Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Songs and Letters: Pindar and Ovid

I've come away from our reading of Pindar's Olympian I and Ovid's Heroides I with a stronger and clearer sense of major differences between the Greek ode and the Latin elegiac verse.

The differences run the gamut from choice of theme and tone to formal features such as meter and the level of diction. 

The Ode addresses a god, hero, or man (or all three) in heightened speech, language under the pressure of the Muse. It concerns high exploits, great achievements, along with matters of public conduct, statecraft, and ethics, all couched within a kind of explosion of mythological reference, shifts of thought, time and place so highly charged one sort of has to hang on to the poet's speeding chariot for dear life, and hope to enjoy the ride. 

Pindar never used the same meter twice; he mixed dialects and brought past and present into his Odes -- and though they seem not to obey any rule, they are in fact intricate mirroring tripartite structures of strophes, antistrophes and epodes. And whatever else an ode deals with, it performs the power of voice: poetic creation, rhythm, and utterance:
Golden lyre, rightful joint possession of Apollo and the violet-haired Muses, to which the dance-step listens, the beginning of splendid festivity; and singers obey your notes, whenever, with your quivering strings, you prepare to strike up chorus-leading preludes. [5] You quench even the warlike thunderbolt of everlasting fire. 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, [10] under the spell of your pulsing notes. Even powerful Ares, setting aside the rough spear-point, warms his heart in repose; your shafts charm the minds even of the gods, by virtue of the skill of Leto's son and the deep-bosomed Muses. Pythian I.

Muse playing

In contrast to this high athleticism of the voice in the ode, Ovid's Heroides are letters -- composed, subtle arguments from one who loves to one who is loved. The meter of choice is the elegiac couplet.

Each couplet consist of a hexameter verse followed by a pentameter verse. The following is a graphic representation of its scansion. Note that - is a long syllable, u a short syllable, and U is either one long syllable or two short syllables:
- U | - U | - U | - U | - u u | - -
- U | - U | - || - u u | - u u | -
The form was felt by the ancients to contrast the rising action of the first verse with a falling quality in the second. The sentiment is summarized in a line from Ovid's Amores I.1.27: 
"Let my work rise in six steps, fall back in five."
Sex mihi surgat opus numeris, in quinque residat 
The effect is illustrated by Coleridge as:
In the hexameter rises the fountain's silvery column
In the pentameter aye falling in melody back.

Dido and Aeneas - Thomas Jones

So Dido in the seventh of Ovid's Heroides opens her letter to Aeneas:
Accipe, Dardanide, moriturae carmen Elissae;
     quae legis a nobis ultima verba legi.
Sic ubi fata vocant, udis abiectus in herbis
     ad vada Maeandri concinit albus olor.
Dardanian, receive this song of dying Elissa:
what you read are the last words written by me.
At fate’s call, the white swan, despondent on the grass,
sings, like this, to the waters of Maeander.

Though a queen is writing, this is not public oratory or song, but personal speech imprinted with one woman's emotion, personal history, passionate temperament, and pride of place.

We will want to explore in more detail how each of these forms - ode and epistle - use myth and prior poetry to build meaning. As Penelope used the Iliad, Odyssey and Pindar for her letter, what better text for Dido/Elissa than the epic of Rome?  How does the heroic world of the Greeks and Romans, Trojans and Carthaginians fare when viewed through the lens of Ovid's Heroides?

A few links:
Complete Virgil in English, translated by the irrepressible Tony Kline.
Aeneid - English and Latin (Perseus)
Aeneid Book IV in English (Kline)

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