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.