BMCR 2003.01.26

The Poetics of Latin Didactic. Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, Manilius

, The poetics of Latin didactic : Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, Manilius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xii, 288 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199245509. £45.00.

This book has two aims, lucidly summarized in the Conclusion: to attempt to define didactic poetry as understood by the ancients, and to apply the results of that enquiry to the interpretation of the four chosen poets. ‘Crucially, these ὁδοὶ διζήσιος have been complementary: the study of the individual authors has both confirmed and added to the picture of didactic poetry as a genre, and the knowledge of generic conventions has helped the interpretation of the single poems and thrown light on hitherto unnoticed or ill-understood features’ (p. 246).

To most students of Latin poetry the first of these investigations will probably be of limited interest in any case; but the premisses of Volk’s enquiry seem to me to require scrutiny. The debate about the pretensions of ‘didactic’ to be regarded as a real genre is an old one. To judge from the general silence of the ancient authorities, it did not qualify. In so far as it was pigeonholed at all, it was under the label of ἔπος (p. 291). Volk argues cautiously ( ἐποχή is one of the conspicuous merits of her book) that the isolated testimonies of the Tractatus Coislinianus and the Ars grammatica of Diomedes may possibly derive from a Hellenistic source but concludes that the question has little bearing on the interpretation of the poets. Alexander Dalzell in his judicious book, The criticism of didactic poetry (1997), had come to much the same conclusion. It seems to me, however, that there is more to be said.

Volk presents her own definition of didactic as extrapolated from the texts themselves, postulating four criteria:

1. ‘Explicit didactic intent’.

2. The ‘teacher-student constellation’.

3. ‘Poetic self-consciousness’.

4. ‘Poetic simultaneity’: that is, the creation of a dramatic illusion of a lesson actually in progress as the poem progresses.

It is here that misgivings about the book’s approach set in. In the section on ‘Didactic poetry as a genre’ Volk glances briefly at poems which exhibit didactic features but do not properly qualify as didactic, notably the Ars poetica and the Fasti. These she classifies as texts ‘in the didactic mode’ (pp. 41-3), thereby introducing in passing a distinction which, when closely considered, calls in question — indeed subverts — the whole thrust of her enquiry. The suggestion that the didactic genre is ‘derived’ from the didactic ‘mode’ skates over a crucial point: subject-matter.

The notion of genre, γένος, genus is that of kind: it implies some sort of specificity. The canon of what may be called accredited genres tacitly posits a certain homogeneity of subject-matter for each, in conjunction with a certain metrical form or forms. Ovid puts the matter in a nutshell: ad numeros exige quidque suos ( Rem. 372), where quidque severally identifies war, rage, everyday life, lampoon, and love. Now the feature which distinguishes all the poems lumped together under the didactic label is the extreme diversity of the subject-matter accommodated beneath that hospitable umbrella: to take only the four poets discussed in this book, the universe, agriculture (or whatever Virgilian critics think the Georgics is really about), the relationship between the sexes, astrology. Looking outside the book, one can extend the list ad lib. — herpetology, hunting, fishing, geography, cosmetics, gaming, pharmacology, weights and measures, gemmology, you name it. It seems to me therefore that ‘poetry in the didactic mode’ would have been a more helpful concept, that the silent consensus of the ancient authorities should be respected, and that the ultimately rather sterile argument that it has engendered may be left to historians of scholarship to chronicle. But the debate throws up a more interesting question.

Why was this mode so popular ? Here too it seems to me that some obvious points tend to get overlooked. Volk remarks that ‘to our feeling, [didactic poetry] is a contradiction in terms. Poetry is not meant to be instructional, and teaching is certainly not expected to be poetic’ (p. 1). This she presently qualifies, noting that ‘it is clear that the time-honoured concept of the poet as teacher plays an important role in didactic poetry’ (p. 36). That is obviously true, but the point can be taken further. That traditional concept has the effect of investing the poetic form itself with an authority lacking in prose; and — as I remarked in my review of Dalzell, something that, perhaps because it is so obvious, does not seem to get said — poetry is memorable. This is especially relevant to the well-worn topic, broached by Volk in the chapter on Lucretius, of why, in apparent defiance of the Founder’s views, he nevertheless chose to mediate Epicurean philosophy in verse (pp. 94ff.). The answer, as indeed Volk comes close to saying, is implied by the opening lines of DRN 5, which, as she acutely observes, reflect a ‘strategy of presenting Epicurus, paradoxically, as though he were a poet’ (pp. 112-13). Only the maiestas of poetry can convey the maiestas of the Epicurean message. Lucretius seems to have felt no qualms about his choice of medium; when he writes that what he is doing non ab nulla ratione uidetur (1.935), the words do not carry the rather feeble apologetic sense attributed to them by Volk, ‘that the speaker’s act is not against Epicurean reason specifically’ (p. 95). They mean, as Munro glossed them (‘of course’) ‘with very great reason’; the double negative is, as often, emphatic. And Lucretius expected his readers to remember what he had to say. When he repeats the great lines at DRN 1.146-8 three times subsequently in the course of the poem, it is not because he could not think of another way of putting it, as an Augustan poet would have done, but because he wanted to hammer home the words of the message until they were engraved in the reader’s mind. Only very exceptional prose has the quality of exact memorability, but it is of the essence of poetry. And if the apparent paradox still continues to nag, the best explanation may after all be the simplest: coincidence. Lucretius, being one of nature’s poets, fell hook line and sinker for the Epicurean message. That what was for him the only possible way to propagate it was flatly at odds with the Founder’s known views was not the occasion for a crisis of conscience; it presented a technical challenge which in the event, as Volk elegantly demonstrates, he adroitly, indeed triumphantly, surmounted. Lucretius’ is not the only great poetry called into being by the fortuitous conjunction of passionate conviction with genius: think of Shelley.

Also to be taken into account is the factor of sheer literary opportunism. No Latin poet exemplifies this more strikingly than Ovid. To project his views on love in its various guises, on which he clearly felt that he had something amusing (and perhaps even useful) to say, he chose whatever poetic form came in handy and afforded him an opportunity to display his technical versatility and mastery of his craft: elegy à la Gallus & co. in the Amores; à la Propertius, Callimachus et al. in the Heroides; à la Lucretius et al. in the Ars and Remedia. (Though in the article of poetic empire-building Ovid has few peers, much the same could be said mutatis mutandis of Virgil, as indeed Volk’s comments on his poetic career (p. 156), rejecting what might be called the teleological view, implicitly seem to acknowledge.)

To pass now to what for most readers will be seen as the real meat of the book, the appraisals of the four poets. Volk has no difficulty in showing that all of them satisfy her four criteria (unsurprisingly, given the inherent circularity of the process by which they were arrived at), though if my reservations about the premisses of that part of her argument are valid, that is anyway of limited interest. Her discussion, as the title of the book signals, centres on poetics rather than poetry: what the poets say or imply about what they are up to. These chapters offer a rich variety of instructive insights into their respective Arbeitsweisen, which attentive students will find rewarding. One interesting point emerges apropos of the discussion of Manilius: the importance of knowing when to stop. Ovid has been taken to task for his failings in this particular, but Volk shows that Manilius is a much more flagrant offender when it comes to laying it on with a poetic trowel. Her discussion of Lucretius excellently illustrates the versatility of Lucretius’ use of imagery (pp. 83-93), and she goes on to show how in the Astronomica Manilius overdoes things in his efforts to be seen to outdo his great predecessor. Where Lucretius’ imagery is always under control, Manilius’ is apt to run away with him in his determination to get everything in on a ‘have-one’s-cake-and-eat-it-too principle’ (p. 233). In that connexion I suggest that the already complicated problem of what exactly he meant by quoniam caelo descendit carmen ab alto at 1.118, explained by Volk as ‘a rather forced metonymy’ (p. 237), is further compounded if the words are understood as = ‘since the gift of song/poetry is handed down from heaven’. For carmen = ‘poetry’ cf. OLD s.v. 3a and for caelum = ‘the gods’ e.g. Virg. E. 6.7, Manil. 4.935 ( OLD inadequate), and more especially Ov. AA 3.549-50, which Manilius may very well have had in mind: est deus in nobis et sunt commercia caeli; / sedibus aetheriis spiritus ille uenit. The idea was traditional: cf. e.g. Aristot. Rhet. 1408b19 ἔνθεον … ἡ ποίησις and R.K. Gibson (forthcoming) on Ovid, loc. cit. Manilius, as Volk acutely demonstrates, not only opposes himself to Lucretius, Stoic vs. Epicurean, but repeatedly stakes an implicit claim to be going one better poetically (pp. 239-42). Her exposure of his over-the-top layering of imagery underlines the hybristic nature of this stance. Contrast the subtlety with which Lucretius ‘purely by means of his diction, succeeded in surreptitiously approximating philosophy and poetry’ (p. 112). ‘Surreptitiously’ hits the nail on the head: ars adeo latet arte sua, to quote one of Lucretius’ greatest admirers. This discussion is typical of the many such stimulating glimpses into these poetic workshops offered in Volk’s book. Her interpretations combine learning with critical finesse, and the book can be warmly recommended to all those interested in Latin poetic technique.

It is accurately produced, but, as is all too common in contemporary British publishing, the print is too grey on the page for comfortable reading. The footnotes are a real pain.