Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.47

Magdalena Öhrman, Varying Virtue. Mythological Paragons of Wifely Virtues in Roman Elegy. Studia Graeca et Latina Lundensia, 15.   Lund:  Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University, 2008.  Pp. 218 (pb).  ISBN 978-91-628-7394-3.  

Reviewed by Glenn C. Lacki, St Hugh's College, University of Oxford (
Word count: 2248 words

Varying Virtue is the pre-viva publication of Öhrman's doctoral thesis, printed by the author's home university of Lund.1 The thesis is composed primarily of close readings of discrete references within Roman elegy (especially Ovid) to the mythological characters Penelope, Laodamia, Andromache, Alcestis, and Euadne. Among other things, the work therefore represents an addition to the burgeoning field of studies of exemplification in Latin poetry. Its goal, in brief, is to demonstrate how an external author (such as Ovid) exploits these familiar mythological females in such a way as to shape the reader's perception of and reaction to his poetry's internal narrator(s) and to the genre of elegy itself. Published prior to rigorous review, defence, and post-defence revision, however, mistakes (both typographical and more serious) are many.2 As a result, the overall impression conveyed by the work -- that is, of a text which may have been publishable after thorough revision and expansion, but which instead has simply been published as is -- is perhaps to be expected. Nevertheless, the dissertation does have some quality insights to impart to Latinists specialising in Augustan poetry, and particularly to those who study Ovid or Propertius; Tibullan critics seeking illumination I fear will feel somewhat short-shrifted.

Opening with a brief introduction, Öhrman then subdivides her material into four chapters of substance ('Canonical' Elegy; Ovid's Heroides; Erotodidactic Elegy; Ovid's Exile Poetry) followed by a crisp conclusion and a serviceably concise appendix that supplies some background information on the mythological heroines in question. Unlike the conclusion's rather excellent synthesis of the foregoing thesis and its implications, the introduction bears sure signs of post-partum composition, and spends more of its time summarising conclusions to be reached in the thesis (a.k.a. 'repeating the abstract' and 'giving the game away') than it does laying a solid methodological framework for the project as a whole. What does become clear, at least, is that the subsequent analysis will be largely intertextual and narratological, and concerned throughout with issues of genre and gender. Öhrman (in my opinion rightly) views separate references to individual mythological characters within elegy as interdependent, cumulative with one another as well as with the literary tradition that serves as their backdrop (13). One other major point highlighted here which does become a recurring (if only occasionally persuasive) argument throughout the book is how comparison of the elegiac beloved to these 'paragons of virtue' often implies unfortunate analogies between the elegiac narrator and these paragons' male counterparts, sometimes casting an ironic or even comical light upon the narrator and thereby subverting his authority and reliability, as well as those of the elegiac Gegenwelt he expounds.

I am more sceptical, however, when Öhrman queries "the aims and objectives of the genre" (13), and particularly about the mode in which she does so. She first posits that "[b]y detracting from the credibility of the opposing alternative [i.e., the worldview proposed by the elegiac narrator], elegy comes ultimately to confirm the values of traditional Roman society" (15), a sensible (if at this stage still nebulous) hypothesis. She severely cripples this train of thought with a later claim, however, suggesting (19) "that we understand elegy as a genre more concerned with sophisticated literary play and allusion, as well as with humour, than with either the depiction of a real relationship or with a wish for real changes in Roman society." We must ask, however, at what expense? And more, is this good enough? I am reminded of the debate over Corinna's parrot (Am. 2.6); in the course of it, Leslie Cahoon argued that "[r]ecent scholarly concerns with generic constraints and programmatic themes often tend to eliminate all other themes as insignificant or nonexistent. Ovid's poetry in particular is, in such treatments, apparently only about itself, about its self-conscious relationship to its predecessors, about its own erudition and ingenuity in manipulating its sources, and, by implication, delightfully suggestive of, if not actually about, the erudition and ingenuity of the critic who detects such manipulations."3 Ultimately Cahoon persuades that no, this is not good enough, and if we are to continue reading this poetry then surely it must have some significance ethical, moral, or otherwise -- some meaning beyond the aesthetic, beyond poetics, and beyond the fun-filled philological. Maintenance of the status quo represents just as earnest and noteworthy a social agenda for elegy as any 'subversive' or revolutionary desire for change, yet even while rightly proposing it as a possibility Öhrman seems to diminish it by trammelling the nature and belittling the involvements of the genre. Intentional or no -- and no matter how much I would like simply to chalk the problem up to the clearly precipitate penning of the introduction -- the degree to which these claims are at loggerheads is problematic for Öhrman's overall thesis.

In her first full chapter, Öhrman discusses a number of poems from the Propertian oeuvre (1.3, 15, 19; 2.6, 9, 20; 3.12, 13; and 4.8), with a nod to Tibullus (1.3) and a brief foray into Ovid's Amores (2.18 and 3.4), setting the scene for her later chapters which focus almost entirely on Ovid. The selection is intended to characterise what Öhrman rather questionably dubs 'Canonical Elegy'. (Even by the end of the thesis I remained unconvinced of the cogency of the term, especially in light of the little space devoted to discussion of Tibullus, et sim.) This is also, it must be said, one of the more pessimistic chapters on Augustan poetry I for one have had the mixed pleasure and displeasure -- both, and in equal quantities -- of reading. (With a good deal of justification it might be bleakly subtitled 'Taking the Romance out of Roman Elegy'...) In particular, I suspect that Öhrman's interpretations of Propertius, at times quite perceptive and at others just downright depressing, will prove especially polarising.

While I find myself hard-pressed to disagree, for instance, with what I take as the crowning argument of this first chapter, namely that "infidelity is in fact part of the foundations of the genre. Subsequently, marital fidelity cannot be comfortably incorporated in the elegiac world" (64), we arrive at this conclusion by way of a demoralising undercurrent of unpersuasive over-reading which mars the chapter and poses no small cause for concern. (Arguably, Öhrman's primary intent in the thesis is over-reading, but a little self-consciousness towards that enterprise could have gone a long way here!) Öhrman aims to convince us that when the elegiac narrator makes a comparison between his puella and a virtuous mythological heroine, we should be wary not only of what he is actually saying about her, but also of what it says about him, intentionally or otherwise. And in her defence this suggestion, per se -- cautious and sensible as it is -- is hard to refute. It is always right to question; so for instance when the narrator of Propertius 2.6/7 informs the cheating Cynthia that nos uxor numquam, numquam seducet amica: / semper amica mihi, semper et uxor eris (2.6.41-2), Öhrman is perfectly right to suggest (38) that he may in fact be hinting at (and taunting Cynthia with) his own past infidelities, real or imagined. At the very least this is hardly inconceivable. But on the other hand, the narrator of Propertius 2.20 does not "figure himself as an adulterer and a rapist" by means of his mythological analogies (pace Öhrman, 47) -- he in fact highlights a pack of ne'er-do-wells to show just how unlike all of them he has been, and by extension how unreasonable Cynthia is being! Nor can I agree with Öhrman's assessment (50-3) that the narrator of Propertius 1.19 recognises all along that his and Cynthia's love cannot last beyond the bounds of death, when it seems clear to me (and call me a romantic if you must) that part of the point here is the unknowability, for the narrator, of what exists beyond that boundary. What he offers, then, is the best he can, saying that even if all he can do is try (in vain) to sate himself with touching Cynthia with falsis palmis then that is enough for him -- his love, he claims, is strong enough to last even past the point where its demonstrations in physical form are no longer possible.4 To get down to brass tacks, then, perhaps infidelity in all its forms really is part of the foundations of the genre: part of being faithless, after all, is an inability to put any reliance whatsoever in the words of your lover! But is Öhrman implying that Ovid has inscribed this brand of 'infidelity' and suspicion into his poetry (and more, is this really the way to go about exposing it?), or is it simply Öhrman's own mode of analysis that manifests such a transgressive distrust? Then again, we could put it more simply, and just say that if this is really the pernickety and cavilling fashion in which Cynthia regularly read her amator's professions of undying love, little wonder their relationship was so fraught!

Öhrman's second chapter, which concerns Ovid's Heroides and in particular Her. 1 and 13, the letters of Penelope and Laodamia, contains some of the book's better moments. In it, Öhrman offers interesting thoughts not only on these two Heroides, but on the collection as a whole. High points include her reading of these characters as "vehicles for a metapoetic discussion of what the elegiac world view entails" (67); her entire discussion of Her. 1.31-6 and ekphrasis (70-3); her interpretations of the problematic gender role-swapping that takes place as these women cast themselves in the guise of elegiac (male?) narrators and their male counterparts as elegiac 'puellae'; and her studied understanding of the interplay of generic form and content which brings her to posit elegy's ultimate inability to alter or transform the gospel of 'loftier', time-honoured epic (104). The interested reader will find here much of worth, and some fresh and exciting insights into an understudied set of Ovidian poems.

The third chapter carries the theme of the unreliable narrator over to erotodidactic elegy, with understandable emphasis on the Ars amatoria. Here, she argues that it is also in the praeceptor amoris's use of mythological examples of wifely virtues that we can locate the signs of a lack of narratorial control. Her intertextual and narratological reasoning throughout the chapter is usually admirable, sometimes bold, but not always primed to convince, with arguments ranging from the truly excellent (e.g., her notes, 121-2, on comparing the use of Tecmessa at Ars 3.517ff. to her speech in Sophocles's Aias as an intertext concerning the early parts of her life) to the overly tortuous (e.g., her points, 123-4, on the praeceptor's failing credibility as supposedly evinced by his use of Andromache), and occasionally to the patently absurd (e.g., lengthy, superfluous, and implausible discussions of why Andromache is tall, 132-5, and why Laodamia has her hair styled a certain way, 145-8). (As for why Andromache's tall, I'm tempted to blame the walls of Troy for adding a few inches... Now there's a joke I wouldn't put past Ovid.)

If I were to recommend the thesis on a single chapter alone, it would have to be Öhrman's fourth and final one. The chapter revolves around Ovid's exile poetry, ranging widely and effectively across both the Tristia and the ex Ponto, with particular attention given to Tr. 1.6, 2, 4.3, 5.5, and 5.14, and to Pont. 3.1. Some of her initial claims for the chapter -- namely, ". . .to show that the Ars is indeed a highly important intertext for Ovid's exile poetry, and that the exile corpus does reflect retrospectively on the aims of Ovid's amatory poetry" (152) -- do not inspire confidence, as they seem more data than desiderata in studies of Ovid's late offerings. Her more specific goals far outstrip these overly general ones, however, and what stand out most piquantly here are rather Öhrman's first-class insights, throughout the chapter, concerning the 'wife' of 'Ovid' (and I fully agree with her inverted commas on both counts), as well as her persuasive argument that the reader's familiarity with the Ars is constantly (and not untroublingly) (re)inscribed in the exile poetry by way of the exilic narrator's references to these five 'paragons'. In fact, on the subject of 'Ovid's wife', a great deal of Öhrman's material here -- how the narrator sets his wife apart from potential readers of the Ars through intertextuality, and even on the level of language (161); how Ovid uses generic conventions to represent or metaphorise the separation of the narrator, caught inside elegy, from his wife, caught inside tragedy and epic (164); and so on -- is some of the best that I have seen written. Excellent and artful close readings abound throughout, and most of the better arguments Öhrman has posed in the course of her text come together here very nicely.

The final, concluding chapter of the book provides, as I mentioned, a thoroughgoing recapitulation of what has come before. Öhrman rightly highlights what I would agree is one of the primary strengths of her thesis: that by means of her close-readings of references to these five 'paragons of wifely virtues' across the corpus of Ovidian poetry, she has been able to demonstrate substantively the lap-jointed nature of Ovidian cross-textual exemplification. Not all of her arguments will convince, and there is a great deal of doctoral-schmoctoral repetition and surplus in evidence, but there is also wealth here, for those willing to do a bit of digging and slogging.


1.   The reviewer apologises to the author and editors for this review's reprehensibly tardy submission.
2.   A complete list of corrigenda has been forwarded to the author and need not be repeated here. For the purposes of this review, I will mention only those points which might affect a reader's interpretation, or the overall readability, of the text; viz.:

p. 9 -- In the table of contents, section header 'I.I' instead reads 'II.I.'; on a related note, there is considerable inconsistency (passim) in section references (e.g., 'I.I' in TOC and 'I.i' at p. 11, n. 2), which becomes increasingly distracting as further subsections are added ('II.II.ii.ii', and so on). p. 17 -- There is some critical element of sense missed out of the sentence beginning 'In the introduction to Chapter One...'; the sentence, however, is repeated and corrected on p. 22, and yet again on p. 61, n. 126 (a repetition which in this case proves useful, though in principle should perhaps be avoided). p. 25, n. 9 (and passim) -- References to Boyd 2002 Brill's Companion to Ovid are made as 'Weiden Boyd 2002', though the bibliographical entry is listed under 'Boyd'. p. 28 -- For 'nocturna dolo' read 'nocturno dolo'. p. 41 (in translation of Prop. 1.15; and again on p. 42) -- Translation of quarum nulla as 'neither of these' should read 'none of these'. p. 114 -- For 'counterpart' read 'counterpoint'. p. 115 -- 'to Penelope from Dido' should read 'to Dido from Penelope'. p. 119 (and again on p. 120) -- Öhrman's translation of lascivi amores as 'love for fun' may seem misleading: 'love for the fun of it' (vel sim.) might be more accurate and comprehensible. p. 126 -- Major misprinting of section heading, which should read 'III.II' but instead reads 'III.III.IV' and is printed well off-centre. p. 185 -- In a translation of Pont. 3.1.119ff., Öhrman translates Aeetae as 'Aeteon', but this should in fact read 'Aeëtes'; further, nurus Aegypti is not 'the Egyptian wife' but actually 'a daughter-in-law of Aegyptus', and so Öhrman's subsequent argument that "they are described as barbarians; this is one possible inference of the term Aegypti used of the Danaid" is similarly misguided.
3.   L. Cahoon CJ 86.4 (1991): 368-76, quotation from 369. The interested should see especially Cahoon's first article on the subject, an early exercise in narratological studies of Roman elegy that would have proved instructive for some of Öhrman's big-picture hypotheses, and which sparked the debate over the parrot: CJ 80.1 (1984): 27-35. For the counterarguments, see especially: B. W. Boyd CJ 82 (1987): 199-207; K. S. Myers EMC 34 (1990): 367-74).
4.   Arguably, the more worrying element of the Propertian narrator's scenario in 1.19 comes if we follow his imago line of thought (1.19.11: illic quidquid ero, semper tua dicar imago) to its logical conclusion: Laodamia's imago of Protesilaus, after all, turned out not to be enough to sate her desires, and in the end she killed herself (thus joining him, and reuniting them, in death) anyway! Is the narrator suggesting that he hopes Cynthia will kill herself in order to follow him in death? Such a thought might be reinforced by the important line (1.19.12) which follows: traicit et fati litora magnus amor. Exactly whose love, we might rightly wonder, is intended here to traverse the shores of death -- and in which direction? In this case, nevertheless, the worst we could accuse the narrator of being is selfish in his love -- hardly the doubter and double-dealer Öhrman would make him.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2009
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 19:49:28, Tuesday, 14 April 2009