This week my blog continues to be inspired by a random question which was sent to me via WhatsApp by a student:
Hi! I’m doing my Latin GCSE next week, and I was wondering … how to recognize the historic present, as I’ve tried to simply learn the words … however thats not quite working and I was wondering if there were any specific sign posts to signify that it is the use of the historic present. Thank you!!
A fortnight ago I examined the prose texts currently being studied in the overwhelming majority of schools and last week I covered the Virgil text. Here I shall take a look at Echo & Narcissus, the longest text in the alternative verse selections for 2023 and 2024. For details on the historic present in general and why I believe that students find it trickier than we might imagine, please refer to my original blog post on the prose texts.
Examples of the historic present in Echo & Narcissus
- The set texts opens with a historic present verb, although it is important to remember that this is not the beginning of Virgil’s narrative – the GCSE set text is an extract from a very long work called The Metamorphoses. Still, the very first word of our text is not only in the historic present but is a promoted verb: aspicit hunc trepidos agitantem in retia cervos: she catches sight of this man, driving frightened stags into his nets.
- The next occurence of the historic present, when Ovid jumps out of his past narrative for effect is here: sequitur vestigia furtim: she follows his footsteps stealthily. The same verb is repeated in the same form in the line below – repetition occurs throughout the text and is part of the game that Ovid is playing with the idea of echo and reflection throughout the text.
- The next clear example is when Narcissus first responds to Echo: hic stupet: he is amazed. His reaction continues in the historic present for this entire section, with dimittit, clamat, vocat, respicit and perstat all in the historic present, making vivid the young man’s bewliderment as he hears his words repeated back to him.
- Echo’s joyful response to Narcissus also uses the historic present, when she acts out the words she is able to repeat (let us come together): et verbis favet ipsa suis: and she herself follows her own words.
- When it comes to Echo’s response to her rejection, the entire passage which describes her feeling rejected, hiding in the woods, covering her face with leaves and wasting away into a non-corporeal entitry is all written in the present tense.
- The poem slides back into the past tense briefly to describe Narcissus tiring from the heat and hunting, before jumping back into the present tense to describe him quenching his thirst at the spring and his second thirst (for his own reflection) coming upon him: dumque sitim sedare cupit: while he wishes to quench his thirst is the first example, then dum bibit (while he is drinking) and spem sine corpore amat (he falls in love with hope without substance). The present tense verbs then continue for the enstire description of Narcissus’s love for himself; many of them are repeated in different forms as Ovid plays around with the idea of reflection throughout this section. Ovid does not return to the past tense narrative until his exclammation irrita fallaci quotiens dedit oscula fonti: oh how often he gave kisses to the deceitful spring. He then returns immediately to the present tense when he returns to his game of reflection: quid videat nescit, sed quod videt: he does not know what he is seeing, but what he is seeing … and oculos idem qui decipit incitat error: the same delusion which deceives his eyes provokes them.