Monday, January 24, 2011

Vitai Claustra

One of the abiding mysteries of Latin literature concerns the conclusion to Lucretius's De Rerum Natura. A work with an avowedly positive message, expounding a philosophy which purports to free mortals from the harrowing fear of death, ends with a relentlessly grim and depressing description of the plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Why should the poet have chosen to finish on such an unpleasant note?

Perhaps to remind his readers that death was, after all, inevitable. Perhaps to give a particularly confronting depiction of Epicurean (or Democritean) physics in action, as it were. Or perhaps - and I incline to this view - the work was unrevised at the time of the poet's death, and the passage was not intended to round off the De Rerum Natura at all. A similar theory has often been advanced to explain the jarring, paradoxical conclusion to Virgil's Aeneid.

Whatever the reason for the placement of the passage dealing with the Athenian epidemic, the poetry is compelling. Particularly notable is the following excerpt, describing the onset of the disease which gripped the city. Although the details are (naturally enough) taken straight from Thucydides, the Latin verse rivals the Greek prose in descriptive power:

principio caput incensum fervore gerebant
et duplicis oculos suffusa luce rubentes.
sudabant etiam fauces intrinsecus atrae
sanguine et ulceribus vocis via saepta coibat
atque animi interpres manabat lingua cruore
debilitata malis, motu gravis, aspera tactu.
inde ubi per fauces pectus complerat et ipsum
morbida vis in cor maestum confluxerat aegris,
omnia tum vero vitai claustra lababant.

(Lucretius, De Rerum Natura VI, 1145-1153)

"At first, they found their heads burning with fever, and both their eyes blazing red with light coming from below. Even their throats, black within, were sweating blood, and the path of their voices was blocked up and squashed together with ulcers, and the mind's translator, the tongue, was worn down by the pains and was dripping blood, heavy to move and chafing to the touch. Then, when it [the disease] had filled their chest through the throat and the sickening force had flowed into the sad hearts of the sufferers, then in fact all the bolts of life began to shake."

The talking points:

Line 1145: "gerebant" is an interesting word choice. The extra sense of "carrying" their heads is very appropriate here, given the impression of weight one gets when brimful with fever.
1146: the superbly effective assonance of the "u" sound in this line underlines the theme of pain, and the cleverly-chosen word "suffusa" suggests the reddening of the eyes due to the blood surging (fundo) up from underneath (sub-), a sinister and disturbing image.
1147-8: the personification of the parts of the body begins, with "sudabant" in emphatic position applied to the throat, followed by another important emphatic placement in the next line: "sanguine", bringing before our eyes the grim symptom of blood-coughing. An interesting point at the end of the line: "via saepta" is a phrase that would have been familiar in a different context, referring to an enclosed or protected street. Its application here to the vocal cords is original and striking.
1149-50: more personification with "animi interpres", a pleasing description of the tongue which was subsequently used elsewhere. Line 1150 is a masterpiece of extended chiasmus, with "debilitata" adding to the personification and the prevalence of "a" and "r" sounds creating an atmosphere of harshness and dryness, which fits the subject matter perfectly.
1152: the adjective-noun combination "morbida vis" is both haunting, given the additional meaning of "violence" which often accompanies vis, and deeply Epicurean in outlook. Even in small matters, Lucretius was true to his philosophical tenets. And the personification isn't finished! The "cor", which could presumably mean either "heart" or "head" here, is "maestum" - this is the pathetic fallacy put to excellent use.
1153: the passage ends with more "painful" assonance, and a memorable phrase in "vitai claustra" (for those unfamiliar with Lucretian Latin, vitai is an archaic 1st declension genitive singular form which he uses frequently). The Epicurean view of an atomic structure of both body and soul is nicely encapsulated here, with the engines of life depicted as the interlocking bolts of a complex wooden structure. And the word "lababant", which would often be used in reference to (for instance) a jerry-built block of flats, creates another memorable image of the web of atoms holding life together rocking and threatening to collapse.

Even a Stoic would have found plenty to savour in that disturbing passage...