Saturday, September 18, 2010

Opici Mures

Juvenal's most controversial satire, and one of his most well-known, is the magnificently gloomy third. Its depiction of the daily dangers, humiliations and frustrations of life in a big city (Rome, in this case) is still full of relevance today; Juvenal's Rome could be New York, London or even my own beloved Sydney circa 2010. All of Juvenal's characters are still around: the arrogant self-made men, the drunks spoiling for a fight after another miserable night out, and of course people like the grumpy "narrator", Umbricius, who feel that they've been completely left behind by the urban zeitgeist.

There is plenty of seething anger in the poem, although Juvenal cagily expresses it through the vehicle of Umbricius (in some of his later satires, notably the apoplectic fifteenth, he has no problems ranting in the first person singular). But there are tender moments of pathos as well, and one of these is the topic of this post: the tale of Cordus, a poor man with a literary bent, whose top-floor flat gets consumed in one of the many fires that broke out in the Roman slums. The description of Cordus's living conditions is masterly:

lectus erat Cordo Procula minor, urceoli sex
ornamentum abaci, nec non et parvulus infra
cantharus et recubans sub eodem marmore Chiron,
iamque vetus Graecos servabat cista libellos
et divina opici rodebant carmina mures.
nil habuit Cordus, quis enim negat? et tamen illud
perdidit infelix totum nihil. ultimus autem
aerumnae cumulus, quod nudum et frusta rogantem
nemo cibo, nemo hospitio tectoque iuvabit.

"Cordus's bed was too small for Procula, and six little jugs decorated the marble table, not to mention a tiny cup underneath, and a Chiron lying on his back beneath the same marble, and here was an old box containing little Greek books, and uncultured mice were gnawing at the magnificent poems. Cordus had nothing...who could deny it? And yet the poor fellow lost that whole nothing that he had. Yet the final straw in his suffering is that, when he's got no clothes left and is begging for a bite, no-one will give him food, no-one will let him in and give him a roof over his head."

(Juvenal, Satire III, 203-211)


Line 203: The otherwise unknown "Procula" was presumably a famous dwarf, and as an introduction to this picture of poverty this works well.
204: the ironic "ornamentum", in emphatic position, portrays Cordus's straitened circumstances superbly; the only thing he has to "adorn" his marble table is six cheap jugs, which would otherwise be kept out of sight. "nec non", a quick litotes, is also gently ironic: "Oh yes, there was also...". "parvulus cantharus" is almost an oxymoron, given that a cantharus was supposed to be a grand wine-vessel; the diminutive parvulus makes Codrus's specimen seem even more embarrassing.
205: there is some dissension as to the word "Chiron" here: is it a statue (of the Centaur of the same name), or is it a pet dog, given that Chiron was a relatively common name for canine companions? Although the image of a faithful dog lying on its back ready for a tickle is a touching one, the former interpretation is probably correct, and meant as another indication that Cordus is a man of some taste despite his slender means; the detail "recubans" perhaps suggests that Cordus's poor statue has had its pedestal broken!
206: "servabat" is a well-chosen word. The box was "holding" the books, but it was also "preserving" the literature within...again, there is a suggestion that Cordus has a sense of what is really important.
207: a truly beautiful and moving line (it would, in fact, be a golden line but for the "et" at the beginning). The arrival of the mice again shows how difficult Cordus's living conditions are, but the humorous epithet "opici", a word borrowed from Greek (perhaps all the more apt for that), is applied to anyone without the patina of education. The implication seems to be that Cordus is fighting a losing battle against the barbarous intrusion of the big city on his humble pleasures; even the mice are against him! The double meaning of "rodebant" is also worth mentioning; although the word carries a basic sense of biting or gnawing (hence English words such as rodent and erosion), it has a secondary meaning of "criticising", also in a literary sense. Those tasteless mice!
208: the encapsulation of Cordus's situation is meant to evoke pathos, and of course it does. "nil" in emphatic position is followed by the rhetorical question "quis enim negat?", with the indicative negat perhaps suggesting more certainty than the more natural subjunctive neget.
209: again, a careful emphatic placement, this time of "perdidit", and the oxymoron "totum nihil" nicely demonstrates the scale of poor Cordus's loss. But with "ultimus", we learn that there's more to come.
211: the tragic end. No-one will help him, with "nemo" both emphatically placed and repeated in anaphora. The message: in a big city, no-one has time or pity for a poor man.

No comments:

Post a Comment