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?

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