Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.01.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.01.05

José Manuel Blanco Mayor, Power Play in Latin Love Elegy and Its Multiple Forms of Continuity in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'. Trends in classics – supplementary volumes, 42.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. vii, 381.  ISBN 9783110486612.  $126.99.  

Reviewed by Jo-Marie Claassen, Stellenbosch University (


The title of this reworked version of Mayor’s Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Zaragoza epitomises its contents exactly. As in any dissertation, a lengthy ‘General Introduction,’ here divided into three brief chapters (pp. 3-34), sets the parameters of Mayor’s research. The body of the work carefully maps the two main sections of Mayor’s argument in, respectively, four (pp. 37-146) and three chapters (pp. 149-350), the chapters in each section again numbered from ‘1’ onwards. Potential confusion is avoided by means of a very detailed table of contents that, inter alia, lists in order all the poems that Mayor discusses. This work is a valuable contribution to critical assessment of the poetics of both Latin elegy and Ovid’s carmen perpetuum.

Mayor’s General Introduction first gives his own critical assessment of the intertextual relations between Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Latin elegy (pp.3-8); that is followed by a brief overview of what he terms his ‘methodological considerations’ (pp.9-11) and a longer overview of what he means by the title of his book (pp.12-34). Within this section, Mayor first promises to analyse elegiac discourse, its ‘ideological context as the “problem” of power relations’, and elegy ‘as fallax opus,’ that displays what he terms ‘the elegiac estrangement.’ This ‘estrangement’ is laid out as comprising both ‘the critical landscape and [further] methodological considerations’ and elegy itself explained as ‘agonistic poetry’, that is, poetry which portrays competitive aspects in the relationships of its protagonists (the poet-lover persona and his puella). He then holds out, as the promised content of his second main section, a discussion of ‘the elegiac in the Metamorphoses,’ which he will consider as ‘meta-poetry’ in the context of the ‘power relations’ of his title.

These promises are then thoroughly realised in the body of the work. ‘Section 1’ (pp.37-146) is rather lengthily titled ‘Et amando et amare fatendo: fiction and supra-fiction in Latin love elegy. Agon and power relations as poetological expressions.’ Mayor’s point of departure is that power-relations in elegy are necessarily ‘vertical,’ with the lover-poet as dominant and the puella as subjected to him. He dismisses the concept of servitium amoris as a ‘fallacious discourse, where the power vectors at the fictional level … [are] in contrast to those at the supra-fictional level’ (p. 37). This, for him, results in an ‘agonistic relationship’ between the lover and the girl. Mayor’s goal is to explore the poet’s ‘strategies of control’ in this ‘agonistic relationship,’ emphasizing the manner and purpose of expression of the poet’s hierarchical control. He therefore concentrates on literary questions that he feels ‘will underscore the conceptual autonomy of elegiac texts,’ avoiding study of socio-economic phenomena (pp.38-9). The ‘agonistic relationship’ is demonstrated in the girl’s ‘existential dependence’ on the poet’s will, his presentation of her as mere ‘subject matter’ and, finally, as, in fact, a creation of the poet’s ‘demiurgic ingenuity.’ This reduces the puella to ‘either “reader”, “poetic subject matter” or “literary oeuvre”’ (p. 40). With this final concept Mayor means that puella and poem are in fact equated. The three chapters that follow in Mayor’s first main section discuss in turn the puella as a reader ‘decoding the text’ (pp. 43-71), the young lady as ‘subject matter’ (pp. 72-124) and the same person as ‘literary work’ (pp.125-46). These three aspects are copiously explored by means of detailed close readings of poems by Propertius, Ovid, Catullus, and Tibullus, with Propertius and Ovid featuring most prominently.

Mayor’s second and longer section is titled ‘New perspectives in the study of “the elegiac” in Ovid’s Metamorphoses’ (pp. 149-350). After another (sub-)introduction (pp. 149-50), a series of ‘case studies’ (well-known myths from the Metamorphoses) are discussed as examples of what Mayor terms ‘asymmetrical love’ (pp. 151-242). This leads to his final chapter, discussion of mutual love in the poem, which Mayor considers as leading ‘towards the ultimus ardor of Latin elegy’ (pp. 243-338).

Mayor’s ‘asymmetrical love’ designates relationships where power relations are skewed: the male figure dominates over the female. Seven of Ovid’s best-known myths are considered: Daphne and Apollo, Io and Jupiter, Callisto and Jupiter, Herse and Mercury, Philomela and Tereus, Byblis and Caunus, and Pygmalion (and Galatea: the latter name is omitted in Mayor’s table of contents). In each case the relevant passage from Ovid’s epic poem is discussed and the elements that conform to Mayor’s tripartite analysis of male-female power dynamics are carefully examined with reference to select passages from elegy.

Finally, our author considers Ovid’s myths in which mutual love is experienced: Pyramus and Thisbe, Cephalus and Procris, Ceyx and Alcyone, Pomona and Vertumnus. Mayor’s point of departure is that amor mutuus, à la Ovid, Ars 2.717-32, was the elegiac ideal that, by definition, could never be achieved: ‘mutual love [is] an elegiac adynaton’ (p. 245). It is thus the ultimus ardor, after which there were no new possible directions for Latin elegy. So much for elegy. Mayor expends considerable energy in promoting this point before arguing that, in fact, the ‘elegiac’ elements in the Metamorphoses are, on the other hand, not ‘a homogeneous reality’ and that the ‘erotic asymmetry of the Daphne-pattern (and hence, of the whole elegiac genre) undergoes a significant alteration’ here (p. 248). Where such change becomes manifest, ‘vertical’ power-relations no longer apply and we find ‘an erotic pattern that is characterised by reciprocity’ (ibid). Yet, later Mayor again states that ‘mutual love is axiomatically alien to elegy’ (p. 273) and argues, contra Otis, that ‘Ovid’s “invention” of mutual love’ is not a matter of ethics, but of a changed poetic orientation for elegy, perhaps for the sake of variatio (p. 340). This is then the only form of elegy that survives: Ovid celebrates only conjugal love in his exilic poetry (p. 348).

Eleven pages of ‘Conclusions’ round off Mayor’s argument (pp. 339-50). These are followed by the standard academic appendages: a bibliography (pp. 351-67) with an admirably international cast of characters and works, an eight-page, doubled-columned index of passages cited (pp. 369-76) and another, shorter list of names and topics covered (pp. 377-81). Here the names of literary-critical theorists such as Barthes, Bakhtin, Bloom and Foucault occur, but not the names of other critics from Mayor’s extensive bibliography.

This leads me to the first of my slight reservations about the usefulness of Mayor’s book as a teaching tool (except perhaps at post-graduate level): although his exposition is extremely well-argued, his use of literary-critical jargon often left me puzzled as to what he actually meant. The concepts that I found most baffling are mostly combinations of the prefixes supra-, meta-, and intra- with key terms from standard literary criticism: ‘-literal, -fiction(al), -literary’ and ‘-poetic(s).’ Hence we have ‘supra-literalness’ (p. 18, perhaps meaning ‘fictional’ or ‘metaphorical’?) and ‘supra-fiction(al)’ (pp. 40, 48, 58, 72, 74, 107), which left me fairly puzzled at first. On p. 74 we read of ‘the interplay between literal fiction and figurative supra-fiction’ and, later (p. 107), a statement that ‘Elegy… obliges us to shift between fiction and supra-fiction,’ which is explained as the difference between ‘a verbatim reading and a metaphorical one.’ At last, on p.137, we have a definition: by ‘supra-fictional’ is meant ‘…transgression of the semantic boundaries between the literal and the metaphorical.’ Would the latter terms not have sufficed?

Next, ‘intra-literary interaction between poet and puella’ (p. 72) is a rather cumbersom way of referring to action within the context of a poem. Meta- formations proliferate: The addition of meta- to ‘literary’ produces the ‘metaliterary authority,’ apparently as result of the ‘metapoetic background of the [elegiac] genre’ (p. 150)— its characteristic as agon—which Ovid has brought into the Metamorphoses. This serves to remind readers of the ‘struggle between the poet and his puella-slash-oeuvre at a metatextual level,’ (p. 157). This latter concept has been explained on p.127 as the ‘dichotomy “puella – female fiction” vs. “puella – literary work”.’ The ‘metaliterary domain of poetic creation’ is at last explained on p.173, as the use of ‘metapoetic themes’ that illustrate an ‘intraliterary point of view… from an intertextual perspective.’ ‘Metaliterary’ recurs on pp. 230 and 295. Finally, Mayor sums up his argument: ‘The prism of metapoetics… offers an explanation, namely that mutual love in the Metamorphoses is a mechanism for Ovid to advance a larger game of literary criticism within his poem on changing forms.’ From this I deduce that the term ‘metapoetics’ refers to modern readers’ interpretation of Ovid’s poetics.

My second quibble refers to the editing of this volume. One might expect that for a serious work by a non-native writer of English, a reputable German publishing house would employ editors fluent in English, but unfortunately that has not been the case. The insertion of a hyphen according to what seems to be the publisher’s ‘Germanic’ system results in odd word breaks, such as ‘ne-glect’ (p. 5), ‘het-erogeneity’ (p. 13), ‘Au-gustan’ (p. 20), ‘Hers-e’ (p. 194). Less serious infelicities are the many instances of the possessive form (apostrophe ‘s’) with abstract nouns or inanimate objects: ‘elegy’s power relations’ (p. 32), ‘elegy’s recurrent… reflection’ (p. 62), ‘the composition’s only thematic centre’ (p. 88), ‘a text’s aesthetic mechanics’ (p. 150), ‘the text’s spectrum of allusions’ (p. 210), and ‘this study’s aims’ (p. 249). An editor should have noted and eliminated these mistakes as well as the use of the subjective possessive ‘Odysseus’ comparison to a lion…’ (p. 180) instead of the objective ‘the comparison of Odysseus to…’ Other odd expressions include ‘[a] reader consumes poetry’ (p. 43), ‘as soon as that he equates it… (p. 99), ‘the… god renounces to his divine prerogative’ (p. 172), and ‘forebearers’ (sic, p. 348); two occurrences of the slang word ‘alongside’ for ‘next to’ or ‘beside’ (pp. 196, 295); awkward sentences, such as: ‘…the ianitor … impedes the lover from approach the beloved’ (p. 196) and ‘Ovid [gives] a voice, only availing it to…’ (p. 230); and finally, the incorrect use of ‘many’: ‘…he has many such evidence…’ (p. 276) and of a present participle: ‘…if we viewing…’ (p. ?).

A minor quibble, which I would aim more directly at the author, is that some of his ‘Tables’ seem redundant. For example, below a table comparing intertextual borrowings from elegy to the Metamorphoses (p. 160), the same verses are quoted again in an extensive discussion (p. 161). Why quote twice? Also, above an extensive ‘table’ of five passages from the Metamorphoses, arranged in two columns (pp. 296-7), Mayor claims to be ‘summaris[ing] the passages of the Heroides that are closely related to Ceyx’s and Alcyone’s farewell’. In fact, the passages are not summarised or compared with the adjacent passages in the table, but rather parts of three of the five passages are printed in bold. Adjacent passages are not compared, as one would expect in a ‘table’ but apparently placed next to one another for the sake of saving space. Below these, Mayor discusses excerpts from these passages in relation to his topic. Something must have dropped out in the redaction of the work from dissertation to book.

Despite these reservations, the author’s arguments, which are based on a detailed, logical and neatly categorical analysis and comparison of Roman elegy and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, are convincing and worthwhile. It is to be hoped that a second edition of the work will follow soon, from which the problems I noted above will have been eliminated.

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