Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mala Gramina

Everyone has their personal No.1 fear. For my wife, it is spiders. For the fictional Winston Smith, famously, it was rats. For me, it is snakes.

This is not due to some terrifying childhood experience, or a disturbing film scene that was impossible to forget. I've simply always found the idea of long, slithering, limbless creatures capable of killing with a single bite to be blood-chilling. I have a feeling that Virgil may have had the same fear, such is the frightening effectiveness of the snake-simile attached to Pyrrhus in Book 2 of the Aeneid:

Vestibulum ante ipsum primoque in limine Pyrrhus
exsultat telis et luce coruscus aena:
qualis ubi in lucem coluber mala gramina pastus,
frigida sub terra tumidum quem bruma tegebat,
nunc, positis novus exuviis nitidusque iuventa,
lubrica convolvit sublato pectore terga
arduus ad solem, et linguis micat ore trisulcis.

"At the very entrance, right by the door, was Pyrrhus, delighting in his weaponry and resplendent in the bronze light of his armour. Just like a snake that has come into the light, after feeding on evil grass; the chilly winter has hidden it underground, full to bursting, and now, brand new after shedding its skin and glossy with youthful vigour, it lifts up its underbelly and arches its slithery back high into the sun, its mouth flashing with its triple-forked tongue."

(Virgil, Aeneid II, 469-475)

Let'sssss sssssssee...

Line 469: as so often in Virgil, the central character in the new scene has his introduction carefully delayed until the emphatic final position. The first part of this line is somewhat formulaic, but what follows is not.
470: even before the mention of the snake, we have a hint of the sounds that will dominate the succeeding lines: at the beginning of the line, the rhythm is spondaic and "t" and "l" sounds proliferate; already a delicate, slithery sound is apparent. Then, towards the end, the assonance of "u" becomes more pronounced.
471: the assonance of "u" continues, with the suggestion that something grim and frightening is about to be introduced. Sure enough, it's a "coluber", and it isn't just the provebial snake in the is a snake who has fed on bad grass! (No pun intended, for those with vivid memories of the sixties.) In a sense, this is just a paraphrase of Homer's κακὰ φαρμακα in a similar passage, but the assonance of "a" sounds here gives the phrase a particularly harsh touch.
472: another cleverly-constructed line in which the first word, "frigida", sets the tone, while another repeated sound combination - "tumidum quem bruma" - provides the perfect backdrop for the emergence of the snake in the spring. (Would it be too fanciful to even consider the end of the line as like a drumroll prior to the entrance of the snake in its new skin?)
473: the words "novus" and "nitidus", and especially "iuventa", are in a sense ironic since these bywords for youth and vitality hardly seem to belong in such a dark simile! But we are reminded here that although Pyrrhus is on murder bent (the murder of Priam, to be precise), he is bursting with youth and strength.
474: the "u" sound is prominent again, as is the repeated "l" which seems to suggest the snake licking its lips in anticipation of its first kill.
475: again, the first word sets the tone: the snake lifts is body high, to appear especially frightening to its prey. The splendid finish, with the snake flashing its fangs and tongue and the "i" and "s" sounds hinting at the vicious accompanying hiss, lingers in the memory.

I think I'll avoid the Australian outback at all costs, thank you very much.

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