Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.5.27 

R.A. Smith, Poetic Allusion and Poetic Embrace in Ovid and Virgil. Ann Arbor; The University of Michigan Press, 1997. Pp. ix + 226. ISBN 0-472-10706-2.  

Reviewed by Yvan Nadeau, Edinburgh,

The reader may wish to start with Buberian hermeneutics. He/she may feel that he/she has to come to grips with this new way of interpreting ancient texts. Having looked at the interpretations offered of such texts here, the reviewer sees a well-tried and accepted way of interpreting "intertextuality" and of distinguishing the different points of view from which a narrative proceeds. Buberian, this way of reading? M. Jourdain, too, had spoken prose for forty years before someone told him.

The book opens by offering us the image of Dante following Vergil in Inferno as a paradigm for the relationship between imitating author and author imitated. The author, who is very keen on and will develop later the metaphor of "embrace", would have us see the I of Dante being embraced by the Thou of Vergil, and he sees interpretative significance when Vergil literally embraces Dante in Canto 19 and again in Canto 31. The whole of this introductory section seems to the reviewer to confuse metaphor and method.

The introduction then moves on to consider some lines of Ovid's Tristia 1.7. The author translates Tristia 1.7.5-8 thus:  

Hoc tibi dissimula senti tamen, optime, dici
   in digito qui me fersque refersque tuo,
effigiemque meam fuluo complexus in auro
   cara relegati, quae potes, ora uides.

Pretend that this is not (but realize that it is), O best friend, said to you,
who carry me here and there on your finger,
and who, having embraced my image in the yellow gold,
see the dear face, to the extent you can, of an exile.
This passage is the first to be tackled because the author fancies that the lines quoted above show the friend embracing the ring as if it were Ovid. This dubious translation of effigiem meam fuluo complexus in auro allows the author to continue his metaphor of embrace, and that allows him to portray the reader as embracing Ovid through his text. The passage of Tristia quoted above leads to a reference by Ovid, in that same poem, to the ending of his Metamorphoses. That legitimises bringing into play the sphragis of the Metamorphoses and reaching conclusions such as
Thus the text carries forth the author's message, representing him, while at the same time being an object that is, strictly speaking, separate from him. ... The audience is expected to experience the poetry, to become involved in the artistic experience, to encounter the author living through the text. ... The author's readership, codified, as it were, in the text crafted by him or her, presents us with a model of readership, for when one author alludes to another, he or she internalizes -- one might say mentally embraces -- and ultimately interprets another text. Likewise the reader, once he or she has internalized the text, embraces and interprets it anew.
The author then goes on to consider that Ariadne appears in Catullus 64, Fasti 3, and Heroides 10, and that in both Fasti and Heroides Ovid shows that he is aware of Catullus 64 and makes Ariadne say things, use expressions, turns of phrase, in which the reader will recognise the language of Catullus' Ariadne. I believe that readers will readily agree that such practice is common in ancient literature -- but does it help to express that observation as
But I would contend that one can often sense an innate understanding of principles of readership in the texts that I shall consider: we have already seen that Ariadne "understood" intertextuality.
At the conclusion of a development about methodology which attempts to explain the essence of Buberian interpretation the author concludes:

I accept from him [Buber] the basic ideological position that the human experience encapsulates certain fundamental, undeniable truths. It may also encompass discursive constructs, but it is not based on them. Those who view the human experience as a loaded discursive construct will not likely accept the notion of poetic embrace or I-Thou readership, but those who accept a certain fundamental oneness of humankind perhaps will.

The author is apparently positioning himself in a debate that is never adequately defined.

We now turn to Chapter 1. The reader has had his appetite whetted about that chapter in the introduction in those terms:

I will, in Chapter 1, consider some examples of readership in the texts. In considering selections from the texts of both Ovid and Virgil, perhaps we can begin to discover how the theme of artistic interpretation is described, for in the Metamorphoses and the Aeneid we have interesting instances of characters encountering and interpreting art
The first passage treated will be familiar. It is the passage of Aeneid 1, lines 456 ff. where Aeneas sees scenes from the Trojan War represented on Juno's temple in Dido's Carthage. That passage enjoys a rich bibliography. What has the author to add?
First, we must consider Aeneas as an intertextualized character in the poetic tradition. A rich literary heritage has produced him, and that heritage is encoded here as text within painting in the ecphrasis. Second we should not fail to notice that Aeneas offers us a kind of model for reading text, even if that text itself represents a picture, as it does here. As a sensitive reader, he is swept into the flow of the text of the paintings before him, and he is deeply moved as he emotionally revivifies the painting's message through his reading.
If to be deeply moved is on offer as an analytical method, let us remember A.E. Housman:
To be sure, we are all told in our childhood a story of Linnaeus -- how, coming suddenly on a heath covered with gorse in blossom, he fell upon his knees and gave thanks to the creator. But when Linnaeus behaved in that way, he was out for a holiday: during office hours he attended to business. If Linnaeus had spent his life in genuflexions before flowering shrubs, the classification of the vegetable kingdom would have been carried out by someone else, and neither Linnaeus himself nor this popular and edifying anecdote would ever have been heard of.
What Aeneas sees first is:
namque uidebat uti bellantes Pergama circum hac fugerent Grai, premeret Troiana iuuentus; hac Phryges, instaret curru cristatus Achilles.
The author's comment on these lines is:
The mention ... of fighting around Pergamum could easily be drawn from any part of the Iliad, and the reference to crested Achilles is only slightly more specific, evoking the image of Iliad 19.380ff.
Indeed! What we have here is a summary of the plot of the Iliad, where first the Trojans have the upper hand -- since Achilles has withdrawn from battle -- then, when Achilles comes back, it is the turn of the Trojans to run before Achilles. What Aeneas sees are two scenes which between them encapsulate the "wrath" theme. What he is "reading" is the whole of the Iliad. Can an author who fails to grasp this elementary reference to the main peripeteia of the Iliad really hope to tackle intertextuality?

The author then goes on to discuss the representations of Troilus, Hector, Penthesilea, without having anything terribly new or convincing to say -- or so it seems to the reviewer. He then moves on to the point where Aeneas sees himself portrayed on the frieze:

se quoque principibus permixtum agnouit Achiuis.
While pointing out that commentaries indicate correctly that the reference is to the point where Achilles has been killed and where Aeneas can fight in the front rank fearlessly, as Poseidon advised in Iliad 20, the author thinks there may be a reference to Book 2 of the Aeneid, where, in the course of the fall of Troy, Aeneas and his companions "uadimus immixti Danais ..." Let us suppose that this echo is perceptible and deliberate, what does it indicate? Is this a significant observation? The author then thinks that the representation of Athena refusing to hear the prayer of the Trojan matrons "diua solo fixos oculos auersa tenebat" looks forward to Dido's refusal to heed Aeneas in Book 6: "illa solo fixos oculos auersa tenebat". This may indeed be a deliberate echo -- but what does it tell us about the Aeneid that helps us understand that poem? And does it really lead back to the Buberian poetics of embrace:
Self-discovery does not establish for Aeneas simply an experience of the painting as an object to be inspected. In discovering himself in the text of the painting, he mentally reanimates the poetry behind the painting, revealing not so much how the typical Roman of the Augustan period would have responded to artistic representation but rather how a sensitive reader who is passionately taken by a story can allow the text to draw him into itself.
Is this a new critical approach or more genuflexion before shrubs?

The author then moves on to the contest for the arms of Achilles in Metamorphoses 13 where a line is repeated from Aeneid 9 which in turn repeats one from Iliad 5. Here too the observation is intriguing, but the analysis does not penetrate very deep.

On then to the contest of Arachne and Minerva in Metamorphoses 6. This has always been an intriguing passage. The reader might well expect something that will take him into the heart of Ovid's poem. Interpretation disappointingly remains pedestrian where it is not fanciful. The reviewer finds unhelpful the approach of the author expressed as

I would prefer, however, to consider this story as offering us examples of different kinds of readership. For both characters in Ovid's account are not only artists but 'readers'." ... "Moreover, though the tapestries here are wonderfully displayed, one cannot forget that, as this passage is an ecphrasis, what we really have here is poetry, not art: we are not seeing tapestries; we are reading text..." This theme of Minerva and Arachne being "readers" continues: "Ovid perhaps suggests that Minerva feels threatened by Arachne's articulation of this sexual fantasy, by the incongruous relationship between a uirgo and such sexually explicit material. Put simply, Minerva's reaction might be provoked by the fact that Arachne turns out to be neither docta nor a puella but rather a fantasizing uirgo.
For the author, it is this "resistant readership" that leads Minerva to kill Arachne. And the conclusion about the conflict is drawn in those terms:
The uirgo [Arachne], whose stubborn pride had precipitated the contest, had unequivocally denied that she had been instructed by Pallas. Her bold assertion of complete artistic independence reveals her to be un-Alexandrian in this sense: she has broken with the tradition that molded her and denies her debt to that tradition. In essence, she has denied her own readership, has revoked her status as a reader. Minerva has taken the completely opposite stand. To say that Minerva is a resisting reader is not strong enough. She has usurped the bounds of her readership and has exercised her autonomy as a reader beyond the limits of good taste. If one were to use modern terms, one might say that Minerva has irresponsibly practiced reader-response criticism as regards Arachne's tapestry. Both characters take extreme positions of readership; both exemplify what should not be done but too often is. While both of them are great artists, they are just as much insensitive readers.
Does this analysis expressed in terms of responsive or non-responsive readership strike anyone as revealing? Does it take us beyond what we knew already, that, for a reason which the author does not help us to discover, Arachne's and Minerva's imaginations are at odds, severely so, conflictually so and to the death, and that sex has something to do with it?

The story of Pygmalion too is seen as a story about readership.

To see this involvement more clearly, let us review this story with some attention given to specific details of Pygmalion's aesthetic appreciation of -- what might be regarded as his "reading" of -- this statue, which is his own work.
The author then takes us through the story, from the sexual frustration of celibacy to the creation of a living and compliant puella elegiaca, and the reading is curiously coy given Ovid's highly suggestive language. Pygmalion kisses the statue, and fancies that his kisses are returned [I assume all readers assume the contact of tongues here], he handles her so vigorously as to fear he may have bruised her, he climbs into bed with her, he kisses her again, he caresses her breasts and feels them supple to the touch. And the author concludes: "While not distastefully overemphasized, one cannot fail to notice the erotic details of this passage [too true]. The statue itself is now embraced by Pygmalion, who is wholly captivated by art [forgive my imagination, but I assume that he is now engaged in copulation]. Attention is also given to the art itself, as the miracle of life takes place. [Unsafe sex, we conclude?] ... This time what was in doubt before ... is now made clear ... that the art is itself alive, that it has come to life in the hands of one interpreting it." That Ovid, that supreme poet of Eros, is signifying that at some level there is an intimate connection between eroticism and artistic creation is a belief which I hope I share with the author. That this text, about copulation with a soft statue that does not have a name but has serviceable and seemingly responsive parts, is a key text for the modern debate about what is Pornography and what is Art seems very probable. That it may have a bearing on the "Augustan" approach to Art, which praises bees because they put state before individual and have offspring without sex, is also very probable. That Pygmalion's Ovidian creation cannot hold a candle to Liza Doolittle is a theme which modern feminism would wish to explore. My criticism is that our author seems to be running away from considering Ovid's message rather than investigating it. I cannot pretend to be convinced by the author's conclusion:
The emphasis in the story is on the beauty of the work and on Pygmalion's treatment, or 'interpretation', of the statue after it has been completed -- in short, his love of the artistic creation and his sensitive, vivifying interpretation of it.
I think this is the starting point, not the conclusion.

There are two further chapters: Chapter 2 has as its aim to explore the way Ovid, a near contemporary reader, reads Vergil. In Chapter 3 the author examines metatextual embrace, an impressive name for an author's appeal to an unknown audience in the future. The readings in those chapters conform to the standard set in the previous.

If I have a general conclusion about the author's analyses of the texts he studies, it is this: that they seldom take us beyond the surface of the text, and that what he would claim as his originality, his readings of the passages in terms of readership, do not in fact produce very original readings. We know that authors write for a readership. We know that when a work of art is described in a poem we are expected to read that work of art very attentively in its frame for all the levels of meaning it may contain. A great deal of very interesting work has been done on Ovidian readings of Vergil. The product of that work is not to be found in this book.

A look now at the translations: the author adopts throughout a "crib" style for his translations. Although the reviewer finds this painful, it may be acceptable for those readers who, having a little Latin, use the translations merely as an aid to reading the original. But what of the claimed readership of "scholars and teachers of literature in general"? What will they make of:

Here was a green cave, with stones put in place, and from its hollow stones timbrels were hanging, mysteries of the Muses and the clay effigy of father Silenus and your reed pipes, Tegean Pan; and my throng, birds, doves of my mistress Venus, dip their red bills in the Gorgon's pool; And nine different girls, having obtained by lot their bailiwicks, work with their tender hands at their own gifts.
This purports to be a translation into English of Propertius 3.3.27-34.

Worse, there are patent mistranslations: "inicere uincula alicui" is translated as "toss bonds on somebody". "Penthesilea furens mediisque in milibus ardet,/aurea subnectens exsertae cingula mammae" translates as "Penthesilea, furious, is keen amidst the soldiers girding her golden belt beneath where her one breast has been removed." The description of Hippocrene "Bellerophontei qua fluit umor equi" becomes "where dripped the gore of the steed of Bellerophon". At p.94, the author prints a text of Quintilian which contains an inserted <ut>, but produces a translation which patently omits the said insertion -- and makes no sense. "Et iam fortis erat, pulsusque resederat ardor,/ cum uidet Aesoniden, exstinctaque flamma reluxit" becomes "and now she was brave, and her passion, beaten, had settled down; yet, when she sees the son of Aeson, the flame that was out rekindles". Look at what happens to the words "cura" and "uirtus" in the opening lines of Aeneid 4: "But the queen, now for a long time wounded by a serious concern, nourishes the wound in her veins and is devoured by an invisible fire. The great character of the man..." "fluuio cum forte secundo deflueret" becomes "at a favorable stream, he was moving along softly...". Why are exactly the same words translated in the Aeneid as "or, once a battle line has been formed, ward off the drones, a lazy flock, from their stables; the work is afire and the fragrant honey smells sweet with thyme", but in the Georgics as "or in a battle line they ward off the lazy herd of the drones from the pens: the work is hot, and the honey is redolent, fragrant with thyme." "Hinc ope barbarica uariisque Antonius armis" is "From here Mark Antony, with barbaric strength and various weapons". "Forsitan expectes an in alta Palatia missum/scandere te iubeam" is rendered "perhaps you are waiting for me to order you, dispatched, to ascend the high Palatine". "Diua solo fixos oculos auersa tenebat" apparently means "The goddess, opposed, was holding her eyes fixed to the ground."

Zee for translation.

Beyond dissatisfaction with what we have, we must express regret at what we have not: the author treats of passages that lend themselves readily, nay imperatively, to intertextual readings: the story of Cyparissus and his pet stag -- which intertexts with the stories of Dido and of Ascanius; the story of Proteus in Metamorphoses 8 -- which intertexts with the story of Proteus in Georgics 4 and therefore with a main strand of the Aeneas/Dido story, and therefore with the story of Antony and Cleopatra; the story of Eurydice in Metamorphoses 9, intertexting with that of Eurydice in Georgics 4 and therefore with that of Dido in the Aeneid, and, through Dido, with the story of Antony and Cleopatra; the story of Medea in Metamorphoses 7 which recalls the story of Dido, and therefore episodes in Aeneid 1 and 4, and finally, and most importantly for our reading of the Metamorphoses, of the Aeneid, and for our understanding of how Ovid read and mocked the political propaganda of the Aeneid, there is the episode at the end of the Metamorphoses when Aphrodite muses upon the imminent assassination of Julius Caesar the Father, a successful assassination. That episode, at the end of the poem, looks back to the reference to a failed assassination plot, probably that of the Caepio/Murena conspiracy, referred to at the beginning of the first Book. At the same time, the reference to Aphrodite's intervention at the time of Julius the Father's murder, the last appearance of the Goddess in the Metamorphoses, relates to her last appearance in the Aeneid, when she saves the hero Aeneas/Augustus through the action of the doctor, Iapys, from a nearly fatal arrow wound, an episode that has been known for two centuries and a half1 to be a reference to an event of 23 B.C., the saving of Augustus from a nearly fatal illness by his doctor, Antonius Musa, in the year 23 B.C., the same year of the Caepio/Murena conspiracy. Could this highlighting of the theme of political assassination by Ovid at the beginning and the end of his epic -- a theme which he treats with something less than reverence or pro-Julian sympathy -- have something to tell us about Ovid reading political assassination into the Aeneid?

All those Ovidian passages I have referred to are treated by our author, but their significance for Ovid's attitude to Vergil, to the Augustan regime, is not focussed upon and relentlessly pressed -- as it ought to be by an author who sets out to examine poetic embraces. To write a book on the intertextual relations between Ovid and Vergil and NOT to pursue those vital interpretative threads amounts to negligence.

In an ideal world, the author would learn some more Latin, do further reading, and then resubmit the book after a thorough rewriting.  


1. Francis Atterbury, late bishop of Rochester, Reflections on the character of Iapis in Virgil or, the character of Antonius Musa, physician to Augustus. London. Printed 1740.