Anomaly in Latin tense usage: Ovid Metamorphoses 4.95?

Naturally anybody who checks out my blog is welcome to read anything and everything on it.  But I thought it only decent to inform you that unless you are a classicist or somebody else who knows Latin fairly well (and also some Greek) you are probably not going to enjoy this particular entry.  Needless to say, even so you are more than welcome to continue reading it.

In fact, offer a reply!

Earlier in the month a friend and colleague called my attention to a rather odd collocation of verb tenses in a portion of the Pyramus and Thisbe narrative at 4.95 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

pervenit ad tumulum dictaque sub arbore sedit.

The point of interest here is that scansion shows pervěnit to be present tense and sēdit to be perfect tense.  Why this switch in tense from the verb at the opening of the line to the one at the end?

I’ve been thinking about that Ovid line and the mix of tenses.  And I’m going to ‘ramble-think’ on paper (so to speak) here and sort of free-associate – for what it’s worth.

Here is the larger context of M. 4.93-101:

‘Callida per tenebras versato cardine Thisbe
egreditur fallitque suos adopertaque vultum
pervenit ad tumulum dictaque sub arbore sedit.        95
audacem faciebat amor. venit ecce recenti
caede leaena boum spumantis oblita rictus
depositura sitim vicini fontis in unda;
quam procul ad lunae radios Babylonia Thisbe
vidit et obscurum timido pede fugit in antrum,         100
dumque fugit, tergo velamina lapsa reliquit.

It occurred to me to list all the finite verb tenses in this section (M. 4.95-101) and see if any pattern emerges:

94     egreditur    present

94     fallit           present

95     pervěnit     present

95     sēdit          perfect

96     faciebat      imperfect

96     venit          present

100     vīdit           perfect

100     fūgit          perfect

101     fugit          present

101     reliquit       perfect

One could then perhaps argue that the reason pervěnit (95) is put in the present is simply by a kind of association as the third in a triad of verbs the first two (egreditur and fallit in 94) of which are present tense.  I wonder if the metrical sedes are useful guides here:  in 94 both present tense verbs are packed tightly at the opening of the line, and in 95 pervěnit then not only is stacked in a portion (the  opening dactyl _˘˘ ) of the same metrical sedes but also the same tense, as it were.  In other words, the present tense for pervěnit is perhaps to some extent motivated by the desire for temporal concinnity  among the verbs.  That sēdit shifts into the perfect may simply be a way of denoting that after Thisbe’s fraught flight in the night-time dark described with present tense action verbs (egreditur … pervenit), the perfect sēdit should be understood as true present perfect and works like a (Greek) perfect tense where the emphasis is not so much on a past action as it is on the present result of a past action (see Smythe §1946 ), i.e., Thisbe “makes it through” (pervěnit) and ‘has sat down’ and so ‘is (now) sitting’.

[It was, I believe, somewhat of a problem for the Romans that they could not morphologically distinguish between a perfective and preterite action (as did the Greek perfect and aorist tenses). In Latin the two had collapsed into the one morphological perfect, but the perfect certainly harbored implicitly the semantic duality that Greek could so easily mark by using the two distinct morphological shapes of perfect and aorist – it would not be the only case of Graecorum invidia on the part of the Romans!  Which is which in any given Latin perfect would be a matter of context – to be sure, the vast number of Latin perfects are aoristic, but we do have examples like morphological perfect vixit that is a semantic present = ‘he is dead’ (because he ‘has lived’ but no longer ‘is living’ and thus is dead].

Discounting Ovid’s ‘editorializing’ (or is it gnomic?) as some kind of intrusive narrator that audacem faciebat amor (96), and his using the durative imperfect (faciebat), we see that the narrative as such then picks up in věnit (96) in, again, the present tense.

If this thinking makes any sense, I might have expected the three perfect verbs (vīdit [100], fūgit  [100], reliquit [101]) in the following quam-clause (99-101) to have been present tense. (The present tense fugit in the dum-clause [101] is of course standard syntax for referring to past time (like the three main subordinate verbs of the quam-clause) in a dum-clause (see Allen & Greenough § 556) embedded in an environment of superordinate past tenses.  Perhaps there is some kind of stylistic variatio at work here in that the ‘you-are-there’ presents in the first sentence (93-95) revert to a less breath-taking narrative using the perfects.  (Maybe: at first it was an exciting ‘touch-and-go’ but then she safely escaped into the cave.)

Finally, since Ovid was a supreme master of the hexameter, I can in no way imagine that he ‘stumbled’ here and did not do exactly and precisely what he wanted to do.  Is it possible that his ‘graecising’ use of a present perfective (sēdit) is a sly homage by this deeply hellenizing Roman poet to those much older poets of Greece to whom virtually every Roman poet owed an inestimable debt of both theme, meter, and – yes – even language.

This was a lot of fun for me, and you the reader are of course entirely free to ignore it all.  But it is pretty much the only thing I could make of the matter in trying to offer some reasoned account for the seeming anomaly my friend noted in line 95.

Hope it gives you something to play with.  And what do you think?

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One Response to Anomaly in Latin tense usage: Ovid Metamorphoses 4.95?

  1. heather says:

    The verb in this tense is odd here. Could it be that Ovid loved the idea that people would puzzle over it?

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