Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.03.14

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

Reviewed by Sharon L. James, Bryn Mawr College (
Word count: 2739 words

Note: as this is a supplementary review, I will focus on the concepts and models offered by this book, rather than examine in detail its readings of individual passages.

Alden Smith offers a model of "sensitive" reading, which envelops the reader in the "embrace" of the author and allows the reader to "embrace" the author's text. Smith discusses both Ovid and Vergil as readers of antecedent poetry, and characters acting as readers within their poems. He derives this embrace model of author-reader relationship from Martin Buber (particularly as elucidated by Kepnes),1 who advises readers to enter into reading with no preconceptions, to be open to whatever the text offers. This attitude combines an 'active' form of desire in the reader with a passivity toward the "text's message" (15) and demonstrates respect for both text and author (14). A co-operative relationship between reader and author, with text as mediary, underlies this respect; according to Smith, relying on Kepnes, Buber designates this co-operation as an "I-Thou relation," which operates by "elevating the text" to a "Thou-status" (20). Smith calls this elevation of the text "sensitive readership" and identifies "textual embrace" as "a relationship ... in a synchronic continuum between reader and author" (20). He proposes this "Buberian hermeneutics" as offering a "counterbalancing corrective ... to the more common and dominant methodologies developed in literary circles over the past twenty-five years, which have produced various strains of resisting readership" (20). This type of readership allows reader and text to meet, to merge their "horizons" (using the reader-response concepts of Jauss), even across enormous chasms of time, geography, culture, and experience, a meeting of minds dependent upon Buber's "basic ideological position that the human experience encapsulates certain fundamental undeniable truths" and a "certain fundamental oneness of humankind" (22).

Smith begins by proposing Dante and Virgilio, pilgrim and guide in Dante's Inferno, as models for his author-text-reader relationship.2 These characters share a metaphorical embrace in the pilgrim's recognition that he has met the poet whose work made his own possible (Canto 1); they also offer a literal embrace in cantos 19 and 31 of Inferno, when Virgilio physically carries the pilgrim. Smith cites these physical embraces as demonstrating the reader-author relationship he wishes to propose. He discusses passages from Ovid (Tr. 1.7.5 and Met. 15.878-79) as showing how the text embodies the author and allows the reader to "embrace" and "revivify" (21) the author. A brief discussion of the Ariadnes in Fasti 3, Cat. 64, and Heroides 10, follows, in which Smith suggests that allusion and intertextuality are the ways in which writers "revivify" their predecessors, co-operatively and supportively, rather than through conflict and competition.

Chapter 1, "The Poetics of Embrace: Views of Texts as Sources of Readership," considers poetic characters as readers. These readers, it should be noted, read only visual art, not poetry. Smith begins with Aeneas at the temple of Juno in Carthage, in Aeneid 1, and proposes that Aeneas "offers us a kind of model for reading text.... 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" (pp. 27-28). Smith proposes that Aeneas' re-animation of "the poetry behind the painting" reveals "how a sensitive reader who is passionately taken by a story can allow the text to draw him into itself" (41). Thus "Aeneas might be said to be a kind of 'model of a sensitive reader" (41). This sensitive readership offers "a necessary corrective to the tendency to read Virgil as simply a learned manipulator of words" (41-42).3

Ulysses in Met. 13 offers another example of sensitive readership for Smith, who argues that Ulysses appears to have read the same depictions on Juno's temples and uses Vergilian language to defend himself. Minerva and Arachne in Met. 6, however, offer examples of readership gone bad, of insensitive reading. Smith proposes that the rapes on Arachne's web both offer a "message" that "gods like sex with virgins and are willing to use metamorphosis, that is, deception, to get it" (58), and signify that Arachne is a "fantasizing virgo" (62). The interpretive quarrel between the two tapestries revolves around the use of metamorphosis: for Arachne, it is a tool used by gods to deceive and rape mortal women, but for Minerva it is "a means of meting out divine judgment" (62). Minerva's reaction indicates that she "has usurped the bounds of her readership and has exercised her autonomy as a reader beyond the limits of good taste .... [in] modern terms ... Minerva has irresponsibly practiced reader-response criticism" (64). Both weavers are "great artists" but "insensitive readers" (64). Pygmalion, on the other hand, according to Smith, interprets his art more sensitively, so much so that he brings it to life. Smith acknowledges the "erotic details" of this tale, but considers them "not distastefully overemphasized" (68). According to him, the story's "emphasis ... 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" (69).

Chapter 2, "The Furtherance of the Tradition: Codified Readings," proposes that "the interpretation or transformation of one text within a subsequent text" is a "codified reading" (95). Smith offers the stories of Myrrha and Cinyras in Met. 10, and Caeneus in Met. 12, as examples of such codified readings, which reveal "the way one author reads another" (83). The pastoral settings of Ecl. 6, Prop. 3.3., Am. 3.1, offer more examples of this codified reading and demonstrate that these "most creative poets not only admit but rejoice that they are not original, standing as they do, in a great measure of debt to their poetic forebears" (94).

Chapter 3, "Metatextual Embrace: Creating an Audience," focuses on how authors "create" their own audiences, how "the text creates a role for the reader" (139). Smith describes "metatextual embrace" as "simply the way that the author assists with or perhaps, to put it more boldly, creates a role for the reader -- as regards genre, formally; as regards the addressee, vicariously (by a kind of artificial identification with the person addressed); and as regards focalization, in terms of the narrative" (142). The examples of Orpheus as an author being read in Met. 10 and 11, and the issues of "focalization," along with a discussion of wall paintings, draw attention to the way the text controls, directs, creates the reader. The final example is found in Aen. 8, when Aeneas sees but does not understand a text that the Roman reader understands but does not see -- his shield. Here, as Smith notes, Aeneas is far from the kind of reader he was ... [at] Juno's temple in Carthage. Now Virgil's text beckons the reader to don the mantle of 'model' or 'sensitive' reader and to employ principles of readership appropriate to a passage of such national pride and pathos. The reader is expected to agree with the text about certain general ideals: good will ultimately triumph over evil (184).

Smith closes the chapter and the book by proposing that Ovid's exile poetry, and his self-proclaimed metempsychosis into poetry should be seen as "the definitive answer to Virgil but as Ovid's answer, or rather as his contribution to an entire tradition, the latest great representative of which was Virgil" (196).

The positive contributions of this study are first, that Smith adds a new model to the reader-author relationships currently under examination in the fervid field of Latin intertextuality studies. He proposes his "sensitive reader" and reader-author "embrace" as a corrective to resisting readership, which he appears to consider a hostile author-reader relationship. I would say, rather, that Smith's "embrace" model sits on the opposite end of the spectrum from resistance (not to mention from the virtual life-and-death struggle of author and reader found in the fiction works of the great Spanish classicist Miguel de Unamuno). There is no question that the Roman poets loved and took inspiration from each others' works; it is another positive contribution of this study that Smith recognizes that Ovid loved Vergil's works, that he is not simply attacking or pointlessly parodying Vergil every time he alludes to a Vergilian text. It is a pleasure to read criticism that takes a more sophisticated and generous view of Ovid than the simplistic designation of him as the anti-Vergil.

The problems here are not so much in the concepts as in their execution. To begin with, Smith rather generously assumes that philologically trained classicists, even those who have labored to acquire the theoretical concepts necessary for understanding the intertextuality studies field, will easily understand his brief review of Buber's concepts and Buberian hermeneutics. I fear the opposite is true, however. Further, Buber's dictum that readers must remain "open" to texts, must enter them with no preconceptions, seems to me far more appropriate to the novel, in which the reader cannot know at the beginning what will happen by the end, than to Latin poetry, which has no real plot twists or surprise endings (particularly not ones that change the outcome of, say, an epic). Further, Latin poetry invokes preconceptions even with choice of meter, not to mention such minutiae as the opening words of a poem (compare "arma virumque cano," and "arma gravi numero," for instance). Even when, as is so often the case with Ovid, the poem then plays jokes on the reader's preconceptions, those preconceptions are absolutely necessary (not to mention, in the case of Latin poetry, basically unavoidable). They are a necessary part of reading intertextually. It would make more sense to propose that "embracing" readers should engage with Latin poetry while suspending critical judgments or derogatory comparisons than to assert that they should suspend all their knowledge of previous relevant materials.

A greater problem arises with Smith's choice of models. He proposes the embraces of Dante-pilgrim and Virgilio in Inferno as models for his sensitive reader. Unfortunately, Smith does not acknowledge that as Dante-pilgrim progresses through Purgatory and Paradise, those embraces are successively, and radically, re-viewed, even undone. The embrace of Sordello and Virgilio in Purgatorio 6 begins to revise the embraces of Inferno, and the abortive attempt of Dante's Statius, in Purgatorio 21, to embrace Virgilio signifies the further diminution of Vergil's status as Dante-poet's "autore" (Inf. 1.85). Statius' presence among the saved is one of Dante-poet's greatest strokes of fiction: he claims to have been converted to Christianity by Vergil's own line, "auri sacra fames, quid non mortalia pectora cogis?" Dante-poet uses this clear mis-reading by his fictional Statius to signify a shortcoming in the historical Vergil, who did not have the opportunity to convert, having died before the birth of Christ. With this extraordinary invention, Dante-poet begins to re-define the Dante-Vergil relationship, both poetically and theologically; he proposes that allegorical misreadings of ancient poetry are better than reading that poetry on its own terms. Now one might well argue that Dante is inappropriately merging theology and poetry here. Unfortunately, Smith does not even mention these episodes, which powerfully revise the embraces of pilgrim and guide in Inferno, so he does not raise this argument. I mention only briefly here Beatrice's chastisement of Dante-pilgrim for weeping at Virgilio's departure (another revision of the poet/guide-reader/pilgrim relationship) in Purg. 30, and the further extraordinary invention in Paradiso 20, in which Rhipeus the Trojan -- literally a throwaway character in the Aeneid4 -- appears, saved because of his love of justice (I pass over entirely the equally peculiar salvation of Cato Uticensis, a suicide). These episodes force the reader to re-examine the easy embraces of pilgrim and guide in Inferno. The entire poem is designed to put readers through the experiences of the pilgrim, which means that once readers have finished Paradiso, they are supposed to go back through Hell, without weeping, without feeling pity for the damned. In addition, the poetic "salvation" of these three pagans, Statius, Cato, and Rhipeus, pointedly leaves out Vergil, in a program of undermining his authority (though not diminishing the pilgrim's love for him), as Barolini demonstrates.5 By the end of the poem, Dante -- both poet and pilgrim -- surpasses his beloved Vergil/Vergilio both poetically and spiritually: he progressively breaks out of the dependent embrace relationship of Inferno, which is revealed to be short-term and short-sighted. Thus, as models for Smith's "sensitive readers," the embraces of Dante-pilgrim and Virgilio in Inferno are incomplete; absent any reckoning with the successive revision of those embraces, this is virtually an incompetent model.

More briefly: Smith's second model, Aeneas at the temple of Juno, is likewise problematic. He cites numerous scholars on this episode, but omits Hexter, who delineates the ironies of Aeneas' naively hopeful response to these exultant depictions on the temple dedicated to the most bitter enemy of the Trojans (Hexter 354-55).6 Smith notes the irony of the designation of the paintings as pictura inanis (41) but never accounts for that irony.7 Again, lacking an account of the intent of these depictions, this instance of "sensitive" reading verges on incompetent, and badly damages Smith's proposed model of readerly "embrace."

My final complaint may be merely one of individual interpretation: I am troubled by Smith's readings of Arachne and Minerva and of Pygmalion, which are his most assertive and controversial readings, and so should be carefully supported. Smith asserts without argument that Arachne is a "fantasizing virgo," that she is inappropriately fantasizing about wild forms of sex with gods, and that Minerva resents her misdiagnosis, as it were, of the function of the divine power of metamorphosis. But given Ovid's consistent emphasis on the danger to women of coercive male sexuality (not to mention the punitive female divinities who persecute those terrified women), such a view seems both odd and overly simplistic. To call Arachne a "fantasizing virgo" without providing a detailed and careful argument is inadequate, and it undoes some of Smith's view of how Arachne and Minerva "read" each other's texts. (It might in fact be said that each already has read the other's text even before they begin weaving; certainly, I think, Minerva correctly understands what she sees.) As to Pygmalion, briefly: Smith remarks (68) that the erotic content of the tale is not "distastefully overemphasized" -- a concept that in itself requires definition and argument -- but he overlooks (a) its context, in which Pygmalion is disgusted at female sexuality (b) its narration by Orpheus, who feels likewise; (c) and its elegiac erotic dimensions, which slightly undermine Pygmalion's motives (though these are noted in Sharrock, Sharrock/Eisner, and Leach, all of whom he cites, and Miller, whom he doesn't cite). To see this episode as representing "sensitive readership" and "vivification" of art, without considering its sexual dynamics (for example, the statue comes to life prone, presumably in medio coitu, rather than in her original vertical posture) and the context of its sexual themes and issues, requires more argumentation than Smith provides. In fact, Smith overlooks even the possibility of contrary interpretations, and thus weakens the plausibility of his own.

Overall, this book offers a potentially useful model for co-operation between reader and poet, an activity certainly desired and needed by and for the poetry Smith discusses. This model establishes an important end of the spectrum of reader-author relationships, but needs more refinement than it receives here. Some discussion of multiple reading positions even within one reader would have been helpful, as the reading of Latin Alexandrianism cannot be simply either (a) contestive or (b) co-operative. It must be both simultaneously, which makes it much more complicated than this book suggests.8


Barolini, Teodolinda. 1984. Dante's Poets: Textuality and Truth in the Comedy. Princeton.

Buber, Martin. 1970. I and Thou. Trans. W. Kaufmann. New York.

Hexter, Ralph. 1992. "Sidonian Dido." 332-384 in Innovations of Antiquity. Edd. Ralph Hexter and Daniel Selden. London.

Jauss, H. R. 1982. Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics. Tr. M. Shaw. Minneapolis.

Kepnes, Steven. 1992. The Text as Thou: Martin Buber's Dialogical Hermeneutics and Narrative Theology. Bloomington.

Leach, E. W. 1974. "Ekphrasis and the Theme of Artistic Failure in Ovid's Metamorphoses." Ramus 3.102-42.

Miller, Jane M. 1988. "Some Versions of Pygmalion." 205-14 in Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. Ed. Charles Martindale. Cambridge.

Sharrock, Alison. 1991. "Womanufacture." JRS 81.36-49.

Sharrock, Alison, and Eisner, John. 1991. "Re-viewing Pygmalion." Ramus 20.149-82.


1.  For Buber's work, Smith cited I and Thou, trans. W. Kaufmann (1970), and relies heavily on Kepnes, in which Buber's "Advice to Frequenters of Libraries" is reprinted.
2.   From the Department of Tomaytoes and Tomahtoes: Smith spells Virgil; I spell Vergil; Dante spells Virgilio. In Dante studies, the two Dantes are usefully, if awkwardly, designated Dante-pilgrim and Dante-poet. When I speak of Virgilio here, I mean the fictive character who guides Dante-pilgrim through Hell and part of Purgatory.
3.   Smith cites no example of a scholar who views Vergil in this way; I would like to know whom he has in mind.
4.   Aen. 2.426-28: "cadit et Rhipeus, iustissimus / qui fuit in Teucris et servantissimus aequi / (dis aliter visum)". Rhipeus is also mentioned in lists of warriors at 2.339 and 394.
5.   See Barolini, 201-268 in general, but esp. 226, 241, n. 52, and 254-56 (on the problem the problem for Vergil that Rhipeus' salvation represents).
6.   Hexter's remark that for Aeneas to "infer from such decorations in a temple dedicated to Juno that her devotees would be kindly to Juno's enemies is a monumentally stupid inference" (355) merits at least some comment in any argument to the contrary.
7.   Oddly, this scene might provide a form of sensitive reader that suits much of the Aeneid's ironies and fated inevitabilities, for Aeneas' misreading of what seem unmistakably hostile representations of Trojan defeats gives him the heart to go forward -- and going forward is the main thing required of him in this poem. That is, Aeneas' misreading is functional in a way that a correct reading would not have been. Such a structure (practically Dantesque in its preference for useful misreading) would also account for the way Aeneas is heartened by the depictions on his shield, which he does not understand, of some of the bloodiest and most dangerous episodes of recent Roman history. The mysterious pictures somehow give him the heart to go on; how they affect Vergil's Roman readers, not all of whom had taken the winning side, is another matter. But it can certainly be said that much of the Aeneid's "message," to use Smith's term (a concept not explained in this book) is that Aeneas must go forward, whether or not he wants to, so that his misreadings of the temple and his ignorance of the events depicted on his shield are functional to his mission, though they represent inept and naive rather than intelligent and "sensitive" readings.
8.   In addition, no reader of Latin poetry reads a poem only once (at least not the kinds of readers Smith is discussing) -- where on the spectrum from resistance to embrace do subsequent readings occur? It is unlikely, given the challenges of Roman Alexandrian composition, that they are less important than initial readings; some discussion of this issue would have been useful.

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