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   Chapter 5 THE CIRIS

Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 15365

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It was at about this same time, 48 B.C., that Vergil began to write the Ciris, a romantic epyllion which deserves far more attention than it has received, not only as an invaluable document for the history of the poet's early development, but as a poem possessing in some passages at least real artistic merit. The Ciris was not yet completed at the time when Vergil reached the momentous decision to go to Naples and study philosophy. He apparently laid it aside and did not return to it until he had been in Naples several years. It was not till later that he wrote the dedication. As we shall see, the author again laid the poem away, and it was not published till after his death. The preface written in Siro's garden is addressed to Messalla, who was a student at Athens in 45-4 B.C., and served in the republican army of Brutus and Cassius in 43-2. In it Vergil begs pardon for sending a poem of so trivial a nature at a time when his one ambition is to describe worthily the philosophic system that he has adopted. "Nevertheless," he says, "accept meanwhile this poem: it is all that I can offer; upon it I have spent the efforts of early youth. Long since the vow was made, and now is fulfilled." (Ciris, 42-7.)[1]

[Footnote 1: On the question of authenticity, see, Class. Phil. 1920, 103 ff.]

The story, beginning at line 101, was familiar. Minos, King of Crete, had laid siege to Megara, whose king, Nisus, had been promised invincibility by the oracles so long as his crimson lock remained untouched. Scylla, the daughter of Nisus, however, was driven by Juno to fall in love with Minos, her father's enemy; and, to win his love, she yields to the temptation of betraying her father to Minos. The picture of the girl when she had decided to cut the charmed lock of hair, groping her way in the dark, tiptoe, faltering, rushing, terrified at the fluttering of her own heart, is an interesting attempt at intensive art: 209-219:

cum furtim tacito descendens Scylla cubili auribus erectis nocturna silentia temptat et pressis tenuem singultibus aera captat. tum suspensa levans digitis vestigia primis egreditur ferroque manus armata bidenti evolat: at demptae subita in formidine vires caeruleas sua furta prius testantur ad umbras. nam qua se ad patrium tendebat semita limen, vestibulo in thalami paulum remoratur et alti suspicit ad gelidi nictantia sidera mundi non accepta piis promittens munera divis.

Her aged nurse, Carme, comes upon the bewildered and shivering girl, folds her in her robe, and coaxes the awful confession from her; 250-260:

haec loquitur mollique ut se velavit amictu frigidulam iniecta circumdat veste puellam, quae prius in tenui steterat succincta crocota. dulcia deinde genis rorantibus oscula figens persequitur miserae causas exquirere tabis. nec tamen ante ullas patitur sibi reddere voces, marmoreum tremebunda pedem quam rettulit intra. ilia autem "quid me" inquit, "nutricula, torques? quid tantum properas nostros novisse furores? non ego consueto mortalibus uror amore."

Scylla does not readily confess. The poet's characterization of her as she protracts the story to avoid the final confession reveals an ambitious though somewhat unpracticed art. Carme tries in vain to dissuade the girl, and must, to calm her, promise to aid her if all other means fail. The aged woman's tenderness for her foster child is very effectively phrased in a style not without reminiscences of Catullus (340-48):

his ubi sollicitos animi relevaverat aestus vocibus et blanda pectus spe luserat aegrum, paulatim tremebunda genis obducere vestem virginis et placidam tenebris captare quietem inverso bibulum restinguens lumen olivo incipit ad crebros (que) insani pectoris ictus ferre manum assiduis mulcens praecordia palmis. noctem illam sic maesta super morientis alumnae frigidulos cubito subnixa pependit ocellos.

On the morrow the girl pleads with her father to make peace, with humorous na?veté argues with the counsellors of state, tries to bribe the seers, and finally resorts to magic. When nothing avails, she secures Carme's aid. The lock is cut, the city falls, the girl is captured by Minos-in true Alexandrian technique the catastrophe comes with terrible speed-and she is led, not to marriage, but to chains on the captor's galley. Her grief is expressed in a long soliloquy somewhat too reminiscent of Ariadne's lament in Catullus. Finally, Amphitrite in pity transforms the captive girl into a bird, the Ciris, and Zeus as a reward for his devout life releases Nisus, also transforming him into a bird of prey, and henceforth there has been eternal warfare between the Ciris and the Nisus:

quacunque illa levem fugiens secat aethera pennis, ecce inimicus atrox magno stridore per auras insequitur Nisus; qua se fert Nisus ad auras, illa levem fugiens raptim secat aethera pennis.[1]

[Footnote 1: These four lines occur again in the Georgios, I. 406-9.]

The Ciris with all its flaws is one of our best examples of the romantic verse tales made popular by the Alexandrian poets of Callimachus' school. The old legends had of course been told in epic or dramatic form, but changing society now cared less for the stirring action and bloodshed that had entertained the early Greeks. The times were ripe for a retelling from a different point of view, with a more patient analysis of the emotions, of the inner impulses of the moment before the blow, the battle of passions that preceded the final act. We notice also in these new poems a preponderance of feminine characters. These the masculine democracy of classical Athens had tended to disregard, but in the capitals of the new Hellenistic monarchies, many influential and brilliant women rose to positions of power in the society of the court. A poet would have been dull not to respond to this influence. This new note was of course one that would immediately appeal to the Romans, for the ancient aristocracy, which had always accorded woman a high place in society and the home, had never died out at Rome. Indeed such early dramatists as Ennius and Accius had already felt the need of developing the interest of feminine roles when they paraphrased classical Greek plays for their audiences. Thus both at Alexandria and at Rome the new poets naturally chose the more romantic myths of the old regal period as fit for their retelling.

But the search for a different interpretation and a deeper content induced a new method of narration. Indeed the stories themselves were too well known to need a full rehearsal of the plot. Action might frequently be assumed as known and relegated to a significant line or two here and there. The scenic setting, the individual traits of the heroes and heroines, their mental struggles, their silent doubts and hesitations, became the chief concern of the new poets. Horace called this the "purple-patch" method of writing.

The narrative devices, however, varied somewhat. Some poets discarded all idea of form. They roamed through the woods by any path that might appear. This is the way that Tibullus likes to treat a theme. Whatever semi-apposite topic happens to suggest itself, provided only it contains pleasing fancies, invites him to tarry a while; he may or may not bring you back to the starting point. Other poets still adhere to form, though the pattern must be elaborate enough to hide its scheme from the casual reader, and sufficiently elastic to provide space for sentiment and pathos. In his sixty-eighth poem Catullus employs what might be called a geometrical pattern, in fact a pyramid of unequal steps. He mounts to the central theme by a series of verses and descends on the other side

by a corresponding series. In the sixty-fourth poem, however, the epyllion which the author of the Ciris clearly had in mind, Catullus used an intricate but by no means balanced form. The poem opens with the sea voyage of Peleus on which he meets the sea-nymph, Thetis. Then the poet leaps over the interval to the marriage feast, only to dwell upon the sorrows of Ariadne depicted on the coverlet of the marriage couch; thence he takes us back to the causes of Ariadne's woes, thence forward to the vengeance upon Ariadne's faithless lover; then back to the second scene embroidered on the tapestry; and now finally to the wedding itself which ends with the Fates' wedding song celebrating the future glories of Peleus' promised son.

The Ciris, to be sure, is not quite so intricate, but here again we have only allusions to the essential parts of the story: how Scylla offended Juno, how she met Minos, how she cut the lock, and how the city was taken. We are not even told why Minos failed to keep his pledge to the maiden. In the midst of the tale, Carme suspends the action by a long reference to Minos' earlier passion for her own daughter, Britomartis, which caused the girl's destruction, but the lament in which this story is disclosed merely alludes to but does not tell the details of the story. The whole plot of the Ciris is in fact unravelled by means of a series of allusions and suggestions, exclamations and soliloquies, parentheses and aposiopeses, interrogations and apostrophes.

In verse-technique[2] the Ciris is as near Catullus' Peleus and Thetis as it is the Aeneid: indeed it is as reminiscent of the former as it is prophetic of the latter. The spondaic ending which made the line linger, usually over some word of emotional content, (l. 158):

At levis ille deus, cui semper ad ulciscendum

was to Cicero the earmark of this style. The Ciris has it less often than Catullus. Being somewhat unjustly criticized as an artifice it was usually avoided in the Aeneid. There are more harsh elisions in the Ciris than in the poet's later work, reminding one again of Catullan technique. In his use of caesuras Vergil in the Ciris resembles Catullus: both to a certain extent distrust the trochaic pause. Its yielding quality, however, brought it back into more favor in various emotional passages of the Aeneid; but there it is carefully modified by the introduction of masculine stops before and after, a nuance which is hardly sought after in the Ciris or in Catullus. Finally, the sentence structure has not yet attained the malleability of a later day. While the Ciris, like the Peleus and Thetis, is over-free with involved and parenthetical sentences, it has on the whole fewer run-over lines so that indeed the frequent coincidence of sense pauses and verse endings almost borders on monotony.

[Footnote 2: See especially Skutsch, Aus Vergils Frühzeit, p. 74; Drachmann, Hermes, 1908, p. 412 ff.; L.G. Eldridge, Num. Culex et Ciris, etc. Giessen, 1914; Rand, Harvard Studies, XXX, p. 150. The introduction which was written last is more reminiscent of Lucretius. On the question of authenticity, see Drachmann, loc. cit. Vollmer, Sitz. Bayer. Akad. 1907, 335, and Vergil's Apprenticeship, Class. Phil. 1920, p. 103.]

These are but a few of the minor details that show Vergil in his youth a close reader of Catullus, and doubtless of Calvus, Cinna and Cornificius, who employed the same methods. It was from this group, not from Homer or Ennius, that Vergil learned his verse-technique. The exquisite finish of the Aeneid was the product of this technique meticulously reworked to the demands of an exacting poetic taste.

The Ciris gave Vergil his first lesson in serious poetic composition, and no task could have been set of more immediate value for the training of Rome's epic poet. In a national epic classical objectivity could not suffice for a people that had grown so self-conscious. Epic poetry must become more subjective at Rome or perish. To be sure the vices of the episodic style must be pruned away, and they were, mercilessly. The Aeneid has none of the meretricious involutions of plot, none of the puzzling half-uttered allusions to essential facts, none of the teasing interruptions of the neoteric story book. The poet also learned to avoid the danger of stressing trivial and impertinent pathos, and he rejected the elegancies of style that threatened to lead to preciosity. What he kept, however, was of permanent value. The new poetry, which had emerged from a society that was deeply interested in science, had taught Vergil to observe the details of nature with accuracy and an appreciation of their beauty. It had also taught him that in an age of sophistication the poet should not hide his personality wholly behind the veil. There is a pleasing self-consciousness in the poet's reflections-never too obtrusive-that reminds one of Catullus. It implies that poetry is recognized in its great role of a criticism of life. But most of all there is revealed in the Ciris an epic poet's first timid probing into the depths of human emotions, a striving to understand the riddles behind the impulsive body. One sees why Dido is not, like Apollonius' Medea, simply driven to passion by. Cupid's arrow-the naive Greek equivalent of the medieval love-philter-why Pallas' body is not merely laid on the funeral pyre with the traditional wailing, why Turnus does not meet his foe with an Homeric boast. That Vergil has penetrated a richer vein of sentiment, that he has learned to regard passion as something more than an accident, to sacrifice mere logic of form for fragments of vital emotion and flashes of new scenery, and finally that he enriched the Latin vocabulary with fecund words are in no small measure the effect of his early intensive work on the Ciris under the tutelage of Catullus.

Vergil apparently never published the Ciris, for he re-used its lines, indeed whole blocks of its lines with a freedom that cannot be paralleled. The much discussed line of the fourth Eclogue:

Cara deum suboles, magnum Jovis incrementum,

is from the Ciris (I. 398), so is the familiar verse of Eclogue VIII (I. 41):

Ut vidi, ut perii, ut me malus abstulit error,

and Aeneid II. 405:

Ad caelum tendens ardentia lumina frustra,

and the strange spondaic unelided line (Aen. III. 74):

Nereidum matri et Neptuno Aegaeo,

and a score of others. The only reasonable explanation[3] of this strange fact is that the Ciris had not been circulated, that its lines were still at the poet's disposal, and that he did not suppose the original would ever be published. The fact that the process of re-using began even in the Eclogues[4] shows that he had decided to reject the poem as early as 41 B.C. A reasonable explanation is near at hand. Messalla, to whom the poem was dedicated, joined his lot with that of Mark Antony and Egypt after the battle of Philippi, and for Antony Vergil had no love. The poem lay neglected till he lost interest in a style of work that was passing out of fashion. Finding a more congenial form in the pastoral he sacrificed the Ciris.

[Footnote 3: Drachmann, Hermes, 1908, p. 405.]

[Footnote 4: Especially in 8, 10, and 4. This method of re-working old lines reveals an extraordinary gift of memory in the poet, who so vividly retained in mind every line he had written that each might readily fall into the pattern of his new compositions without leaving a trace of the joining. Critics who have tried the task have been compelled to confess that the criterion of contextual appropriateness cannot alone determine whether or not these lines first occurred in the Ciris.]

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