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.

No comments:

Post a Comment