Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1.2.10

Elisabeth Henry, The Vigour of Prophecy. A Study of Virgil's Aeneid. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press. Pp. xii, 228; 3 ills. $24.95. ISBN 0-8093-1591-2.

James J. O'Hara, Death and the Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil's Aeneid. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. Pp. xii, 207. ISBN 0-691-06815-1.

Reviewed by Joseph Farrell, University of Pennsylvania

Here are two new books treating closely related themes and, inevitably, subjecting the same evidence to comparably detailed scrutiny. They are about the same length, and both are the work of well-informed Vergilians who are also good writers. But, within these parameters, they are probably as different from one another as it is possible to be.

Elisabeth Henry studies the effect on interpretation of the Aeneid brought about by increased attention to the knowledge that characters in the poem owe to prophecy and memory. She marshals her evidence in nine chapters, which are accompanied by a brief preface, summaries of Vergil's life and of the Aeneid itself, two appendices, a select bibliography, and indices of names, key Latin words, and Vergilian passages. The book is evidently the fruit of many years' teaching and reflection, and is distinguished by a close familiarity not only with Vergil's text, but with an impressive range of comparanda extending from the material culture of archaic Latium to Vergil's influence on modern poetry from Thomas Hardy to Robert Lowell. The author's humanism and humanity are evident in generous measure throughout the work.

In spite of these strengths, however, the book struck me as generally unsatisfying. Henry;s approach and interpretation are extremely traditional, by which I mean not just that she favors what has come to be called an "optimistic" reading of the poem, but that her way of arriving at this reading strikes me as rather dated. She is aware of the neoconservative approach exemplified by Philip Hardie and others; but her own method is much less self-aware, even at times naive. One small but telling example concerns her failure to detect irony in Vergil's use of epithets. Having taken another scholar to task for laboring the (I thought) obvious, even commonplace point that characters described as laetus in the Aeneid are generally in for trouble,1 I am embarrassed to find that Henry sees no irony at all in these descriptions, and indeed makes laetitia a sign of that special quality that animated the Romans as a people, a kind of confidence in the future which Allen Tate calls "the vigor of prophecy" in a phrase that Henry takes as the title of her book. It is of course true that prophecy often gives rise to joy in the Aeneid; but it remains to ask whether the joy is well-founded, something that Henry does not do (in sharp contrast to O'Hara: see below). The same is true of pietas. Aeneas is pius: Vergil said it, Henry believes it, and that settles it. Thus on such an occasion as that celebrated critical shibboleth, at PIUS Aeneas, quamquam lenire dolentem etc. (4.393-396), there is no hint of irony, no suggestion that the quality manifested by Aeneas is a mysterious and, perhaps, an unattractive thing: the epithet totally exonerates him of any guilt in abandoning Dido.2 The same tendency can be observed in the author's interpretation of larger narrative and symbolic elements. There is a marked tendency to ignore or pass over the cost in human terms of Aeneas' fated mission and to focus instead on the big picture; or, as Henry at one point puts it, following Aristotle, to maintain "an apprehension of 'things as a whole' (ta kath' holon) rather than of 'things taken individually' (ta kath' hekaston)" (p. 155). But when the matter is put in this way, it seems clear that this is no model for interpreting Vergil. If the overall view of things sub specie aeternitatis is really all that matters to Vergil, then why does he persist in wasting the reader's time with such lovingly detailed attention to all of those appealing victims of fate, to whom we are supposed to remain indifferent?

Along with this preference for simple, optimistic answers to questions that leave others, optimist and pessimist alike, brooding and uncertain, goes an oddly selective approach to bibliography. It is not that Henry doesn't know the scholarship; but often she seems not to confront or take seriously its full implications. Sara Mack's excellent Patterns of Time in Vergil, a book that should have left more of a mark on Henry's thinking, is mentioned only once in passing.3 Scholars like Michael Putnam and Ralph Johnson too are cited occasionally; but the full weight of their conclusions is basically ignored. Only in her last chapter does Henry acknowledge the reality of the "Harvard school" of criticism; but, while she notes there that "Virgil has expressed with overwhelming intensity the cruelty of Juno, the anguish of so many young deaths, the affront to human endeavor in Aeneas' own moments of brutality and crumpling weakness," and that "to set up Virgil's hero, against all this, as an idealised monarch, or perfected soul, can only appear to the modern reader as an inadequate makeshift," (p. 165), she is nevertheless able, focusing on "Roman order, Pax Augusta, with warring goddesses reconciled in lasting peace," to conclude that "the prophetic glimpses of this newer world which illuminate the poem, sometimes at moments of extreme horror and darkness, suggest that the traditional view of the Aeneid's final import may be justified" (176). Justified, that is in very traditional, not to say old-fashioned and even discredited, terms. Thus Aeneas is presented to us as a Stoic hero (cf. Index nominum p. 218 s.v. "Aeneas: Stoic qualities") in a way that even the neoconservatives, such as Karl Galinsky,4 have repudiated. By appealing to this canard, Henry attempts to justify, in a very few pages (166-172) and with a minimum of comment, Aeneas' maddened slaughter of the Italians in Books 10 and 12, the human sacrifice that he offers to Pallas' shade, and, of course, the death of Turnus. The aggregate impression is that Henry simply refuses to take seriously scholarship that conflicts with her uniformly optimistic reading of the poem, of which there has been quite a lot.

The most interesting, or potentially interesting aspect of Henry's book is its attention to the theme of memory. This is indeed a fascinating, important, and largely untapped area of study; and so it will remain, at least for the time being, since Henry barely scratches the surface. Most of her observations are true, so far as they go; but many questions go unasked, particularly the sort of questions that tend to complicate one's view of the poem as describing the faultless trajectory of a good man and true into the pantheon of heroes worshipped by the Roman world-state. There is, for instance, a pronounced ambivalence about memory in this poem: like oblivion, it has its attractive and repellent aspects. To speak of specifics, it is clear that memory and forgetfulness have a great deal to do with what happens in the underworld, and the fact that Aeneas behaves in Books 7-12 as if he had forgotten everything he learned there is puzzling and, to many, disturbing. Not to Henry. What Aeneas gets from his visit to the underworld is a "general awareness of the rightness of things" that is "not inconsistent with the supposition that the Hades-experience has been entirely forgotten by Aeneas after his return to earth" (155). This is the familiar "big-picture" approach once again: what Aeneas learns during his catabasis is all basically good and ennobling, and it enables him to discharge his fate with joy and a calm acceptance of heaven's will, even if we can't point to anything in particular that he remembers about this crucial experience, and even if some of the actions that he performs after it are not very lovable. Again, although Henry is correct to see an important relationship between memory and prophecy, the one is not a subset of the other. Indeed, the memory theme is so vast and important that it cannot be handled adequately in a study of such limited scope. Properly contextualized, it would be seen not only as a theme in this one poem, but as a crucial element in the epic tradition that stretches from Homer on one end to Dante on the other, and beyond; also as an important element in the rhetorical training that Vergil and his readers received as young men; and probably as an ancient forerunner of the mediaeval and renaissance tradition of ethical and moral memory that Frances Yates has studied.5 Of these contexts Henry gives us no hint. I do not mean to complain that Henry did not write a different book; but I would not want readers to think that she has said anything like the last word on this subject.6

James O'Hara also considers the role of prophecy in shaping one's reading of the poem. In contrast to Henry, he focuses tightly on this theme, allowing its significance to a global interpretation of the Aeneid to emerge gradually, without overt attention to its possible ramifications. The book itself, though somewhat Teutonic in its monographic structure (three of the five chapters sport appendices; there are also introduction, bibliography, index locorum and index rerum et nominum), presents its case gracefully and convincingly.

O'Hara starts small, establishing the existence of a pattern that is shown to be common in the Aeneid. Time and again the poet allows some character to expound a prophecy that is encouraging to its recipient—usually Aeneas—but which is able to be encouraging only at the cost of omitting certain details—again, usually the death of someone dear to Aeneas. What is more, O'Hara demonstrates that these prophecies are normally worded so as to call attention to their selectivity in a way that an informed reader will sense is ironic. The general pattern is established in Chapter 1, which considers prophecies connected with the deaths of Orontes, Palinurus, Anchises, and Pallas; subsequent chapters explore (2) the implications of misleading prophecies received by Turnus; (3) by Aeneas with respect to the experiences awaiting him in Italy; (4) by Venus and Aeneas with respect to the future history of Rome; and (5) by the reader who is alive to the conceit of the poet as vates and the poem as an inspired utterance.

Even this brief summary will indicate that O'Hara is a "pessimist;" and I confess that I prefer his book to Henry's thanks partly to my own innate fondness for gloomy readings of the Aeneid. But I found repeatedly that O'Hara provided the corrective to what seemed to me mistaken, ill-conceived, or inadequate in Henry's argument. Where she recommends that we not lose sight of "things taken as a whole" by dwelling on the fates of minor characters, O'Hara shows that the treatment of an Orontes illustrates a pattern of action that informs the entire poem and bears very directly on one's interpretation of even the largest issues. Where Henry sees Turnus as utterly distinct from Aeneas with respect to prophecy and fate, O'Hara shows quite clearly that both heroes are routinely deceived by prophecies in order that they might be tricked into playing their complementary roles. Similarly, when Henry sees Jupiter's famous prophecy of Roman greatness to come as an authoritative utterance that controls the reader's experience of everything that follows, she follows the (admittedly common) practice of divorcing the passage from its particular context. O'Hara instead understands the passage in all the ambivalence and uncertainty that its contextual status demands. Having established earlier in the book that Vergilian prophecies are routinely misleading in a way that invites undue optimism, and that this optimism is usually directed at some specific anxiety in the mind of the person who receives the prophecy, O'Hara (following Servius) shows that Jupiter's prophecy, which so many are apt to read as objective historical fact in the guise of prophecy and therefore as absolutely true, is really a kind of consolatio designed to allay Venus' immediate cares for the well-being of her beloved Trojans. Specifically, her concern is that the race will be wiped out by Juno's unremitting wrath. As a result, Jupiter exaggerates the Trojan character of the future populus Romanus, just as he promises Juno in Book 12 that the Trojans will contribute practically nothing to their union with the peoples of Italy except breeding stock. Indeed, Jupiter's guarantee that the language and customs of the new race will remain Latin and Italic combined with Aeneas' promise to the Latins that he will not rule over them, but live in a separate city (12.193-194) seems designed to refute point by point what is promised to Venus in Book 1 (mores viris et moenia ponet 1.264). The inevitable conclusion drawn from this data is that Jupiter means to deceive Venus in Book 1. When we notice along with O'Hara that this prophecy is the second of three consecutive duplicitous prophecies in Book 1 (Aeneas' speech of encouragement to his crew at 198-207, with the following couplet, and Venus' interview with her son at 335-410 are the others), it becomes clear that we cannot take the passage as compensation for all the troubles that Aeneas will have to face: its encouraging message is grounded in deception and falsehood. This barest of outlines cannot do justice to an especially fine interpretation, which I hope will become required reading for all Vergilians.

O'Hara is conversant with the full range of critical procedures that need to be brought to bear on Vergil. He is acutely sensitive to the fine points of word play and other forms of Alexandrian learning that inform the Aeneid, as well as to the megalithic aspect of any epic on heroic themes. He is unusually adept at finding the apposite remark in Servius that provides not merely a crucial piece of information, but methodological guidance in the interpretation of ancient poetry, and he goes well beyond Schlunk in understanding Vergil's use of ancient exegesis of Homer. For Alexandrian learning (and much besides) he follows Clausen, Thomas, and especially Ross. His understanding of Vergil's intertextual dialogue with Homer is first-rate, being based not only on Knauer (whom he cites for analysis as well as for his well-thumbed lists), but on more recent critics such as Barchiesi as well. The same goes for Apollonius, where his avowed guide is Clausen, but where O'Hara's comments seem entirely original. Finally, he is able to relate the implications of his thesis to the more theoretical work of critics such as Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser; although here, in truth, more might have been done. O'Hara has done a lot to reveal the highly contingent nature of prophetic utterance in this poem, i.e., of the form of utterance most frequently thought to be above contingency and context. What this implies about the reliability of other utterances in the poem, including those of the narrator, is obvious. O'Hara is aware of these implications and explores them briefly in the last chapter. Much more remains to be done; but the author has put whoever will address this topic, to say nothing of the rest of us, in his debt by giving us this extremely valuable and rewarding study.


1. See my review of R. O. A. M. Lyne, Words and the Poet. Characteristic Techniques of Style in Vergil's Aeneid (Oxford 1989) forthcoming in Vergilius 37.1991.

2. Pp. 78-80. Cf. her remarks about the occurrence of the epithet during Aeneas' aristeia in Book 10 (p. 167).

3. Again, contrast O'Hara, who cites Mack often and has obviously learned from Mack's work.

4. "The Anger of Aeneas," AJP 109.1988.321-348.

5. The Art of Memory (London 1966).

6. She is in fact unaware of a rather better, though still only partial treatment by David Quint ("Painful Memories: Aeneid 3 and the Problem of the Past," CJ 78.1982/1983.30-38). We may also look forward to a dissertation on "poetic memory and the poetics of memory in the Vergil's Aeneid" being written at Brown University by Robert B. Hardy, III (cf. APA Newsletter 13.3 [June 1990], p. 15).