I remember once at university trying to explain what was so great about Virgil to a friend; and him telling that my explanation was in vain since he didn’t understand Latin; and me replying that he must at least understand the idea of beauty in art; or something of that sort, it was a while ago.
So I thought I’d read some Ovid and try and explain a bit about Ovid as a Latin stylist. Because I often wonder what the non-Latin reader must make of Ovid, and even more so Virgil, who is interminably dull in English translation but in Latin is the greatest poet who ever lived.
So what was Ovid like as a poet? – Well, Ovid was a poet with an inordinate amount of raw talent. Here his greatness lies and, for some, his downfall. For you can’t read Ovid for long without being amused at this inordinate talent of his (rather, in a similar way, you find with Dickens).
Latin poetry is pretty untranslatable. As I’ve argued before, Latin needs to be read from left to right, like English, and Latin poetry especially so but, unlike Latin prose, this isn’t easy to render into English – there are too many poetic effects in Latin which break up this simple word-for-word translation: in particular, the divorce between nouns and their adjectives. What Latin loves, instead, is little blocks of meaning.
Ovid offers a marvellous example of this noun/adjective effect in l.5 of Book 3 (the last line of this):
cum pater ignarus Cadmo perquirere raptam
imperat et poenum, si non invenerit, addit
exilium, facto pius et sceleratus eodem.
Which means something like, very very literally (Zeus, in the shape of a bull, has just made off with / raped Cadmus’ sister Europe, who’s the girl referred to here):
then his father unknowing to Cadmus to seek the snatched girl
ordered and punishment, if he will not have found, added
exile, by the deed pious and wicked the same.
or, in sensible English:
then his father, still very much in the dark, ordered Cadmus to find the kidnapped girl, adding, if he couldn’t, then he shouldn’t come back – which showed up his moral and immoral side at the same time
Chiasmus is an effect endlessly used in Latin, and hardly ever in English (I’m always pleased when I get in a bit of chiasmus): it involves a sequence of the sort: A B C B A.
The five words “facto pius et sceleratus eodem” is a nice example: using case (though you don’t have to use case), this is: ablative, nominative, conjunction, nominative, ablative. The two ablatives are an adjective and a noun which agree with one another and mean “by the same deed”; the two nominatives are in apposition and are entirely contradictory of one another – the chiasmus draws out the contradictory, almost oxymoronic effect, and mean “good and bad” (as least if you hedge around those concepts with some idea of religious taboo / pollution); “et” means “and”.
It’s also an example of another Latin poetical obsession, for which I don’t know the literary term, or even if there is one, so which I’m going to call “wrapping”. “facto” and “eodem”, two words which agree, are walling in a kind of sense unit. This is ridiculously common in (good) Latin poetry – indeed, its absence (having nouns and adjectives all over the place, and not keeping to accepted Latin word order) is generally taken to be an example of poor style – you’re incapable of fitting your words into hexameter verse.
The effect of this line is one of amusement at the irony of a command which can be both good and evil at the same time. Ovid likes these kinds of ironies, as we shall see.
Here’s another line using the same effect, but this time stretched across an entire hexameter line:
nullum servitii signum cervice gerentem
which goes C G C A C, i.e. the 1st, 3rd and 5th words all agree. The A and G here (ablative and genitive) form part of the overall sense unit enclosed (“wrapped”) by all those agreeing accusatives. The sentence, which is describing a heifer, means literally:
no of servitude sign on the neck bearing
bearing on her neck no sign of servitude (i.e. a yoke)
It’s a nice touch leaving “gerentem” till the end; – it amused me anyway.
Putting all this together, we get lines 96-98, which I refuse to believe anyone can read without a grin creeping over their featuress, and you don’t even have to understand any of it (I will remove all the modern punctuation):
vox subito audita est neque erat cognoscere promptum
unde sed audita est quid Agenore nate peremptum
serpentem spectas et tu spectabere serpens
Now that’s some goddamn chiasmus, there in that last line (noun, verb, bit in middle, same verb, same noun) – and that’s without the perfect metrical repetition of “audita est” and the “p-emptum” bit – and it contains, as you might expect, a nice irony, something like:
that snake you’re looking at, you’ll look like a snake yourself
He’s killed this snake you see, in the proceeding part, and this disembodied voice is telling him his punishment will be to become a snake himself (a familiar enough irony in the poem), though, due to the marvels of Ovid’s elliptical structures in Metamorphoses – all those stories within stories – Cadmus doesn’t actually get turned into a snake until most of the way through Book IV. Next comes the story of his grandson, Actaeon, and we all know which passage in Ovid that means!
Yeah, that’s right: books bought is up to 19. (I knew I wasn’t going to stop buying books). I bought Roa Bastos (for the Lat-Am Readalong (fair enough!)), some history books, Larry Niven’s other Ringworld books, a Philip K Dick, The Story of the Stone vol.1 and Zola’s “Savage Paris” (I always like these Elek Books editions, with their gaudy covers and deceptive titles – I figure it’s what’s known in French as Le Ventre de Paris).