BOOK: Maffeo Vegio, "Short Epics" (cont.)
[Continued from last week.]
The Golden Fleece
Finally an enjoyable epic poem. This one is a bit longer than the previous two (approx. 1000 lines). It tells a part of the story of the Argonauts, from the time of their arrival to Colchis to the time they escape, together with Medea and the Golden Fleece. The poet finally managed to tone down his obsession with speeches somewhat, so that at least some parts of the poem actually consist of action rather than just rhetoric. Additionally, unlike the previous two poems, this one actually tells something that you could call a normal coherent story, with a head and a tail, unlike the previous two poems that read more like postscripts to the Aeneid and the Iliad. And the story is interesting for its own sake; it has the same qualities that would make a fine tragedy, with plenty of raging passions and the crimes to which they lead. Medea's father Aeëtes himself, although he is quite friendly in this poem and one tends to sympathize with him, is guilty of the murder of his father and of his son-in-law Phrixus (3.45, 3.172). And then there's Medea, who murders her younger brother Absyrtus here for no very good reason (4.197–206, mostly in the hope, justified as it turns out, that the resulting grief will prevent her father from chasing her and the Argonauts). And at the end of the poem, Aeëtes pronounces a heavy curse, foretelling that Medea will end up discarded by her husband and murdering her children, which as we know from the rest of the Argonaut story indeed turns out to be the case.
One complaint that I do have about this poem, however, is that the gods interfere so much in human affairs. The poet drags a whole host of deities into the intrigues, with some of them supporting one side and some the other: Venus (2.1–6; supports the Greeks, orders Cupid to strike Medea with an arrow so that she will fall in love with Jason), Helios (2.95; he is the father of Aeëtes and thus wants to foil Venus's plans), Athena (2.119; Helios asks her for help since she used to be a kind of patron to Medea, what with the latter being a studious type and all (witchcraft, herbalism and spells, etc.); Athena now tries to get Medea to come back to her senses and not allow her lust for Jason to cause her to bring ruin upon her father and her native country), Aeolus (3.1; supports Jason, who is descended from Aeolus; besides, Aeëtes' son-in-law Phrixus, whom Aeëtes had killed, was Aeolus' grandson, 3.27), Juno (3.41; asked by Aeolus to help, and with good reason, as it was she who gave the golden fleece to Phrixus, and Aeëtes only got it after killing him, 3.31), and even the Fury Tisiphone (4.179–96; she comes to harangue Medea, encouraging her to kill her little brother).
In view of all this interference from the gods, it's sometimes difficult to shake off the feeling that the human characters in this poem are not really actors of their own — they are just puppets in the hands of the gods. They are thus robbed of a fair amount of their free will and the events in which they are enmeshed are not nearly so tragical any more. If a person causes a big mess due to his own mistakes and decisions, this can be a tragedy; but if a person causes a big mess due to the gods' bidding and control, this is just collateral damage — business as usual for the gods, to whom nothing really tragic can happen anyway. You can still sympathize with the human victims of the gods' intrigues, but they remain just that — victims, not tragic heroes. I would have been happier if the gods hadn't been involved so closely in the action of this poem.
On the subject of gods' interference in the story, there's one god who conspicuously refuses to interfere: Jupiter, who, both here (4.10–19) and in Astyanax (ll. 104–121) implies that everything has already been decided by fate and that he cannot change anything. He even makes similar excuses in both cases: in Astyanax he says to Venus, who asks him to prevent Astyanax from being killed, that the revenge of her beloved Trojans will come later, when Rome (founded by the escaped Trojan Aeneas) will conquer Greece; and in The Golden Fleece, he says to Athena that she has to wait until the Trojan war when Juno and Venus will be her allies rather than opponents.
Incidentally, the English translation contains the phrase “murder most foul” (3.178).
I wonder why the translator didn't avoid it — surely he must have known that everyone
would be reminded of Agatha Christie's crime novels (or the films based thereon).
In fact I now notice that one of them actually
bears this exact same title, but for me my first thought upon reading that phrase
was the Poirot movies of the 1990s, with the inimitable David Suchet in the lead role,
where he uses this phrase on several occasions. It's amusing, but the association is so
jarringly out of place here: on the one hand we have the meticulous Hercule Poirot, the
epitome of manners and self-control, and on the other we have Medea's sister furiously spurring her on
to “[e]scape this brutish house and leave behind murder most foul and a land of greed”...
P.S. While poking around the Wikipedia, I noticed that there exists a
Golden Fleece Award,
“presented to those public officials in the United States who the judges feel waste public money”
This is again a fairly short poem, approx. 500 lines, and its subject is a sketch from the life of St. Antony, the famous hermit. The first half or so of the story strikes me as rather ridiculously contrived: a thought somehow comes into Antony's head that he might actually be the first Christian hermit in the Egyptian desert; however, to disabuse him of this mistaken notion, God sends him an angel commanding him to visit a certain St. Paul, who is also a hermit and some twenty years older than Antony to boot. This projected meeting of two aged monks in the middle of the desert brings great concern to Satan in Hell, who takes a break from his usual haranguing of his followers with laments on the decline on their fortune to point out that “ ‘good reason warns me to fear, that, if opportunity comes for them to enclose each other in tender embrace, to speak each in turn, and to clasp hand in hand, the meeting of the aged fathers spells ruin for us’ ” (2.28–30). He therefore goes into the desert and tries to detract and tempt Antony, but without success. Antony then goes to visit Paul, who is on the verge of dying and sends Antony back to bring a shroud in which he is to be buried. Upon returning, Antony finds Paul already dead and two lions, miraculously meek, come from the desert to help him dig a grave for Paul.
I didn't particularly enjoy this poem either. As I said above, the motivation for several parts of the story is somewhat silly; and, what is more, there's so little of the story — it's just a sketch really. Perhaps my problem is with the ‘minor epic’ as a genre; maybe I should just stick to reading proper epics, long poems with a big story that has a proper beginning and an end, with enough room to afford episodes, subplots, a number of characters, etc.
But I'm not saying that there weren't some nice things even in the Antoniad. I enjoyed the passage where a satyr appears before Antony and asks him for help: “ ‘[. . .] Ours is not an empty image that has deceived your eyes. I also am mortal and sprung from mortal blood. [. . .] I am of that troop whom the awestruck ancient world blindly labeled gods, satyrs and fauns. The mass of my comrades sends me forth as legate to you. One and all we beseech you, hallowed father, that you deign to pray to our mutual Lord for our salvation.’ ” (2.73–82). This was fairly touching. Antony is moved to tears of joy and proceeds to bemoan the follies of paganism: “ ‘Alas for you, pagan people of Alexandria, who rear altars to empty gods [. . .] who dare to despise the true Savior of mankind to whom a gentle beast willingly confessed belief and reverently asked for His help with prayer.’ ” (2.96–101.) However, the satyr runs away at this, which suggests that he was just Satan in disguise, in another effort to distract Antony (introduction, p. xxxviii).
Another touching passage is near the end of the poem, when two lions come to lament Paul's death and help dig a grave for him.
While writing the above rant about the Aeneid, it occurred to me that it would be good to give Virgil's other poems a try: the Eclogues and the Georgics. I like pastoral poetry, so it might well turn out that I will like these poems much better than I did the Aeneid.
On the subject of the Aeneid, it occurred to me that I might try to read it in a different translation. The one I've read so far is the translation of Fran Bradač, in good solid hexameters, published in 1962 but written in a language that feels several decades older. I have no complaints about that translation, but seeing as I don't enjoy the contents for their own sake, it might be that a different translation would make reading the poem more interesting. In particular, I'd like to read Dryden's translation into English — good fun baroque heroic couplets, with a nice flow and lots of apostrophes. What's not to like?
Another supplement to the Aeneid was attempted by one Pier Candido Decembrio in 1419, although it is much shorter and incomplete than Vegio's. It can be found on this web site, which also contains an Elizabethan translation of Vegio's supplement.
Reading Vegio's poem about Medea and the Argonauts reminded me of another poem that has been waiting unread on one of my shelves for several years: the Argonautika, a hellenistic epic by Apollonius of Rhodes. But alas, now I notice that I have the paperback edition, which lacks the 162-page translator's commentary that is included in the hardcover edition. But the latter is fairly expensive and I'm not sure if I want to devote so much attention to this poem anyway.
Reading about St. Antony in the Antoniad reminds me of another work inspired by St. Antony, namely Flaubert's Temptation of Saint Anthony, a marvellously bizarre cornucopia of a book in which an endless procession of exotic things make an appearance. It may have been written in the middle of the 19th century, by an author who is nowadays mostly remembered for his sober realistic prose, but in its style and spirit the Temptation reminds one much more of late-19th-century decadence than of mid-19th-century realism. I have read it quite some time ago, and really enjoyed it, and maybe it would now be a good time to read it again.