Friday, April 6, 2018

Between the Downfall and the Deep Blue Sea

If you follow me over on Google+, you know that I am currently working my way through Vergil's Aeneid at a leisurely pace. It's something I've tried once before, but at the time my self-taught Latin wasn't quite enough to see me through the intricacy of Vergil's verse. Since then, though, I have a lot more Latin and a lot more poetry under my belt, so I thought I'd try again.

There are two reasons for this project, if such a project needs any "reason" beyond reading one of the greatest poems ever written in the language in which it was written. The first reason is born simply out of a love of Latin and a deep respect, largely inherited by way of medieval authors, for Vergil as a poet. The second reason is that I have long desired to develop an "ear" for Latin poetry, and I can think of no better way to do it than a long and lingering stroll through the Aeneid.

Today's post is one of the first-fruits of that endeavor. For most of what is here I am deeply indebted to my good friend Tom Hillman of Alas Not Me (the second-best blog on the internet, beaten out very narrowly by A Clerk of Oxford) for correcting my Latin, letting me know I was on the right track, and helping me to look more closely at the grammar of these lines, wherein much of the beauty and intricacy lies.

Consider lines 128-9 of Book I:
disiectam Aeneae toto uidet aequore classem,
fluctibus oppressos Troas caelique ruina;
Very crudely, I might translate these lines as:
He [Neptune] sees Aeneas's scattered fleet over the whole sea,
The Trojans being submerged by the waves and the falling of the sky;
But this translation cannot really do justice to the effect which Vergil achieves by mastery of grammar and word order.

As you probably already know, if you've stuck with me for this long, Latin is an inflected language and therefore has a much more flexible word order than English, and this is doubly true of Latin poetry. That means that word order is, to a much greater extent than it would be for a poet of (Modern) English, a tool in the poet's toolbox which can be used to create a particular effect. This is one of the reasons that I want to read Vergil in Latin: there are things that a translation, no matter how good it is, simply cannot communicate.

Attend, if you will, to the word order of these two lines. At the center of the first line is the verb, uidet "he sees." Anchored on either side of that word is the phrase toto aequore "over the whole sea." But the object of uidet is the "scattered fleet of Aeneas" which is scattered across the line. Aeneas is literally separated from his fleet (classem) by the "whole sea."

The word order of the second line sees the Trojans (Troas) caught between the waves (fluctibus) and the "downfall of the sky" (caelique ruina). Again, the word order of the line reflects the meaning of the line in a way which is difficult to communicate in translation. As Neptune raises up his head out of the water he sees the scattered Trojan fleet caught between the tempest and the waves. Vergil paints a picture for us not only with words, but with word-order.

The word used to describe the Trojan fleet, oppressos, is from the verb opprimo which literally means to "press in" or "press down" (see ModE "oppress"). In the most literal sense the Trojans are being pressed down by the water and the storm--they are being submerged. But opprimo can also carry the sense of "I take by surprise," or "I capture." That's a very pregnant meaning in light of the account that Aeneas will soon give of the capture, by surprise, of the city of Troy. It's also a fitting word to describe the state of the Trojan fleet after Juno's unforeseen assault.

But the real gold here, and this is something for which I am especially grateful to Tom for helping me see, is in the grammar, particularly in the way Vergil weaves the ablative and accusative cases in and out of each other in these two lines. Here they are again. This time, I've put the accusatives in italics, and the ablatives in bold:
disiectam Aeneae toto uidet aequore classem,
fluctibus oppressos Troas caelique ruina;
Do you see that? The first line is end-capped with the accusative phrase disiectam classem; the second line "submerges" all of the accusatives in the middle, weighing each end of the line down with an ablative. If you drew one arc between all of the ablatives and a second arc between all of the accusatives in these two lines, you'd have two waves, undulating like the sea upon which Neptune uidet.

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