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.