BMCR 1999.09.09

The Pipes of Pan. Intertextuality and Literary Filiation in the Pastoral tradition from Theocritus to Milton

, The pipes of Pan : intertextuality and literary filiation in the pastoral tradition from Theocritus to Milton. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. vi, 390 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780472108558. $52.50.

‘Intertextuality is in the air …’: a flourishing conference circuit (cf. Lexis 13 (1995) and Materiali e Discussioni 39 (1997)) and Stephen Hinds’ Allusion and Intertext (Cambridge 1998) are only the most visible manifestations of what, in many ways, should be seen as an important coming-of-age in classical studies. The struggle is now about the nature and extent of the disputed territory, not whether there is an argument worth having at all; ground has been yielded in some very surprising places. Not that any of this applies to H., a wide-ranging and theoretically sophisticated scholar, who has here chosen to take his stand in what has long been acknowledged as the ‘intertextual’ poetic field par excellence.

H. rightly identifies the key generic moment of pastoral as the passing-on (the traditio), or (as in the case of Colin Clout) the hanging-up, of the pipes; at that moment pastoral acknowledges that, almost more than any other poetic type, its consciousness is rooted both in a sense of ‘the previous’ and in its low place in the hierarchy of modes. Just as ‘the poet’s only escape from the dominance of the past is to escape the genre itself’ (177), so ‘there is a sense in which pastoral always hovers on the unsteady verge of leaping into something greater’ (289); cf. the familiar ‘generic’ reading of surgamus at Ecl. 10.75, about which H. (138) is surprisingly quiet. H.’s Bloomian reading of the tradition from Theocritus to Milton envisions ‘a grand pastoral “intertext”, an unbroken tapestry of textual interdependence with ever renewed declarations of revisionary independence or transcendence … [a] poem of poems [which] is itself an extended diachronic meditation on reading and the dynamics of influence’ (17). H. focuses interestingly on these moments of crisis in the tradition, although, remarkably, there is no discussion of the dying Daphnis offering (? to return) his pipes to Pan (Theocr. 1.128-30), in an effort to ‘make the bucolic song cease’; here is where it all began.

Side by side with this oppressive ‘anxiety of influence’ sits what H. terms ‘proprietary indifference’ (184), i.e. the sense in which the shared heritage redefines notions of ‘individual authorship’. Naturally, the later one goes in the tradition, the more powerful the idea becomes, but it already informs one of H.’s most successful discussions, on Eclogue 9: ‘the distinctions between Theocritus, Vergil, and “Menalcas” become blurred … all song seems to constitute a communally shared patrimony, claimed equally by all’ (124). So too, H. could have pointed to Vergil’s (surely knowing) use of post-Theocritean bucolic, within a Latinisation of Theocritus, as a similarly communal act of inclusion.

The broad sweep of H.’s canvas, a good part of which is composed from the revision of previously published articles, makes selectivity of treatment inevitable, as H. acknowledges (17). It also, I fear, rules me out as an appropriate reviewer for a large part of this book; I am qualified only to express admiration for someone prepared to range so broadly. My impression, however, is that, while it is excellent to have a serious discussion of Calpurnius (here placed in the third century) and Nemesianus, the book will be pretty tough going for those who do not know Latin well and/or whose primary interest is in Spenser and the later period; this is a serious matter in view of what I imagine to be the intended audience. Nevertheless, this is an earnest and engaged book about poems which exercise an extraordinary hold on the intellect and emotions, and the expressions of doubt which follow should be read in that light.

It perhaps lies in the nature of H.’s undertaking that the discussion of Theocritus is unsatisfactory. For the struggle with the tradition, H. here substitutes the internecine strife of poets, in a quasi-return to the heady days of Reitzenstein’s masquerade (Battos in Idyll 4 as Callimachus, Lycidas in 7 as Philetas etc. How, incidentally, did Longus make this identification, as H. asserts (26)?). It is not so much that the case is unproved (the discussion of Idyll 7, in particular, leaves too many questions unaddressed), as that H. cannot explain what would be gained by its acceptance, except that it suits his argument. ‘While few scholars today would accept the full-fledged Reitzenstein theory … the allegorical approach does possess a basic validity, inasmuch as it seeks to identify bucolic disputants with contemporary poets; such allegory has clear parallels in the work of Callimachus and Corinna’ (32). That ‘inasmuch as …’ is the closest we are going to get to an argument. Moreover, H. apparently regards the definition of the category ‘bucolic’ as self-evident; there is no hint that the ‘bucolic’ status of, say, Idyll 11 poses serious problems which cannot simply be ignored. H.’s silence is, presumably, dictated by what the subsequent tradition did with Theocritus, but this is not really playing fair for less-informed readers. (On the technical side, I missed any reference to Kathryn Gutzwiller’s analysis of the early tradition in A. Harder et al. (eds.), Theocritus (Groningen 1996) 119-48; for a summary of the other arguments see my Theocritus. A Selection (Cambridge 1999) 218-19). This is not the only example where H.’s reception criticism seems to draw no clear distinction between ‘interpretation’ and the construction which subsequent poets may put upon their forebears. Thus, by comparison with the ‘studied ambiguity’ (54) of Eclogue 2, the end of Idyll 11 offers ‘clarity and dramatic resolution’ (66): ‘the carefully constructed frame of the song leaves the matter in no doubt’ (68). At the very least, readers might have been warned that other views are held. Finally, I do not think it captious to wonder whether it is safe simply to call the bucolic Theocritus an ‘Alexandrian’ in the strong sense: ‘[pastoral] has its origins in the intensely self-conscious, learned literary circles of Alexandria’ (5); some kind of background gloss about what we actually know about Theocritus was surely necessary.

The Eclogues are seen as a set of experiments moving progressively away from the Theocritean model towards other genres and ‘Pastures new’. Treatment is very uneven; thus the discussion of Ecl. 2 is full and suggestive, that of 7 and 8 very scanty. These latter poems do not seem to fit the model, except as explorations of the dialogic mode. As already indicated, Ecl. 9 seems to work particularly well, in part, of course, because it seems ready-made for analysis in terms of Bloomian anxiety: ‘Vergil seems to suggest that there is a certain element of revisionary misprision inherent in all poetic memory’ (124). Again it is the moment of doubt and crisis which yields most easily to H.’s concerns. In Ecl. 2 ‘Corydon’s rejected love … is in a sense [in what sense?] a reflection of Vergil’s anxiety about the failure of his own pastoral poetry in the eyes of his sophisticated literary audience … Corydon’s failure in his quest stands as a gesture of poetic self-doubt at this point in the program’ (54). In general H. is an alert and ingenious reader of Vergilian intertextuality, though I suspect that some readers will find some of the connections contrived. ‘Every allusive reference within the text of Corydon’s song bears a secondary meaning, revealed only through consideration of the allusion’s background’ (65) is a fair indication of what is involved. Rather often, despite the theoretical underpinning offered by Chapter 1, H. gives no good reason to privilege his chosen intertext over another; nevertheless, such problems go with the territory and in any case stimulate, rather than repress, speculation. ‘Doubt and ambiguation’ are indeed the leitmotifs of this chapter, and (almost) anyone who has ever read the Eclogues with eyes open will not be surprised at that; it was, after all, Vergil who put ‘two voices’ into the first poem. H., however, will not take everyone with him in envisaging Vergil playing a kind of open-ended game with the reception of his book, or — to put it more bluntly — hedging his bets against a change in the wind; thus, e.g. (on Ecl. 4) ‘Vergil creates a text that can survive the subsequent twists and turns of history: partisans of various stripes would be free to identify the mystery child as they wish and to read the praise either as straightforward encomium or as an allusive ambiguation of the hegemonic discourses of power’ (85), or (on Caesar in Ecl. 5, ambiguated by the ‘sophisticated Epicurean skepticism implied by the Lucretian allusion’ in v.64) ‘Readers of differing factions could with some justification find in the text whatever they wanted, and the author could appear to endorse the apotheosis of Caesar without actually doing so’. Reader-reception criticism and textual misrepresentation (? misprision) are here very close. In fact, however, H. would probably not mind that very much; the strategy of reading these texts in the terms of later constructions of them allows H. to site himself sympathetically within the poetic and critical tradition about which he writes.