This week for my quals I read:
–, City of God (selections)
Martin Luther, On the Liberty of a Christian
Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Pliny’s Natural History (selections, but focusing most on Book 7, on the creation and nature of humans)
My selection for “most interesting thing I read this week” probably goes to the following bit from the Metamorphoses in Book II, when boy Phaeton has nagged his father Apollo into let him drive the chariot of the sun. Things go off the rails, of course, and Phaeton initiates a vast apocalypse that cannot help but bring to mind the current issue of climate change:
His Chariot also vnder him began to waxe red hot.
He could no lenger dure th[e] sparkes and cinder flyeng out,
Againe the culme and smouldring smoke did wrap him round about.
The pitchie darkenesse of the which so wholy had him he[n]t
As that he wist not where he was nor yet which way he went.
The winged horses forcibly did draw him where they wolde.
The Aethiopians at that time (as men for truth vpholde)
(The bloud by force of that same heate drawne to the outer part
And there adust from that time forth) became so blacke and swart.
The moysture was so dried vp in Lybie land that time
That altogither drie and scorcht continueth yet that Clyme.
The Nymphes wt haire about their eares bewayld their springs & lakes
Beötia for hir Dy[r]ces losse great lamentation makes.
For Amimone Argos wept, and Corinth for the spring
Pyrene, at whose sacred streame the Muses vsde to sing.
The Riuers further from the place were not in better case.
For Tanais in his déepest streame did boyle and steme apace.
Old Penevv and Cay[c]us of the countrie Teuthranie,
And swift Ismenos in their bankes by like misfortune frie.
Then burnde the Psophian Erymanth: and (which should burne ageine)
The Troian Xanthus and Lycormas with his yellow veine.
Meander playing in his bankes aye winding to and fro.
Migdonian Melas with his waues as blacke as any slo.
Eurotas running by the foote of Tenare boyled tho.
Then sod Euphrates cutting through the middes of Babilon
Then sod Orontes, and the Scithian swift Thermodoon.
Then Ganges, Colchian Phasis, and the noble Istre
Alpheus and Sperchins bankes with flaming fire did glistre.
The golde that Tagus streame did beare did in the chanell melt.
Amid Cayster of this fire the raging heat was felt.
Among the quieres of singing Swannes that with their pleasant lay
Along the bankes of Lidian brakes from place to place did stray.
And Nyle for feare did run away into the furthest Clyme
Of all the world, and hid his heade, which to this present tyme
Is yet vnfound: his mouthes all seuen cleane voyde of water béene.
Like seuen great valleys where (saue dust) could nothing else be séene.
By like misfortune Hebrus dride and Strymon both of Thrace.
This goes on for a while, until Gaia herself beseeches God (or Jove, since the two are sometimes conflated in Golding’s translation and sometimes not) to do something:
The Sea did shrinke and where as waues did late before remaine,
Became a Champion field of dust and euen a sandy plaine.
The hilles erst hid farre vnder waues like Ilelandes did appeare
So that the scattred Cyclades for the time augmented were.
The fishes drew them to the déepes: the Dolphines durst not play
Aboue the water as before, the Seales and Porkpis lay
With bellies vpward on the waues starke dead· and fame doth go
That Nereus with his wife and daughters all were faine as tho
To dine within the scalding waues. Thrise Neptune did aduaunce
His armes aboue the scalding Sea with sturdy countenaunce:
And thrise for hotenesse of the Ayre, was faine himselfe to hide.
But yet the Earth the Nurce of things enclosde on euery side
(Betwéene the waters of the Sea and Springs that now had hidden
Themselues within their Mothers wombe) for all the paine abidden,
Up to the necke put forth hir head and casting vp hir hand,
Betwéene hir forehead and the sunne as panting she did stand
With dreadfull quaking all that was, she fearfully did shake,
And shrinking somewhat lower downe with sacred voyce thus spake.
O King of Gods and if this be thy will and my desart,
Why doste thou stay with deadly dint thy thunder downe to dart?
And if that néedes I perish must through force of firie flame,
Let thy celestiall fire O God I pray thée doe the same.
A comfort shall it be to haue thée Author of my death.
I scarce haue powre to speak these words (the smoke had stopt hir breath)
Behold my singed haire: behold my dim and bleared eye,
Sée how about my scorched face the scalding embers flie.
Is this the guerdon wherewithall ye quite my fruitfulnesse?
Is this the honor that ye gaue me for my plenteousnesse
And dutie done with true intent? for suffring of the plough
To draw déepe woundes vpon my backe and rakes to rend me through?
For that I ouer all the yeare continually am wrought?
For giuing foder to the beasts and cattell all for nought?
For yéelding corne and other foode wherewith to kéepe mankinde?
And that to honor you withall swéete frankinsence I finde?
But put the case that my desert destruction duely craue,
What hath thy brother: what the Seas deserued for to haue?
Why doe the Seas his lotted part thus ebbe and fall so low,
Withdrawing from thy Skie to which it ought most neare to grow?
But if thou neyther doste regarde thy brother, neyther mée,
At least haue mercy on thy heauen, looke round about and sée
How both the Poles begin to smoke which if the fire appall
To vtter ruine (be thou sure) thy pallace néedes must fall.
Behold how Atlas ginnes to faint[s] his shoulders though [f]ull strong,
Unneth are able to vphold the sparkling Extrée long.
If Sea and Land doe go to wrecke, and heauen it selfe doe burne
To olde confused Chaos then of force we must returne.
Put to thy helping hand therfore to saue the little left
If ought remaine before that all be quite and cleane bereft.
When ended was this piteous plaint, the Earth did hold hir peace
She could no lenger dure the heate but was comp[e]lde to cease.
Into hir bosome by and by she shrunke hir cinged heade
More nearer to the Stygnan caues, and ghostes of persones deade.
The Sire of Heauen protesting all the Gods and him also
That lent the Chariot to his child, that all of for[c]e must go
To hauocke if he helped not, went to the highest part
And top of all the Heauen from whence his custome was to dart,
His thunder and his lightning downe. But neyther did remaine
A Cloude wherewith to shade the Earth, nor yet a showre of raine.
Then with a dreadfull thunderclap vp to his eare he bent
His fist, and at the Wagoner a flash of lightning sent,
Which strake his bodie from the life and threw it ouer whéele
And so with fire he quenched fire.
Phaeton’s corpse tumbles to the earth, where it is buried by nymphs and then sought out by his mother, the nymph Clymen, and his seven sisters, who spend the next four months standing by the grave and wailing. Then something weird happens:
But Clymen hauing spoke, as much as mothers vsually,
Are wonted in such wretched case, discomfortablely,
And halfe beside hir selfe for wo, with torne and scratched brest,
Sercht through the vniuersall world, from East to furthest West,
First séeking for hir sonnes dead coarse, and after for his bones.
She found them by a forren streame, entumbled vnder stones.
There fell she groueling on his graue, and reading there his name,
Shed teares thereon, and layd hir breast all bare vpon the same.
The daughters also of the Sunne no lesse than did their mother,
Bewaild in vaine with flouds of teares, the fortune of their brother:
And beating piteously their breasts, incessantly did call
The buried Phaeton day and night, who heard them not at all,
About whose tumbe they prostrate lay. Foure times the Moone had filde
The Circle of hir ioyned hornes, and yet the sisters hilde
Their custome of lamenting still: (for now continuall vse
had made it custome.) Of the which the eldest Phaetuse
About to knéele vpon the ground, complaynde hir féete were nom.
To whome as fayre Lampetie was rising for to com,
Hir féete were held with sodaine rootes. The third about to teare
Hir ruffled lockes, filde both hir handes with leaues in steade of heare.
One wept to sée hir legges made wood: another did repine
To sée hir armes become long boughes. And shortly to define,
While thus they wondred at themselues, a tender barke began
To grow about their thighes and loynes, which shortly ouerran
Their bellies, brestes, and shoulders eke, and hands successiuely,
That nothing (saue their mouthes) remainde, aye calling pit[e]ously
Upon the wofull mothers helpe. What could the mother doe?
But runne now here now there, as force of nature drue hir to?
And deale hir kisses while she might? she was not so content:
But tare their tender braunches downe: and from the sliuers went
Red drops of bloud as from a wound. The daughter that was rent
Cride spare vs mother spare I pray, for in the shape of tree
The bodies and the flesh of vs your daughters wounded bée.
And now farewell. That word once said, the barke grew ouer all.
Now from these trées flow gummy teares that Amber men doe call.
Which hardened with the heate of sunne as from the boughs they fal.
The trickling Riuer doth receyue, and sendes as things of price
To decke the daintie Dames of Rome and make them fine and nice.
This is par for the course with Ovid — a sort of rambling series of cause-and-effect set-pieces that never quite seem to operate according to narrative logic and payoff in the modern sense. To be precisely clear, what is fascinating to me here is the way in which the world was very nearly destroyed, it was in so much peril that the king of the gods had to murder someone to stop it — and the overall effect is that some nymphs turned into trees and made the jewel we now call amber, “[t]o decke the danintie Dames of Rome and make them fine and nice.”
There’s an unusual telescoping effect in which Ovid spins outward and shows us the Heavens themselves lit afire, only to end back in familiar (human) Roman society — and yet nevertheless, and perhaps largely unintentionally, suggests the implication of human luxuries in immense and almost incomprehensible environmental exploitation and destruction.