Monday, December 27, 2010

Anni Fragiles

The last month has seen me very busy with family and work matters in the frantic lead-up to Christmas, so apologies for the lack of recent posts. In fact, it is the work of a fellow blogger, the endlessly engaging Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti, which has sparked me back into life.

Recently, Dr. Gilleland posted a set of excerpts from Ovid's Tristia, one of the two works the poet wrote during his grim exile at Tomis on the Black Sea (for the record, the Epistulae Ex Ponto is the other). Although the heavy air of self-pity which pervades the Tristia makes it, in my opinion, a little less appealing than Ovid's other work, there are still plenty of opportunities for him to display his usual masterly touch. One passage which Dr. Gilleland quoted was one I hadn't read before, but very much enjoyed. As a statement of the desires of the middle-aged for their dotage, it is beautifully universal:

iam subeunt anni fragiles et inertior aetas,
iamque parum firmo me mihi ferre grave est.
nunc erat, ut posito deberem fine laborum
vivere cor nullo sollicitante metu,
quaeque meae semper placuerunt otia menti
carpere et in studiis molliter esse meis,
et parvam celebrare domum veteresque Penates
et quae nunc domino rura paterna carent,
inque sinu dominae carisque sodalibus inque
securus patria consenuisse mea.

(Ovid, Tristia 4.8.3-12)

"Now the fragile years and that ever more sluggish time of life are creeping up on me, and now it is an ordeal for me to carry myself, in my all too feeble state. Now was the time when I ought to be living with no fear assailing my heart, with my troubles at a fixed end. And now was the time to devour that leisure which always delighted my soul, and to get comfortable in my pursuits, and to hang around a small house and the old household spirits and my father's lands, which now miss their master. And it was the time to grow old without worries, in my lady's embrace, amongst my dear friends, and in my own country."

As always, Ovid proves a master at deft word choice and subtle semantic tricks:

Line 3: the word "subeunt" has overtones of secrecy and even malice, as if the spectre of old age were sneaking up behind the poet unseen. And the verb's twin subjects are two nicely-chosen adjective-noun phrases: the "anni" - as always, a metonym for life-span or even a time of life, but hold that thought for a moment - are "fragiles". I've tried to think of a better English translation than the straight derivation (my students will know how much I abhor such a cop-out), but I'm afraid "fragile" will have to do, as no other word captures the sense of the Latin so well. And although the basic idea is that Ovid is fragile, the imagery of "fragile years" is striking. Perhaps the additional message is "I could go at any time" (with apologies to Neil Finn - what a beautiful, haunting song that is. Ovid would have loved it.) And then, of course, the comparative "inertior" applied to the predictable "aetas". Why the comparative? iners venit aetas would have been a metrically acceptable and perfectly reasonable end to the line (venit being present tense, of course, with a short initial syllable). I tend to think that the idea is: every day I feel a little bit more feeble, more sluggish.
4: the understated "parum firmo" is followed by the clever juxtaposition of "me mihi ferre" - an action which should be automatic has become a chore. And the choice of "grave" at the end is quite intentional: he is feeling that his very own body has become too heavy.
5: another careful choice: "laborum" is used rather than dolorum or some other such word for suffering, I think because the extra idea of an end of work is obviously suitable for a man of advanced age.
7-8: Ovid, like no-one else, knew the value of "otia" and how to celebrate it. The verb "carpere" here is highly reminiscent, of course, of Horace's carpe diem, but this is a slightly different sentiment: once one has all the time in the world, that above all is the time (pardon the pun) to make the most of it. The simple, unpretentious "molliter esse" is telling: his desires are only to feel comfortable in what he is doing, almost as if resting on a favourite cushion (mollis, of course, can mean "soft" in a purely physical sense).
9: again, we are drawn to a slightly unusual word choice, in this case "celebrare". And again, there are metrically possible alternatives in, for instance, habitare or gaudere (in the latter case, the object would change to "parva...domo", but the metre would be unaffected). But the imagery inherent in celebrare is irresistible: he flits about the house almost like a visitor, enjoying each old nook of the house anew.
10: the word "nunc" briefly jolts us back into the present (rather than the "possible present" represented by most of the passage), just to remind us that all this is merely a fond, and now unfulfillable, wish.
11: yet another deft choice in "sinu". Although the word can, of course, mean "embrace" (although complexus or amplexus are rather more common), there is the extra connotation of a fold, even a pocket: something where things are kept for safety, away from the ravages of the world. The implication is clear.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2011 to all.