Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Dido's swan and Zeus's eagle

[A few changes and additions come toward the end of this.]

The last time I looked, Perseus's bi-lingual edition of the Heroides was not accessible, but it now is.

The English translations (by R. Ehwald from 1907) begin here with Penelope, with notes and Latin to the right. If you wish to have the Latin on the left, start here. Dido's letter to Aeneas is in English here on Perseus, and Margaret has found another translation of the letter by Prof. Miceal F. Vaughan.

The Perseus edition (as well as the Loeb) reject the first two lines because, as the notes indicate, they do not appear in the "best editions:"
Accipe, Dardanide, moriturae carmen Elissae;
quae legis a nobis ultima verba legis.
Dardanian, receive this song of dying Elissa:
what you read are the last words written by me. 

Without the first couplet, this would be the first of the Heroides not to identify either the sender or the addressee at the outset. The letter might seem to open abruptly:
Sic ubi fata vocant, udis abiectus in herbis
ad vada Maeandri concinit albus olor.
At fate’s call, the white swan, despondent on the grass,
sings, like this, to the waters of Maeander.
In either case, what we can say is that Dido invokes the swan and the river Maeander. (Interestingly, Dido means "to wander," as does Maeander). A little Googling makes it clear that this will be an elegy, a song of a dying singer, and that the swan of the Maeander, by tradition, was none other than Homer. The poet of epic song is here invoked by a character who, in seeking to persuade Aeneas to end his epic quest, would, if successful, put an end to the epic of Rome.

It is consistent with other key moments in Ovid's work that the course of history is determined by words, persuasion, a speech act. The fate of Augustus' empire hinges on which death Dido/Elissa's song ends in: that of the singer, or of the Aenead.

We can contrast Dido's bird with the eagle of Pythian I:
And the eagle sleeps on the scepter of Zeus, relaxing his swift wings on either side, the king of birds; and you pour down a dark mist over his curved head, a sweet seal on his eyelids. Slumbering, he ripples his liquid back under the spell of your pulsing notes.[10]
The eagle is charmed thanks to the persuasion [πείθονται] of the notes of the golden lyre.

If Dido's song will end in her death due to its failure to persuade Aeneas to remain in Carthage, Pindar's eagle, normally vigilant on Zeus's scepter, is lulled to sweet sleep thanks to music. The poet of grand feats of mortal excellence attributes a power to music that lulls even the god of war:
Even powerful Ares, setting aside the rough spear-point, warms his heart in repose;
The power of the Muses to overcome all is Pindar's claim. The failure of compelling arguments -- the promise of her love, of royal power, of the end of questing -- is the matter of Dido's song.
Nec nova Carthago, nec te crescentia tangunt
Moenia nec sceptro tradita summa tuo?
Neither my new-built Carthage and her rising walls have power to detain you; nor the supreme rule, which you are in vain urged to accept.
With Ovidian concision, she summarizes the boundless futurity of the quest in four words:
Facta fugis, facienda petis;

You flee what’s done, you seek what is to do:
Dido contends with the faint, far-off promise of Rome, which she counters with the much more richly realized promise of Carthage. The domus, the enclosed domestic world, is already here, she tells the man looking to the open sea.

Ultimately -- beyond the distant birth of Rome -- the failure of Dido's song awakens a martial conflict that ends -- can only end -- in the annihilation of an empire.

Some background on Dido here and here might be helpful.

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