Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Frigida Inguina

In a recent post I made brief mention of my father, whose lifelong passion has been sailing, and offshore racing in particular. Like most devoted yachties, he often affects an airy disregard for the vagaries of the weather, believing that even the most doom-laden sky presages nothing worse than a "passing shower". Not surprisingly, I was reminded forcibly of him when reading the following passage, from Juvenal's fourteenth satire.

Like most of Juvenal's satires, the fourteenth has a putative theme, namely the bad example that some parents set for their children. As always, however, he is inclined to ramble; the excerpt below occurs during a long digression on the topic of avarice, and at this point he is imagining a merchant undertaking a risky but potentially hugely profitable sea-journey. A disaster is looming, and Juvenal tells the hypothetical story with grim relish:

occurrunt nubes et fulgura: 'solvite funem!'
frumenti dominus clamat piperisve coempti,
'nil color hic caeli, nil fascia nigra minatur;
aestivum tonat.' infelix hac forsitan ipsa
nocte cadet fractis trabibus fluctuque premetur
obrutus et zonam laeva morsuque tenebit.
sed cuius votis modo non suffecerat aurum
quod Tagus et rutila volvit Pactolus harena,
frigida sufficient velantes inguina panni
exiguusque cibus, mersa rate naufragus assem
dum rogat et picta se tempestate tuetur.

"Clouds and thunder appear: 'Let out the sails!' cries the owner of the corn and pepper acquired. 'This dark sky means nothing, this black covering of cloud isn't threatening anything; it's just a summer storm!'. And perhaps the wretch will fall from his wrecked ship this very night; he'll be buried by the waves and pushed under, and he'll be desperately hanging on to his money-belt with his left hand, or maybe his teeth. But for this fellow, who just now wasn't content with all the gold swirling in the Tagus or the red sand of Pactolus, some rags to cover his freezing balls and some scraps of food will have to do. Meanwhile, he asks for a coin, this drowned rat from a sunken ship, and supports himself with a drawing of a storm."

(Juvenal, Satire XIV, 292-302)

Ah, the perils of the sea...

Line 292: the blithely confident "solvite funem!", placed in the last two feet of the hexameter to make a bucolic diaeresis, makes a mordantly effective beginning to the story, especially given what has come before, with the menacing "u" sounds filling up the first four feet.
294-5: the assertive anaphora of "nil" adds to the already clear depiction of the merchant's swashbuckling confidence: nothing will prevent me from making my fortune! "aestivum", emphatically placed at the beginning of line 295, is a timeless rationalisation of the danger; I can almost hear my father saying "it's OK, it's just a passing shower!" as my brother and I cowered below deck. The word "infelix", coming immediately after the merchant's cries, marks a sudden and effective change of mood, as well as a jump forward in time: the worst has clearly happened.
296-7: the harsh "a" sounds at the beginning of the line give a sense of the panic of the shipwreck, while the end of line 297 gives a nice insight into the merchant's character; he is not concerned for his comrades, he is threatened with imminent death himself, but holds on to his precious money-belt with his one free hand (the other, presumably, grasping a spar), and even tries to bite it ("morsu") to hold on if necessary! The theme of avarice is now at the forefront of the narrative.
298: "aurum" is left until the end of the line for emphasis, and the well-chosen word "votis" refers not only to the merchant's wishes, but perhaps also his dearest prayers for wealth.
300: a very clever line. The initial words "frigida sufficient" might suggest that the eventual sense will be "cold _____ will be enough", with a word referring to food or lodgings filling the syntactical gap. But wait: "frigida" ends up agreeing with the object of the sentence, and it is the unexpectedly intimate "inguina". Here, anyone who has been "dumped" during a day out on the water, especially during the winter, will grin ruefully: one never feels the cold more acutely than in one's, erm, private areas. The "panni", along with the emphatically-placed "exiguus(que)" at the beginning of the next line, demonstrate his swift riches-to-rags conversion nicely.
302: a well-considered ending to the tale. That the merchant has to "tuetur" himself with a drawing ("picta") of the shipwreck suggests that he is in a foreign land, unable to make himself understood except by a crude illustration of his fate. Finally, the repeated "t" sounds at the end of the line suggest that inevitable companion of an archetypal "drowned rat" - perpetually chattering teeth!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sparsa Miracula, Part II

Phaethon's doomed voyage across the sky continues:

quid faciat? multum caeli post terga relictum,
ante oculos plus est: animo metitur utrumque
et modo, quos illi fatum contingere non est,
prospicit occasus, interdum respicit ortus,
quidque agat ignarus stupet et nec frena remittit
nec retinere valet nec nomina novit equorum.
sparsa quoque in vario passim miracula caelo
vastarumque videt trepidus simulacra ferarum.

"What is he to do? He has left a good deal of the sky behind him, but there is more before his eyes: he measures each portion in his mind, and sometimes he looks forward to the western horizon, which he is fated not to reach, and then again looks back at the east. He gapes, unaware of what to do, and he can neither loosen the reins, nor does he have the strength to tighten them, and can't remember the names of the horses. And then, all around the different regions of the sky, he sees scattered wonders, and in his terror he sees the shapes of giant beasts."

(Ovid, Metamporphoses II, 187-194)

Once again, there is plenty to chew over:

Line 187: the immediate deliberative subjunctive "faciat" shows just how helpless Phaethon is. The rest of the line is a little more hopeful, showing that he has made it part of the way safely. But...
188: carefully placed before the caesura, we have Phaethon's problem, in a nutshell: there is much further to go. Again, we have a mention of his eyes - he is facing the ultimate visible danger - and then a very human aside showing him desperately trying to work out how far he has to go, and perhaps fooling himself into thinking that he has covered more ground than he really has. A sensation familiar to any novice skier, swimmer, or sky-diver; the furtive look back to see how far you've gone, in the vain hope of comfort. This is made particularly poignant in line 190 below:
190: the clear balance of "prospicit...respicit" and "occasus...ortus", with "interdum" in the middle, cleverly depicts not only Phaethon's indecision and desperation, but also his fate to come; "occasus", with its connection with the verb cado, anticipates the spectacular "fall" that Phaethon is to endure very shortly. In other words, Phaethon is not only looking ahead to "the west", but to his doom.
191-192: "quid(que) agat" echoes the sentiment at the beginning of line 187, and the following words, especially "stupet", show that Phaethon has absolutely no answer to the (rhetorical) question. The triple anaphora of "nec" that follows shows that he has been rendered quite numb ("stupet" makes an effective introduction in this respect, of course), and the use of "valet" in line 192 instead of the equally metrically acceptable potest is quite deliberate: he lacks the strength to do anything. Perhaps I am giving way to fancy in supposing that the alliteration of "n" sounds at the end is almost like an echoing "non...non...non..."; Phaethon wailing pathetically at his predicament.
193-194: a truly beautiful couple of lines which perfectly portray an important aspect of human fear. The first line is redolent of open-eyed amazement, and the well-chosen pairing "sparsa...miracula" gives the sense of wonders scattered almost carelessly across the heavens for mortals to admire. The juxtaposition of "vario passim" adds to this impression; Phaethon is surrounded by heavenly delights. Three words into line 194, however, the mood changes. In Phaethon's terror ("trepidus"), all he sees are the "simulacra ferarum"; images of wild beasts ready to tear him apart. An eternal truth masterfully conveyed: when we are in fear of our lives, the wonders of nature suddenly become terrifying.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Sparsa Miracula, Part I

Following on from Rhaebus, another tale involving horses, but of a different kind; this time, it is the steeds of Apollo's sun-chariot who feature in the tragic tale of Phaethon, brilliantly told by Ovid in the second book of the Metamorphoses.

The plot, in condensed form: Phaethon, confused about his heritage, seeks out his putative father Apollo. The sun-god greets the youth warmly, and confirms that yes, he is indeed his father. To prove his parentage (or at least affection), he grants Phaethon any wish of his choice, swearing the most binding of all oaths to commit himself. Phaethon asks to be given the reins of Apollo's sun-chariot, and immediately the god regrets his promise. Trying in vain to dissuade Phaethon, he finally realises that all entreaties will be wasted, and Phaethon sets out on his fatal voyage across the sky. But he has no idea how to steer the chariot or temper the fiery horses, and we pick up the story with Phaethon mid-journey, the horses utterly beyond his control:

ut vero summo despexit ab aethere terras
infelix Phaethon penitus penitusque iacentes,
palluit et subito genua intremuere timore
suntque oculis tenebrae per tantum lumen obortae,
et iam mallet equos numquam tetigisse paternos,
iam cognosse genus piget et valuisse rogando,
iam Meropis dici cupiens ita fertur, ut acta
praecipiti pinus borea, cui victa remisit
frena suus rector, quam dis votisque reliquit.

"And as poor Phaethon looked down from the apex of heaven to the earth, lying deep, deep down below him, he went pale, and his knees shook with sudden terror, and darkness arose in his eyes through all that light. And now he would have preferred never to have touched his father's horses, now he regretted finding out his ancestry and getting an answer to his questions, now he wanted to be called Merops' son. And he was carried along like a pine-wood ship battered by a raging north wind, whose helmsman has let go of the defeated rudder, and left his ship to the gods and his prayers."

(Ovid, Metamorphoses II, 178-186)

A wonderful passage of Latin, in which:

Line 178: the spondaic beginning already gives a sense of Phaethon's wide-eyed horror, and the juxtapositions "summo despexit" (looking down from the very top!) and "aethere terras" depict with grim force the sudden vertigo which is overcoming our young hero.
179: another superbly effective line, with the repetition of "penitus" not only reinforcing the idea of the terrifying drop below Phaethon, but creating a brutal alliteration of the forceful "p" sound in conjunction with "Phaethon" just beforehand...and the nicely enjambed "palluit" in the following line.
181: the first three words, arranged before the caesura, give the basic information; Phaethon, in modern terms, blacked out. But the real force of the line comes with the play on the double meaning of "lumen" (Ovid, as always, proving a master at manipulating the semantic subtleties of Latin); there is the blazing light of the day that Phaethon is flying through, but "lumen" is also, of course, used as a synonym for "oculus", and "tantum lumen" suggests a paradoxical image: although his eyes are wide with fear, all he can see is darkness.
182-4: the anaphora of "iam" to demonstrate Phaethon's regret is reminiscent of Pentheus's similar self-reproach, and the word "valuisse" is particularly ironic here, given that Phaethon has been proved an utter weakling when it comes to dealing with a god's job. Ovid and those double meanings again! Merops, incidentally, was the name of Phaethon's "mortal father".
185-6: the simile of a ship being tossed by the violent winds is appropriate, of course, but several small details make it particularly memorable here. Again, we have the rough "p" alliteration at the beginning of line 185. Incidentally, why "pinus", instead of perhaps puppis, a metrically acceptable and rather more common metonym for "ship"? Because, I think, the idea of the ship being just "a pine" shows that the storm has reduced the complex machinery of the vessel to just its basic components; in the face of nature, it's just a chunk of wood. "victa...frena" is a well-judged adjective-noun pairing; my father, a lifelong sailor, could certainly identify with the idea of a defeated rudder. Finally, the classic zeugma "dis votisque reliquit" provides a nice irony in relation to the main story: Phaethon would love to call on the gods to assist him, but Apollo isn't there.