Friday, November 19, 2010

Orpheus & Eurydice (Georgics, IV. 453-526)

My dilettantish enthusiasm for the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice was spontaneously generated last week by my reading the death of Orpheus in The Metamorphoses.  So this week I'm informally comparing Virgil's resplendent tragic version in the Georgics  (76 lines) with Ovid's longer, more baroque and embellished version (105 lines in Book X and yet more about Orpheus's death in Book XI). Virgil's Georgics was published first in 29 B.C. and Ovid's Metamorphoses not till 8 A.D.  Ovid cleverly feeds on and alludes to Virgil's solemn, more abbreviated poem, even borrowing vocabulary.  Both versions are gorgeous, but different in emphasis. Virgil's Orpheus is a hero who weeps under a cliff for seven months after his wife's death. Ovid's delivers a long rhetorical somehow insincere-sounding speech in the underworld to persuade Persephone to free Eurydice, and, after she dies again, remains a widower but bitterly has gay love affairs.  

In Virgil's version, when Orpheus goes singing in the underworld to free Eurydice,  "Death's house itself and the bottom of Tartarus and the Eumenides with their hair entwined with blue snakes were stunned."  The verb is stupere, "were struck senseless, astounded, stupefied, stopped."  In Ovid, Ixion's wheel stupuit, "was struck, stopped."  The wheel in Virgil constitit "stood still," a less ostentatious verb.

Virgil has some sympathy for Orpheus. 

Cum subita incautam dementia cepit amantem

"When sudden madness caught the incautious lover..."

Note the synchysis, the sudden madness that captures him incautam (incautious).

But Virgil also sympathizes with Eurydice.  She says (literally):
"Who killed both you and miserable me, Orpheus, what madness?  Behold, the cruel fates call me back and sleep hides my failing eyes."  She refers to his madness not as insania but as furor: rage, madness, fury, passion.  Virgil, who calls it dementia ("down from mind), emphasizes insanity, madness. Eurydice's life is ruined by insania/furor.

In Ovid all is rhetorical, charming, and witty.  Eurydice says nothing but "goodbye."

Iamque iterum moriens non est coniuge quicquam
Questa suo (quid enim nisi se quereretur amatam?)

"And now dying again she did not complain of her husband (for what was there to complain except that she was loved?)..."

Salman Rushdie in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, his novelistic telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, refers to Virgil's version.  

"Virgil's treatment of the Orpheus story is extraordinary:  he tells it in seventy-six blazing lines, writing with all the stops pulled dout, and then, in a perfunctory thirty lines more, he allows Aristaeus to perform his expiatory ritual sacrifice, and that's the end of the poem, no more need to worry about those foolish doomed lovers."

In the end I'm not sure which myth I prefer.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Few Notes (for Me) on Ovid's Metamorphoses, 11.1-84

Ovid is my favorite poet. We expect a certain bright, flamboyant humor from Ovid.  He is brilliant and outrageous, but also has a talent for portraying sad, grotesque, and monstrous scenes.  His masterpiece, Metamorphoses, a ballet of a poem, is a collection of myths and legends linked by transformation, and had an enormous influence on European writers.  Shakespeare's Touchstone in As You Like It called Ovid "the most capricious poet." The scholar L. P. Wilkinson called him "baroque."

Death of Orpheus
I settled down for an evening of reading, secure in the joy of Ovid's humor, but found myself instead reading one of the most grotesque myths, Orpheus' murder by the Maenads.

Carmine dum tali silvas animosque ferarum/

Threicius vates et saxa sequentia ducit,

As usual, the arrangement of words is amazing and dramatic, though only a very literal translation will show the effect of the inflected language.  First a literary translation by  Horace Gregory, which isn't very close to the Latin:

"The songs that Orpheus sang brought creatures round him,/ All beasts, all birds, all stones held in their spell."

A literal translation by me will show the word order but make little sense: 

"While by such song [referring to the stories Orpheus told in Book X), the woods and minds of wild beasts/ the Thracian bard led and (with) the rocks following (him)....

Note that Orpheus, "the Thracian bard," (Threicius vates), is located in the middle of the words, after "woods and beasts," before "rocks following."  He is surrounded by the beasts, trees, and rocks he charms.   "Such song" (carmine...tali)  binds all of it together...and draws the Maenads, who are furious that he has rejected women and sung of homosexuals.  

The first Maenad cries,

'en,' ait 'en, hic est nostri contemptor!"  

"Lo," she says, "behold!  Here is the despiser of us."   

The scene in which the Maenads rip Orpheus apart is one of the goriest and most appalling in the poem.  But there are beautiful lines:  the animals and rocks mourn, and while Orpheus's head and lyre float down the river, playing some flebile tune, it is grotesque but also beautifully phrased.  It is sad and bloody, but Orpheus gets to go to Elysium with Euridice.

And Apollo punishes the Maenads by turning them into trees. (Not so severe, really.)

The metrical pyrotechnics are fantastic. Dryden, however, said of Ovid:

"Ovid, with all his sweetness, has as little variety of numbers and sound as [Claudian]:  he is always, as it were, upon the hand-gallop, and his verse runs upon carpet-ground.  He avoids all synaloephas [elision] that, minding only smoothness, he wants both variety and majesty."  

I dont' agree.  I love the smoothness of the meter.

Here is Dryden's translation of this scene: 

HERE, while the Thracian bard’s enchanting strain
Sooths beasts, and woods, and all the listn’ing plain,
The female Bacchanals, devoutly mad,
In shaggy skins, like savage creatures, clad,
Warbling in air perceiv’d his lovely lay,
And from a rising ground beheld him play.
When one, the wildest, with dishevel’d hair,
That loosely stream’d, and ruffled in the air;
Soon as her frantick eye the lyrist spy’d,
See, see! the hater of our sex, she cry’d.
Then at his face her missive javelin sent,
Which whiz’d along, and brusht him as it went;
But the soft wreathes of ivy twisted round,
Prevent a deep impression of the wound.
Another, for a weapon, hurls a stone,
Which, by the sound subdu’d as soon as thrown,
Falls at his feet, and with a seeming sense
Implores his pardon for its late offence.
The Death of Orpheus
But now their frantick rage unbounded grows,
Turns all to madness, and no measure knows:
Yet this the charms of musick might subdue,
But that, with all its charms, is conquer’d too;
In louder strains their hideous yellings rise,
And squeaking horn-pipes eccho thro’ the skies,
Which, in hoarse consort with the drum, confound
The moving lyre, and ev’ry gentle sound:
Then ’twas the deafen’d stones flew on with speed,
And saw, unsooth’d, their tuneful poet bleed.
The birds, the beasts, and all the savage crew
Which the sweet lyrist to attention drew,
Now, by the female mob’s more furious rage,
Are driv’n, and forc’d to quit the shady stage.
Next their fierce hands the bard himself assail,
Nor can his song against their wrath prevail:
They flock, like birds, when in a clustring flight,
By day they chase the boding fowl of night.
So crowded amphitheatres survey
The stag, to greedy dogs a future prey.
Their steely javelins, which soft curls entwine
Of budding tendrils from the leafy vine,
For sacred rites of mild religion made,
Are flung promiscuous at the poet’s head.
Those clods of earth or flints discharge, and these
Hurl prickly branches sliver’d from the trees.
And, lest their passion shou’d be unsupply’d,
The rabble crew, by chance, at distance spy’d
Where oxen, straining at the heavy yoke,
The fallow’d field with slow advances broke;
Nigh which the brawny peasants dug the soil,
Procuring food with long laborious toil.
These, when they saw the ranting throng draw near,
Quitted their tools, and fled, possest with fear.
Long spades, and rakes of mighty size were found,
Carelesly left upon the broken ground.
With these the furious lunaticks engage,
And first the lab’ring oxen feel their rage;
Then to the poet they return with speed,
Whose fate was, past prevention, now decreed:
In vain he lifts his suppliant hands, in vain
He tries, before, his never-failing strain.
And, from those sacred lips, whose thrilling sound
Fierce tygers, and insensate rocks cou’d wound,
Ah Gods! how moving was the mournful sight!
To see the fleeting soul now take its flight.
Thee the soft warblers of the feather’d kind
Bewail’d; for thee thy savage audience pin’d;
Those rocks and woods that oft thy strain had led,
Mourn for their charmer, and lament him dead;
And drooping trees their leafy glories shed.
Naids and Dryads with dishevel’d hair
Promiscuous weep, and scarfs of sable wear;
Nor cou’d the river-Gods conceal their moan,
But with new floods of tears augment their own.
His mangled limbs lay scatter’d all around,
His head, and harp a better fortune found;
In Hebrus’ streams they gently roul’d along,
And sooth’d the waters with a mournful song.
Soft deadly notes the lifeless tongue inspire,
A doleful tune sounds from the floating lyre;
The hollows banks in solemn consort mourn,
And the sad strain in ecchoing groans return.
Now with the current to the sea they glide,
Born by the billows of the briny tide;
And driv’n where waves round rocky Lesbos roar,
They strand, and lodge upon Methymna’s shore.

But here, when landed on the foreign soil,
A venom’d snake, the product of the isle
Attempts the head, and sacred locks embru’d
With clotted gore, and still fresh-dropping blood.
Phoebus, at last, his kind protection gives,
And from the fact the greedy monster drives:
Whose marbled jaws his impious crime atone,
Still grinning ghastly, tho’ transform’d to stone.
His ghost flies downward to the Stygian shore,
And knows the places it had seen before:
Among the shadows of the pious train
He finds Eurydice, and loves again;
With pleasure views the beauteous phantom’s charms,
And clasps her in his unsubstantial arms.
There side by side they unmolested walk,
Or pass their blissful hours in pleasing talk;
Aft or before the bard securely goes,
And, without danger, can review his spouse.
The Thracian Women transform’d to Trees
Bacchus, resolving to revenge the wrong,
Of Orpheus murder’d, on the madding throng,
Decreed that each accomplice dame should stand
Fix’d by the roots along the conscious land.
Their wicked feet, that late so nimbly ran
To wreak their malice on the guiltless man,
Sudden with twisted ligatures were bound,
Like trees, deep planted in the turfy ground.
And, as the fowler with his subtle gins,
His feather’d captives by the feet entwines,
That flutt’ring pant, and struggle to get loose,
Yet only closer draw the fatal noose;
So these were caught; and, as they strove in vain
To quit the place, they but encreas’d their pain.
They flounce and toil, yet find themselves controul’d;
The root, tho’ pliant, toughly keeps its hold.
In vain their toes and feet they look to find,
For ev’n their shapely legs are cloath’d with rind.
One smites her thighs with a lamenting stroke,
And finds the flesh transform’d to solid oak;
Another, with surprize, and grief distrest,
Lays on above, but beats a wooden breast.
A rugged bark their softer neck invades,
Their branching arms shoot up delightful shades;
At once they seem, and are, a real grove,
With mossy trunks below, and verdant leaves above.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


The Iliad
Many are initially interested; few have the time. It's like living in a perpetual state of pressured haiku. One opens the text.  One opens the dictionary. One considers every word.  One considers the author's style and genre.  One writes the meanings in a notebook.  One experiments with meaning. 

The conciseness can be puzzling.  

Two common particles, μέν and δέ, appear at the beginnings of successive clauses of sentences. Often they are not translated.   The former means "on the one hand," the latter "on the other hand."  But it's impossible to translate.  Eight English words for two Greek.

Here is a literal translation of a μέν...δέ sentence from Herodotus:
On the one hand the sailors sailed away to Corinth, but they say that the dolphin, having picked up Arion by swimming under him, carried him to Taenarum.

As a student I loved reading Greek.  Spreading the books out across a table.  The cat jumping on the dictionary and chasing my pen.  Okay, ten minutes.  Then play with the cat.  Then ten more hours of Greek.

None of my professors were interested in Herodotus.  We stuck to literature:  we didn't read the Histories.

Here's your five-second introduction to Herodotus.  Cicero called him the Father of History; Herodotus's method of ἱστορία (inquiry) depended on interviewing people about legends, myth, and past events. He documented some eyewitness accounts.  He described the history of the Persian invasions of Greece in 490 and 480-479 B.C.

Much as I love the Greek, dare I admit I find the Latin more fascinating?  

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ovid's Amores, I.9: A Few Informal Notes

Ovid (43 B.C.-17 A.D.), unlike his much older contemporaries, Virgil and Horace, was unwilling to lace his brilliant poetry with government propaganda.  He was independent of  their patron, Maecenas, who tactfully required Virgil and Horace to encourage citizens to revive the religion and the morals of ancient Rome.  Ovid lived, alas, in interesting times. In the wake of civil war, while Augustus passed laws against adultery and attempted to reduce the rate of divorce, Ovid wrote humorous, irreverent poems. Famous for his wit, rhetorical language, and metrical genius (it was said that even his prose sounded like poetry), Ovid published his famous epic poem, Metamorphoses, a collection of myths linked by the theme of transformation and spiced with humorous representations of the amours of the gods and goddesses, in 8 A.D. His early poems, the Amores, consisted of three books of love elegies, which were probably started in 25 B.C., but not published till 16 A.D.  Eventually Ovid was banished to an island for carmen et error, "a poem and an error."  It is thought that the poem was Ars Amatoria, The Art of Love, and that the error was some scandal concerning the imperial family.

I have read most of Ovid in Latin:  all of Metamorphoses, Tristia, Heroides, and many poems from other collections. I am working my way through Amores, which honestly seem very lightweight, not surprising considering the time frame. They are, of course, his early work, and make for easy reading at night, if I may say so.   

Amores, I.9, a poem famous for its explication of the love-war dichotomy,  is very slight, very funny and clever, but the style is more obvious, more crude, and certainly less flowing than most of Ovid.  My hasty notes are below, and  below the notes is a translation of the poem by Christopher Marlowe.  

Here is the first couplet in Latin and then my own translation:

Militat omnis amans, et habet sua castra Cupido;
   Attice, crede mihi, militat omnis amans.

"Every lover is a soldier, and Cupid has his own camp;
    Atticus, believe me, every lover is a soldier."

The brilliant arrangement of words, militat omnis amans, at the beginning of the first line, repeated in same sequence at the end of the second line, emphasizes the closeness of the soldier to the lover--the soldier and the lover linked by the adjective, omnis (every, all)--and shows off the dexterity and flexibility of Ovid's style. The sound is important:  the m's and n's running together softly after the crisp "-tat" of militat and sounding like love:  om-ni-sa-mans."   We do not think of the lover as militat, i.e., one who is a soldier. This conceit, however, recurs throughout Greek and Roman poetry, though Ovid is, according to my sources, the first poet to write a whole poem on the subject, instead of mentioning the lover-soldier in passing.  He actually wrote three poems about it in the Amores.

The soldier and the lover both perform  "watch" duties; one guards the doors of his mistress (doors often standing for the labia of the vagina), the other his general's.  Later, one breaks the gates (the soldier), the lover breaks the doors.  The lover will face all kinds of obstacles to follow his girl, as the soldier will face them to follow the enemy:  adverse mountains, rivers doubled with rain, snow, swollen winds, etc.  

And Ovid interweaves Homeric myth into the poem. Achilles burned for for Briseis and ceased to fight the war for the Atrides, after Briseis was taken from him by Agamemnon,; Hector went from the embraces of Andromache to arms (a charming scene, smack in the middle of this triad of comparisons); and Agamemnon, "the highest of leaders, who incurred Achilles's wrath, was said to have been struck dumb by Cassandra's hair flowing like a Maenad's.  Love can be madness, or charming, dependent not on the soldier's relationship with the woman (Briseis and Cassandra were raped) but on the woman's willingness (Andromache).  The rapist-soldiers pay a price.

Here is Marlowe's translation.  I also recommend Peter Green's in the Penguin addition, but Marlowe's is beautiful (and available online):

All Lovers warre, and Cupid hath his tent, Atticke all lovers are to warre farre sent.
What age fits
Mars, with Venus doth agree,
Tis shame for eld in waive or love to be.
What yeares in souldiours Captaines do require,
Those in their lovers, pretty maydes desire.
Both of them watch: each on the hard earth sleepes:
His Mistris dores this; that his Captaines keepes.
Souldiers must travaile farre: the wench forth send,
Her valiant lover followes without end.
Mounts, and raine-doubled flouds he passeth over,
And treades the deserts snowy heapes do cover.
Going to sea,
East windes he doth not chide
Nor to hoist saile attends fit time and tyde.
Who but a souldiour or a lover is bould
To suffer storlne mixt snowes with nights sharpe cold?
One as a spy doth to his enemies goe,
The other eyes his rivall as his foe.
He Citties greate, this thresholds lies before:
This breakes Towne gates, but he his Mistris dore.
oft to invade the sleeping foe tis good
And arm'd to shed unarmed peoples bloud.
So the fierce troupes of
ThracianRhesus fell
And Captive horses bad their Lord fare-well.
Sooth Lovers watch till sleepe the hus-band charmes,
Who slumbring, they rise up in swelling armes.
The keepers hands and corps-dugard to passe
The souldiours, and poore lovers worke ere was.
Doubtfull is warre and love, the vanquisht rise
And who thou never think'st should fall downe lies.
Therefore who ere love sloathfiilnesse doth call,
Let him surcease: love tries wit best of all.
Achilles burnd Briseis being tane away: Trojanes destroy the Greeke wealth, while you may. Hector to armes went from his wives embraces,
And on
Andromache his helmet laces.
Agamemnon was, men say, amazed,
Priams loose-trest daughter when he gazed. Mars in the deed the black-smithes net did stable,
In heaven was never more notorious fable.
My selfe was dull, and faint, to sloth inclinde,
Pleasure, and ease had mollifide my minde.
A faire maides care expeld this sluggishnesse,
And to her tentes wild me my selfe addresse.
Since maist thou see me watch and night warres move:
He that will not growe slothfull let him love.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Year of Reading Classics

My background is in classics, as in "pertaining to Greek and Latin literature."  Picture a woman in graduate school reading The Iliad in Greek or Horace in Latin at a lovely coffeehouse called The Runcible Spoon, surrounded by her dictionaries, grammars, and flashcards.  Late in the day friends and I would gather, translating and occasionally looking up to chat.  We unwound and drank the coffee that enabled us to stay up and do 12 more hours of reading for classes.

My husband also studied languages, some of them ancient. We both taught Latin as teaching assistants, too.  Our apartment was cluttered with bookish paraphernalia of the trade. We spent a lot of time on the porch, handwriting flashcards, memorizing, translating literature, and swotting for our exams. Occasionally we inconveniently swapped flashcards or navy blue dictionaries.  We would pick up the wrong stack and find ourselves in different buildings, I with a pack of his German, he with a pack of my Latin.  

Classics is my background, in the sense that I studied in graduate school the ancient classical literature that had the strongest influence on Western literature up to the twentieth century. 

It comes from the Latin classicus, "a member of the highest class," referring of course to literature. I am classica (feminine singular nominative), being a woman, not classicus. The fascination with classics began when an English professor seemed not to know his classics very well.  He knew no Greek and had once studied a little Latin. I read the puzzling, elliptical translations of Lattimore and Grene.  I wanted to know more about Homer and the tragedians, much more.  I wanted to know more about Virgil.  I signed up for Greek. I signed up for Latin.

"To learn Greek is to know yourself,"  said my professor on the first day.

The Greek overwhelmed me with its gorgeousness.  It was my first love among languages.  Well, in a way.  

I began to know myself better when I took Latin.  I couldn't help translating Cicero, Ovid, Catullus correctly.   In a past life no doubt I was a Roman.  And the rich Latin literature overwhelmed me with its beauty.  Yes, Renaissance poets worshipped Virgil because he is the best poet in any language, writing his epic at the height of his maturity, as T. S. Eliot said, and at the height of maturity of the Latin language and the peak of the Roman empire.  I adored Catullus because he was so much fun.

At any given time I am reading something in Latin, occasionally something in Greek.  This year I have decided to keep a diary of it.  From November to November I will be posting notes about my reading. Occasionally I will reread something in translation and comment on it.  Sometimes I will compare translations to the original.