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!


  1. perhaps, since youth is still on my side, i'm just proving your point - but i like catullus. at least i like teaching him. i've just finished doing some bits of the pro caelio with year 11 and to finish we had a look at a bit of Catullus to compare what they each say about Clodia, Clodius and Caelius. it's interesting (i think) that they all knew each other and we have a couple of different perspectives on their personalities.

    you're right, though, to admire this passage. i reckon part of what makes it effective is that Catullus could identify with Ariadne. the way he has her describe Theseus in the preceeding lines echoes his own description of Lesbia in poem 70 for example. so it's a bit unfair to say the short poems are rubbish the long poems are good - i don't think one would be possible without the other.

    but i take the point about whiny and self-obssessed...

  2. Aw, rub it in that you're a good deal younger than me, why don't you! ;-)

    I wouldn't say that the short poems are rubbish, only that they have probably been made out to be more than they are, so to speak. Even Catullus probably considered some of them to be light throwaways.

    Very interesting point about C. identifying with Ariadne...on reflection, I think there are plenty of parallels between the language in this passage and the feelings he expresses towards Clodia elsewhere.

  3. What's the current scholarly "consensus" on the identification of Lesbia with Clodia? When I read Catullus as an undergrad a few years ago I believe it wasn't so popular anymore...

  4. Also, I wonder if Vergil was alluding to this Catullan passage when he refers to a "purpuream...vestem" at Aeneid 4.139. Considering it's relating to Dido before Aeneas leaves, it may have some resonance. There's also some "spumant-ing" and even a "leonem" nearby...