Saturday, 4 October 2014

Persius - A nasty little piece of work

Aules Persius Flaccus 34-62 CE
Imagine the scene if you will…a drinking party in Hades where all three chief Satirists are gathered. Horace would probably entertain you with mildly barbed repartee, enjoying a jewel studded goblet of Falernian wine with you as he subtly and wittily took you to task for your most recent shady business dealings (while benefiting handsomely from some of the resulting largess at the same time), Juvenal? He would be wagging his finger at you loudly and eloquently censuring your shortcomings and urging you not to get married to that rich aging freedwoman as he sipped from a glass of sparkling apple juice (homemade of course)…and what about Persius/ What would he do?

He’d probably punch you in the face - and leave after insulting the other guests as fakes, warning them not to listen to those other has-beens. Yes, Persius seems to be the sort of chap that might have carved ‘4 Real’ into his forearm with a razor if you so much as utter the barest whimper of doubt in the direction of his ‘semipaganus’ street cred. He was hard-core. You can tell this right from the start of his programmatic Satire...where he informs us he doesn’t drink from the same trough as the other windbags and tells it like it is. He might have been even more live and direct had his erstwhile mentor and posthumous amanuensis Cornutus not fluffed the text over, removing any potentially insulting references to the Imperial elite.

‘Nec fonte labra prolui caballino
Nec in bicipiti somniasse Parnaso
Memini, ut repente sic poeta prodirem.
Heliconidasque pallidamque Pirenen
Illis remitto quorum imagines lambunt
Hederae sequaces; ipse semipaganus
Ad sacra vatum carmen adfero nostrum.
Quis expedivit psittaco suum  ‘chaere’
Picamque docuit nostra verba conari?’

(Prologue l.1-9)

The immediate thing we note with the Prologue is its metre, limping iambics or choliambic. This is a metre which originated with the lyric iambic poet of 6th Century Ionia, Hipponax.

The USP of this choliambic is its unexpected substitution of a long breathing instead of the expected short, thus giving a kind of limping or disjointed or interrupted flow to the line. A bit like an unusual time signature used by a jazz guitarist or a deliberate ‘bum-note’ used in a saxophonist’s phrasing to comment on a section or take the rise out of a particular riff or style. Hipponax was apparently well known for using this style to great effect, ripping into his subjects and using the long pause at the end for an extra sonic surprise lunge at the target. What is Petronius telling us here with the use of this metre?

III.l00. 'sed tremor inter vina subit...'
To me it firstly acts a s a punch in the face of those satirists who proudly declare Satire as a truly Roman invention (a half-truth at best of times since it refers to Satiric verse only ignoring its dues from earlier Greek iambs), re-establishing and underlining the Greek iamb tradition in opposition to what Persius perceives as mere effete posturing in a Greek mode as opposed to the real thing. It also gives him a chance to set himself as distinct and apart from the other poets and marks him out as a purist devoted to his art. Perhaps it’s also a bit flash like a hot blues riff that shows up the others as mere imitators and him as a bit of a nerd into the hard-core stuff of the roots of what he perceives to be true Satire. Hence his side swipe at those’ parrots taught to say Chaire’ (the Greek form of Greeting…fashionable in those days as say French was during certain periods of English history), not so much a dig at the Greekness since I think he regards earlier iamb and its exponents with honour and respect, but a sneer aimed at those who use Greek for effect without really knowing its meaning or application. Persius is aiming at the money grubbing literary dilettante who might pepper his or her work with superficial or clichéd Greekisms and bon mots but in reality unable to properly use speak the language itself – hence a mere parrot or performing monkey.

Persius would have us know that he stands in noble isolation, disdainful of the herd and its vanities and from this self-elevated position looks down on the ravens, and magpies of the contemporary literary scene – a scene to which as semipaganus, he only half belongs.


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