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Arachne. No. 2

Valerius Flaccus as a Poet

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Valerius Flaccus as a Poet

The Study of Latin Honours at Victoria College leads into some of the byways of Latin literature, though by the guiding hand of some handbook carefully delineating the limits of each author concerned so that the student will not, in his ignorance, magnify his stature. There is, in golden letters, the phrase of Quintilian's 'si vacet'. All these minor poets should only be read then: 'si vacet'—if you have some leisure: to hunt, perhaps, for a felicitous line or phrase or other small matter. This for the student is adequately frightening, for leisure he has not.

The other approach to the minor Roman poets is if one happens to be concerned with their subject matter. Following up the classical references to the romance of the Argonautical journey, I came upon Flaccus who wrote the Argonautica under Claudius' principate and died young, and against whom I was also warned. The classical sources wrote as if they had found some delight in reading Flaccus' version, but according to the handbooks he suffered from most of the Silver Latin flaws which are extremely frightening to the student—long-windedness, involvedness and obscurity, which means a great expense of time for little pleasure.

I accordingly went over the first three books seeking for that which poets can impart to a romance: a new way of viewing the situation of the characters. I copied some lines which now are on my table, and I find Flaccus is rather close to me and a good friend. In copying I must have been helped by a destiny that brings people together for I was quite unconscious of it then.

The first passage comes from the first book, the moment when Jason hears his uncle's command that to obtain the throne he has first to conquer the golden fleece. One imagines the bold powerful young man but unaccustomed to the world and the court and romantic, having both the vigour and the vulnerability of one brought up in a Centaur's den, who has made many boastful statements and who is now

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suddenly tied down to the reality of a very difficult job to do. His first reaction is to think of the miraculous aid that would help him through, of the world of phantasy and romance in which he has now ceased to live:

nunc aerii plantaria vellet/ Perseos aut currus et quos frenasse dracones/creditur, ignaras Cereris qui vomere terras/coluit, et flava quercum damnavit arista.1

These airy phantasies have accuracy beyond that of the mythological priggery which they pretend to be.

Another instance is the passage in the second book where the Lemnian wives kill their husbands. The husbands, I would think, were terrified, even more than by the violence, by the utterly changed behaviour of their wives, the sudden elimination of any vestige of tenderness and weakness; nothing of the former relationship had remained. It is not a matter of flight and survival; it is a matter of facing this change. Flaccus depicts the incident in these words:

sed temptare fugam prohibetque capessere contra/arma metus; adeo ingentes inimica videri/diva dabat, notaque sonat vox coniuge maior.2

As this might seem preposterous to the contemporary critic, Flaccus invented elaborate divine intervention stories to rationalize experiences such as this. Everyone was compelled to do this; the field of experience of the first century a.d. contained as much of the chimerical as ours and one had to speak of illusions brought about by a god for a certain reason to bring these experiences within the scheme of things.

Some of my notes merely show Flaccus as a good follower in the Vergilian tradition, as the reference to the Thracian concubines who were also murdered by the Lemnian women:

mixti gemitus clamorque precantum/barbarus ignotaeque implebant aethera voces.3

The Vergilian touch is in the words 'barbarus, ignotae'. In a scene of this kind the most

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memorable, the essential detail is that the girls spoke a language the Lemnian women could not understand. The consciousness of such details is strong in Flaccus, partly because he could not help being inspired by Vergil.

More typically Flaccian is the story of the death of the good king Cyzicus whom the Argonauts killed by some gruesome mistake. He undergoes the terror of prognostication of his own death a moment before it occurs:

audit fremitus irasque leonum/cornuaque et moras videt inter nubila turres./tunc gravis et certo tendens stridore per umbras/Aesonii venit hasta ducis latumque sub imo/pectore rumpit iter.4

It takes Flaccus a full hundred lines of the most involved divine intervention narrative to justify this description of experience. It may be there is a pattern in these quotations: that Flaccus was conscious of a split between the world of reason and of sometimes beautiful sometimes terrifying phantasy. In any case he lends to the occurrences I quoted a new life in which all layers of the mind are represented and in which, even more important, a general consciousness of the meaning of the Argonautic expedition is conveyed. There is a distinction not to be bridged between his version and a concoction like for instance Robert Graves' The Golden Fleece in that Flaccus retains the view of the expedition as an adventure and a dream.

My last note concerns the death of Hylas, Heracles' young companion, who was desired by a waternymph and drowned as he was mirroring himself in the water of her little lake. There was a strong Ovidian tradition which enabled the Roman poet, better than any of us, to understand the passion of a water-nymph, who is both a nymph and an embodiment of the water. But Flaccus has a very different attitude from Ovid: the sweetness, the beauty of this love, and the way in which Hylas passes from the world of the expedition to that of her love. There is not the slightest terror in Hylas, he is entirely charmed and mastered, he is, in every sense, enveloped:

stagna vaga quasi luce macant, ubi Cynthia caelo/prospicit aut medii transit

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rota Candida Phoebi,/tale iubar diffundit aquis: nil umbra comaeque/turbavitque sonus surgentis ad oscula Nymphae.5

Why is the nymph so utterly unconscious of the harm she is doing? Because Juno has fooled her, being opposed to the expedition: he has told her that her bridegroom was near.

In spite of this rationalization Flaccus gives the essential: the experience of Hylas and the waternymph corresponds to true human experience, although of a peculiar kind, and not to be described more clearly than Flaccus did in the symbol quoted. Hylas, then, fits well into some Orphic analysis of the Argonautic adventure: a certain kind of love bound to be experienced at a certain stage in the journey. It is not known whether this was Flaccus' intention.

1 Argonautica I, 67: 'Now he wished he had the sandals that enabled Perseus to fly, or the chariot to which even dragons were yoked by that hero who ploughed the field of the unknown grain and banished the acorn with the golden ear.' The hero was Triptolemus; before his time men ate acorns for staple food.

2 Arg. II, 224: 'But flight and resistance were prevented by fear; so huge did the hostile goddess make their wives appear; even their voices sounded louder than those of the wives they used to know'. Here the hostile goddess is Menus.

3 Arg. II, 240: 'Confused complaint, an outcry of imploring women in a foreign tongue and alien sounds filled the air'

4 Arg. III, 237: 'He hears the angry roaring of lions and sees horns and moving turrets among the clouds. Then comes the heavy lance of the chieftain of Aeson's blood passing through the darkness with unmistakeable zooming and ends its journey deep within his breast'.

5 Arg. III, 558: 'As a lake glitters in diffuse light when Cynthia looks out from the sky or the radiant wheel of Phoebus passes its zenith, such was the radiance spreading over the water; he was startled in no way at the shadow, the tresses and the rustle of the nymph rising to receive her kiss'