Ovid: metamorphic jewels

19 Apr 2018


vìx bene càstaliò Cadmùs descènderat àntro

ìncustòditàm lentè videt ìre iuvèncam

nùllum sèrvitiì signùm cervìce gerèntem


Ovid., Met., III.14-16

…why do I find it interesting?

Because the metric, in particular the line in the middle, movingly mirrors the meaning like great music.

Ovid’s exametres – like those of Homer or Virgil – are predominantly dactylic, where the spondee, if found – aside from its customary position in the final foot – is typically followed and preceded by dactyls.

If dactyls are like a galloping horse, the spondee suggests the action of the rider on the reins: at the beginning of the verse it’s like the first step prior to “giddy up!”; in the middle, it’s like a gentle pull to steady-up or slightly adjust the course.

Two consecutive spondees are like gallop to trot then back to gallop.

Three consecutive spondees – a rarity – signal a proper deceleration: “ w a l k , c a l m l y . . . “.

So… the triple spondee of “INcusTOdiTAM lenTE” evokes not only the placidity of the cow (iuvenca) and her slow ambling, but also Cadmus’ quiet approach as if to not disturb her. When reciting the verse, it feels natural to hush your voice and rhythmically speak out every sillable.

Poetry: multi-sensorial magic of words, rhythm, sound.

…perché è interessante?

Perché la metrica, in particolare quella del verso di mezzo, riflette in maniera commovente il significato.

Gli esametri di Ovidio – come quelli dell’epoca Omerica – sono prevalentemente dattilici. Oltre che nel piede finale, lo spondeo si trova tipicamente seguito e preceduto da dattili.

Se il dattilo è il galoppo, lo spondeo suggerisce l’azione del cavaliere attraverso le redini: a inizio verso è come un passo prima di prendere l’andatura; in mezzo al verso è una tiratina, una presa di fiato o un lieve cambio di direzione.

Due spondei consecutivi sono una piccola battuta d’arresto, come un breve passaggio dal galoppo al trotto per poi riprendere.

… Ma tre spondei di fila – una rarità – vuol dire andare di passo, c o n c a l m a.

Il triplo spondeo di “INcusTOdiTAM lenTE” riflette non solo la placidità della giovenca ed il suo muoversi lentamente (il terzo spondeo cade proprio su “lente”), ma suggerisce anche il rallentamento del passo di Cadmo nel cercare di avvicinarla silenziosamente senza disturbarla. Per chi recita il verso viene naturale abbassare il tono della voce e cadenzare ogni sillaba.

Poesia: un multisensorama di parole, ritmi, suoni.

22 Dec 2017

Ovid, Met., I.358-362.

The triumph of love in the harshest of adversities. Proper, real love, not fairy tale nonsense. Equality deliberately stated with equal words.

This is Deucalion (classical Noah-equivalent) talking to his wife Pyrrha after surviving the Universal Deluge:

“deinde torus iunxit, nunc ipsa pericula iungunt […] nos dua turba sumus […] namque ego (crede mihi), si te quoque pontus haberet, te sequerer, coniunx, et me quoque pontus haberet”.

“The marriage couch brought us together then, now it’s the perils all around us that are keeping us together […] we’re an army of two […] for I (believe me), if the sea would claim you too, I’d follow you, partner, and the sea would claim me too”.

Il trionfo dell’amore nell’avversità più totale. Amore vero, non cazzate fiabesche. Uguaglianza deliberatamente enunciata con parole uguali.

Questo è Deucalione (il Noè dell’Età Classica) che parla alla moglie Pirra dopo essere sopravvissuti al Diluvio Universale:

“deinde torus iunxit, nunc ipsa pericula iungunt […] nos dua turba sumus […] namque ego (crede mihi), si te quoque pontus haberet, te sequerer, coniunx, et me quoque pontus haberet”.

“Il letto nuziale ci ha unito allora, ora ad unirci sono i pericoli tutt’attorno […] siamo solo noi due […] perché io (credimi), se il mare prendesse anche te, ti seguirei, consorte, e il mare prenderebbe anche me”.

21 Dec 2017

“Terribilem picea tectus caligine vultum”
Ovid, Met. I.265

This poetic description of the South Wind, unleashed by Jove to kick-start the universal deluge, means:

“(his) terrible face shrouded in pitchy darkness”.

It is not just the powerful metaphor of a wind-god, but a beautiful example of “chiasmus”, a rhetorical figure widely used in the two Classical languages.

The chiasmus has a “spatial” nature … a magical abstract-land where I see the nested structures of computer programming, the helix shape of DNA,the homing instinct of the boomerang. 

It involves the arrangement of words or concepts in a “X” shape (Greek «χ») – at its simplest, something like this:


In this specific case, word-for-word:



…Now, there is another reason why I find this verse special – not just spatial 🙂:

the use of the “Greek Accusative”, recurrent in Ovid – an act of deference to the Hellenic cultural heritage which the Romans were openly using as the fertiliser for their own fledgling literature.

To start with, in the preceding verse Ovid calls the South Wind “Notus” (Greek Νοτος) instead of “Auster” (the Latin equivalent); and then he uses the Accusative against an Adjectival Passive Participle, a grammatical construct foreign to Latin which would require the Ablative instead.

…Let’s see if I manage to explain this better…<<<<<<<<
al translation of “Notus tectus vultum” would be “Notus shrouded face“… which means nothing and is grammatically incorrect.

A meaningful translation would be “shrouded IN the face”, i.e.: shrouded “as far as the face is concerned”.

So here the Accusative is used not as the Direct Object, but to define the limits of the object being talked about, which is the quintessential, limitative nature of the accusative which the Romans did not fully embrace outside of poetry.

English, however, offers a way to render the Greek Accusative… just try adding a dash: “shrouded-face Notus”.

Ah, words…

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