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.

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