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!

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