptable and perfectly reasonable end to the line (venit being present tense, of course, with a short initial syllable). I tend to think that the idea is: every day I feel a little bit more feeble, more sluggish.
4: the understated "parum firmo" is followed by the clever juxtaposition of "me mihi ferre" - an action which should be automatic has become a chore. And the choice of "grave" at the end is quite intentional: he is feeling that his very own body has become too heavy.
5: another careful choice: "laborum" is used rather than dolorum or some other such word for suffering, I think because the extra idea of an end of work is obviously suitable for a man of advanced age.
7-8: Ovid, like no-one else, knew the value of "otia" and how to celebrate it. The verb "carpere" here is highly reminiscent, of course, of Horace's carpe diem, but this is a slightly different sentiment: once one has all the time in the world, that above all is the time (pardon the pun) to make the most of it. The simple, unpretentious "molliter esse" is telling: his desires are only to feel comfortable in what he is doing, almost as if resting on a favourite cushion (mollis, of course, can mean "soft" in a purely physical sense).
9: again, we are drawn to a slightly unusual word choice, in this case "celebrare". And again, there are metrically possible alternatives in, for instance, habitare or gaudere (in the latter case, the object would change to "parva...domo", but the metre would be unaffected). But the imagery inherent in celebrare is irresistible: he flits about the house almost like a visitor, enjoying each old nook of the house anew.
10: the word "nunc" briefly jolts us back into the present (rather than the "possible present" represented by most of the passage), just to remind us that all this is merely a fond, and now unfulfillable, wish.
11: yet another deft choice in "sinu". Although the word can, of course, mean "embrace" (although complexus or amplexus are rather more common), there is the extra connotation of a fold, even a pocket: something where things are kept for safety, away from the ravages of the world. The implication is clear.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2011 to all.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Frigida Inguina

In a recent post I made brief mention of my father, whose lifelong passion has been sailing, and offshore racing in particular. Like most devoted yachties, he often affects an airy disregard for the vagaries of the weather, believing that even the most doom-laden sky presages nothing worse than a "passing shower". Not surprisingly, I was reminded forcibly of him when reading the following passage, from Juvenal's fourteenth satire.

Like most of Juvenal's satires, the fourteenth has a putative theme, namely the bad example that some parents set for their children. As always, however, he is inclined to ramble; the excerpt below occurs during a long digression on the topic of avarice, and at this point he is imagining a merchant undertaking a risky but potentially hugely profitable sea-journey. A disaster is looming, and Juvenal tells the hypothetical story with grim relish:

occurrunt nubes et fulgura: 'solvite funem!'
frumenti dominus clamat piperisve coempti,
'nil color hic caeli, nil fascia nigra minatur;
aestivum tonat.' infelix hac forsitan ipsa
nocte cadet fractis trabibus fluctuque premetur
obrutus et zonam laeva morsuque tenebit.
sed cuius votis modo non suffecerat aurum
quod Tagus et rutila volvit Pactolus harena,
frigida sufficient velantes inguina panni
exiguusque cibus, mersa rate naufragus assem
dum rogat et picta se tempestate tuetur.

"Clouds and thunder appear: 'Let out the sails!' cries the owner of the corn and pepper acquired. 'This dark sky means nothing, this black covering of cloud isn't threatening anything; it's just a summer storm!'. And perhaps the wretch will fall from his wrecked ship this very night; he'll be buried by the waves and pushed under, and he'll be desperately hanging on to his money-belt with his left hand, or maybe his teeth. But for this fellow, who just now wasn't content with all the gold swirling in the Tagus or the red sand of Pactolus, some rags to cover his freezing balls and some scraps of food will have to do. Meanwhile, he asks for a coin, this drowned rat from a sunken ship, and supports himself with a drawing of a storm."

(Juvenal, Satire XIV, 292-302)

Ah, the perils of the sea...

Line 292: the blithely confident "solvite funem!", placed in the last two feet of the hexameter to make a bucolic diaeresis, makes a mordantly effective beginning to the story, especially given what has come before, with the menacing "u" sounds filling up the first four feet.
294-5: the assertive anaphora of "nil" adds to the already clear depiction of the merchant's swashbuckling confidence: nothing will prevent me from making my fortune! "aestivum", emphatically placed at the beginning of line 295, is a timeless rationalisation of the danger; I can almost hear my father saying "it's OK, it's just a passing shower!" as my brother and I cowered below deck. The word "infelix", coming immediately after the merchant's cries, marks a sudden and effective change of mood, as well as a jump forward in time: the worst has clearly happened.
296-7: the harsh "a" sounds at the beginning of the line give a sense of the panic of the shipwreck, while the end of line 297 gives a nice insight into the merchant's character; he is not concerned for his comrades, he is threatened with imminent death himself, but holds on to his precious money-belt with his one free hand (the other, presumably, grasping a spar), and even tries to bite it ("morsu") to hold on if necessary! The theme of avarice is now at the forefront of the narrative.
298: "aurum" is left until the end of the line for emphasis, and the well-chosen word "votis" refers not only to the merchant's wishes, but perhaps also his dearest prayers for wealth.
300: a very clever line. The initial words "frigida sufficient" might suggest that the eventual sense will be "cold _____ will be enough", with a word referring to food or lodgings filling the syntactical gap. But wait: "frigida" ends up agreeing with the object of the sentence, and it is the unexpectedly intimate "inguina". Here, anyone who has been "dumped" during a day out on the water, especially during the winter, will grin ruefully: one never feels the cold more acutely than in one's, erm, private areas. The "panni", along with the emphatically-placed "exiguus(que)" at the beginning of the next line, demonstrate his swift riches-to-rags conversion nicely.
302: a well-considered ending to the tale. That the merchant has to "tuetur" himself with a drawing ("picta") of the shipwreck suggests that he is in a foreign land, unable to make himself understood except by a crude illustration of his fate. Finally, the repeated "t" sounds at the end of the line suggest that inevitable companion of an archetypal "drowned rat" - perpetually chattering teeth!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sparsa Miracula, Part II

Phaethon's doomed voyage across the sky continues:

quid faciat? multum caeli post terga relictum,
ante oculos plus est: animo metitur utrumque
et modo, quos illi fatum contingere non est,
prospicit occasus, interdum respicit ortus,
quidque agat ignarus stupet et nec frena remittit
nec retinere valet nec nomina novit equorum.
sparsa quoque in vario passim miracula caelo
vastarumque videt trepidus simulacra ferarum.

"What is he to do? He has left a good deal of the sky behind him, but there is more before his eyes: he measures each portion in his mind, and sometimes he looks forward to the western horizon, which he is fated not to reach, and then again looks back at the east. He gapes, unaware of what to do, and he can neither loosen the reins, nor does he have the strength to tighten them, and can't remember the names of the horses. And then, all around the different regions of the sky, he sees scattered wonders, and in his terror he sees the shapes of giant beasts."

(Ovid, Metamporphoses II, 187-194)

Once again, there is plenty to chew over:

Line 187: the immediate deliberative subjunctive "faciat" shows just how helpless Phaethon is. The rest of the line is a little more hopeful, showing that he has made it part of the way safely. But...
188: carefully placed before the caesura, we have Phaethon's problem, in a nutshell: there is much further to go. Again, we have a mention of his eyes - he is facing the ultimate visible danger - and then a very human aside showing him desperately trying to work out how far he has to go, and perhaps fooling himself into thinking that he has covered more ground than he really has. A sensation familiar to any novice skier, swimmer, or sky-diver; the furtive look back to see how far you've gone, in the vain hope of comfort. This is made particularly poignant in line 190 below:
190: the clear balance of "prospicit...respicit" and "occasus...ortus", with "interdum" in the middle, cleverly depicts not only Phaethon's indecision and desperation, but also his fate to come; "occasus", with its connection with the verb cado, anticipates the spectacular "fall" that Phaethon is to endure very shortly. In other words, Phaethon is not only looking ahead to "the west", but to his doom.
191-192: "quid(que) agat" echoes the sentiment at the beginning of line 187, and the following words, especially "stupet", show that Phaethon has absolutely no answer to the (rhetorical) question. The triple anaphora of "nec" that follows shows that he has been rendered quite numb ("stupet" makes an effective introduction in this respect, of course), and the use of "valet" in line 192 instead of the equally metrically acceptable potest is quite deliberate: he lacks the strength to do anything. Perhaps I am giving way to fancy in supposing that the alliteration of "n" sounds at the end is almost like an echoing "non...non...non..."; Phaethon wailing pathetically at his predicament.
193-194: a truly beautiful couple of lines which perfectly portray an important aspect of human fear. The first line is redolent of open-eyed amazement, and the well-chosen pairing "sparsa...miracula" gives the sense of wonders scattered almost carelessly across the heavens for mortals to admire. The juxtaposition of "vario passim" adds to this impression; Phaethon is surrounded by heavenly delights. Three words into line 194, however, the mood changes. In Phaethon's terror ("trepidus"), all he sees are the "simulacra ferarum"; images of wild beasts ready to tear him apart. An eternal truth masterfully conveyed: when we are in fear of our lives, the wonders of nature suddenly become terrifying.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Sparsa Miracula, Part I

Following on from Rhaebus, another tale involving horses, but of a different kind; this time, it is the steeds of Apollo's sun-chariot who feature in the tragic tale of Phaethon, brilliantly told by Ovid in the second book of the Metamorphoses.

The plot, in condensed form: Phaethon, confused about his heritage, seeks out his putative father Apollo. The sun-god greets the youth warmly, and confirms that yes, he is indeed his father. To prove his parentage (or at least affection), he grants Phaethon any wish of his choice, swearing the most binding of all oaths to commit himself. Phaethon asks to be given the reins of Apollo's sun-chariot, and immediately the god regrets his promise. Trying in vain to dissuade Phaethon, he finally realises that all entreaties will be wasted, and Phaethon sets out on his fatal voyage across the sky. But he has no idea how to steer the chariot or temper the fiery horses, and we pick up the story with Phaethon mid-journey, the horses utterly beyond his control:

ut vero summo despexit ab aethere terras
infelix Phaethon penitus penitusque iacentes,
palluit et subito genua intremuere timore
suntque oculis tenebrae per tantum lumen obortae,
et iam mallet equos numquam tetigisse paternos,
iam cognosse genus piget et valuisse rogando,
iam Meropis dici cupiens ita fertur, ut acta
praecipiti pinus borea, cui victa remisit
frena suus rector, quam dis votisque reliquit.

"And as poor Phaethon looked down from the apex of heaven to the earth, lying deep, deep down below him, he went pale, and his knees shook with sudden terror, and darkness arose in his eyes through all that light. And now he would have preferred never to have touched his father's horses, now he regretted finding out his ancestry and getting an answer to his questions, now he wanted to be called Merops' son. And he was carried along like a pine-wood ship battered by a raging north wind, whose helmsman has let go of the defeated rudder, and left his ship to the gods and his prayers."

(Ovid, Metamorphoses II, 178-186)

A wonderful passage of Latin, in which:

Line 178: the spondaic beginning already gives a sense of Phaethon's wide-eyed horror, and the juxtapositions "summo despexit" (looking down from the very top!) and "aethere terras" depict with grim force the sudden vertigo which is overcoming our young hero.
179: another superbly effective line, with the repetition of "penitus" not only reinforcing the idea of the terrifying drop below Phaethon, but creating a brutal alliteration of the forceful "p" sound in conjunction with "Phaethon" just beforehand...and the nicely enjambed "palluit" in the following line.
181: the first three words, arranged before the caesura, give the basic information; Phaethon, in modern terms, blacked out. But the real force of the line comes with the play on the double meaning of "lumen" (Ovid, as always, proving a master at manipulating the semantic subtleties of Latin); there is the blazing light of the day that Phaethon is flying through, but "lumen" is also, of course, used as a synonym for "oculus", and "tantum lumen" suggests a paradoxical image: although his eyes are wide with fear, all he can see is darkness.
182-4: the anaphora of "iam" to demonstrate Phaethon's regret is reminiscent of Pentheus's similar self-reproach, and the word "valuisse" is particularly ironic here, given that Phaethon has been proved an utter weakling when it comes to dealing with a god's job. Ovid and those double meanings again! Merops, incidentally, was the name of Phaethon's "mortal father".
185-6: the simile of a ship being tossed by the violent winds is appropriate, of course, but several small details make it particularly memorable here. Again, we have the rough "p" alliteration at the beginning of line 185. Incidentally, why "pinus", instead of perhaps puppis, a metrically acceptable and rather more common metonym for "ship"? Because, I think, the idea of the ship being just "a pine" shows that the storm has reduced the complex machinery of the vessel to just its basic components; in the face of nature, it's just a chunk of wood. "victa...frena" is a well-judged adjective-noun pairing; my father, a lifelong sailor, could certainly identify with the idea of a defeated rudder. Finally, the classic zeugma "dis votisque reliquit" provides a nice irony in relation to the main story: Phaethon would love to call on the gods to assist him, but Apollo isn't there.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Diu Viximus

Continuing the theme of human-animal relationships from the last post, I very much enjoyed teaching the tenth book of Virgil's Aeneid to my HSC class this last year, and one of the passages that appealed to both me and the students the most was the battle-speech-cum-farewell of the warrior-king Mezentius, addressed to his faithful steed Rhaebus.

Mezentius is one of the more interesting characters in the Aeneid. In the eighth book he is depicted in a brief aside as a thoroughly evil and sadistic tyrant, and while he shows some of these qualities in the course of his violent aristeia in the tenth book, he is invested with a certain dignity and honour in his death-scene. After his son Lausus has died to protect him, it is almost as if Mezentius is imbued with some of his son's heroism as he prepares to fight Aeneas; certainly, the sentiments he addresses to Rhaebus are very much in the style of a Homeric hero, and his sense of solidarity with Rhaebus is actually quite touching:

haud deiectus equum duci iubet. hoc decus illi,
hoc solamen erat, bellis hoc victor abibat
omnibus. adloquitur maerentem et talibus infit:
'Rhaebe, diu, res si qua diu mortalibus ulla est,
viximus. aut hodie victor spolia illa cruenti
et caput Aeneae referes Lausique dolorum
ultor eris mecum, aut, aperit si nulla viam vis,
occumbes pariter; neque enim, fortissime, credo,
iussa aliena pati et dominos dignabere Teucros.'

"By no means dismayed, he [Mezentius] ordered his horse to be brought. This was his glory, this his solace, on this steed he had departed all his battles in triumph. He addressed it as it grieved and started off with such words as these: "Rhaebus, we have lived a long time, if anything is a long time for we who must die. Today, you will either bring back those spoils and the head from the bloodied body of Aeneas, and you will be the avenger of Lausus' sad fate along with me, or if no force can find a way through, you will fall together with me; after all, my bravest one, I don't believe that you would accept the orders of another and consider the Trojans worthy to be your masters."

(Virgil, Aeneid X, 858-866)

Some observations:

Line 858: the opening phrase, "haud deiectus", immediately suggests Mezentius' heroic qualities; although grieved by the news of his son's death and riven with guilt at his own part in it, the great warrior refuses to sink into lethargy. Bloody but unbowed, as it were. The anaphora of "hoc" in this and the succeeding line give the strongest indication possible of the close relationship between man and horse, and the shared experiences that have created such a bond.
860: the little detail of the horse "maerentem" suggests both human feelings (Virgil's anthropomorphism at work again, just as in the Georgics), and a foreboding of Mezentius' fate at the hands of a greater warrior.
861-2: the ruthless tyrant here becomes a philosopher for a moment, and it is interesting that he implicitly includes Rhaebus in the term "mortalibus", hence my choice of "we who must die" rather than "human beings/mortals" in my translation above. The sentiment is a Homeric one: our lives are short, but our glory lives on. Here, Mezentius faces death with courage and equanimity, and the finality of his situation is emphasised by the enjambment of "viximus". Cicero's laconic "vixerunt" comment on the Catilinarian conspirators comes to mind...
864: "ultor eris mecum" comes before the caesura in enjambment, and as so often in Virgil, that indicates a significant statement. Mezentius's mind is set on vengeance, but Rhaebus is to share in that vengeance...and that achievement. The rare, striking monosyllabic ending to the line, along with the alliteration of the forceful "v" sound, perhaps suggest that Mezentius (and Rhaebus) will exhaust all their "vis" in their attempt. The bond between man and horse is delineated even more strongly in the next line with another enjambed phrase before the caesura, with the key word "pariter" suggesting that both deaths have, so to speak, equal weight.
866: a nice way to finish, hinting that Rhaebus, like his master, is made of noble and uncompromising stuff. The alliteration of "d" sounds is effective, but "dignabere" is the key word: Rhaebus is a "dignus equus", and in Mezentius' eyes, the Trojans are beneath him!

The irony, of course, is that it is Rhaebus who ultimately causes Mezentius' death, falling on top of him after Aeneas has landed a spear on the horse's forehead. Pariter occubuerunt.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Blando Pede

A recent and very touching article by the excellent essayist Dr. Anthony Daniels (a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple) got me thinking about the relationship between humans and dogs. Like the good doctor, my wife and I have a dog on whom we have doted for over a decade; to our delight, she has taken our young daughter to her heart as well.

The Romans, of course, loved their dogs. Not just their hunting-dogs (for which, by the way, see Xenophon's classic treatise on the subject), but their lap-dogs. One of those immortalised in classical literature was Issa, the darling of a certain Publius who was a friend of the poet Martial. In a hendecasyllabic epigram with definite nods to Catullus' famous sparrow poems, Martial expresses the man-dog relationship in tender terms:

Hanc tu, si queritur, loqui putabis;
sentit tristitiamque gaudiumque.
collo nixa cubat capitque somnos,
ut suspiria nulla sentiantur;
et desiderio coacta ventris
gutta pallia non fefellit ulla,
sed blando pede suscitat toroque
deponi monet et rogat levari.
castae tantus inest pudor catellae,
ignorat Venerem; nec invenimus
dignum tam tenera virum puella.

"If she [Issa] complains, you will think she is speaking; she feels both sadness and joy. She leans on his [Publius'] neck and catches sleep, but so that no breath is heard; and even if she is hard-pressed by the need for relief, she has never stained any blanket with as much as a drop. But she stirs him with a gentle foot, and says she needs to be put down from the bed, and asks him to lift her up. There is so much modesty in this unsullied pup, she is unaware of the delights of Love; and we haven't found a man worthy of such a gentle girl!"

(Martial, I.109, 6-16)

Hardly a classic of Latin literature, but enjoyable nonetheless:

Line 6: with "loqui", we immediately get the sense of what Martial is trying to convey: Issa is, to her owner, very human, and gives that impression to others as well.
7: the polysyndeton of "tristitiamque gaudiumque" is metrically convenient, but stylistically clever as well, suggesting the range of emotions Issa feels.
8: a nicely-chosen end to the line. somnum capere is of course a set expression in Latin for getting some sleep (the English phrase "catching some shut-eye" is worth noting by comparison), but there is perhaps an extra idea here: that of Issa perhaps "catching" her master's sleep as well, with the faithfulness and devotion implied. Certainly, anyone who has had a little dog accompany them for an afternoon snooze knows what perfect companions they are for the Land of Nod, and the thoughtfulness of Issa suggested in line 9 conveys this beautifully.
10: a cleverly-ordered line. As a Roman listener would hear it: "desiderio" desire/wish..."coacta"...compelled...what's going on here?..."ventris". Aha! An ending of gentle bathos: the "desire" that the dog feels is for a leak. But it is too faithful (and perhaps sensible) to sully its master's sheets!
11: another nicely chosen word, "fefellit": the dog does not stain the sheets, but also does not deceive its master. None so faithful as Issa.
12: "blando pede" is a phrase which almost encapsulates Issa's gentleness. Even when tortured by a full bladder, she treats her master with kindness and consideration, with just a gentle paw on the hand to make a humble request ("rogat").
14: "catellae" provides a slightly bathetic and humorous ending to the line, since the first four words would make one think of an upright young lady or a grim widow. Instead, it's Issa again, a "lady" of impeccable morals as well as a gentle soul!
16: a delightful ending, with the emphatically-placed "dignum" and the incongruous "virum" investing Issa with a sort of maiden's purity. Note the use of "puella", also emphatically placed...again, Issa is very human to her owner and her owner's friends!

For the record, here is our own little Issa, who goes by the name of Georgie. May she live for a good many years yet.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Turpes Umbras

No-one would read Ovid's Amores for profundity, but the poems flow along so easily and enjoyably that it's easy to forget that they are, essentially, verse set-pieces. Most critics seem to believe that the poems in the Amores are riffs on universal elegiac themes rather than reflections of Ovid's own life experiences (I tend to agree), but this doesn't diminish their appeal. And one of their most endearing qualities is that Ovid is able to give full rein to his wonderful gift for sly humour while purporting to express love, anger, and all the other elegiac emotions. Take the lesser-known twelfth poem of the first book, in which Ovid rants at the writing-tablet that has informed him that today's date with his girlfriend is cancelled.

Anger at inanimate objects is hardly a novelty in classical verse, but there are few more deft examples of it than this. What insults can you throw at a writing-tablet? Well, Ovid was a master at expressing tongue-in-cheek indignation, and here he shoots the messenger in brilliant style:

at tamquam minio penitus medicata rubebas,
ille color vere sanguinolentus erat!
proiectae triviis iaceatis, inutile lignum,
vosque rotae frangat praetereuntis onus!
illum etiam, qui vos ex arbore vertit in usum,
convincam puras non habuisse manus.
praebuit illa arbor misero suspendia collo,
carnifici diras praebuit illa cruces;
illa dedit turpes raucis bubonibus umbras,
vulturis in ramis et strigis ova tulit.

"But even though you were thoroughly tinged with vermilion dye, you were blushing...and that colour was really that of blood! You can be tossed out and lie there on a street corner, you useless wood, and I hope the weight of a passing wheel breaks you! And even that man who got you from the tree and carved you into something useful...I'll show that he was up to no good with those hands! That tree provided stocks for some poor wretch's neck, it provided the dreaded crosses for the executioner; it gave unholy shade to noisy owls, and carried the eggs of a vulture and a screech-owl on its branches!"

(Ovid, Amores I.12, 11-20)

Line 11: "rubebas" carries a pun which Ovid uses to good effect elsewhere (in the penultimate line of the famous "Aurora" poem, to be precise); the tablet is red, but that colour suggests that it is blushing at the bad news it is carrying; naturally, the word is left until the emphatic final position for extra effect.
12: the long-drawn-out word "sanguinolentus", which encompasses most of the back end of the pentameter line, is used instead of the simple sanguineus (which is metrically usable). Why? In my view, partly to stretch out the insult in a humorous way, and partly to practically accuse the tablet of a crime: it smells (olet) of blood!
13: in "iaceatis" we again have the second person jussive subjunctive, which Virgil used to such good effect in Dido's dying curse. The imperate iacete could have been used, but then there wouldn't be the overtones of a wish for the tablet to come to harm. Ovid is (pretending to be) in a vindictive mood...
14: Ovid cleverly leaves "onus" until the end; the wood should not just be crushed by a wheel, but by the full weight of a wheel. It should feel it, dammit!
16: another double meaning in "convincam", which can have a sense of convict as well as convince (both meanings, of course, are reflected in the English derivations). The notion of the tree-lopper or the carpenter (or both) not having "puras...manus" is partly ironic, since Ovid is using the tablet to conduct a presumably illicit affair.
17-18: so now we move to the tree which provided the wood for the tablet. "praebuit illa" is repeated in anaphora to ram home the point: this tree was a source of suffering for others as well as poor me!
19-20: this section of the poem finishes with criticism of the tree for the shelter it provided for certain birds which the Romans did not like, and the jarring adjective-noun pair "turpes...umbras" encapsulates this idea perfectly. umbrae can be pleasant on a sunny day, and perhaps sad or frightening if the word is meant to refer to the shades of the dead, but "turpes"? It is a word which would rarely ever fit as a description of umbrae, and it is all the more effective here for that. The phrase also helps to give the line a memorable sound, with the proliferation of "r" and "b" sounds creating a deliberate ugliness. The final insult, that the tree protected the eggs of two particularly horrible birds (owls were the traditional Roman birds of ill omen, while vultures were despised for obvious reasons), caps the rant off nicely, with "vulturis" placed in the emphatic initial position.

I wonder whether Ovid would have preferred email?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Decolor Aetas

The notion of a "golden age" must be common to virtually all cultures, given the frequency with which the idea crops up in the world's literature. The Romans, of course, liked to imagine an era of pastoral bliss, presided over by their ancient spirit Saturnus, who was subsequently equated with the Greek Cronos.

For Virgil, however, the "golden age" exists in both the past and the future. So much is clear enough from the dreamy predictions of the fourth eclogue, and several passages of the Aeneid hint at the restoration of Rome's traditional virtues under Augustus. All of which makes the following passage, from Book 8 of the Aeneid, fascinating.

Book 8 is, of course, the Aeneid's patriotic parenthesis, taking Aeneas away from the war for a while to be taught about the humble origins of Rome-to-be, its glorious history, and its religious and social values. Evander, the Arcadian king who acts as his guide, introduces Aeneas to the land on which Rome is to stand, and gives voice to the Roman belief in a blessed past:

primus ab aetherio venit Saturnus Olympo
arma Iovis fugiens et regnis exsul ademptis.
is genus indocile ac dispersum montibus altis
composuit legesque dedit, Latiumque vocari
maluit, his quoniam latuisset tutus in oris.
aurea quae perhibent illo sub rege fuere
saecula: sic placida populos in pace regebat,
deterior donec paulatim ac decolor aetas
et belli rabies et amor successit habendi.

"First came Saturn, from heavenly Olympus, fleeing from Jupiter's weapons, an exile from his stolen kingdom. He brought order to people who were uneducated and scattered among the high mountains; he gave them laws, and preferred for the country to be called Latium, since he had hidden (latuisset) safely in these lands. And they say that the era under that ruler was golden; thus he held sway over the people in untroubled peace, until a degenerate and tarnished time gradually took over, along with the frenzy of war and the love of possession."

(Virgil, Aeneid VIII, 319-327)

Plenty of talking points:

Line 319: almost a golden line, spoiled only by the preposition "ab"! Certainly it is a majestic beginning to the story, with the emphatically-placed "primus", along with the later "indocile", suggesting a bringer of knowledge and skills to a primitive people. There are similarities here with Lucretius's depictions of Epicurus, and in fact the whole passage is very reminiscent of Lucretius.
321: "indocile" is an interesting word choice. The more natural indoctum would fit the metre perfectly well, so why the idea of an "unteachable race", rather than an "untaught" one? Did it perhaps need a being of divine qualities to bring order and civilisation to the primitive inhabitants of Latium...and is there a hint at similar qualities in Augustus, the putative renewer of Saturnian utopia?
322: the emphatic placement of "composuit" is surely quite deliberate. The very word suggests the union of disparate elements, and as a metaphor for civilisation it could hardly be bettered. The mention of "leges", too, fits well with Virgil's theme; the rule of law, so fragile during the past century of Roman history, is seen as central to a properly functioning nation. silent leges inter arma? Not any more, if Augustus (or Virgil) has anything to do with it.
323: a cute bit of folk etymology, beloved of the Roman poets.
324: and here is "aurea" at last, emphatically placed (as is "saecula", its complement, later on). And another interesting word choice: why "perhibent", normally an intransitive verb after all, instead of the metrically acceptable dicunt or memorant? Impossible to know for sure, but I would suggest that perhibent has more of a sense of certainty about it (note the per- prefix); they don't just say it was a golden age, they maintain that it was.
325: the obvious alliteration of the "p" sounds, often indicative of power or violence, here seems to suggest the majesty of Saturnus, a just ruler who commands respect merely by the authority of his personality; by coincidence, Livy makes a similar comment about Evander, the narrator of this passage, in the first book of his Roman history.
326: the rhythm slows down as we go from golden age to decadence, perhaps an appropriate word to use in English given the proliferation of "d" sounds in the line, which balances the repetition of "p" in line 325. And here we have the beautifully constructed phrase "decolor...aetas". Of course decolor is used in a moral sense (the generations following have lost their way), but the image of a golden age going off-colour is cleverly expressed.
327: a splendidly enigmatic line to finish. "belli rabies" is obvious enough as a symptom of the lost lustre of Rome's pristine virtues, but "amor"?!? We have to wait until the emphatic final position for the unexpected finish: "habendi". It is love, in a sense, but it is really the desire or lust for gain. For Virgil, the phrase is probably redolent of the period following the "enlightened" age of the Scipios, in which there was no Carthage to keep Rome honest (as it were) and endless possibilities for personal enrichment among the nobility.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Opici Mures

Juvenal's most controversial satire, and one of his most well-known, is the magnificently gloomy third. Its depiction of the daily dangers, humiliations and frustrations of life in a big city (Rome, in this case) is still full of relevance today; Juvenal's Rome could be New York, London or even my own beloved Sydney circa 2010. All of Juvenal's characters are still around: the arrogant self-made men, the drunks spoiling for a fight after another miserable night out, and of course people like the grumpy "narrator", Umbricius, who feel that they've been completely left behind by the urban zeitgeist.

There is plenty of seething anger in the poem, although Juvenal cagily expresses it through the vehicle of Umbricius (in some of his later satires, notably the apoplectic fifteenth, he has no problems ranting in the first person singular). But there are tender moments of pathos as well, and one of these is the topic of this post: the tale of Cordus, a poor man with a literary bent, whose top-floor flat gets consumed in one of the many fires that broke out in the Roman slums. The description of Cordus's living conditions is masterly:

lectus erat Cordo Procula minor, urceoli sex
ornamentum abaci, nec non et parvulus infra
cantharus et recubans sub eodem marmore Chiron,
iamque vetus Graecos servabat cista libellos
et divina opici rodebant carmina mures.
nil habuit Cordus, quis enim negat? et tamen illud
perdidit infelix totum nihil. ultimus autem
aerumnae cumulus, quod nudum et frusta rogantem
nemo cibo, nemo hospitio tectoque iuvabit.

"Cordus's bed was too small for Procula, and six little jugs decorated the marble table, not to mention a tiny cup underneath, and a Chiron lying on his back beneath the same marble, and here was an old box containing little Greek books, and uncultured mice were gnawing at the magnificent poems. Cordus had nothing...who could deny it? And yet the poor fellow lost that whole nothing that he had. Yet the final straw in his suffering is that, when he's got no clothes left and is begging for a bite, no-one will give him food, no-one will let him in and give him a roof over his head."

(Juvenal, Satire III, 203-211)


Line 203: The otherwise unknown "Procula" was presumably a famous dwarf, and as an introduction to this picture of poverty this works well.
204: the ironic "ornamentum", in emphatic position, portrays Cordus's straitened circumstances superbly; the only thing he has to "adorn" his marble table is six cheap jugs, which would otherwise be kept out of sight. "nec non", a quick litotes, is also gently ironic: "Oh yes, there was also...". "parvulus cantharus" is almost an oxymoron, given that a cantharus was supposed to be a grand wine-vessel; the diminutive parvulus makes Codrus's specimen seem even more embarrassing.
205: there is some dissension as to the word "Chiron" here: is it a statue (of the Centaur of the same name), or is it a pet dog, given that Chiron was a relatively common name for canine companions? Although the image of a faithful dog lying on its back ready for a tickle is a touching one, the former interpretation is probably correct, and meant as another indication that Cordus is a man of some taste despite his slender means; the detail "recubans" perhaps suggests that Cordus's poor statue has had its pedestal broken!
206: "servabat" is a well-chosen word. The box was "holding" the books, but it was also "preserving" the literature within...again, there is a suggestion that Cordus has a sense of what is really important.
207: a truly beautiful and moving line (it would, in fact, be a golden line but for the "et" at the beginning). The arrival of the mice again shows how difficult Cordus's living conditions are, but the humorous epithet "opici", a word borrowed from Greek (perhaps all the more apt for that), is applied to anyone without the patina of education. The implication seems to be that Cordus is fighting a losing battle against the barbarous intrusion of the big city on his humble pleasures; even the mice are against him! The double meaning of "rodebant" is also worth mentioning; although the word carries a basic sense of biting or gnawing (hence English words such as rodent and erosion), it has a secondary meaning of "criticising", also in a literary sense. Those tasteless mice!
208: the encapsulation of Cordus's situation is meant to evoke pathos, and of course it does. "nil" in emphatic position is followed by the rhetorical question "quis enim negat?", with the indicative negat perhaps suggesting more certainty than the more natural subjunctive neget.
209: again, a careful emphatic placement, this time of "perdidit", and the oxymoron "totum nihil" nicely demonstrates the scale of poor Cordus's loss. But with "ultimus", we learn that there's more to come.
211: the tragic end. No-one will help him, with "nemo" both emphatically placed and repeated in anaphora. The message: in a big city, no-one has time or pity for a poor man.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mala Gramina

Everyone has their personal No.1 fear. For my wife, it is spiders. For the fictional Winston Smith, famously, it was rats. For me, it is snakes.

This is not due to some terrifying childhood experience, or a disturbing film scene that was impossible to forget. I've simply always found the idea of long, slithering, limbless creatures capable of killing with a single bite to be blood-chilling. I have a feeling that Virgil may have had the same fear, such is the frightening effectiveness of the snake-simile attached to Pyrrhus in Book 2 of the Aeneid:

Vestibulum ante ipsum primoque in limine Pyrrhus
exsultat telis et luce coruscus aena:
qualis ubi in lucem coluber mala gramina pastus,
frigida sub terra tumidum quem bruma tegebat,
nunc, positis novus exuviis nitidusque iuventa,
lubrica convolvit sublato pectore terga
arduus ad solem, et linguis micat ore trisulcis.

"At the very entrance, right by the door, was Pyrrhus, delighting in his weaponry and resplendent in the bronze light of his armour. Just like a snake that has come into the light, after feeding on evil grass; the chilly winter has hidden it underground, full to bursting, and now, brand new after shedding its skin and glossy with youthful vigour, it lifts up its underbelly and arches its slithery back high into the sun, its mouth flashing with its triple-forked tongue."

(Virgil, Aeneid II, 469-475)

Let'sssss sssssssee...

Line 469: as so often in Virgil, the central character in the new scene has his introduction carefully delayed until the emphatic final position. The first part of this line is somewhat formulaic, but what follows is not.
470: even before the mention of the snake, we have a hint of the sounds that will dominate the succeeding lines: at the beginning of the line, the rhythm is spondaic and "t" and "l" sounds proliferate; already a delicate, slithery sound is apparent. Then, towards the end, the assonance of "u" becomes more pronounced.
471: the assonance of "u" continues, with the suggestion that something grim and frightening is about to be introduced. Sure enough, it's a "coluber", and it isn't just the provebial snake in the is a snake who has fed on bad grass! (No pun intended, for those with vivid memories of the sixties.) In a sense, this is just a paraphrase of Homer's κακὰ φαρμακα in a similar passage, but the assonance of "a" sounds here gives the phrase a particularly harsh touch.
472: another cleverly-constructed line in which the first word, "frigida", sets the tone, while another repeated sound combination - "tumidum quem bruma" - provides the perfect backdrop for the emergence of the snake in the spring. (Would it be too fanciful to even consider the end of the line as like a drumroll prior to the entrance of the snake in its new skin?)
473: the words "novus" and "nitidus", and especially "iuventa", are in a sense ironic since these bywords for youth and vitality hardly seem to belong in such a dark simile! But we are reminded here that although Pyrrhus is on murder bent (the murder of Priam, to be precise), he is bursting with youth and strength.
474: the "u" sound is prominent again, as is the repeated "l" which seems to suggest the snake licking its lips in anticipation of its first kill.
475: again, the first word sets the tone: the snake lifts is body high, to appear especially frightening to its prey. The splendid finish, with the snake flashing its fangs and tongue and the "i" and "s" sounds hinting at the vicious accompanying hiss, lingers in the memory.

I think I'll avoid the Australian outback at all costs, thank you very much.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ver Proterit Aestas

No posts in the last couple of weeks, but I have an excuse of sorts: I've been on a wonderful skiing trip with my year group at school. And now, coming back from the howling icy wind on Mt. Blue Cow to a beautiful early-spring day in Sydney, it seems more appropriate than ever to feature one of my favourite Latin poems of them all, Horace's famous ode from his fourth book in which he compares the passing and eventual renewal of the seasons to the ceaseless journey of mortals towards death. A tawdry and clichéd topic in some ways (especially for Horace), but he deals with it in such a subtle and elegant way that the poem still comes across as fresh and intriguing, particularly the following passage. Nowhere in Latin literature, in my view, are the tricks of word order played so beautifully:

immortalia ne speres, monet annus et almum
quae rapit hora diem.
frigora mitescunt Zephyris, ver proterit aestas,
interitura simul
pomifer autumnus fruges effuderit, et mox
bruma recurrit iners.
damna tamen celeres reparant caelestia lunae:
nos, ubi decidimus
quo pater Aeneas, quo dives Tullus et Ancus,
pulvis et umbra sumus.

"The year warns you not to hope for immortality, and the time which snatches away the bountiful day. The cold softens with the west wind, and trampled on by summer, which is bound to disappear as soon as fruitful autumn has released its goods, and soon lifeless winter scurries back. Yet the swift months recover these seasonal losses; as for us, when we have fallen the way of Father Aeneas, the way of rich Tullus and Ancus, we are but dust and shadow."

(Horace, Odes IV.7.7-16)

A passage which doesn't yield up all of its secrets at first reading. On closer inspection:

Line 7: the very first word, "immortalia", marks a turning-point in the poem; in the opening three couplets Horace has contented himself with a breezy, almost stock-standard description of the beauty and liveliness of spring. The mention of immortality would suggest that Horace is warming to this theme and presenting such vernal delights as symbols of immortality, but we are shocked out of our slumber by the "ne speres"'s going to be another of Horace's ruminations on the inevitability of death instead. The word "annus" is nicely chosen; of course, the topic is the changing seasons of the year, but it is also the years that we live, our age, that serves to remind us that this is all coming to an end one day. Horace, better than any other, knew how to make best use of the semantic breadth of Latin words.
8: units of time continue to be used in abundance, and the image of the hour snatching away the day is a striking one (accentuated by the juxtaposition of the two words). hora is often used to indicate time in a more general sense (a trend which becomes prevalent in the modern Romance languages, e.g. Quelle heure est-il?), and the idea that the day gets snatched, or stolen, fits very well with the sentiment Horace is expressing here.
9: the last part of this line, which gives this post its title, is magnificently crafted and yet barely commented on in the various editions of the Odes. Imagine it from a listener's point of view: we have the description of the west wind blowing away the cold, which ushers in...spring. ver...OK, we're talking about spring now. proterit...yes, yes, it treads on the heels of winter. aestas...hang on, what?!? Oh, it's spring being trodden on by summer!
The trick is only possible because ver, being a neuter word, has the same form in the nominative and the accusative. Hence, instead of ver proterit being the subject and verb (a more normal order), the nominative aestas suddenly reveals it to be object and verb. And the point of this elaborate artifice? To suddenly jolt the time forward. We have barely had time to register the arrival of spring before summer comes on top of it. The seasons pass before we know it, in other words. A brilliant poetic device.
10: the choice of "interitura" is interesting. There are several words in Latin for "to die" - perire, interire, mori, occidere and others. Why is summer interitura rather than peritura or moritura here? I would suggest that the original sense of interire, "to go in between", might be the key: summer is simply waiting in the wings, ready to appear again. "simul" here is used instead of "simulac", "as soon as", but the lingering sense of "at the same time" again serves to almost blur the times of the year.
11-12: the alliteration and assonance in these lines is superb. The lugubrious "u" sound is quite prevalent in line 11 and it carries on in line 12, to be joined by the obvious alliteration of "r". One has to read the lines out loud to get the full effect: the "ooh!" as the colds of autumn begin to set in, followed by the "brrr!" as we really start to freeze in the winter.
13: the dactylic rhythm again suggests the quick passing of time, and the typically Horatian adjective-noun pairing "damna...caelestia", with its humorous suggestion of the heavens losing money as if on the stock market, lightens the mood a little. "lunae", in emphatic position, could simply be seen as a metonymic expression for "month" (a word which, after all, is etymologically connected with "moon"), but we also get a hint of the moon working silently to keep time moving on. (I could be reading a little too much into Horace here.)
15: the anaphora of "quo", as well as the majesty of the figures mentioned (Rome's legendary heroic ancestor, and two of the kings), implies one of Horace's favourite themes: rich and poor, grand and humble alike, we are all bound for the grave eventually.
16: the grim "u" sound crops up again, and the sentiment in this line is a famous one (repeatedly and clumsily worked into Ridley Scott's awful film Gladiator).

Friday, August 6, 2010


Until recently I hadn't actually read many of Horace's non-lyric poems, but with one of his Satires set as an HSC text for 2011, I thought I should acquaint myself with them a bit better. Luckily enough, at a second-hand bookstall I recently found a beautifully-bound edition of his Satires, with a superbly comprehensive commentary, for the knockdown price of $8. Reading it has been an education and a joy.

One of the passages that appealed to me most was the portion of the first satire of the first book in which Horace mordantly criticises the hypocrisy of those who constantly complain about their professions, stating that others are so much more congenial. There are echoes of this in his well-known "Alfius" poem, the ultimate lead-the-reader-up-the-garden-path production.

But back to Satires I.I:

'o fortunati mercatores!' gravis annis
miles ait, multo iam fractus membra labore.
contra mercator navem iactantibus Austris:
'militia est potior. quid enim? concurritur: horae
momento cita mors venit aut victoria laeta.'
agricolam laudat iuris legumque peritus,
sub galli cantum consultor ubi ostia pulsat;
ille, datis vadibus qui rure extractus in urbem est,
solos felices viventis clamat in urbe.

"'Oh, lucky merchants!' says the soldier, worn down by the years, with his limbs now broken down from a lifetime of work. The merchant, on the other hand, with the South Wind lashing his ship, says 'A soldier's life is better. What's the big deal? Battle is joined: in the space of an hour either a swift death comes, or joyous victory. The expert in law and statute envies the farmer, when the client bashes at the door before the cock crows. But the farmer, when he's given his surety and is dragged off to the city from his farm, exclaims that only those living in the city are happy."

Horace, Satires I.I.4-12

Looking more closely:

Line 4: the spondaic beginning (quite reminiscent of Virgil's o fortunati quorum iam moenia surgunt, in fact), gives the line a sense of gravity and depth of feeling, which is of course turned on its head later when Horace alleges that such people would never change their circumstances, even given the chance. The phrase "gravis annis" is evocative, given the soldiers' duty to carry their heavy packs on their back; they are weighed down by a combination of age and ceaseless marching.
5: another nicely-chosen phrase in "fractus membra", with membra an accusative of respect; his limbs are broken down, but there is also the suggestion that he is the archetypal "broken man".
6: another very spondaic line with "a" sounds predominant, perhaps echoing the whistling winds (or the cries of terror) during a treacherous sea journey?
7: the choppy, telegraphic phrases here work superbly as a crass over-simplification of the soldier's lot, and the dismissive "concurritur" provides a perfect example of how the structure of Latin can provide poetic opportunities denied to English (and many other languages). The impersonal passive ("running together happens") denies agency to either side in the conflict, and condenses all the preparation, tactics, emotion and chance of war into a single word. Not that the merchant has a simplistic idea of soldiery, of course!
8: "momento" is a word which doesn't exactly equate to the English "moment", which would be better rendered in Latin by punctum. But the etymology of the word, arising from the verb moveo, adds an extra dimension to the meaning: "in the movement of an hour", an apt description for action on a battlefield.
10: "sub galli cantum" is a nice touch; even before the annoying cock-crow, there is the even more annoying sound of a client not knocking, but beating ("pulsat", in the emphatic final position) on the door.
12: the humorous hyperbole of "solos felices" is again part of a very spondaic and hence portentous-sounding line, with the farmer's sudden certainty about his new opinion reinforced by the use of "clamat" rather than "dicit" or some other such word. Horace certainly knew how to draw characters with an economical use of words!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Permulcens Vestigia

A truism of Latin literature that I have discovered over the years: the older you get, the less you like and admire Catullus and his poetry. When I was sixteen, the age when all of one's experiences (especially the romantic ones) take on the proverbial cosmic significance, Catullus was the inspired mouthpiece of youthful desire, a love-poet for the ages. Twenty years on, he comes across instead as a whiny, self-obsessed adolescent who happened to be a gifted versifier. Older Latin teachers of my acquaintance have expressed even more scathing verdicts. The truth, of course, is simply that he is a poet who appeals more to the young.

What we didn't learn in high school is that he did, in fact, write more than just endless expressions of unrequited love for the unpleasant Clodia and trifles about stolen napkins, sparrows and perfume. Some of his longer poems are well worthy of comparison with Virgil or Ovid, including the dark, disturbing story of Attis (Poem 63, in the rare Galliambic metre) and, of course, Poem 64, the epyllion describing the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (parents of Achilles), into which is interwoven the tragic tale of Ariadne.

It is from the latter work that this week's excerpt comes, another example of the common Latin literary trope of female indignation in the wake of being abandoned. This one, however, is particularly touching, and the innocence and devotion of Ariadne, after she has been abandoned on the island of Naxos by Theseus, is conveyed beautifully:

quaenam te genuit sola sub rupe leaena,
quod mare conceptum spumantibus exspuit undis,
quae Syrtis, quae Scylla rapax, quae vasta Charybdis,
talia qui reddis pro dulci praemia vita?
si tibi non cordi fuerant conubia nostra,
saeva quod horrebas prisci praecepta parentis,
attamen in vestras potuisti ducere sedes,
quae tibi iucundo famularer serva labore,
candida permulcens liquidis vestigia lymphis,
purpureave tuum consternens veste cubile.

"Whatever she-lion gave birth to you beneath a lonely cave, what sea conceived you in foaming waves and spat you out? What Syrtis, what greedy Scylla, what gaping Charybdis, for you to give me such a 'reward' in return for your own dear life? If you didn't care about our marriage, because you were afraid of the grim commands of your venerable father, still you could've brought me back to your home, and I could have served you faithfully as a slave, and I would've liked the work...soothing your white feet with pure water as they left their marks, or turning down your bed with a purple coverlet."

(Catullus LXIV, 154-163)

And we find:

Line 154: the very word "quaenam", emphatically placed, is an emotional signpost: the sense of the suffix "-nam" in this case is to imply either bafflement or anger, and it is fair to assume that Ariadne feels both. The first suggestion of Theseus's savage cruelty is left until the emphatic final position, with the semantic connections of "leaena" leaving the reader/listener in no doubt as to Ariadne's feelings...yet she is still deeply in love with him.
155: another question word in emphatic position, but the most effective part of the line is the end, in which the alliteration of "-sp-" sounds, with a hint of "-u-" assonance as well, conjures up an image of Ariadne actually spitting at the memory (or at least the thought) of her unfaithful lover.
156: more rhetorical questions, more anaphora and asyndeton, and the bombardment of "-s-" sounds reaches a seething climax with the mention of monstrous creatures with whom Theseus can be compared.
157: the juxtaposition "dulci praemia" is suggestive of the dulce praemium of a life with a devoted wife that Theseus has spurned. English, of course, with its rigid word order, leaves little room for clever word placement such as this...
159: another superb line in which Catullus shows just what a master of sound he is. Although Ariadne is referring to the hold exerted over Theseus by his father Aegeus, some of her own rage comes through, firstly through the emphatically placed "saeva", and then the brutally forceful "horrebas prisci praecepta parentis". The "r" sound tends to be indicative of simmering anger in Latin poetry, while repeated "p" sounds, particularly at the beginning of successive words, tend to suggest violence, either expressed or felt.
161: Ariadne's anger seems to subside slightly now, and she speaks more in terms of longing and regret. In this line, there is another trick which English would not allow; does "iucundo" agree with the dative tibi or the ablative labore? The latter makes more sense, of course (particularly given the common tendency for Latin poets to place adjective-noun pairs before the caesura and at the end of a line), but the mere suggestion of the former is enough to hint at Ariadne's continuing deep feelings for Theseus.
162: the alliteration of "l" sounds in the latter part of this line is strongly suggestive of the tenderness of Ariadne's feelings, but it is the expression "permulcens...vestigia" that makes this line so special. Ariadne is so in love with Theseus that she would be willing to wash Theseus's feet for him, as a lowly slave. But's not pedes that we see, it's "vestigia". The tracks of his feet, no less! Here is a classic example of the role that metonymy can play in poetry, when properly employed. Vestigia could simply be seen as a metrically convenient alternative for pedes, but could it be that Ariadne's sense of desperate devotion is so complete that she even "worships the ground he walks on", to put it in modern terms? Ariadne odit et amat; fieri sentit, et excruciatur.
163: a classic "golden line", with two adjective-noun pairs whose component parts are placed on either side of the verb that occupies the middle of the line. A nice way to finish!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Daedala Rerum

In the Roman literary canon, Lucretius stands in a category by himself; a brilliant poet who wrote in the hexameter verse, but instead of devoting himself to tales of gods, heroes and wars, committed the Epicurean theory of physics to poetry. A dry topic? Well, there are certainly parts of the De Rerum Natura that are dry and technical, but much of it is beautiful and deeply moving.

Perhaps I am particularly attracted to Lucretius as a poet because Epicureanism is the strain of ancient philosophy that appeals to me by far the most. Epicurus's teachings, for me, constitute the first halting step on the long road from religious bigotry to enlightened secular humanism. And the best argument for Epicureanism is surely the congeniality of its followers compared with devotees of the other philosophical schools: would you rather have dinner with Horace, Virgil and Lucian, or Cicero, Lucan and Seneca? With the latter three you would probably have a severe headache by the end of the evening; with the former three, at least you would be able to wait until the next morning for it. But I digress.

It is in Book 5 of Lucretius's masterwork that one of the most famous passages appears, the lengthy demolition of the idea that the world was created for mankind's benefit. Not only is this an immeasurably important argument, but Lucretius delivers it with great poetic skill, pathos and humour. Never is this more evident in the section dealing with the travails of a newborn baby, a topic of particular relevance for yours truly in recent months!

The text:

tum porro puer, ut saevis proiectus ab undis
navita, nudus humi iacet infans indigus omni
vitali auxilio, cum primum in luminis oras
nixibus ex alvo matris natura profudit,
vagituque locum lugubri complet, ut aequumst
cui tantum in vita restet transire malorum.
at variae crescunt pecudes armenta feraeque
nec crepitacillis opus est nec cuiquam adhibendast
almae nutricis blanda atque infracta loquela
nec varias quaerunt vestes pro tempore caeli,
denique non armis opus est, non moenibus altis,
qui sua tutentur, quando omnibus omnia large
tellus ipsa parit naturaque daedala rerum.

"And then again, a child, like a sailor tossed about by savage waves, lies naked on the ground, unable to speak, and without all the aid it needs for life, as soon as nature has forced it out onto the shores of light from its mother's womb, with intense pain. And it fills up the place with mournful crying...which is fair enough, since it still has to pass through so many troubles in its life. Yet the various flocks and herds and wild beasts grow up, and they have no need of rattles, nor does the cute and broken cooing of a friendly nurse have to be employed, nor do they look for different clothes to match the season. And, finally, they don't need weapons, nor high walls to look after everything they own, since the earth itself produces everything for all in abundance, along with nature, the inventor of the world."

(Lucretius, De Rerum Natura V, 222-234)

The subtleties:

Lines 222-223: the simile of a sailor (the word "navita" being nicely enjambed here) is in some ways trite, but as an image of pure helplessness at the hands of nature it fits admirably. The learned Michael Gilleland, a fan of asyndetic privative adjectives, quotes this passage as an example, and the coincidence of accent and ictus on "infans indigus" brings home the idea of the baby having no help very forcefully.
224: the lovely expression "luminis oras" not only indirectly continues the simile of the sailor, but creates an interesting image, due to the double meaning of ora: the light of day is like a new and frightening country for the baby.
225: "nixibus" is emphatically placed, and although it is the suffering of the baby that is the focus here, Lucretius does not forget the suffering of the mother. The idea of helplessness which pervades this passage is underscored by the fact that nature, rather than the mother, is represented as the one "making it all happen".
226: the assonance of the "u" sound, so often indicative of gloom, is striking here; the onomatopoeic word "vagitu", in emphatic position, would strike the listener almost as the baby uttering its first sound; nature brings it out, and then...waaaaah!!
227: heavily spondaic, suitable for the subject matter. An interesting sidelight is the repetition of the "tantum...malorum" pattern from probably Lucretius's most famous line of all.
229: "crepitacillis" is typical Lucretius, including a touching everyday detail to make his argument approachable and universal. The absurdist image of wild animals with a baby's rattle provokes a smile. (I might add that my own daughter requires rather more than just a rattle to keep herself amused...)
230: there are several nice details in this line, including the assonance of the "a" sound to imitate the baby-talk used by the nurse, but the well-chosen adjective-noun pair "infracta loquela" is particularly effective. The "talk" - it is not real speech - is "broken up". The implications are obvious.
232: some anaphora (of "non") and asyndeton to hammer home the point that wild animals need none of the protection that human babies do. The juxtaposition of "omnibus omnia" in the following line, with a coincidence of accent and ictus again, reinforces the idea of nature's munificence.
234: a wonderful, untranslatable finish. "daedala", with its implications of a brilliant artificer (the word is derived from, or at least etymologically connected to, the legendary Daedalus), is the adjective applied to "natura", and the sense is twofold: nature is not only a creator, but is clever about it. One of Lucretius's most endearing qualities is his genuine love and admiration for nature, and it is never better exemplified than here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Obsequere Imperio, Part II

We return to the sad tale of Gaius Silius and his doomed affair with Messalina, the emperor Claudius' wife.

Now that Juvenal has set the scene, he addresses Silius directly in order to make his pathetic dilemma all the more vivid for his readers/listeners. The starkness with which Silius' "choice" is delineated gives the concluding passage of the episode considerable force, as does Juvenal's typically clever choice of words:

haec tu secreta et paucis commissa putabas?
non nisi legitime volt nubere. quid placeat dic.
ni parere velis, pereundum erit ante lucernas;
si scelus admittas, dabitur mora parvula, dum res
nota urbi et populo contingat principis aurem.
dedecus ille domus sciet ultimus. interea tu
obsequere imperio, si tanti vita dierum
paucorum. quidquid levius meliusque putaris,
praebenda est gladio pulchra haec et candida cervix.

"Did you really think that this was all secret, known to only a few? She only wants to marry you in the proper way. Tell us what you intend. If you aren't willing to obey, you will have to die before nightfall; if you admit the crime, a smidgen of delay will be allowed, until something which the city and the people know reaches the emperor's ear. He will be the last to know of the disgrace to his house. As for you, meanwhile, fall in with authority, if a few more days of life matters so much to you. Whatever you consider a gentler or better fate, that pretty white neck will have to be put before the sword."

(Juvenal, Satire X, 337-345)

And we see:

Line 337: An apostrophe of sorts, the intention of which is perhaps to bring Silius "closer" to the reader/listener (in a sense Juvenal is addressing both, since the whole satire takes the form of a suasoria, an encouragement to pray only for unequivocal benefits rather than superficial ones). The tone of sarcasm and derision is unmistakable, underlined by the emphatic positioning of "haec" and "putabas?", illustrating Silius' foolish naivety.
338: "quid placeat dic" is another bucolic diaeresis (a Juvenal specialty), putting Silius' dilemma in the bluntest possible terms.
339: two significant terms in this line are "parere" and "pereundum". The idea of obeying Messalina's wishes shows exactly who wields the power in this situation, even though Silius is, of course, the much for "love, honour and obey"! And once again, Juvenal has recourse to a gerundive form ("pereundum") to give emphasis to the idea of Silius being a victim of fate...and of his own good looks.
340: the diminutive form "parvula" is especially pathetic; his best choice only results in "a tiny" stay of execution, and even the generous-sounding "dabitur" is ironic, since it is hardly a gift worth giving.
341: the listener hears "nota" first, in the emphatic position, and the word carries force. The whole thing is known. Concealment is impossible, even if Claudius is somewhat late to hear of it.
342: there is some sympathy here for Claudius as well, if only parenthetically. He, too, is a victim of Messalina's scheming, although not as direct a victim of it as Silius.
343: the key line, including the phrase which has served as a title for this pair of posts. "obsequere imperio" comes directly before the caesura, drawing particular attention to it, and the subtlety of the wording is noticeable. We, of course, get our word obsequious from the verb obsequor, and the derivation is a good clue to the meaning here. Messalina makes her decision and Silius must follow (sequi), almost like a loyal dog. The final irony comes with "imperio"; Silius, as a consul-elect, has gained technical imperium by virtue of his political office, but he finds that the only real power/authority wielded in this situation is possessed by a lustful young woman (Messalina was still in her twenties at this stage). Perhaps this could be construed as a velied attack on the whole imperial system of government by Juvenal...but perhaps this is reading just a little too much into it.
344: "paucorum" is a grimly effective enjambment. Only a few days left to live, whatever Silius does.
345: a very well-crafted line to finish. In the emphatic initial position is yet another gerundive ("praebenda"), with the idea of obligation and inevitability stressed again; "gladio" concludes the opening phrase just in time for the caesura, and then we have some delicate alliteration and assonance of the "c" and "a" sounds, enhancing the description of Silius' delicate, pale, beautiful features...which have been the cause of his downfall. As a conclusion to a passage denouncing (or at least discouraging) prayers for good looks, it could hardly be bettered.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Obsequere Imperio, Part I

Juvenal's tenth satire, in which he rails against the folly and vanity of human prayers, is probably his most famous. Not only because it contains the memorable panem et circenses quip which, either in the original or in (mis-)translation, is still an essential tool for every second-rate social commentator, but because its message is perhaps the most timeless of all Juvenal's often heavy-handed moral conclusions: we are better served by letting the gods decide what it best for us; pray for a mens sana in corpore sano, strength of spirit and an ability to cope with misfortune, and leave it at that.

The satire contains many memorable exemplary episodes, including the vivid account of the fall of Sejanus, the emperor Tiberius's favourite (in which the panem et circenses phrase occurs), the brief summary of Hannibal's career, and the wryly funny suggestion that Cicero might have avoided so much danger in his life had he been content to be a lousy poet. Many of these may feature in later posts...

But an often ignored passage is in my opinion one of the best: the section depicting the plight of Gaius Silius, the consul-elect who entered into a dangerous affair with the notorious Messalina, wife of the emperor Claudius. The Silius episode is memorably described by Tacitus as well (although his version of the story is slightly different, with Silius rather than Messalina insisting on their marriage), but the irony and pathos of Juvenal's depiction rank it among his best work:

...elige quidnam
suadendum esse putes cui nubere Caesaris uxor
destinat. optimus hic et formonsissimus idem
gentis patriciae rapitur miser extinguendus
Messalinae oculis; dudum sedet illa parato
flammeolo Tyriusque palam genialis in hortis
sternitur et ritu decies centena dabuntur
antiquo, veniet cum signatoribus auspex.

"Choose what earthly advice you think you ought to give to the fellow whom Caesar's wife intends to marry. This most excellent and also handsome representative of a patrician family is snatched off, poor fellow, to be snuffed out by Messalina's eyes. She has long been sitting with her flame-coloured veil all ready, and the Tyrian-dyed marriage bed is openly turned down in the gardens, and a dowry of a million will be given according to the old custom, and the soothsayer will come along with the witnesses."

(Juvenal, Satire X, 329-336)

The stage is set for the calamity:

Line 329: "quidnam" is, as always, a bit stronger than "quid"; a rough equivalent in English would be "what on earth" or "what in the world". Emphatically placed here, it helps to show the impossible situation that Silius finds himself in (once we know who is being described).
330: "Caesaris uxor": now, there has been no lead-in to this story, and so the reader/listener is left in suspense as to who this could be, since all the emperors were known as "Caesar". Silius has not been mentioned yet, neither has Messalina.
331: "destinat": enjambed, and emphatically placed, so it must have some significance. I think that here Juvenal is stressing that Messalina does not just want to marry Silius (and therefore throw off concealment once and for all) she has determined to do it: that is her will, and she gets what she wants. The whole point of the passage is to show that Silius, for all his nobility of birth, good looks and social standing (as consul-elect), he is essentially Messalina's slave, and more importantly a slave to fortune. The superlatives ("optimus...formonsissimus") build up the impression of Silius as someone supposedly favoured by fate...but events show that it is quite the opposite.
332: the sudden "rapitur", after an enunciation of Silius's good fortune, is jarring and effective. He is "snatched away"; "miser" continues the negative mood, and the gloomy "extinguendus" - a fifth-foot spondee (see here) - gives the line a very heavy, fatal feel. In the space of a line, Silius has gone from being a Roman brahmin to a candidate for unavoidable death (the gerundive ending of "extinguendus" is equally effective).
333: "Messalinae": Aha! Now the reader/listener knows who we're talking about, and all the mixture of pride and misery in the last three lines becomes immediately clear. The mention of Messalina (in emphatic position, naturally!) is all the more striking for being delayed, as is the metaphor of Silius' being destroyed by her eyes. The theme of this portion of the satire is the folly of prayers for good looks. Silius' beauty has attracted Messalina's attention...and from that moment, Juvenal implies, he is a dead man.
334-336: in some ways these lines are simply atmospheric filler, but there are some interesting points: "parato" as the final word in line 333 is suggestive; what has she "prepared" for him? (Shades of the ending of the fifth satire!) "sternitur", in line 335, has the double meaning of "laid low/killed", which is appropriate to the context, while the mention of a million sesterces being handed over is sadly ironic: Silius will obviously be unable to take advantage of such new-found wealth.

Stay tuned for Part II.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Adsum Qui Feci

Apologies for the lack of posts over the past week, which has been largely due to my constant viewing of the Poculum Mundi (in case anyone's interested, you can follow my amateurish commentary on it over at my other blog). But the Pierian spring cannot be abandoned for too long, so herewith some more literary ramblings.

One of the more intriguing subplots of Virgil's Aeneid is the tale of the Trojan warriors Nisus and Euryalus; their friendship, their sly collusion during the foot-race in Book 5, and finally their doomed attack on the Rutulian camp in Book 9.

It is from the latter that this week's excerpt comes. To set the scene: Nisus has mentioned to his young friend Euryalus (the overtones of homosexuality are carefully understated by Virgil throughout, but the level of affection between the two is certainly intense) that he plans a night attack on the Rutulian lines, so as to break through to Aeneas, who is rallying help elsewhere. Euryalus, bold and vigorous, joins in willingly, and the two slaughter a number of sleeping Rutulians. But a flash of reflected light from a helmet gives the two away, and although Nisus manages to escape, Euryalus does not. As the Latin warrior Volcens prepares to kill Euryalus, the distraught Nisus breaks out of his hiding-place and begs to be killed in Euryalus's place. It is a short speech but a highly moving one, and handled with beautiful skill by Virgil:

...tum vero exterritus, amens,
conclamat Nisus nec se celare tenebris
amplius aut tantum potuit perferre dolorem:
'me, me, adsum qui feci, in me convertite ferrum,
o Rutuli! mea fraus omnis, nihil iste nec ausus
nec potuit; caelum hoc et conscia sidera testor;
tantum infelicem nimium dilexit amicum.'

"Then it was that, terrified and out of his mind, Nisus cried out and could not hide himself in the darkness or bear such grief any more: 'Do it to me, to me, I'm here, the one who did it, turn your weapons onto me, Rutulians! The whole trick was mine, this one dared nothing, nor could he have; This sky and the stars that saw it are my witnesses: he only loved his unlucky friend too much.'"

(Virgil, Aeneid IX, 424-430)

The ars in the arte:

Line 424: immediately, with the asyndeton of "exterritus, amens", we get the sense both of the urgency of Nisus' action and his disordered state of mind. The prepositions "ex-" and "a-" attached to the two adjectives help to portray Nisus as a man truly taken "out of himself".
425: "conclamat" is emphatically placed at the beginning of the line: the cry is the central event, attracting the Rutulians' attention and at least delaying Euryalus' fate.
426: the enjambed "amplius" is very effective, showing that it was simply a case of too much for Nisus: even the knowledge of his own certain death ultimately couldn't keep him from trying to save his dear friend. The prepositional prefix "per-" in the verb "perferre" further underlines this: Nisus can ferre the situation, but not perferre ("bear it to the end).
427: a wonderful line, and in my opinion a widely misunderstood one. The general consensus seems to be that the "me, me" is virtually a disjunctive form (like "moi" in French), and nothing to do with the accusative case. I respectfully disagree: the fact that it is in the accusative seems very important to me in the context here: the weapon is just about to be turned on his beloved young friend, and Nisus immediately says "me" - not "ego", not "mea" (as in the later "mea fraus"), but the accusative "me". So the idea that strikes the listener is not so much "it was me", but "do it to me". Make me the object of your violence, not poor, innocent (in that it wasn't his idea) Euryalus. Then there's the brilliant "adsum qui feci": "I am present who did this". Note: not "I am the one who did this"; similar, but with the extra information I am here. Kill me instead. A point to note is that "sum qui feci" would also have fit into the metre, so the choice of "adsum" is quite deliberate.
428-9: Nisus' speech is full of ellipsis ("erat mea fraus omnis, nihil iste nec ausus est nec potuit"), again showing his desperation and his overwrought state: the words collapse out almost on top of one another. The use of "iste", normally a word with a negative connotation, is interesting (especially since "ille" would have fit quite naturally into the metre): it is used, in my view, to almost belittle Euryalus in the Rutulians' eyes; this little fellow was incapable of any such subterfuge, is the implicit message. "conscia sidera" is a beautiful adjective-noun combination, worthy of Horace at his best; "the complicit stars", with its slight hint of a night-time tryst as well as simply a conspiracy hatched by night.
430: a highly spondaic line with a sad, poignant message. The ambiguity of "tantum" - either "he only loved..." or "he loved so much, too much" - is used to good effect by Virgil. The proliferation of nasal sounds ("n" and "m") is highly effective as well, giving the cry the feel of a lament, even a groan.

A passage rich in emotion and pathos, and one of the many little jewels in the Aeneid.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Quis Actaeon? - Part II

And so the story of the violent death of the impious Pentheus continues, with Ovid in typically crisp poetic form:

...ruit omnis in unum
turba furens; cunctae coeunt trepidumque sequuntur,
iam trepidum, iam verba minus violenta loquentem,
iam se damnantem, iam se peccasse fatentem.
saucius ille tamen 'fer opem, matertera' dixit
'Autonoe! moveant animos Actaeonis umbrae!'
illa, quis Actaeon, nescit dextramque precanti
abstulit, Inoo lacerata est altera raptu.

"The whole mad throng rushed at his lone self; they all gathered and followed him as he he was cowering, no speaking less threatening words, now condemning himself, now admitting that he had sinned. Yet he said, in his wounded state, 'Help me, aunt Autonoe! Let Actaeon's ghost sway your spirit!' Who's Actaeon? She doesn't know, and ripped his right hand off as he appealed, and the left was torn off by a grab from Ino."

(Ovid, Metamorphoses III, 715-722)

Plenty of ars hiding in the arte here:

Line 715: the contrast of "omnis in unum" is something of a poetic commonplace, but it is no less effective for that. The image of a king suddenly being a lone, frightened figure amongst a bunch of crazed women is especially striking.
716: the repeated assonance of the "u" sound in this line (read it out loud to get the full effect) seems to evoke the crazed, wolf-like howling of the women at the hunt. The sound that wolves make is not depicted as "ululatus" by the Romans for nothing, and in fact the verb related to this (ululo, -are) is attached to Pentheus's mother Agave in the final, climactic part of this story.
717-8: the quadruple anaphora of "iam", with the obvious indication that now (too late!) Pentheus realises his mistake and regrets his contempt for the new god, is combined with a culmination of Pentheus's change of heart: first fear, then retreat, then self-criticism, and finally repentance. The change in rhythm reflects this perfectly: line 717 is mainly dactylic, as Pentheus presumably runs shivering in fear, while line 718 is very heavily spondaic, with Pentheus now a rabbit in headlights, pleading for forgiveness.
719: "saucius", in emphatic position, jerks the narrative forwards: he has already received the first wound, and now prepares to beg to his aunt Autonoe. Her son Actaeon had suffered a similar fate to Pentheus, being torn to pieces by his own hunting-hounds after glimpsing Artemis, herself goddess of the hunt, in the nude. The reminder should have given Autonoe pause, but...
721: the brilliant retort, and the cause of the title of this pair of posts. "quis Actaeon" is superbly placed: immediately after "illa", with no verb as yet to explain things for the listener. Is it an indirect question or a direct quote? In fact, it works just as well both ways, and this is (in my humble opinion) absolutely deliberate. The following verb "nescit" suggests an indirect question, but with no verb in the subjunctive to finish off the phrase, it remains tantalisingly up in the air. The effect is to show how strongly the Bacchic frenzy has gripped Autonoe: she no longer recognises the name of her dead son.
722: the enjambed "abstulit" hits the listener like a brick, and the repeated "ra" sounds that finish the line as Pentheus loses his other arm suggest an ungovernable madness unmistakably.

Gruesome, horrific, yet slyly humorous at the same time...vintage Ovid.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Quis Actaeon? - Part I

The story of Pentheus, the king of Thebes who renounced the worship of Dionysus, is one of the most gruesome of the Greek myths. The unfortunate monarch ends up being torn to pieces by a group of Maenad women, worshippers of Dionysus, including...his own mother Agave.

The most well-known retelling of the tale is in Euripides' powerfully dark play Bacchae, in which the ostensibly fun-loving Dionysus comes across as a calculating and terrifying avenger. Ovid could never resist a vivid myth, and another memorable account of Pentheus' demise can be found in the third book of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Ovid's excuse for including the Pentheus myth in his masterwork is the closely-related story of Acoetes, the sailor whose shipmates kidnapped the young Dionysus only to be turned into dolphins for their trouble. Metamorphosis - check! Pentheus listens impatiently to Acoetes' tale, imprisons the sailor (he is subsequently magically freed), and then goes up to Mount Cithaeron to observe the crazed followers of Dionysus at their rites.

And this is where our selection begins. The meaning of this post's title will be revealed in Part II, but for now, here is the introduction to the grisly killing of Pentheus, a passage with some typically brilliant Ovidian touches:

monte fere medio est, cingentibus ultima silvis,
purus ab arboribus, spectabilis undique, campus:
hic oculis illum cernentem sacra profanis
prima videt, prima est insano concita cursu,
prima suum misso violavit Penthea thyrso
mater et 'o geminae' clamavit 'adeste sorores!
ille aper, in nostris errat qui maximus agris,
ille mihi feriendus aper.'

"At about the middle of the mountain, there is a clear space, free from trees, and with sight-lines all around, with woods covering the edges. It was here that the first to see him observing the sacred rites with impious eyes, the first to be stirred by a mad desire for the hunt, the first who hurled a thyrsus and wounded her own Pentheus was his mother; and she cried "Oh, my twin sisters, be with me! That boar, the huge one who is wandering in our territory, that boar is mine to smite!"

(Ovid, Metamorphoses III, 708-715)

There is, as always, plenty hidden beneath the surface of Ovid's Latin (ars latet arte, of course):

Line 708: two significant word choices here are "medio" and "cingentibus". They are in the "middle" of the mountain, but the word can also refer to the "nub" or key point of a story (hence the term in medias res - entering a story at the climactic point, without any introduction). As for the verb cingo, the meaning of "surround" often has a military sense; are the woods like a ring of soldiers, blocking Pentheus' escape?
709: the words "purus...campus" are placed in the two emphatic positions of the line, and again "purus" has an interesting double meaning: the plain is "clear" of trees, but the place is also "pure" - fit for the Dionysiac ceremonies, and not fit to be defiled by the unbeliever Pentheus.
710: the justaposition of "sacra profanis" is effective: another example of how the fluid word order of Latin sometimes offers possibilities denied to English.
711ff: the anaphora of "prima" obviously builds up the suspense, but also the tragedy of the situation; not only does Pentheus die at the hands of his own mother, but she is the catalyst for the whole terrifying scene, the first to spot him. The alliteration of "c" sounds at the end of line 711 suggests Agave and the Maenads springing into action, and "suum...Penthea" - her own prey and also her own son - is a passing touch of pathos.
713: finally, the long-delayed word "mater" - in emphatic position again, deepening the pathos and the horror. The sense of jubilation behind Agave's words is also jarring for the reader/listener.
714f: more emphatic positioning with "ille...ille". Agave, in her Bacchic frenzy, has mistaken Pentheus for a boar, and the juxtaposition of "ille mihi" in line 715 ("He's mine!") is particularly effective.

More to come in Part II, with some sly Ovidian wordplay accompanying Pentheus' grisly end.