Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.06


Claire Gruzelier, Claudian. De Raptu Proserpinae. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. Pp. xxxi + 309. ISBN 0-19-814777-5.


Reviewed by Michael Dewar, University of Calgary.

The De Raptu Proserpinae, Claudian's unfinished epic, is the kind of work to which the epithets 'charming' and 'whimsical' are applied almost by reflex, and through the use of these terms it is generally obliged by critics to shuffle off and gratefully accept a humble place in the second division of Latin literary productions. It is, however, a jewel of a poem, as exquisitely crafted and as brilliantly coloured as the mosaics and marble incrustations of the palaces in which its author spent the glory days of his spectacular career. Gruzelier's new edition-cum-detailed commentary, the dust jacket of which makes the entirely justified claim that it is 'the first study to look at the poem as a work of literary interest in its own right', is therefore a long overdue and most welcome addition to the stock of critical writing on late antique literature.

Gruzelier offers readers a no-nonsense introduction, a well-chosen and independent-minded text, a remarkably user-friendly apparatus, a straightforward translation, and, above all, well over two hundred pages of accurate and helpful notes. Add to this the consideration that the book is splendidly produced (and meticulously proof-read: I found only a single misprint), and the forty-five pounds the O. U. P. is asking indigent scholars to cough up begins to look a bit more reasonable. The general picture of Claudian given by Gruzelier is by and large a fairly traditional one: he is seen as 'a poet with a sharp mind, not a great one' (p. xxi), who is not much interested in constructing a coherent narrative with 'living' characters, but who excells at the witty observation of human foibles, at learned imitation and verbal clarity and felicity, and at set-piece descriptions and magnificent speeches (with, however, a lamentable tendency to topple over into 'hysteria', p. xxiv). "You will', Gruzelier warns the potentially kill-joy reader, 'more easily find entertainment and amusement within his pages than profound thoughts or loftiness of vision' (p. xxi). This, many will feel, seriously under-estimates the poem, but no doubt an age in which Ross Perot and Camille Paglia pass for profound and original thinkers might be thought much too ready to see deep meaning in the ephemeral. Certainly, the critical line taken here is a restful one, and arguably far preferable to squeezing every last syllable of Silius Italicus for covert political subversion.

If the general critical attitude shown to Claudian seems broadly conservative, then that is assuredly the result of deliberate choice and decisiveness on Gruzelier's part: she is a woman with, to say the least, a mind of her own. Since her concern is to discuss the literary qualities of the poem rather than textual matters (p. xxx), her own text inevitably relies on the superb apparatus of J. B. Hall's edition (Cambridge, 1969). But in the actual selection of readings she is perfectly willing to stick out her neck for what her instinct tells her is justifiable on literary grounds, and to Pluto with the manuscript tradition if need be. Some persuasive points are thus argued against Hall: see especially the notes on 1. 139-41, 2. 294 ff. (rejecting verrunt for vertunt), and 3. 105 (si tu nostra instead of Hall's si tua nata: most manuscripts have the meaningless si tu nota). This free-spirited approach is not, however, without its difficulties. At 3. 332 Gruzelier makes a good case on literary grounds for reading flumen Acin, finding the elision flavum Acin 'ungraceful', and pointing out that flumen makes a more pointed contrast with mari (3. 333), though this entails taking Acin as a very unclassical iamb. Soon after that, she opts for the more colourful feritura at 3. 359 (petitura mss., petit ira Scaliger), arguing that 'Claudian may have followed contemporary usage by shortening the i (cf. Birt's citation of Maxim. Eleg. 5. 7 and Hall's of Drac. De laud. dei 3. 106)' (p. 291). Each argument taken individually has its merit, and one could no doubt appeal to the poet's inexperience if one accepts Gruzelier's contention in the introduction that the poem belongs to the very earliest stages of Claudian's career in the Latin West (p. xix). But it is very unsettling to see, in so very careful a poet, two 'errors' of scansion within only thirty lines of text: as Gruzelier reminds us (p. 288), Birt only found two assured instances of false quantity in the whole of Claudian's work.

Still bolder is the way in which Gruzelier cuts the Gordian knot of manuscript citation. The case of Claudian is an awkward one. There are manuscripts by the score, but they are so confused as to make it practically impossible to draw up a meaningful family tree: yet it is relatively rare to find an intractable crux. More concerned to make life easy for the readers she envisages than to win the approval of the sterner-minded sort of palaeographer, Gruzelier reduces the vast amount of codicological information proferred by Hall to, in effect, two sigla: x for any reading that has decent enough manuscript support 'to give it a reasonable chance of dating from antiquity', and sigma for readings that are recorded in 'manuscripts so few or so late that they are likely to be mistakes or conjectures' (p. xxx). In libraries up and down the western world hearts will momentarily stop in horror and faces turn purple with indignation. But the result is, on balance, remarkably satisfactory, and will be a boon beyond all measuring for readers not much interested in the trickiest problems of textual editing. The biggest drawback of this system, of course, is that deciding what will count as worthy of the rank of an x reading risks being subjective in the extreme: the fudge-like quality of Ueberlieferungsgeschichte may never have been so palpable. Furthermore, there is also the unfortunate tendency for the apparatus to simplify to the point where a choice between a single sigma and a single x reading can start to look deceptively like a 'straight' either/or, which it certainly is not (see the note on 2. 215 f. for an example of this mindset). Readers who want precise codicological information in order to make fully informed judgements for themselves will still have to rely on Hall.

What will surely be seen in most quarters as the book's principal weakness is that in matters of literary criticism Gruzelier simply refuses to take Claudian seriously. As was noted above, she thinks him a poet incapable of profound thought. But she also thinks that the De Raptu is a poem whose literary merit lies entirely in its small-scale effects -- the piquant description, the gnomic statement, the hyperbolic speech, the telling psychological detail in the Alexandrian mode. For a start, she believes that for Claudian the very myth of Persephone had lost all religious significance (p. xxi), which may seem extreme in the case of a poet described by Orosius as a 'paganus pervicacissimus.' More importantly, she regards any element of solemnity or wider-ranging thematic significance as being in essence 'tacked on.' This is made clear enough within a few pages of the beginning of the commentary, when Claudian's appeal 'gressus removete, profani' (1. 4) is interpreted as indicating that he 'means that he is an imaginative poet with a theme that at least purports to be solemn' (p. 84). Similarly, she believes that Jupiter's avowed plan to use Proserpina for a grand scheme of moral improvement in humanity is merely an attempt 'to dress the significance up a little ... and to dignify the rape of Proserpina with a more all-encompassing theme' but that Claudian cannot conceal the 'fact' that the 'change from acorns to cereal ... is not the stuff of serious epic' (p. 91). This belief seems largely to rest on the feeling that not only is the framework of the myth too rickety to support the lofty edifice of a 'proper' epic, but that in any case Claudian's use of serious-seeming elements is too unsystematic for the poem to work in that manner convincingly. Maybe: but many of us think Claudian a far more competent and thoughtful poet than that and do not, for example, buy the idea that he wrote the De Raptu as a kind of holiday piece in between all those tiring and tiresome panegyrics. Most obviously, as Gruzelier is a ware (see pp. 83, 96, 117, 143, 285), the poem is saturated with images of violence and disorder in the cosmos and of gigantomachy. This reaches its climax near the end of the poem as it has been transmitted to us, when Ceres in effect declares war on the gods of High Heaven: taking on the role of Ovid's Erysichthon, she with monstrous impiety hacks down two magnificent cypresses in the Sicilian grove where hang Jove's trophies from the war against the Giants. When she plunges these into the crater of Etna to make herself torches to light her way in the search for her daughter, she is chillingly compared to the Fury Megaera bent on the worst of impieties as she sets out to Thebes or Mycenae (3. 332-391), and so is represented as an instrument of Hell on the loose in the upper world. Quite what could be done with this theme, for all its apparently disjointed formulation, can be sensed by an examination of Philip Hardie's discussion of the confusion of Earth and Hell in post-Virgilian first-century epic (see The Epic Successors of Virgil, Cambridge 1993, esp. pp. 76 ff.: a book, of course, which Gruzelier had no opportunity of seeing before her own went to press). And since I have digressed to the subject of the Cambridge University Press's new 'Roman Literature and its Contexts' series, I should perhaps add that those who have read the second chapter of Duncan Kennedy's The Arts of Love may be inclined to declare Gruzelier's view of 'mothers' and 'daughters' hopelessly 'essentializing' to a degree no longer commonly found in modern critical writing. Consider for example this comment on 3. 159 ff.: 'the wool is proiecta and the playthings sparsa -- just as Proserpina left them scattered about with a carelessness which makes mothers furious at the mess while their offspring are still at home, but is remembered with sentimental fondness after they have flown the nest' (p. 258). No doubt it is the utter self-assuredness with which so many Latinists feel they can still say such a thing without immediately 'problematizing' it that, at least in part, has motivated the editors of that series. In the meantime, quot homines, tot sententiae. You pays your forty-five quid and you takes your choice.

Gruzelier's De Raptu, then, has a decidedly individual flavour: a bit demure, and not likely to stand up to waltz with a disreputable rake like Sir Modern Theory, but equally determined not to be caught dead by the fruit punch clutching the skirts of that old hag of a wall-flower, Dame Pedantry. The commentary, whether or not one is inclined to accept its strategies of interpretation, is chock-full of useful information and judicious comments on language, style, imagery and literary sources: it will be indispensable for future students of the poem. It is particularly responsive to details of colour, military imagery, linguistic devices of pathos and formal rhetorical structure. Some individual points are discussed below.

1. 63 ff. The idea of a civil war between Jupiter and Pluto is drawn from Stat. Theb. 8. 36 ff. 'unde minae? uter haec mihi proelia fratrum?' etc. For releasing the Titans into the upper air, compare 1. 66 to Theb. 8. 42-44. 1. 155. This description of the chaining of Enceladus also loosely recalls the general tone and phrasing of Virg. A. 1. 294-26 'Furor impius intus / ... centum vinctus aenis / past tergum nodis', conflating significantly the contexts of civil war and gigantomachy. 1. 160 ff. See also Sen. Ep. 79, esp. 79. 5 'hunc sollemnem omnibus poetis locum.' 1. 223 f. The idea of even Jupiter being subject to love is a commonplace: see e.g. Sen. Phaed. 186 f. and the very similar wording at Apul. Met. 6. 22. 3-4. 1. 237 ff. Epic descriptions of palaces: add Stat. Theb. 10. 84 ff. (Somnus'), and also the delubra of Mars at Theb. 7. 40 ff. 2. 22 f. The same grisly conceit appears in Claudian's Latin Gigantomachy: c.m. 53. 89 f. 'ille, viro toto moriens, serpentibus imis / vivit adhuc stridore ferox.' 2. 62 ademptis receives a little support from the simile's Statian model, Ach. 1. 760 'sepositis epulantur Amazones armis.' 2. 125 f. Of course, most ancient authorities assume that the 'queen' bee is male: see Thomas on Virg. G. 4. 21. 2. 272. Add Luc. 10. 21 (of Alexander) 'felix praedo.' 2. 273. Add Stat. Theb. 6. 623 'accessit lacrimarum gratia formae.' 2. 326 ff. The principal model here is, not the fourth, but the tenth book of the Metamorphoses of Ovid (10. 40 ff). 3. 19 ff. n. The autocratic Jupiter, whose speech is delivered in a way that brooks no opposition and to whom no other god at the divine council dares make reply, first appears in extant epic at Ov. Met. 1. 168 ff.: in all truth there is no 'mixed response from the floor', the gods differing only in the manner in which they choose to manifest their approval of his words. 3. 73 Surely the sterile ash-trees putting forth leaves are a portent foretelling offspring for Proserpina? Cf. 2. 370 ff. n. Given Claudian's fondness for portents these two passages should perhaps be taken together as indicating an intention to follow, in a projected but unfinished part of the poem, one of the accounts which attributed children to the union of Proserpina and Pluto. 3. 173 ff. As well as Virg. A. 1. 684 ff. Claudian seems to be thinking of Call. Hymn 3. 4 f. (the young Artemis sitting on the knees of Zeus). 3. 329. For the heavy irony cf. Ov. Am. 1. 7. 35-8, esp. 38 'io, forti victa puella viro est!' 3. 370 ff. Are cypresses chosen here because of their association with the Cyclopes in the simile at Virg. A. 3. 679-81? 3. 379 f. The double use of pariter in this context recalls Ov. Met. 8. 759 f. 'et pariter frondes, pariter pallescere glandes / coepere.' 3. 425. For the topos of 'I admit I deserved it' cf. Virg. A. 12. 931, Ov. Met. 8. 127, esp. Stat. Theb. 9. 891 'dic: "merui, genetrix; poenas invita capesse."' As the commentary shows, the sorrows of Ismenis and Atalanta in Thebaid 9 have had a profound influence on Claudian. Note here how there is a significant reversal: the mother, not the child, acknowledges guilt and cruelty.