How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!

From Macbeth (4.1.47-60):

MACBETH
How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
What is’t you do?
ALL [WITCHES]
A deed without a name.
MACBETH
I conjure you, by that which you profess,
Howe’er you come to know it, answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature’s germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.

And some contextualizing remarks from Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth by Gary Wills (pg63-65).

When Macbeth sets out consciously to “know, by the worst means, the worst” from the witches (3.4.133-34), he is exposing himself to the same laws that made Sir Edward Kelley (in real life) and the Duchess of Gloucester (in Shakespeare’s play) guilty of necromancy—i.e., of witchcraft. He appeals to the witches in the name of their art, of their dark knowledge, no matter what its source (4.1.50-51):

I conjure you, by that which you profess,
How e’er you come to know it, answer me.


He has addressed them in terms of their office:

How now you secret, black, and midnight hags.


This is the way Ovid’s Medea begins to conjure Night: “Oh, Night,
you secret-keeper!”

Nox, ait, arcanis fidissima . . .

This is not an accidental resemblance. The model for Macbeth’s conjuring speech is the classical speech of Medea best known to Shakespeare in Ovid’s and in Seneca’s versions of it. It has long been recognized that Shakespeare based Prospero’s description of his magic on Ovid’s Medea; but Macbeth’s speech is just as close to that model.

Macbeth asks for knowledge on the basis of witches’ power to wrest, from an unwilling nature, compelled submission. To emphasize this he lists the classical adynata (feats beyond natural causation) that make up the canonical list of witches’ boasts. Medea, like other classical witches, says she can draw down the moon, move crops around, invert the seasons, reverse river currents, turn everything topsyturvy. Here is Macbeth’s use of that classical witch-catalogue (4.1.52-59):

[see quoted passage at top]

This kind of speech, often imitated from the classical sources, is almost always put into the mouth of a witch or the queen of witches. Ben Jonson [in The Masque of Queens], for instance, has Hecate say:

When we have set the elements at wars,
Made midnight see the sun, and day the stars;
When the winged lightning in its course hath stay’d,
And swiftest rivers have run back, afraid
To see the corn remove, the graves to range
While places alter and the seas do change;
When the pale moon, at the first voice, down fell
Poison’d, and durst not stay the second spell


Although Macbeth’s adynata, like Jonson’s, are classical, there is one Christian touch in Shakespeare that makes its “modern” witchcraft more explicit. Macbeth not only says he will set the winds at war—a typical feature of witch-boasting—but that he will make them war against the churches. That is an extra touch of malice that Doctor Faustus shares with Macbeth. Faustus says that he will “make my spirit pull his churches down” (Az.3.98).

And the Golding translation (what Shakespeare would have known) of the passage in Ovid (7.190-210ish):

…… O trustie time of night
Most faithfull unto privities, O golden starres whose light
Doth jointly with the Moone succeede the beames that blaze by day
And thou three headed Hecate who knowest best the way
To compasse this our great attempt and art our chiefest stay:
Ye Charmes and Witchcrafts, and thou Earth which both with herbe and weed
Of mightie working furnishest the Wizardes at their neede:
Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone.
Through helpe of whom (the crooked bankes much wondring at the thing)
I have compelled streames to run cleane backward to their spring.
By charmes I make the calme Seas rough, and make the rough Seas plaine,
And cover all the Skie with Cloudes and chase them thence againe.
By charmes I raise and lay the windes, and burst the Vipers jaw.
And from the bowels of the Earth both stones and trees doe draw.
Whole woods and Forestes I remove: I make the Mountaines shake,
And even the Earth it selfe to grone and fearfully to quake.
I call up dead men from their graves: and thee lightsome Moone
I darken oft, though beaten brasse abate thy perill soone.
Our Sorcerie dimmes the Morning faire, and darkes the Sun at Noone.

Lucan’s Erichtho may also be relevant, though the Pharsalia doesn’t seem to have been translated in full until over a decade after the play.

Why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image

I’ve always assumed Melville’s reference to Narcissus (below) was of a very general sort – serving only as a means to activate a connection to his concluding ‘ungraspable phantom of life’ – but thinking on it a bit while reading Ovid’s version this morning it does seem an easy argument to push for a deeper connection. For instance, Ovid’s

quid frustra simulacra fugacia captas? (why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image) is a more than suitable reply to Ahab’s All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks speech in The Quarter-Deck. But the argument makes itself for anyone who cares so here are the passages side by side.

From ch. 1 (Loomings) of Moby Dick:


And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses 3.430, in the Loeb translation:

What he sees he knows not; but that which he sees he burns for, and the same delusion mocks and allures his eyes. O fondly foolish boy, why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image? What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away, and the object of your love will be no more. That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own. With you it comes, with you it stays, and it will go with you—if you can go.

quid videat, nescit; sed quod videt, uritur illo,
atque oculos idem, qui decipit, incitat error.
credule, quid frustra simulacra fugacia captas?
quod petis, est nusquam; quod amas, avertere, perdes!
ista repercussae, quam cernis, imaginis umbra est:
nil habet ista sui; tecum venitque manetque;
tecum discedet, si tu discedere possis!

According to Melville’s Marginalia Melville’s personal copy of Ovid no longer survives but there is a digitized copy of (a different printing) of that edition online at Hathitrust. Here’s the passage (pg 85, lines 495-500 of bk. 3, translated by Addison).

Nor knows he who it is his arms pursue
With eager clasps, but loves he knows not who.
What could, found youth, this helpless passion move?
What kindled in thee this unpitied love?
They own warm blush within the water glows,
With thee the color’d shadow comes and goes,
Its empty being on thyself relies;
Step thou aside and the frail charmer dies.

One would hope he also had access to the classic Arthur Golding edition – since it does a far better job of capturing the elements he’d want for Moby Dick:

He knowes not what it was he sawe. And yet the foolish elfe
Doth burne in ardent love thereof. The verie selfsame thing
That doth bewitch and blinde his eyes, encreaseth all his sting.
Thou fondling thou, why doest thou raught the fickle image so?
The thing thou seekest is not there. And if aside thou go,
The thing thou lovest straight is gone. It is none other matter
That thou doest see, than of thy selfe the shadow in the water.
The thing is nothing of it selfe: with thee it doth abide,
With thee it would departe if thou withdrew thy selfe aside.

A final note of passing interest- the Melville’s Marginalia site does preserve one bit of Melville’s engagement with Ovid – a marginal checkmark in Warton’s History of English Poetry next to the sentence which begins ‘The Elegies of Ovid, which convey the obscenities of the brothel in elegant language….’.

Such is the confidence of beauty.

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses 2.725 – Mercury flying over Attica falls for Herse, daughter of Cecrops.

The son of Jove was astounded at her beauty, and hanging in mid-air he caught the flames of love; as when a leaden bullet is thrown by a Balearic sling, it flies along, is heated by its motion, and finds heat in the clouds which it had not before. Mercury now turns his course, leaves the air and flies to earth, nor seeks to disguise himself; such is the confidence of beauty. Yet though that trust be lawful, he assists it none the less with pains; he smooths his hair, arranges his robe so that it may hang neatly and so that all the golden border will show. He takes care to have in his right hand his smooth wand with which he brings on sleep or drives it away, and to have his winged sandals glittering on his trim feet. In a retired part of the house were three chambers, richly adorned with ivory and tortoise-shell. The right-hand room of these Pandrosos occupied, Aglauros the left, and Herse the room between. Aglauros first saw the approaching god and made so bold as to ask his name and the cause of his visit. He, grandson of Atlas and Pleione, replied: “I am he who carry my father’s messages through the air. My father is Jove himself. Nor will I conceal why I am here. Only do you consent to be true to your sister, and to be called the aunt of my offspring. I have come here for Herse’s sake. I pray you favour a lover’s suit.” Aglauros looked at him with the same covetous eyes with which she had lately peeped at the secret of the golden-haired Minerva, and demanded a mighty weight of gold as the price of her service; meantime, she compelled him to leave the palace.

obstipuit forma Iove natus et aethere pendens
non secus exarsit, quam cum Balearica plumbum
funda iacit: volat illud et incandescit eundo
et, quos non habuit, sub nubibus invenit ignes.
vertit iter caeloque petit terrena relicto
nec se dissimulat: tanta est fiducia formae.
quae quamquam iusta est, cura tamen adiuvat illam
permulcetque comas chlamydemque, ut pendeat apte,
collocat, ut limbus totumque adpareat aurum,
ut teres in dextra, qua somnos ducit et arcet,
virga sit, ut tersis niteant talaria plantis.
Pars secreta domus ebore et testudine cultos
tres habuit thalamos, quorum tu, Pandrose, dextrum,
Aglauros laevum, medium possederat Herse.
quae tenuit laevum, venientem prima notavit
Mercurium nomenque dei scitarier ausa est
et causam adventus; cui sic respondit Atlantis
Pleïonesque nepos “ego sum, qui iussa per auras
verba patris porto; pater est mihi Iuppiter ipse.
nec fingam causas, tu tantum fida sorori
esse velis prolisque meae matertera dici:
Herse causa viae; faveas oramus amanti.”
adspicit hunc oculis isdem, quibus abdita nuper
viderat Aglauros flavae secreta Minervae,
proque ministerio magni sibi ponderis aurum
postulat: interea tectis excedere cogit.

Jokes are of course less funny when you have to explain them but I feel the charm here is worth it.

Premise: Mercury does not “seek to disguise himself; such is the confidence of beauty

Refutations of this principle:

1) He nevertheless smooths his hair, positions his robe (I can’t help but think of Porthos with his baldric), gathers his wand, and shines his sandals

2) His introduction of himself amounts to ‘my dad’s a big deal’

3) His suit is met with a demand for gold.

4) He’s forced to leave until he pays.

τρέε δ’ Ἀίδης ἐνέροισι καταφθιμένοισιν ἀνάσσων

Related to part of a scene from Ovid a few days ago (And the light, penetrating to the lower world, strikes terror into the infernal king and his consort) – I found in Hesiod the other day a connected image. During the fight between Zeus and Typhoeus (starting at 820 of the Theogony) – the whole of which feels a part model for the Phaethon tale – we get this sequence (844-850):

The violet-dark sea was enveloped by a conflagration from both of them—of thunder and lightning, and fire from that monster of tornadoes and winds, and the blazing thunderbolt. And all the earth seethed, and the sky and sea; and long waves raged around the shores, around and about, under the rush of the immortals, and an inextinguishable shuddering arose. And Hades, who rules over the dead below, was afraid

καῦμα δ’ ὑπ’ ἀμφοτέρων κάτεχεν ἰοειδέα πόντον
βροντῆς τε στεροπῆς τε πυρός τ’ ἀπὸ τοῖο πελώρου
πρηστήρων ἀνέμων τε κεραυνοῦ τε φλεγέθοντος·
ἔζεε δὲ χθὼν πᾶσα καὶ οὐρανὸς ἠδὲ θάλασσα·
θυῖε δ’ ἄρ’ ἀμφ’ ἀκτὰς περί τ’ ἀμφί τε κύματα μακρὰ
ῥιπῇ ὕπ’ ἀθανάτων, ἔνοσις δ’ ἄσβεστος ὀρώρει·
τρέε δ’ Ἀίδης ἐνέροισι καταφθιμένοισιν ἀνάσσων

That, combined with something like 758-760, can lead to Ovid’s scene:

That [Tartarus] is where the children of dark Night have their houses, Sleep and Death, terrible gods; never does the bright Sun look upon them with his rays when he goes

ἔνθα δὲ Νυκτὸς παῖδες ἐρεμνῆς οἰκί’ ἔχουσιν,
Ὕπνος καὶ Θάνατος, δεινοὶ θεοί· οὐδέ ποτ’ αὐτοὺς
Ἠέλιος φαέθων ἐπιδέρκεται ἀκτίνεσσιν

But now I’m curious whether there are any other instances in Greek or Latin literature of Hades growing frightened.

And the light, penetrating to the lower world, strikes terror into the infernal king and his consort

Ovid shares with the others writers I most love a quality I can only think of as the literary equivalent of Lila. He cannot deny himself the joy of creative play – however it might break the seemingly required tone of a passage – because that joy is his necessary essence. At least until the exile days. Here are a few such bits from his story of Phaethon in Book 2 of The Metamorphoses, a story that in his hands combines global and historic catastrophe with comic montage. The whole tale is too long to give here (though easily found online) so here’s a small primer of his sober narration, as Phaethon’s failed piloting of the sun’s chariot begins its damage:


Great cities perish with their walls, and the vast conflagration reduces whole nations to ashes. The woods are ablaze with the mountains; Athos is ablaze, Cilician Taurus, and Tmolus, and Oete, and Ida, dry at last, but hitherto covered with springs, and Helicon, haunt of the Muses

 magnae pereunt cum moenibus urbes,
cumque suis totas populis incendia gentis
in cinerem vertunt; silvae cum montibus ardent;
ardet Athos Taurusque Cilix et Tmolus et Oete
et tum sicca, prius creberrima fontibus, Ide
virgineusque Helicon

And now some of the play:

176-177 – A constellation flees in terror from the out of control chariot

They say that you also, Boötes, fled in terror, slow though you were, and held back by your clumsy ox-cart.

te quoque turbatum memorant fugisse, Boote,quamvis tardus eras et te tua plaustra tenebant.


208-209 – the moon taken by surprise

The Moon in amazement sees her brother’s horses running below her own

inferiusque suis fraternos currere Luna
admiratur equos


252-253 – those poor swans

and the swans, which had been wont to throng the Maeonian streams in tuneful company, are scorched in mid Caÿster.

quae Maeonias celebrabant carmine ripas
flumineae volucres, medio caluere Caystro;


254-255 – the Nile’s hidden source explained

The Nile fled in terror to the ends of the earth, and hid its head, and it is hidden yet

Nilus in extremum fugit perterritus orbem
occuluitque caput, quod adhuc latet


260-261 – my favorite, the terror of sunlight in Hades

Great cracks yawn everywhere, and the light, penetrating to the lower world, strikes terror into the infernal king and his consort

dissilit omne solum, penetratque in Tartara rimis
lumen et infernum terret cum coniuge regem;


267-268 – those poor seals

 The dead bodies of sea-calves float, with upturned belly, on the water’s top

corpora phocarum summo resupina profundo
exanimata natant


And the crown, Earth’s speech (272-300). Earth, it should be noted can scarcely speak at 282 (vix equidem fauces haec ipsa in verba resolvo) but still manages nearly another 20 lines of top quality Roman rhetorical bombast.


Not so all-fostering Earth, who, encircled as she was by sea, amid the waters of the deep, amid her fast-contracting streams which had crowded into her dark bowels and hidden there, though parched by heat, heaved up her smothered face as far as the neck. Raising her shielding hand to her brow and causing all things to shake with her mighty trembling, she sank back a little lower than her wonted place, and then in broken tones she spoke: “If this is thy will, and I have deserved all this, why, O king of all the gods, are thy lightnings idle? If I must die by fire, oh, let me perish by thy fire and lighten my suffering by thought of him who sent it. I scarce can open my lips to speak these words”—the hot smoke was choking her—“See my singed hair and all ashes in my eyes, all ashes over my face. Is this the return, this the reward thou payest of my fertility and dutifulness? that I bear the wounds of the crooked plow and mattock, tormented year in, year out? that I provide kindly pasturage for the flocks, grain for mankind, incense for the altars of the gods? But, grant that I have deserved destruction, what has the sea, what has thy brother done? Why are the waters which fell to him by the third lot so shrunken, and so much further from thy sky? But if no consideration for thy brother nor yet for me has weight with thee, at least have pity on thy own heavens. Look around: the heavens are smoking from pole to pole. If the fire shall weaken these, the homes of the gods will fall in ruins. See, Atlas himself is troubled and can scarce bear up the white-hot vault upon his shoulders. If the sea perish and the land and the realms of the sky, then are we hurled back to primeval chaos. Save from the flames whatever yet remains and take thought for the safety of the universe.”

Alma tamen Tellus, ut erat circumdata ponto,
inter aquas pelagi contractosque undique fontes,
qui se condiderant in opacae viscera matris,
sustulit oppressos collo tenus arida vultus
opposuitque manum fronti magnoque tremore
omnia concutiens paulum subsedit et infra,
quam solet esse, fuit fractaque ita voce locuta est:
“si placet hoc meruique, quid o tua fulmina cessant,
summe deum? liceat periturae viribus ignis
igne perire tuo clademque auctore levare!
vix equidem fauces haec ipsa in verba resolvo”;
(presserat ora vapor) “tostos en adspice crines
inque oculis tantum, tantum super ora favillae!
hosne mihi fructus, hunc fertilitatis honorem
officiique refers, quod adunci vulnera aratri
rastrorumque fero totoque exerceor anno,
quod pecori frondes alimentaque mitia, fruges
humano generi, vobis quoque tura ministro?
sed tamen exitium fac me meruisse: quid undae,
quid meruit frater? cur illi tradita sorte
aequora decrescunt et ab aethere longius absunt?
quodsi nec fratris nec te mea gratia tangit,
at caeli miserere tui! circumspice utrumque:
fumat uterque polus! quos si vitiaverit ignis,
atria vestra ruent! Atlas en ipse laborat
vixque suis umeris candentem sustinet axem!
si freta, si terrae pereunt, si regia caeli,
in chaos antiquum confundimur! eripe flammis,
si quid adhuc superest, et rerum consule summae!”

Forth flies the South-wind with dripping wings

Ovid’s portrait of Notus at Metamorphoses 1.265, for an always rainy March (though I think Notus is technically for the storms of late summer into aututmn):

Forth flies the South-wind with dripping wings, his awful face shrouded in pitchy darkness. His beard is heavy with rain; water flows in streams down his hoary locks; dark clouds rest upon his brow; while his wings and garments drip with dew. And, when he presses the low-hanging clouds with his broad hands, a crashing sound goes forth; and next the dense clouds pour forth their rain.

madidis Notus evolat alis,
terribilem picea tectus caligine vultum;
barba gravis nimbis, canis fluit unda capillis;
fronte sedent nebulae, rorant pennaeque sinusque.
utque manu lata pendentia nubila pressit,
fit fragor: hinc densi funduntur ab aethere nimbi;

And a bonus – Notos on the Tower of the Winds in Athens. He is holding a water jar for the downpours he brings.

Onions, hair, and fish – a conversation with Jupiter.

From Plutarch’s life of Numa (ch. 15, pg. 358 of the Loeb vol. 1 of Lives) and below another version from Ovid’s Fasti (3.330, also in the Loeb edition). Found via a side remark in George Dumezil’s Mitra-Varuna.

But nothing can be so strange as what is told about [Numa’s] conversation with Jupiter … Some, however, say that it was not the imps themselves who imparted the charm [of onions, hair, and little fish against thunder and lightning], but that they called Jupiter down from heaven by their magic, and that this deity angrily told Numa that he must charm thunder and lightning with “heads.” “Of onions?” asked Numa, filling out the phrase. “Of men,” said Jupiter. Thereupon Numa, trying once more to avert the horror of the prescription, asked, “with hair?” “Nay,” answered Jupiter, “with living—” “fish?” added Numa, as he had been taught by Egeria to say. Then the god returned to heaven in a gracious mood,—“hileos,” as the Greeks say,—and the place was called Ilicium from this circumstance; and that is the way the charm was perfected.

πᾶσαν δὲ ὑπερβέβληκεν ἀτοπίαν τὸ ὑπὲρ τῆς τοῦ Διὸς ὁμιλίας ἱστορούμενον. μυθολογοῦσι γὰρ εἰς τὸν Ἀβεντῖνον λόφον οὔπω μέρος ὄντα τῆς πόλεως οὐδὲ συνοικούμενον, ἀλλ᾿ ἔχοντα πηγάς τε δαψιλεῖς ἐν αὑτῷ καὶ νάπας σκιεράς, φοιτᾶν δύο δαίμονας, Πῖκον καὶ Φαῦνον· οὓς τὰ μὲν ἄλλα Σατύρων ἄν τις ἢ Πανῶν γένει προσεικάσειε, δυνάμει δὲ φαρμάκων καὶ δεινότητι τῆς περὶ τὰ θεῖα γοητείας λέγονται ταὐτὰ τοῖς … ἔνιοι δὲ οὐ τοὺς δαίμονάς φασιν ὑποθέσθαι τὸν καθαρμόν, ἀλλ᾿ ἐκείνους μὲν καταγαγεῖν τὸν Δία μαγεύσαντας, τὸν δὲ θεὸν ὀργιζόμενον τῷ Νομᾷ προστάσσειν ὡς χρὴ γενέσθαι τὸν καθαρμὸν κεφαλαῖς· ὑπολαβόντος δὲ τοῦ Νομᾶ, “κρομμύων;” εἰπεῖν, “ἀνθρώπων·” τὸν δὲ αὖθις ἐκτρέποντα τὸ τοῦ προστάγματος δεινὸν ἐπερέσθαι, “θριξίν;” ἀποκριναμένου δὲ τοῦ Διός, “ἐμψύχοις,” ἐπαγαγεῖν τὸν Νομᾶν, “μαινίσι;” ταῦτα λέγειν ὑπὸ τῆς Ἠγερίας δεδιδαγμένον. καὶ τὸν μὲν θεὸν ἀπελθεῖν ἵλεω γενόμενον, τὸν δὲ τόπον Ἰλίκιον ἀπ᾿ ἐκείνου προσαγορευθῆναι καὶ τὸν καθαρμὸν οὕτω συντελεῖσθαι.

And Ovid:

Sure it is the tops of the Aventine trees did quiver, and the earth sank down under the weight of Jupiter. The king’s heart throbbed, the blood shrank from his whole body, and his bristling hair stood stiff. When he came to himself, “King and father of the high gods,” he said, “vouchsafe expiations sure for thunderbolts, if with pure hands we have touched thine offerings, and if for that which now we ask a pious tongue doth pray.” The god granted his prayer, but hid the truth in sayings dark and tortuous, and alarmed the man by an ambiguous utterance. “Cut off the head,” said he.a The king answered him, “We will obey. We’ll cut an onion, dug up in my garden.” The god added, “A man’s.” “Thou shalt get,” said the other, “his hair.” The god demanded a life, and Numa answered him, “A fish’s life.” The god laughed and said, “See to it that by these things thou dost expiate my bolts, Ο man whom none may keep from converse with the gods!

constat Aventinae tremuisse cacumina silvae,
terraque subsedit pondere pressa Iovis.
corda micant regis, totoque e corpore sanguis
fugit, et hirsutae deriguere comae.
ut rediit animus, “da certa piamina” dixit
“fulminis, altorum rexque paterque deum,
si tua contigimus manibus donaria puris,
hoc quoque, quod petitur, si pia lingua rogat.”
adnuit oranti, sed verum ambage remota
abdidit et dubio terruit ore virum.
“caede caput” dixit: cui rex “parebimus,” inquit
“caedenda est hortis eruta cepa meis.”
addidit hic “hominis”: “sumes” ait ille “capillos.”
postulat hic animam, cui Numa “piscis” ait.
risit et “his” inquit “facito mea tela procures,
o vir conloquio non abigende deum.

At non formosa est, at non bene culta puella

Ovid Amores 3.7 (in the Loeb text and translation), the poem behind yesterday’s The Imperfect Enjoyment. Love Ovid though I do, I find Rochester’s reworking more effective than the original – but then Ovid and Rochester are playing with different poetics so a strict counterweighing is misguided.

Was she then not beautiful, not attractively groomed, not longed for a thousand times in my dreams? And yet when I held her in my arms, I was unhappily limp and could not perform, but lay a shameful burden on an idle bed; but though I was eager for it, and she no less, I could not use the pleasurable part of my languid loins. Her ivory arms, gleaming more brightly than Thracian snow, she cast about my neck and with eager tongue implanted wanton kisses, and lasciviously slid her limbs beneath mine. She whispered endearments, calling me master, and all the natural rapturous utterances as well. But my body, as if drugged with chill hemlock, was paralysed and failed to achieve my intent. I lay like a dead tree-trunk, a mere spectacle, a useless weight, and it was unclear whether I was body or ghost.

What kind of old age lies in store for me, if indeed one does, when my youth lives not up to its full measure? Ah, I am ashamed to be my age: what is the point of being young and male? My girl-friend found me neither young nor male. She left the bed as chaste as the devout priestess who rises to tend Vesta’s undying fire and as a sister leaves the side of the dear brother whose respect she commands. Yet not long ago I satisfied blonde Chlide twice running with my attentions, thrice fair Pitho and thrice Libas; I remember Corinna’s asking from me and my supplying nine measures in one short night.

Was my body listless under the spell of Thessalian drugs? Was I the wretched victim of charms and herbs, or did a witch curse my name upon a red wax image and stick fine pins into the middle of the liver? When damned by charms the corn withers on the sterile stalk, and when a well is damned by charms, its water dries up; through incantations acorns drop from oaks and grapes from vines, and apples fall when no one has touched them. What prevents the cessation of my energy being due to magical practices? It is perhaps from that source that my powers became inadequate. Shame also played a part, for my very shame at what happened inhibited me: that was a second cause of my trouble.

But what a lovely girl did I just gaze upon and touch, and touch as closely as her garments do! Her touch could have made Nestor young again and given Tithonus a virility belying his years. Such a one had I in my grasp, though she no man in hers. What on earth can I now ask for in my future prayers? I also fancy the mighty gods regret offering me a boon which I so shamefully treated. Yes, I desired admittance—and won it; to kiss her—and did; to be in her bed—and was. What did I gain from such great fortune, what did I gain from a kingship I never exercised? Nothing, except possess wealth like a rich miser. So thirsts the betrayer of secretsa in midstream and has fruit he can never enjoy. Does anyone leave a pretty girl at dawn in a state permitting him forthwith to approach the sacred gods?

But perhaps it was not an alluring girl I left? Perhaps she did not lavish exquisite kisses on me or use every resource to rouse me? Not a bit! That girl’s allure could have moved tough oak, hard adamant, and unfeeling stone: certainly she could have moved anyone alive and man; but then I was neither alive nor man, as I had been. What would be the use of Phemius singing to deaf ears? What profit is a painting to blind Thamyras?

And yet what joys had I not conceived in the privacy of my mind, what ways of love not arranged in my imagination? But my body lay in disgrace as though already dead, more jaded than the rose of yesterday. (Now, too late, just look at it, it is well and strong, now clamouring for business and the fray. Lie down there, you shamefaced creature, worthless part of me: I have been tricked by promises like this before. You deceive your master; through you I have been caught defenceless, and suffered a painful and humiliating reverse.)

Moreover my playmate did not refrain from applying her hand and gently coaxing it. But when she realised it would not get up and was lying down oblivious of her, she exclaimed: “Why do you insult me? Are you out of your mind? Who asked you to come to bed if you are not in the mood? Either some practitioner of Circe’s spells has been piercing a woollen figure of you and has you bewitched or you have come here exhausted from lovemaking elsewhere.” With that she leapt out of bed, wrapped in her ungirdled robe (and a pretty sight she was, as she tripped forth barefoot). And to stop the maids realising that she had not enjoyed me, she covered up my sorry performance by taking a bath.

At non formosa est, at non bene culta puella,
at, puto, non votis saepe petita meis!
hanc tamen in nullos tenui male languidus usus,
sed iacui pigro crimen onusque toro;
nec potui cupiens, pariter cupiente puella,
inguinis effeti parte iuvante frui.
illa quidem nostro subiecit eburnea collo
bracchia Sithonia candidiora nive,
osculaque inseruit cupida luctantia lingua
lascivum femori supposuitque femur,
et mihi blanditias dixit dominumque vocavit,
et quae praeterea publica verba iuvant.
tacta tamen veluti gelida mea membra cicuta
segnia propositum destituere meum;
truncus iners iacui, species et inutile pondus,
et non exactum, corpus an umbra forem.
Quae mihi ventura est, siquidem ventura, senectus,
cum desit numeris ipsa iuventa suis?
a, pudet annorum: quo me iuvenemque virumque?
nec iuvenem nec me sensit amica virum!
sic flammas aditura pias aeterna sacerdos
surgit et a caro fratre verenda soror.
at nuper bis flava Chlide, ter candida Pitho,
ter Libas officio continuata meo est;
exigere a nobis angusta nocte Corinnam
me memini numeros sustinuisse novem.
Num mea Thessalico languent devota veneno
corpora? num misero carmen et herba nocent,
sagave poenicea defixit nomina cera
et medium tenuis in iecur egit acus?
carmine laesa Ceres sterilem vanescit in herbam,
deficiunt laesi carmine fontis aquae,
ilicibus glandes cantataque vitibus uva
decidit, et nullo poma movente fluunt.
quid vetat et nervos magicas torpere per artes?
forsitan inpatiens fit latus inde meum.
huc pudor accessit: facti pudor ipse nocebat;
ille fuit vitii causa secunda mei.
At qualem vidi tantum tetigique puellam!
sic etiam tunica tangitur illa sua.
illius ad tactum Pylius iuvenescere possit
Tithonosque annis fortior esse suis.
haec mihi contigerat; sed vir non contigit illi.
quas nunc concipiam per nova vota preces?
credo etiam magnos, quo sum tam turpiter usus,
muneris oblati paenituisse deos.
optabam certe recipi—sum nempe receptus;
oscula ferre—tuli; proximus esse—fui.
quo mihi fortunae tantum? quo regna sine usu?
quid, nisi possedi dives avarus opes?
sic aret mediis taciti vulgator in undis
pomaque, quae nullo tempore tangat, habet.
a tenera quisquam sic surgit mane puella,
protinus ut sanctos possit adire deos?
Sed, puto, non blanda: non optima perdidit in me
oscula; non omni sollicitavit ope!
illa graves potuit quercus adamantaque durum
surdaque blanditiis saxa movere suis.
digna movere fuit certe vivosque virosque;
sed neque tum vixi nec vir, ut ante, fui.
quid iuvet, ad surdas si cantet Phemius aures?
quid miserum Thamyran picta tabella iuvat?
At quae non tacita formavi gaudia mente!
quos ego non finxi disposuique modos!
nostra tamen iacuere velut praemortua membra
turpiter hesterna languidiora rosa—
quae nunc, ecce, vigent intempestiva valentque,
nunc opus exposcunt militiamque suam.
quin istic pudibunda iaces, pars pessima nostri?
sic sum pollicitis captus et ante tuis.
tu dominum fallis; per te deprensus inermis
tristia cum magno damna pudore tuli.
Hanc etiam non est mea dedignata puella
molliter admota sollicitare manu;
sed postquam nullas consurgere posse per artes
inmemoremque sui procubuisse videt,
“quid me ludis?” ait, “quis te, male sane, iubebat
invitum nostro ponere membra toro?
aut te traiectis Aeaea venefica lanis
devovet, aut alio lassus amore venis.”
nec mora, desiluit tunica velata soluta
—et decuit nudos proripuisse pedes!
—neve suae possent intactam scire ministrae,
dedecus hoc sumpta dissimulavit aqua.



The Imperfect Enjoyment

John Wilmot is what Henry Miller would like to have been.

If I weren’t rusticating away from my books this long weekend I’d include the Ovid poem – Amores 3.7 – that gave rise to this and several similarly themed pieces.

Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,
I filled with love, and she all over charms;
Both equally inspired with eager fire,
Melting through kindness, flaming in desire.
With arms, legs, lips close clinging to embrace,
She clips me to her breast, and sucks me to her face.
Her nimble tongue, love’s lesser lightning, played
Within my mouth, and to my thoughts conveyed
Swift orders that I should prepare to throw
The all-dissolving thunderbolt below.
My fluttering soul, sprung with the pointed kiss,
Hangs hovering o’er her balmy brinks of bliss.
But whilst her busy hand would guide that part
Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,
Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done ’t:
Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.
    Smiling, she chides in a kind murmuring noise,
And from her body wipes the clammy joys,
When, with a thousand kisses wandering o’er
My panting bosom, “Is there then no more?”
She cries. “All this to love and rapture’s due;
Must we not pay a debt to pleasure too?”
    But I, the most forlorn, lost man alive,
To show my wished obedience vainly strive:
I sigh, alas! and kiss, but cannot swive.
Eager desires confound my first intent,
Succeeding shame does more success prevent,
And rage at last confirms me impotent.
Ev’n her fair hand, which might bid heat return
To frozen age, and make cold hermits burn,
Applied to my dear cinder, warms no more
Than fire to ashes could past flames restore.
Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry,
A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie.
This dart of love, whose piercing point, oft tried,
With virgin blood ten thousand maids has dyed,
Which nature still directed with such art
That it through every cunt reached every heart—
Stiffly resolved, ’twould carelessly invade
Woman or man, nor ought its fury stayed:
Where’er it pierced, a cunt it found or made—
Now languid lies in this unhappy hour,
Shrunk up and sapless like a withered flower.
    Thou treacherous, base deserter of my flame,
False to my passion, fatal to my fame,
Through what mistaken magic dost thou prove
So true to lewdness, so untrue to love?
What oyster-cinder-beggar-common whore
Didst thou e’er fail in all thy life before?
When vice, disease, and scandal lead the way,
With what officious haste doest thou obey!
Like a rude, roaring hector in the streets
Who scuffles, cuffs, and justles all he meets,
But if his king or country claim his aid,
The rakehell villain shrinks and hides his head;
Ev’n so thy brutal valor is displayed,
Breaks every stew, does each small whore invade,
But when great Love the onset does command,
Base recreant to thy prince, thou dar’st not stand.
Worst part of me, and henceforth hated most,
Through all the town a common fucking post,
On whom each whore relieves her tingling cunt
As hogs on gates do rub themselves and grunt,
Mayst thou to ravenous chancres be a prey,
Or in consuming weepings waste away;
May strangury and stone thy days attend;
May’st thou never piss, who didst refuse to spend
When all my joys did on false thee depend.
   And may ten thousand abler pricks agree
   To do the wronged Corinna right for thee.

They drove him into the underworld like a peg

A modestly amusing footnote in the Loeb edition of Apollonius’ Argonautica (1.55ish), as the poet enumerates the crew.

And from wealthy Gyrton came Caeneus’ son, Coronus—a brave man, but no braver than his father. For bards sing of how Caeneus, although still living, perished at the hands of the Centaurs, when, all alone and separated from the other heroes, he routed them. They rallied against him, but were not strong enough to push him back nor to kill him, so instead, unbroken and unbending, he sank beneath the earth, hammered by the downward force of mighty pine trees*

They drove him into the underworld like a peg, hence he perished while still alive; cf. Pindar, fr. 128f.


ἤλυθε δ᾿ ἀφνειὴν προλιπὼν Γυρτῶνα Κόρωνος
Καινεΐδης, ἐσθλὸς μέν, ἑοῦ δ᾿ οὐ πατρὸς ἀμείνων.
Καινέα γὰρ ζωόν περ ἔτι κλείουσιν ἀοιδοὶ
Κενταύροισιν ὀλέσθαι, ὅτε σφέας οἶος ἀπ᾿ ἄλλων
ἤλασ᾿ ἀριστήων· οἱ δ᾿ ἔμπαλιν ὁρμηθέντες
οὔτε μιν ἀγκλῖναι προτέρω σθένον οὔτε δαΐξαι,
ἀλλ᾿ ἄρρηκτος ἄκαμπτος ἐδύσετο νειόθι γαίης,
θεινόμενος στιβαρῇσι καταΐγδην ἐλάτῃσιν

The Pindar fragment (with the Loeb edition by the same editor/translator as Apollonius) is:

128f The same papyrus gives scraps of vv. 3–8. A scholion on Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica. “Apollonius took it from Pindar, who said” (vv. 7–9):

(lines 1–2 are fragmentary)
excel(?)
famous(?)
5and Castor(?)
. . . . . .
But Caeneus,6 (struck with) green (fir trees)
disappears after splitting the earth with his upright
foot.

Cf. Plutarch, The Stoics Talk More Paradoxically Than the Poets. “Pindar’s Caeneus used to be criticized for being an implausible creation—invulnerable to iron, feeling nothing in his body, and finally having sunk unwounded under the ground, ‘after splitting the earth with his upright foot.’”

But the best telling is Ovid’s (Metamorphoses 12.490is) in Nestor’s version of the battle of  the Centaurs and the Lapiths:

Now, quite beside themselves, the double monsters rushed on with huge uproar, and all together against that single foe they aimed and drove their weapons. The spears fell blunted, and Caeneus, the son of Elatus, still stood, for all their strokes, unwounded and unstained. The strange sight struck them speechless. Then Monychus exclaimed: ‘Oh, what a shame is this! We, a whole people, are defied by one, and he scarcely a man. And yet he is the man, while we, with our weak attempts, are what he was before. Of what advantage are our monster-forms? What our twofold strength? What avails it that a double nature has united in our bodies the strongest living things? We are not sons of any goddess nor Ixion’s sons, I think. For he was high-souled enough to aspire to be great Juno’s mate, while we are conquered by an enemy but half-man! Come then, let us heap stones and tree-trunks on him, mountains at a time! let’s crush his stubborn life out with forests for our missiles! Let sheer bulk smother his throat, and for wounds let weight suffice.’ He spoke and, chancing on a tree-trunk overthrown by mad Auster’s might, he hurled it at his sturdy foe. The others followed him; and in short time Othrys was stripped of trees and Pelion had lost his shade. Buried beneath that huge mound, Caeneus heaved against the weight of trees and bore up the oaken mass upon his sturdy shoulders. But indeed, as the burden mounted over lips and head, he could get no air to breathe. Gasping for breath, at times he strove in vain to lift his head into the air and to throw off the heaped-up forest; at times he moved, just as if lofty Ida, which we see yonder, should tremble with an earthquake. His end is doubtful. Some said that his body was thrust down by the weight of woods to the Tartarean pit; but the son of Ampycus denied this. For from the middle of the pile he saw a bird with golden wings fly up into the limpid air. I saw it too, then for the first time and the last.


ecce ruunt vasto rabidi clamore bimembres
telaque in hunc omnes unum mittuntque feruntque.
tela retusa cadunt: manet inperfossus ab omni
inque cruentatus Caeneus Elateius ictu.
fecerat attonitos nova res. ‘heu dedecus ingens!’
Monychus exclamat. ‘populus superamur ab uno
vixque viro; quamquam ille vir est, nos segnibus actis,
quod fuit ille, sumus. quid membra inmania prosunt?
quid geminae vires et quod fortissima rerum
in nobis natura duplex animalia iunxit?
nec nos matre dea, nec nos Ixione natos
esse reor, qui tantus erat, Iunonis ut altae
spem caperet: nos semimari superamur ab hoste!
saxa trabesque super totosque involvite montes
vivacemque animam missis elidite silvis!
massa premat fauces, et erit pro vulnere pondus.’
dixit et insanis deiectam viribus austri
forte trabem nactus validum coniecit in hostem
exemplumque fuit, parvoque in tempore nudus
arboris Othrys erat, nec habebat Pelion umbras.
obrutus inmani cumulo sub pondere Caeneus
aestuat arboreo congestaque robora duris
fert umeris, sed enim postquam super ora caputque
crevit onus neque habet, quas ducat, spiritus auras,
deficit interdum, modo se super aera frustra
tollere conatur iactasque evolvere silvas
interdumque movet, veluti, quam cernimus, ecce,
ardua si terrae quatiatur motibus Ide.
exitus in dubio est: alii sub inania corpus
Tartara detrusum silvarum mole ferebant;
abnuit Ampycides medioque ex aggere fulvis
vidit avem pennis liquidas exire sub auras,
quae mihi tum primum, tunc est conspecta supremum.