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.

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