This article was originally published in the Quarterly, Summer 2006. We’re republishing it here for easier access, with a few minor corrections by Mr. Barber.
WILLIAMS AND THE SEA-NYMPH
In ‘The Last Voyage’ the ship of Solomon drives towards Sarras, and Williams uses two similes to characterize her motion. This paper is concerned with the first:
as the fine fair arm of pine-changed Cymodocea,
striking from the grey-green waters of tossed Tiber,
thrust the worshipful duke to the rescue of Rome;
— (lines 58-60; Taliessin through Logres page 86)
My aim is to write a gloss on this passage, but I need to make something of a voyage myself to get into a position to do so. Let us start with Cymodocea. (I read this with ‘y’ as in French ‘u’, both ‘o’s short, the ‘c’ hard, the stress on the ‘e’, ‘ea’ disyllabic; this is the ‘reformed’ pronunciation which Williams probably expected; but the ‘traditional’ pronunciation with a soft ‘c’ and the stress possibly on the second ‘o’ would also work.) In Greek mythology, this name belonged to a Nereid, one of the fifty daughters of the minor sea-god Nereus and the Okeanid Doris. Hesiod gives an account of them together with names for all fifty (Theogony, 240-264). Many of these names express aspects of the sea; Κυμοδόκη (Kumodókē), to give her the Greek form of her name, means ‘wave-receiver’. Homer gives a similar list, and she turns up there also (Iliad, 18: 39). The Nereids are sea-nymphs, who, like all nymphs, are female, semi-divine, long-lived though usually not immortal, and forever young. Nymphs are usually associated with a place or some part of nature. The function of the Nereids is chiefly to remain as a group, playing in the sea or dancing on the shore. A few of them have individual stories; the best known is Thetis, desired by Zeus but foretold to bear a son greater than his father. Zeus therefore reluctantly married her off to Peleus, a mortal. Their wedding is the main subject of Catullus’s longest and most elaborate poem, and their son was Achilles.
In the Aeneid, Virgil first introduces our sea-nymph, Latinizing her name, with some of the other Nereids as attendants of the sea-god Neptune, the Roman equivalent of Greek Poseidon, while the Trojans are sailing from Sicily to Cumae in Italy (5: 826). But it is the later use of her name that is relevant to Williams’s passage, and by this time Virgil has used it in a different story.
In Book 9, the Trojan ships are under attack by Aeneas’s enemy, Turnus. Cybele, the Phrygian mother-goddess, whom Virgil treats as mother of all the gods, had previously extracted an agreement from Jove, the equivalent of Zeus. This was that the ships, which had been built from pine trees from her sacred grove on mount Ida, should never be overcome, but that those which had completed the journey should be turned into sea-nymphs. When Turnus began his attack on the ships the promise was fulfilled (9: 80-122). This episode has been much criticized; it has been called ‘the most incongruous episode in the whole Aeneid’ (R. D. Williams); it is much more the kind of story we would expect to find in Ovid, who does indeed use it (Metamorphoses 14: 530-65). However, what is clear is that these seanymphs, though like Nereids are not Nereids, since they started life as pine trees, not daughters of Nereus (9: 102-3); they are not given individual names at this point.
Then in Book 10, we have Aeneas coming to the rescue of his comrades with a new fleet, which had been loaned him by the Etruscan king Tarchon. He meets the former ships of his own fleet, now sea-nymphs, and they dance around his ship in salute. One of them is a better talker than the rest. She is named as Cymodocea (10: 225). She therefore cannot be the same sea-nymph as appeared in Book 5: after all the present one was still a ship then and never was a Nereid. She has to be another sea-nymph with the same name. Virgil left the confusion unresolved – after all he left the poem unfinished and unrevised – or perhaps he liked the name so much that he used it twice, intending to change it in one of the places. Anyway, she warns Aeneas of the danger ahead and, on finishing, ‘with a thrust of her right hand, she drove the ship upon its way’ (dixerat et dextra discedens impulit altam / haud ignara modi puppim, 10: 246-7). This is the source of Cymodocea and her thrust of the ship in ‘The Last Voyage’.
The translation of the Virgilian sentence I have just used is taken from Williams’s own retelling, The Story of the Aeneid, published in 1936 while he was working on the poems of Taliessin through Logres. And there are other Virgilian echoes here. In the Introduction to his retelling he comments on Virgil’s feeling for Nature: ‘a feeling exact in its details, and yet laden with a content which is certainly not Wordsworthian, but from which Wordsworth might have learned’. He goes on: ‘His river-gods (cf. Tiber, p. 95) and his sea-nymphs (p. 118) are neither rivers not waves, and yet they are not merely gods inhabiting those places. A kind of strange life, inhuman, and yet aware of humanity, moves in them’ (Introduction, ix).
I have left in his page references, because the second one is to this passage in Book 10 (I shall come to the first one shortly), and they also show Williams associating sea-nymphs with the Tiber as he does in our passage. In fact the Tiber is doubly relevant. Firstly, in Virgil Aeneas is still sailing down the coast when he meets the sea-nymphs and is given his helpful push. But in Williams he has already turned up the river Tiber before Cymodocea appears, and there is no mention of her companions. This compression of Virgil’s story is followed by and indeed requires another. In the Aeneid Rome has not yet been founded and Aeneas is heading for the Trojan camp, which is near the river mouth (7: 35-6, 106). However, Williams has him coming ‘to the rescue of Rome’, which is, or rather will be, about thirty kilometres upstream. Aeneas is rescuing Rome in the sense of the idea of Rome or of the destiny of the descendants of the Trojans who will found it. Rome is an embodiment of the City for Williams in a way that the Trojan camp cannot be.
Moreover, Rome is suggested by mentioning the Tiber, on whose banks it will be built. But in describing Cymodocea as ‘striking from the . . . Tiber’, has Williams relocated their meeting upstream? The exact position of the Trojan camp is not easy to work out from the scattered references in Virgil’s text. However, the matter is dealt with in Appendix F of J. W. Mackail’s edition of the Aeneid. Mackail was the leading English Virgilian scholar of the time, and his edition was published in 1930 by the Oxford University Press, so Williams had ready access to it, and indeed referred to it in his introduction. Mackail provides a map and explains that ‘On reaching the mouth of the Tiber . . the Trojan fleet rowed up the river for about a mile . . . There they landed, and fortified a camp’ (529). The next incident after the meeting with Cymodocea is that Aeneas sees the Trojan camp (10: 260), so Williams clearly felt it legitimate for the meeting to be described as on the Tiber, although he may be considered as having relocated it. I pass over the question of whether or how far sea-nymphs are permitted to go up rivers; since Cymodocea started life as – or in – a tree she would then presumably have been a Dryad; as a water nymph she would be a Naiad; the relocation to fresh water does not appear to bother her.
Secondly, Williams was clearly impressed by the passage in which Tiber the river- god appeared to Aeneas in a dream (8: 31-65); this is his first reference in the passage quoted from Williams’s Introduction. His purpose was to advise Aeneas of how to find the future site of Rome, but for our passage it is his appearance rather than his prophecy that is important. He is described as ‘clothed in a grey-green cloak’, Williams’s version of eum tenuis glauco uelabat amictu / carbasus (8: 33- 4). This gives us the ‘grey-green waters of tossed Tiber’ in ‘The Last Voyage’. The adjective glaucus, rendered by Williams as ‘grey-green’ is hard to translate; originally it meant ‘gleaming’ but later it came to be used for the colour of rivers and the sea; translators usually render it as ‘grey’.
How much of all this does the reader need or want to know? Cymodocea’s message of warning is not relevant, nor the use of her name for two different nymphs, nor the issue of the site of the Trojan camp, nor the possible relocation of the meeting with Cymodocea from the sea to the river Tiber, nor the origin of the phrase ‘grey-green’. Sources are not meaning, and much of this is irrelevant to Williams’s meaning. This article is long already, but even so, with heroic restraint I have refrained from exploring other fascinating byways, such as other appearances of Nereids in Greek literature, Virgil’s apparently earliest reference to Cymodocea (Georgics 4: 338, which is generally agreed to be an interpolation), his echo of the opening of Catullus’s poem, the potential confusion with Cymothoe, who really is a Nereid (Aeneid 1: 144), or sundry allusions to the Virgilian passages in other English poets.
Meanwhile, what gloss, containing only the essentials and omitting the detailed Virgilian references, would I offer for the passage? The following is, I suggest, the minimum, adding a few points for completeness:
58-60: the headlong rush of the ship is compared to the speed of Aeneas’s ship as he rushes to the relief of his comrades, besieged by Turnus. Cymodocea: a sea-nymph. Her fine fair arm: Williams regularly sees a woman’s arm as embodying her beauty, as in ‘The Coming of Palomides’. pine-changed: in the Aeneid, Cymodocea was originally one of a group of pine trees in a sacred grove on Mount Ida, from which Aeneas’s original fleet was built; they were turned into sea-nymphs by Jove to avoid their being burned by Turnus; he was lent a new fleet by the Etruscans. Tiber: the river on which Rome will be built. thrust: Cymodocea gave Aeneas’s ship a push which gave it great speed. worshipful duke: Aeneas: his constant epithet is pius, which is hard to translate, but implies a combination of ‘faithful’ and ‘devout’ for which worshipful is an equivalent; duke is a descendant of the Latin dux, a military commander. Rome: in relieving the Trojan camp Aeneas looks forward to the future city.
However, personally I find the poem illuminated by exploring something of Williams’s use of Virgil and his admiration of Virgil’s feeling for Nature.