Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.03.13: Review of Lyne

R.O.A.M. Lyne, Words and the Poet: Characteristic Techniques of Style in Vergil's Aeneid. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Pp. 209. ISBN O-19-814896-8. $49.95.

Reviewed by Agnes Kirsopp Michels, Chapel Hill.

The title of this book, unlike those of many modern ones, means just what it says. It is about individual words and how Vergil creates poetry out of them. Few things are more fascinating than words, and Lyne makes the most of each one, sometimes perhaps too much. In the first chapter, "Vergil's Diction: Context and Definitions", he explains "Poetry delights in a poetic diction, language strange to ordinary speech, and evocative of experience other than our own. Equally it will sense a need to retain contact with the real languages of those with whom it wishes to communicate ... the problem ... is ... how to make the words poetry?" This statement, in a sub-section called "The setting. 'Ordinary Words' and 'combination': theorists," is followed by a brief discussion of ancient poetic theory, and Lyne insists that the clue to the mystery "resides not in sound but in sense, in the semantic effect of the combination." After a brief discussion of Horace's use of ordinary words he turns to a more general treatment (pp. 7-13) in which he defines three categories, prosaism, colloquialism, and neutral words, of which the last are at home in both prose and poetry. On page 10 he asks why a word should be prosaic rather than poetical and answers "Prosaic words are often, I think, denotative rather than connotative, and are limited in their designation rather than generous and suggestive. Poetry, a suggestive medium, naturally inclines to words that are rich with implications." In the next sub-section "Poetical words and poetic diction" (pp. 13-17) Lyne defines these words as those "statistically confined to the poets." There is also a "hierarchy of genres. Some genres regard themselves as grander than others, and favour elevated poetic diction ... others border on ordinary speech." Then "We will consider the two main components of Latin poetic diction, archaism and grecism" and he does so for a page and a half concluding with poetic diction: "It adds otherness, it introduces connotations (in fact sense) unavailable in the categories of ordinary language...." Lyne points out that Vergil does not often use archaism and other poetic diction, but prefers to use iunctura to bring poetry out of ordinary words. He uses combinations to extort a new sense from a word. Says Lyne, (p. 18) "because of the more extreme nature of such techniques, I adopt assertive, even violent, metaphors to describe them: 'extortion, exploitation.'" These words become the titles of Chapters II and III. Less violent titles are "Narrative through Imagery", "Incitement", "Acquisition".

In Chapter II (pp. 20-37) Lyne defines extortion as "local collocations and larger contexts which wrest surprising senses from words." His first example is the snake which is thrown at Amata by Allecto (7.351-3) and becomes the taenia of her vitta. Lyne calls these words pleonastic and suggests that here taenia has its secondary meaning, not "ribbon" but "a tape-worm" which will invade Amata's "vitals," presumably her intestines, the habitat of tapeworms, "a nasty and effective picture." When the Trojans burn their dead and ardentes spectant amicos (11.200) Lyne points out that the adjective here which is "suggestive of present annihilation also intimates past vigour." When at 11.202 the night sky is stellis ardentibus aptum, there is a contrast between mortal men and immortal stars. Of concepit furias (of Dido, 4.474) Lyne says (p. 25) Dido has conceived Furies in her womb, and that at 4.625 she orders an avenger to be born from her bones. Obviously this is Hannibal, and one might note that she does not pray that he will defeat the Romans, only that he will harass them, as indeed he did. Lyne notes 1.749 longumque bibebat amorem and suggests that perhaps Cupid had slipped into her cup a love potion, the venenum Venus mentioned at 1.688. He does not comment on longum which seems inappropriate to her brief encounter, but perhaps it recalls Catullus Difficile est longum deponere amorem (76.13). After commenting on lines 4.17 and 10.989, Lyne discusses tela at 10.93, and finds in it a sexual allusion.

In Chapter III, Lyne discusses Vergil's "exploitation" of several prosaic words (conlabor, uxorius, mutabile femina, edax, degusto and porto) which he calls "eye-catching" in poetry. The legal meaning of uxorius is interesting.

In Chapter IV, "Narrative through Imagery", Lyne argues (p. 68) that "The main function of a simile is not to illustrate something already mentioned in the narrative, but to add things which have not been mentioned, in a different medium: imagery." He then discusses similes which demonstrably substitute for direct narrative. At Iliad 15.263ff. the simile shows how Hector returned to the battle, which the narrative does not, while at Aeneid 11.718 the simile fills in details of Camilla's killing of the Ligurian. Another interesting effect of simile is what Lyne calls "trespass," when a word appropriate to either simile or narrative trespasses into the other, as for instance, in the pastoral simile at 10.405-9 we find acies horrida, victor and ovantis which have crept in from the battle. Also a simile can suggest what happened when there is a gap in the narrative. For example, it is clear (pp. 77-79) that Dido "made up" to Aeneas, but we are not told directly how Aeneas behaved towards her before the episode in the cave. The simile (4.69-72) of the doe wounded by the hunter, who does not know that he had hit her, shows that he has been "making up" to Dido, or hunting her. Lyne also argues that the similes at 12.64-70 tell us that Lavinia is in love with Turnus. He continues to illustrate how similes can add to the narrative by giving more details. On page 88 he says in addition "the poet usually provides a patent correspondence for one detail in the simile; we on top of this must construct or find the correspondences for other details," and he procedes to do this with considerable ingenuity. Further discussion of trespass includes the interesting point that "simile trespass into narrative is almost bound to produce a metaphor in the narrative," as the real nimbi at 10.803 produces nubem belli at 10.809. Lyne concludes "similes narrate and themselves constitute a substantial part of the "narrative" which they are helping us to see."

Chapter V: "Exploitation: II" (pp. 101-127) deals with Vergil's treatment of war. "It was desirable that this should strike his readers as real and immediate" but "In an epic poem there must be heroism and 'otherness' as well." In the first section Lyne points out that Vergil often uses prosaic words here, but more often poetic ones, e.g. gladius 5 times, but ensis 63, scutum 13 times, but clipeus 50 times. The second section begins "Killing is one of the two most popular activities in war." For killing, prose words are neco, interficio, the rather dramatic occido, which Vergil avoids in favor of, e.g. sterno perimo etc. Next we find "Dying is the other most popular activity in war." Poetry favors terms like pereo, occumbo, occido. Obeo and obitus are prosaic, often found on tombstones, and Vergil rarely uses them. Lyne gives next a brief section on the vocabulary needed to make scenes of combat realistic, and goes on to the action of weapons for which Vergil uses prosaic but not military words, perfodio, perforo, terabrare, unpleasantly vivid.

In the next section "Aeneas' narrative of the sack," Lyne suggests that, when Vergil puts into Aeneas' mouth some military prose terms, he is perhaps presenting him as a Roman general. Then, in section 3, "Aeneas Parlance", we find that "examples of lower range diction," are exploited to give Aeneas some anchorage in the parlance and reality of everyday men."

Chapter VI: "Imagery, Extortion, Exploitation" begins with brief examples of further trespasses, and then of the use of ludus and deludere, in which the interpretations seem almost too ingenious. Then comes "Contrast similes and perversion of agricultural imagery." Lyne analyses several of these in Homer in which often the simile pointedly juxtaposes present cruel reality with a reality which might have been, or the ghastly reality is heightened by the similes in which mens' actions in battle are compared to the peaceful actions of farmers or shepherds. Vergil, Lyne points out, prefers agricultural metaphors to similes, but in 10.803-9 he finds Aeneas while he endures attack in a fierce battle, compared to the apator and agricola, "roles embodying qualities of peace, productiveness, and morality." To Lyne, this is a simile which contrasts the raging Aeneas and the farmer, but we must note that in the simile the farmer and the plowman have run away from the storm, while it is the traveller who, like Aeneas, takes cover and waits for the storm to end. Lyne finds another contrast simile at 6.309-12 where Vergil compares the number of souls wanting to cross Acheron into dark Hades with the number of birds migrating to sunny lands.

Chapter VII deals with "Incitement", a device by which an "eye-catching word" incites us to pursue a sequence for a full explanation of the effect. Lyne assures us that "Nothing in Vergil is without explanation or purpose." He then elucidates the comparison of dead Pallas to a plucked flower (11.68-71) by its obvious relation to Catullus 62.39ff and concludes that "Vergil casts Pallas in the role of a deflowered bride" and deduces from obnubit at 11.77 that Pallas' bridegroom is Death.

The last chapter is called "Acquisition", which means that a poet can use a word in a striking way which we will remember, and then he can "cash in" on this acquired value, or he can use a word always in the same way so that it acquires a particular value which the poet can "cash in" for a special effect, or he can do both. An example is the treatment of vulnus in Book 4, always in relation to Dido, so that at 6.450 the phrase recens a vulnere recalls Dido's whole tragic story. Lyne devotes some four pages to showing that laetus "may connote disaster-prone happiness" but does not refer to Cicero's interesting discussion of laetitia at Tusc. 4.14 and 66. He ends the book with a section on "geminus" and the "vestes" of Dido, and one on geminus and the Furies of Jupiter.

Lyne has given us a book which is interesting, partly because it often provokes contradiction, and thus forces one to clarify one's own thoughts. His analysis of the various ways in which Vergil uses words is ingenious, and often enlightening. It would have been useful here to have brought in Donatus' description of how Vergil composed his poem, working from a first draft in prose, on whatever section attracted him each day (Vita Donati 22-4). Perhaps Lyne by his own method could point out the tibicines which Vergil had meant to change later.

Again and again Lyne tells us that a word is "eye-catching" or "catches the eye," but he never mentions ears in this connection. He may have thought that the effects of sound and meter in Latin poetry have had all the attention they deserve but he does not say so. Over and over again one wants to remind him that Romans read aloud, and to suggest that the sound of a word may have determined Vergil's use of it. Lyne points out, for example, that Vergil rarely uses the prosaic word gladius and prefers the poetic ensis, but he does not say that gla- has an unpleasing and trivial sound,1 which ensis, with its long first syllable and hissing s is more effective in a dramatic description of battle.

The book is sometimes difficult to read because of awkward sentence structure,2 and odd usage of words. Lyne's style often lapses into the colloquial or even slang. To say "it sticks out like a sore thumb" (p. 74) or "Donatus cottoned on to some of it" (p. 171) or "Vergil's use here ... finds itself out on a limb" may be vivid, or relaxed, but it clashes badly with his more elevated style. Such expressions also may not be understood by foreign scholars who, I am sure, will want to read this book, because they have read and liked his Further Voices.


  • [1] In the O.L.D. only about 35 words begin with it, and they are prosaic and technical.

  • [2] See for an extreme example the first sentence of the second paragraph on p.54.