Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.11

Evangelos Karakasis, Song Exchange in Roman Pastoral. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 5.   Berlin; New York:  De Gruyter, 2011.  Pp. xi, 385.  ISBN 9783110227062.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by John Van Sickle, Brooklyn College and Graduate Center, CUNY (

A detailed table of contents signals range and conceptual frame, which will be familiar to specialists. Their names cluster in notes (conveniently at page bottom) drawn from more than a half-century’s scholarly industry, to which Karakasis reacts: “the notion of genre” is “a quite debated issue” and “contemporary critical speech often exhibits a post modern, deconstructive ‘generic agnosticism’.” No agnostic, Karakasis premises that “Theocritus and his Roman counterpart, Vergil, composed pastoral poetry and thus founded this generic formation in Greece and Rome respectively,” and that “The two terms ‘bucolic’ and ‘pastoral’ are used interchangeably in the present study, having no particular semantic difference and denoting the same literary genre.” He refers to “the continuation (although often in altered form) of motifs, techniques and programmatic aspirations that seems to unify a genre from Theocritus up to Nemesianus, in the sense of a literary form that, at least up to a point, creates specific ‘generic expectations’ for the (model) reader, leading him thus to the construction of meaning.”

Karakasis links “the ‘pastoral norm’” with a generalized “Callimachean – neoteric” and also employs other typifying terms, e.g., “elegiac passion hardly fits into the pastoral scheme of things, as it ‘threatens’ the all-important value of bucolic serenity.” He adds, “we are entitled to think of pastoral as a more ‘pure’ version of neoteric aestheticism descending from the Callimachean paradigm.” (p. 9) [italics added to mark definite articles dictated by the premise]. Like thinking can associate “pastoral with Dionysus,” assert that “bucolic as a genre is also related to comedy”; and approve Hunter (1999) on “the epic origins of pastoral” (p. 14).

The conceptual frame allows approaching Virgil through the seventh eclogue’s song contest, which represents, writes Karakasis, a “‘generic distinction’ between the genus tenue and genus grande” (p. 57), the latter personified in the blustery, defeated competitor Thyrsis, related specifically to “epic poetry” while discussing “Lexical and Syntactic Options.” Of the other competitor, Karakasis writes that “Corydon exhibits over again his neoteric sensibilities” by contrast with Thyrsis’ “negative associations within neoteric poetics.”

“In his third eclogue,” begins the next chapter, “Vergil depicts one more poetic contest.” An impressionistic paraphrase follows, with desultory mention of Theocritean idylls but no clear account of their structure or this eclogue’s. Karakasis focuses on contradictory views of the close, where Virgil makes a neighbor declare both singers worthy, granting neither the prize. Karakasis infers that “the topics they choose to develop . . . have close connections with other literary genres, namely comedy, elegy, and the mime” (p. 88). He omits Breed’s insight (Pastoral Inscriptions 2006) that a history of goat-song by one singer (Damoetas) evokes an origin shared by bucolic and tragic song. He also ignores the fact that a pointed echo of Aratus opens the formal exchange of songs, “all are full of Jove,” though his method might have been expected to highlight this upward deviation. Still occluding Aratus’ epos, he closes by describing both speakers as “‘deviating from’ earlier pastoral tradition towards comic and elegiac models” (p. 123).

On eclogue eight, Karakasis hails its singers’ “skill in the art of song, i.e., the pastoral value par excellence”; yet he remains uneasy that “the present eclogue lacks the typical formalities of a song-contest” (p. 125). He stills generic disquiet by citing one word, certantes, to categorize the poem as “a singing match between the two shepherds” (he lets generic “shepherds” overshadow Virgil’s specific differentiation between a suicidal, tragic goatherd and a name suggesting ‘cowherd’, Alphesiboeus). Karakasis cites stylistic details for “neoteric aspirations of the contestants’ Orphic songs” (p. 126). Determined to “defend the organic entity of the eclogue,” he also argues that the recusatio of the “Dedication Part” harmonizes with the genus tenue of the songs. Against this generic level, he cites the eclogue’s “disordered pastoral world” caused by “urban associations” (p. 151); but he writes that both songs “can be read as professing pastoral values.” He thus ignores multiplying links to tragedy: the poet defining his own ambition as Sophoclean and weaving into both songs references to Medea. also imagining a magician, Moeris, picking simples from her land and stealing crops.

In the fifth eclogue, Karakasis construes the pushy young Mopsus as offering “an account of central generic topoi of the pastoral genre in the Theocritean and post-Theocritean tradition . . . in their association with the neoteric – Callimachean poetological program” while the elderly Menalcas is “still of the Callimachean poetological trend, but adapted especially to Roman terms” (p. 183). He follows Breed to note the novelty that Virgil imagined Mopsus’s song carved on beech (“often a metonymy of Vergilian pastoral itself,” an insight not applied to the beech-wood cups, ecl. 3); yet he hardly notices the novelty that Virgil imagined young Mopsus pushing old Menalcas beyond familiar pastoral shade to a ‘bower’ (antrum). The ‘bower’ Karakasis does trace to Homer, but without pressing his usual practice, to read the shift from shade to ‘bower’ as a poetological upward push: cf. young Menalcas and Damoetas interpreted as pushy (ecl. 3), likewise Thyrsis (ecl. 7). He misses the poetological chance to trace Mopsus to older epic stories. Still less does he link Mopsus’ epical ‘bower’ to the locus Meliboeus lost (ecl. 1: yet he will link Meliboeus to epical ambition when discussing ecl. 9). Since Virgil makes Mopsus impose a new scene and new theme (nuper) on aged Menalcas (tu maior (a palpable hint of genus grande), the story does not show the elder initiating the younger nor fit Wright’s initiatory typology. Karakasis sees this eclogue making pastoral interact “with political society and its benefactors; ... which entails a mixture of traditional pastoral motifs, encomiastic notes and georgic touches” (p. 183), which Virgil to be sure had mixed already in what Karakasis elsewhere calls “the first programmatic eclogue” (ecl. 1).

From a generic perspective, the ninth eclogue shows “the negative influence of ‘pastoral dislocation’ and the disruption of bucolic song” (p. 185). Karakasis relates displaced old Moeris to exiled Meliboeus (ecl. 1), writing that both exiles show a penchant for archaic diction, implying nostalgia for lost pasts. He finds Moeris “thinking along epic lines” in the image of (legionary) eagles harassing doves, in a dislocation from pastoral toward genus grande (p. 192) and reiterates “Moeris’ ‘generic leaning’ towards the elevated genres” (p. 196), concluding that Moeris “appears to incarnate the process of ‘generic adoption’ of pastoral poetry in the Roman literary tradition; politics now impose their presence” (p. 206). He then gives further evidence for stylistic resemblance between Moeris and Meliboeus; and he describes a contrast between “Meliboeus preferring, as shown above, pp. 208-9, the elevated equivalent, the linguistic option shared by higher literary genres, and Tityrus, who maintains, at least up to a certain point, his pastoral identity and his rustic colloquialism of a lower literary register” (p. 211). He insists on the “similarity of status” that joins Moeris with Meliboeus and young Lycidas with elderly Tityrus. In fine he sees “hope for the prolongation of pastoral song” despite “the ‘generic side–effects of the ‘pastoral dislocation’ running through the whole.”

One sign supporting his synthesis eludes Karakasis, that Moeris is identified by Lycidas as a bard (me quoque [sicut te] dicunt vatem pastores, sed non ego credulus illis. Indeed vatic song – magical spells with georgic powers and simples from Medea’s land – had been assigned to Moeris (ecl. 8), although Karakasis denies any mention of Moeris apart from ecl. 8. That georgic motifs occur too in Moeris’ song of Caesar’s fructifying star, Karakasis does note (p. 202).

Even these brief excerpts may enable specialists to infer some qualities in the scholarship: its productive use of tension between generic concepts, its gathering of detail with regard to Latin style (Moeris like Meliboeus, Thyrsis), and yet its reductive and repetitive use of “catchwords” such as “neoteric” and “Callimachean” and “the” pastoral bucolic. Genre continuing through time has long and well been studied as tradition, marked by tensions characterized by concepts like oppositio in imitando (Giangrande) or “reference” (Thomas), or “appropriation,” as in Derek Walcott’s Omeros, legible as both like and unlike Homer, hence fruitful for “the construction of meaning.” Fruitful attention to contrast is curtailed when Karakasis superimposes ‘the pastoral’ onto ‘the bucolic’: in effect he reduces ‘the bucolic’ to a levy of stylemes and themes beclouding its centrality for Greek economic, religious, political and cognitive practice (cf., e.g., Gutzwiller, “The Herdsman in Greek Thought,” in Fantuzzi and Papanghelis, Brill’s Companion to Greek and Latin Pastoral, 2006; or McInerney, The Cattle of the Sun. Cows and Culture in the World of the Ancient Greeks, 2010).

Non-specialists will seek here in vain for methodical and systemic guidance to the contexts from which generic signposts are picked: contexts meaning the structures of whole poems (idylls, eclogues) and their roles in Hellenistic and Roman poetry books (cf., e.g., Hutchinson, Talking Books, 2008; Van Sickle, The Design of Virgil’s Bucolics, 2004). Structure would help specialists too account for the welter of specific remarks about stylistics, motifs, and literary topics, which absent some sense of “organic unity” become repetitive ultimately lacking point.

In the generic congeries, however, hints of order may be discerned: Tityrus characterized as more ‘pastoral’ vs Meliboeus pushing high though exiled (ecl. 1), both young Menalcas and Damoetas pushing upwards in sync with tragic Pollio (ecl. 3), pushing toward georgic and heroic range in vatic contexts (ecll. 4 and 5); vatic Mopsus pushing greater Menalcas upwards, Roman encomium sealed and signed (ecl. 5); Tityrus blamed for pushy poetics and drawn back from the highest push (ecl. 6); erstwhile pushy Meliboeus brought back and down to bond with restrained Corydon against paratragic Thyrsis (ecl. 7); tragic notes pushing above bucolic voices (ecl. 8); once pushy vatic Moeris and Menalcas pushed aside (ecl. 9); finally Virgil imagining Menalcas in Arcadia distracted from gathering mast by Gallus dying of tragico-bucolic love (ecl. 10).

Karakasis’ conceptual tools, although on Greek bucolic and Virgil they may be by turns procrustean and sisyphean, strike this reader as better calibrated to Virgil’s epigonoi, e.g., signaling in Calpurnius “the intention of ‘transcending’ pastoral ‘generic boundaries’ primarily towards elegiac and georgic preferences.” Karakasis sums up “‘generic novelty’ . . . mirrored by a certain degree of linguistic innovation, especially in the speech of Meliboeus and Corydon, who adopt several linguistic peculiarities of post-classical Latin” (p. 279). However, a phrase like “who adopt,” imagining the fictive characters as conscious stylists, exemplifies an epistemological quirk that pervades and undermines the authority of the critical discourse.

At the “level of poetological meta-language” in the first Einsiedeln eclogue, Karakasis finds “unrealised expectation of a time-honoured pastoral performance” giving way to “a ‘contamination’ on the thematic and the linguistic level with other literary genres, namely epic” (p. 296). On the second eclogue of Nemesianus he displays both his generic method and the epistemological quirk just remarked: “the two competing pastoral singers employ motifs having a traceable literary history” or again, “The young men’s efforts to overcome their elegiac passion through bucolic song are doomed.” Still, Karakasis concludes that “Nemesianus proves himself capable of exploiting the whole of the pastoral tradition before him, often combining motifs from more than one source in such a way as to suggest his ‘innovative generic orientation’” (p. 320). Finally, in Nemesianus’ fourth eclogue, Karakasis individuates a complex poetology, drawing threads from non-bucolic works of “Greek pastoral poets” or poems of “a ‘generically dubious’ character” if not examples “where a clear ‘elegiac discourse’ runs through” a Latin bucolic text.

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