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 clich├ęd 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 spring...is 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"...it'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).

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