Sunday, October 31, 2010

Diu Viximus

Continuing the theme of human-animal relationships from the last post, I very much enjoyed teaching the tenth book of Virgil's Aeneid to my HSC class this last year, and one of the passages that appealed to both me and the students the most was the battle-speech-cum-farewell of the warrior-king Mezentius, addressed to his faithful steed Rhaebus.

Mezentius is one of the more interesting characters in the Aeneid. In the eighth book he is depicted in a brief aside as a thoroughly evil and sadistic tyrant, and while he shows some of these qualities in the course of his violent aristeia in the tenth book, he is invested with a certain dignity and honour in his death-scene. After his son Lausus has died to protect him, it is almost as if Mezentius is imbued with some of his son's heroism as he prepares to fight Aeneas; certainly, the sentiments he addresses to Rhaebus are very much in the style of a Homeric hero, and his sense of solidarity with Rhaebus is actually quite touching:

haud deiectus equum duci iubet. hoc decus illi,
hoc solamen erat, bellis hoc victor abibat
omnibus. adloquitur maerentem et talibus infit:
'Rhaebe, diu, res si qua diu mortalibus ulla est,
viximus. aut hodie victor spolia illa cruenti
et caput Aeneae referes Lausique dolorum
ultor eris mecum, aut, aperit si nulla viam vis,
occumbes pariter; neque enim, fortissime, credo,
iussa aliena pati et dominos dignabere Teucros.'

"By no means dismayed, he [Mezentius] ordered his horse to be brought. This was his glory, this his solace, on this steed he had departed all his battles in triumph. He addressed it as it grieved and started off with such words as these: "Rhaebus, we have lived a long time, if anything is a long time for we who must die. Today, you will either bring back those spoils and the head from the bloodied body of Aeneas, and you will be the avenger of Lausus' sad fate along with me, or if no force can find a way through, you will fall together with me; after all, my bravest one, I don't believe that you would accept the orders of another and consider the Trojans worthy to be your masters."

(Virgil, Aeneid X, 858-866)

Some observations:

Line 858: the opening phrase, "haud deiectus", immediately suggests Mezentius' heroic qualities; although grieved by the news of his son's death and riven with guilt at his own part in it, the great warrior refuses to sink into lethargy. Bloody but unbowed, as it were. The anaphora of "hoc" in this and the succeeding line give the strongest indication possible of the close relationship between man and horse, and the shared experiences that have created such a bond.
860: the little detail of the horse "maerentem" suggests both human feelings (Virgil's anthropomorphism at work again, just as in the Georgics), and a foreboding of Mezentius' fate at the hands of a greater warrior.
861-2: the ruthless tyrant here becomes a philosopher for a moment, and it is interesting that he implicitly includes Rhaebus in the term "mortalibus", hence my choice of "we who must die" rather than "human beings/mortals" in my translation above. The sentiment is a Homeric one: our lives are short, but our glory lives on. Here, Mezentius faces death with courage and equanimity, and the finality of his situation is emphasised by the enjambment of "viximus". Cicero's laconic "vixerunt" comment on the Catilinarian conspirators comes to mind...
864: "ultor eris mecum" comes before the caesura in enjambment, and as so often in Virgil, that indicates a significant statement. Mezentius's mind is set on vengeance, but Rhaebus is to share in that vengeance...and that achievement. The rare, striking monosyllabic ending to the line, along with the alliteration of the forceful "v" sound, perhaps suggest that Mezentius (and Rhaebus) will exhaust all their "vis" in their attempt. The bond between man and horse is delineated even more strongly in the next line with another enjambed phrase before the caesura, with the key word "pariter" suggesting that both deaths have, so to speak, equal weight.
866: a nice way to finish, hinting that Rhaebus, like his master, is made of noble and uncompromising stuff. The alliteration of "d" sounds is effective, but "dignabere" is the key word: Rhaebus is a "dignus equus", and in Mezentius' eyes, the Trojans are beneath him!

The irony, of course, is that it is Rhaebus who ultimately causes Mezentius' death, falling on top of him after Aeneas has landed a spear on the horse's forehead. Pariter occubuerunt.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Blando Pede

A recent and very touching article by the excellent essayist Dr. Anthony Daniels (a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple) got me thinking about the relationship between humans and dogs. Like the good doctor, my wife and I have a dog on whom we have doted for over a decade; to our delight, she has taken our young daughter to her heart as well.

The Romans, of course, loved their dogs. Not just their hunting-dogs (for which, by the way, see Xenophon's classic treatise on the subject), but their lap-dogs. One of those immortalised in classical literature was Issa, the darling of a certain Publius who was a friend of the poet Martial. In a hendecasyllabic epigram with definite nods to Catullus' famous sparrow poems, Martial expresses the man-dog relationship in tender terms:

Hanc tu, si queritur, loqui putabis;
sentit tristitiamque gaudiumque.
collo nixa cubat capitque somnos,
ut suspiria nulla sentiantur;
et desiderio coacta ventris
gutta pallia non fefellit ulla,
sed blando pede suscitat toroque
deponi monet et rogat levari.
castae tantus inest pudor catellae,
ignorat Venerem; nec invenimus
dignum tam tenera virum puella.

"If she [Issa] complains, you will think she is speaking; she feels both sadness and joy. She leans on his [Publius'] neck and catches sleep, but so that no breath is heard; and even if she is hard-pressed by the need for relief, she has never stained any blanket with as much as a drop. But she stirs him with a gentle foot, and says she needs to be put down from the bed, and asks him to lift her up. There is so much modesty in this unsullied pup, she is unaware of the delights of Love; and we haven't found a man worthy of such a gentle girl!"

(Martial, I.109, 6-16)

Hardly a classic of Latin literature, but enjoyable nonetheless:

Line 6: with "loqui", we immediately get the sense of what Martial is trying to convey: Issa is, to her owner, very human, and gives that impression to others as well.
7: the polysyndeton of "tristitiamque gaudiumque" is metrically convenient, but stylistically clever as well, suggesting the range of emotions Issa feels.
8: a nicely-chosen end to the line. somnum capere is of course a set expression in Latin for getting some sleep (the English phrase "catching some shut-eye" is worth noting by comparison), but there is perhaps an extra idea here: that of Issa perhaps "catching" her master's sleep as well, with the faithfulness and devotion implied. Certainly, anyone who has had a little dog accompany them for an afternoon snooze knows what perfect companions they are for the Land of Nod, and the thoughtfulness of Issa suggested in line 9 conveys this beautifully.
10: a cleverly-ordered line. As a Roman listener would hear it: "desiderio" desire/wish..."coacta"...compelled...what's going on here?..."ventris". Aha! An ending of gentle bathos: the "desire" that the dog feels is for a leak. But it is too faithful (and perhaps sensible) to sully its master's sheets!
11: another nicely chosen word, "fefellit": the dog does not stain the sheets, but also does not deceive its master. None so faithful as Issa.
12: "blando pede" is a phrase which almost encapsulates Issa's gentleness. Even when tortured by a full bladder, she treats her master with kindness and consideration, with just a gentle paw on the hand to make a humble request ("rogat").
14: "catellae" provides a slightly bathetic and humorous ending to the line, since the first four words would make one think of an upright young lady or a grim widow. Instead, it's Issa again, a "lady" of impeccable morals as well as a gentle soul!
16: a delightful ending, with the emphatically-placed "dignum" and the incongruous "virum" investing Issa with a sort of maiden's purity. Note the use of "puella", also emphatically placed...again, Issa is very human to her owner and her owner's friends!

For the record, here is our own little Issa, who goes by the name of Georgie. May she live for a good many years yet.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Turpes Umbras

No-one would read Ovid's Amores for profundity, but the poems flow along so easily and enjoyably that it's easy to forget that they are, essentially, verse set-pieces. Most critics seem to believe that the poems in the Amores are riffs on universal elegiac themes rather than reflections of Ovid's own life experiences (I tend to agree), but this doesn't diminish their appeal. And one of their most endearing qualities is that Ovid is able to give full rein to his wonderful gift for sly humour while purporting to express love, anger, and all the other elegiac emotions. Take the lesser-known twelfth poem of the first book, in which Ovid rants at the writing-tablet that has informed him that today's date with his girlfriend is cancelled.

Anger at inanimate objects is hardly a novelty in classical verse, but there are few more deft examples of it than this. What insults can you throw at a writing-tablet? Well, Ovid was a master at expressing tongue-in-cheek indignation, and here he shoots the messenger in brilliant style:

at tamquam minio penitus medicata rubebas,
ille color vere sanguinolentus erat!
proiectae triviis iaceatis, inutile lignum,
vosque rotae frangat praetereuntis onus!
illum etiam, qui vos ex arbore vertit in usum,
convincam puras non habuisse manus.
praebuit illa arbor misero suspendia collo,
carnifici diras praebuit illa cruces;
illa dedit turpes raucis bubonibus umbras,
vulturis in ramis et strigis ova tulit.

"But even though you were thoroughly tinged with vermilion dye, you were blushing...and that colour was really that of blood! You can be tossed out and lie there on a street corner, you useless wood, and I hope the weight of a passing wheel breaks you! And even that man who got you from the tree and carved you into something useful...I'll show that he was up to no good with those hands! That tree provided stocks for some poor wretch's neck, it provided the dreaded crosses for the executioner; it gave unholy shade to noisy owls, and carried the eggs of a vulture and a screech-owl on its branches!"

(Ovid, Amores I.12, 11-20)

Line 11: "rubebas" carries a pun which Ovid uses to good effect elsewhere (in the penultimate line of the famous "Aurora" poem, to be precise); the tablet is red, but that colour suggests that it is blushing at the bad news it is carrying; naturally, the word is left until the emphatic final position for extra effect.
12: the long-drawn-out word "sanguinolentus", which encompasses most of the back end of the pentameter line, is used instead of the simple sanguineus (which is metrically usable). Why? In my view, partly to stretch out the insult in a humorous way, and partly to practically accuse the tablet of a crime: it smells (olet) of blood!
13: in "iaceatis" we again have the second person jussive subjunctive, which Virgil used to such good effect in Dido's dying curse. The imperate iacete could have been used, but then there wouldn't be the overtones of a wish for the tablet to come to harm. Ovid is (pretending to be) in a vindictive mood...
14: Ovid cleverly leaves "onus" until the end; the wood should not just be crushed by a wheel, but by the full weight of a wheel. It should feel it, dammit!
16: another double meaning in "convincam", which can have a sense of convict as well as convince (both meanings, of course, are reflected in the English derivations). The notion of the tree-lopper or the carpenter (or both) not having "puras...manus" is partly ironic, since Ovid is using the tablet to conduct a presumably illicit affair.
17-18: so now we move to the tree which provided the wood for the tablet. "praebuit illa" is repeated in anaphora to ram home the point: this tree was a source of suffering for others as well as poor me!
19-20: this section of the poem finishes with criticism of the tree for the shelter it provided for certain birds which the Romans did not like, and the jarring adjective-noun pair "turpes...umbras" encapsulates this idea perfectly. umbrae can be pleasant on a sunny day, and perhaps sad or frightening if the word is meant to refer to the shades of the dead, but "turpes"? It is a word which would rarely ever fit as a description of umbrae, and it is all the more effective here for that. The phrase also helps to give the line a memorable sound, with the proliferation of "r" and "b" sounds creating a deliberate ugliness. The final insult, that the tree protected the eggs of two particularly horrible birds (owls were the traditional Roman birds of ill omen, while vultures were despised for obvious reasons), caps the rant off nicely, with "vulturis" placed in the emphatic initial position.

I wonder whether Ovid would have preferred email?