BMCR 1997.02.11

1997.2.11, Miller, Lyric Texts and Lyric Consciousness

At a time when scholars are discussing the nuances of poetic voice, questioning traditional definitions of genre, and arguing about the transition from orality to literacy in antiquity, Paul Miller’s study offers literary critics and intellectual historians a thought-provoking exploration of the relationship between books and their contents. Miller argues that lyric, as the genre is now understood, is only possible in an era of writing, when the poet can (through the medium of the poetic collection) create a complex, refracted, self-portrait which Miller calls ‘lyric consciousness’. More precisely, he pinpoints a moment in Western history (first-century B.C. Rome) as the time when conditions were ripe for the birth of this type of poetry, and identifies Catullus in particular as the first practitioner of the new, writing-dependent art. 1 As Miller puts it (p. 169), writing is not “a vulgar necessity for preserving the lyric moment once the inspiration has passed,” but the cornerstone of lyric composition, “directly constitutive of lyric consciousness.”

Although the core of the argument is historical, the organization of this book is aggressively ahistorical. After an introduction outlining his thesis, Miller turns in his second chapter to Archilochus, often cited as the first lyric poet. Miller demonstrates (relying part on the work of Nagy, West and others) that the ‘ego’ of Archilochus is a conventional figure playing out a role in a tale populated by stock characters. The third chapter leaves the ancient world temporarily and considers modern genre-theory, with Miller advocating a situational definition related to performance and social context. Next, Miller leaps forward to Catullus (Chapter Four) and the new lyric consciousness which emerges from the multi-faceted self-presentation possible only in a written work. Moving back to archaic lyric, Miller contrasts this individuated ‘Catullus’ with Sappho (Chapter Five), whom he views as more communally defined because of her role as an oral poet. He then explores the use Catullus makes of Sappho (Chapter Six, in my opinion the best section of the book), focusing especially on the importance of marriage-poems in Catullus and on the more private role of myth in the ‘modern’ Catullan program. Another digression back in time (Chapter Seven) takes us to Alexandria, where Miller acknowledges the presence of poetic collections but claims that political conditions prevent the development of true lyric. Finally (Chapter Eight), Miller jumps forward again, demonstrating how Horace takes up the new possibilities of lyric in the Odes. A brief concluding chapter suggests further implications of his thesis for other Roman poetic collections (notably elegy) as well as for later Western lyric.

In asking us to move forwards and backwards chronologically, Miller is perhaps making us examples of the kind of reader he posits for the Catullan book—one who moves constantly back and forth in the collection, comparing episodes, re-reading, constructing a portrait of the poet and his world. For Miller, this possibility of re-reading, of moving backwards, creates a fundamental distinction between pre-Catullan and post-Catullan poetry: “… the reception of oral poetry is necessarily linear and sequential. It is not possible to refer back to a previous passage, to reverse course and read the first poem in terms of the second or the second in terms of the first” (p. 4); “Each poem [of Catullus] can fit into a variety of narratives, no one of which is necessarily the single correct one, but all of which have as their center the projection of an ego which exists in and between the individual poems themselves, and which is the true ground of all these potential narratives. This ego is not the historical Catullus, but rather is a function of the reader’s engagement with the collection” (pp. 74-5); “In sum, Sappho’s poetry represents a radically different phenomenon from that found in Catullus. Far from embodying a complex meditation on the ambiguities and contradictions of subjective experience, her monody seeks to reintegrate that experience within the bounds of communally accepted norms” (p. 99). This is the heart of Miller’s thesis, and your view of the book will depend on how persuasive you find his generic contrasts between (as he sees it) public, oral monody (Sappho) and private, textual lyric (Catullus). 2

Protos heuretes arguments like this one inevitably dare the reviewer to find counter-examples, so that it is not surprising that I found myself objecting to some portions of Miller’s description of Catullus as the lyric Aeneas. My first reservation is minor and somewhat technical, involving the notion of the reader piecing together the tessellated self of Catullus by reading and re-reading in a book. This behavior is certainly more possible for a reader than for a listener, as Miller points out, but it is also much more possible for a codex reader than for a scroll reader—and the codex is later than Catullus. It is not clear to me how much easier it would have been for an Augustan reader to roll back and forth comparing text than for a fifth-century listener who had heard many songs of Sappho many times each to create a complex, cross-referenced ‘Sappho’ in his head.

My second objection involves the public/private dichotomy which Miller associates respectively with oral and written verse. While the dichotomy rings true to a certain extent, there are shades of gray I would have liked to see Miller explore. Oral poetry can be public in a large, official sense (a civic festival) or in a very restricted sense (a sympotic gathering). Nor is the Catullan corpus confined to interiorized meditations on loss and Lesbia; rather, it is full of iambic attacks on personal and political enemies which are effective only if ‘public’ in some form. 3 In the long run, an acknowledgment of this mixture only strengthens Miller’s most important point, because the sophistication of the Catullan self-portrait arises not merely from the cross-references within the well-known erotic poems, but from the combination of these more intimate experiences with coarse factional invective, overly-decorous poems such as 34, 45 and 49, and the enigmatic Juventius series.

Whether you accept Miller’s case in every detail or not, the book makes two valuable contributions. First, Miller does an elegant job of teasing out the implications of the allusions to Sappho in the Catullan corpus. His discussion of poem 51, for example (pp. 101 ff.), leads eventually to a clearer view of the connections between the longer poems and the polymetrics, supporting a recent movement away from the tendency to discuss 61-66 in isolation from the shorter poems. Second, Miller’s emphasis on the importance of the book in the development of Western lyric is correct and insightful. It does not, in the end, matter so much who gets the title “inventor of the lyric collection” (and supporters of Antimachus, Callimachus, Gallus, Catullus, and Virgil could all have plenty to say in such a contest). What does matter is that lyric changed fundamentally when the book offered it a magical combination of better preservation and enriched associative contexts. All students of Western literary history should be interested in acquiring a better understanding of how book technology has shaped—and continues to shape—the material it transmits.

1. Miller is right (p. 75) that his theory does not depend on accepting the Catullan corpus in its current state as an authorial production, but he somewhat misstates (p. 198 n. 18) the objections to this view, which include not only the total length of the corpus but also the metrical organization and the inclusion of scraps like 2b, 14b, and 60.

2. There are problems with the term ‘lyric’. This is not an ancient Greek term (see Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship, pp. 182-3) and there is considerable confusion in ancient sources when non-dramatic, non-epic poetry is discussed (Harvey, CQ 1955). Miller is probably correct when he says (p. 13) “the Greeks never explicitly acknowledged the existence of a peculiarly first person type of poetry.” The consistency of themes and imagined performance-contexts for erotic monody and epigram, however, would fit Miller’s own definition of a genre as advanced in Chapter Three and would provide an obvious model for Catullus.

3. Miller (p. 136) asserts that the attacks e.g. on Caesar and Mamurra are not obviously political in nature, but this seems hard to accept in the light of the long-standing Roman tradition of using sexual insults to attack political enemies. Compare e.g. Calvus frs. 17, 18 Courtney; Calvus’ opposition to Caesar is well-documented.