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.

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