BMCR 2003.09.29

Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy

, Learned girls and male persuasion : gender and reading in Roman love elegy. Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xv, 350 pages).. ISBN9780520928664 $55.00.

Never trust a man with one leg shorter than the other — that seems to be the message we should take from this highly engaged and engaging new reading of Roman elegy.1 Sharon James’ study ranges widely through the amatory poetry of Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid, exploring from a new vantage-point those areas which we thought we knew well, while also delving into those corners which we sometimes try not to notice. The book has a clear thesis, the stages of which might be characterized thus: 1. the docta puella, who is the nominal addressee and subject matter of the generically central poems, needs to be taken seriously as a reader who makes a particularized response to the poems; 2. she is an independent courtesan who makes her living, and must provide for her future, from the gifts and material services offered by lovers in exchange for sex and other sensual pleasures; 3. the poet-lover in whose voice the poetry is spoken (not, of course, naively to be identified with the poet himself) bends all his efforts towards persuading the puella to have sex with him for nothing, or, at least, only for poetry; 4. everything he says and does is directed towards ‘male elegiac persuasion’, which is a rhetorical strategy enlisted in pursuit of Point 3, but which the puella, being docta, sees through and rejects because she is clever enough to do the former and professionally cannot afford to do otherwise than the latter. His persuasion therefore usually fails. The whole book is quite openly and avowedly (see p. 28) directed towards the furtherance of this one argument: what is remarkable is that, despite the single-minded track of this narrow thesis, the book actually succeeds in offering a much wider general reading of elegy than the bare statement of its thesis would seem to suggest. In fact, it would make a surprisingly good general introduction to elegy for undergraduates, although I for one will be attaching a gentle health warning when I place it in youthful hands: take note of the disclaimer on p. 213, ‘this approach simply balances the dominant male voice of both the genre and its recapitulation in scholarship, rather than claiming primacy’.

The study is very tidily divided into three sections. The first (‘Concepts, Structures, and Characters in Roman Love Elegy’) argues the case for the position of the beloved as an independent courtesan, and indeed for the generic necessity of her status as such, and the corresponding generic necessity of the poet-lover’s unwillingness to gain entry into her bedroom by any means other than male elegiac persuasion (and, of course, of his repeated failure to get in). Part II (‘The Material Girls and the Arguments of Elegy; Or, The Docta Puella Reads Elegy’) analyses the complaints of poet-lovers about their beloveds’ infidelity and mercenary behaviour, from the point of view of the woman herself and her perceived financial needs, and also shows how the subtle and implicit characterization of the puella, just as much as the direct and explicit attacks on her character, works towards constructing a persona for her which itself constitutes an act of persuasion, but one which is troublingly close to threat. Part III (perhaps oddly entitled ‘Problems of Gender and Genre, Text and Audience, in Roman Love Elegy’) reads ‘elegy through Ovid’. J. shows how Ovid explores and exposes the cracks in the elegiac façade, and so forces us to look at issues which are inherent and already present in the conventional elegy of Tibullus and Propertius but are to a greater or lesser extent occluded by the poets themselves and by their readers. This Ovidian reading is probably the easiest ground to tread, and the part of the book which will find the most ready acceptance even by those who baulk at the unrelenting picture of (failed) male perfidy offered by the first two sections. For my part, I didn’t exactly baulk: on the contrary, I recognized and empathized with the inherently valuable and creative process of looking at elegy from the puella‘s point of view and finding its rhetoric wanting. I constantly found myself saying, ‘yes, that’s true, quite so’ — and yet, I also found myself unable ultimately to sign up to the reductio of such complex matters as rhetoric and sincerity, motivation, fiction and reality, poetics and erotics, historicism and criticism, onto one cynical level at which men want sex without paying (or rather, indeed, without any of the kinds of relationship that evolutionary biology suggests are important to women) and women need to be paid in order to live. That is the horrible reality of too many lives, in too many different ways, at too many times, but it is not all there is to elegy. Nor, indeed, would J. claim that it is, but rather that this book offers a corrective to male complacency. I could not help noticing, however, that there were one or two places where the argument felt a bit insecure, and which by no means undermine the force of its powerful message but which do suggest that such a message leaves fissures in our reading through which other possibilities can be seen.

Let’s start with the argument for the puella as courtesan, which J. openly states is a correction of her previous reading of elegy, in which she argued for the possibility that the beloved might be a married woman. The case is made forcibly, and problems like the occasional explicit denial on the poet-lover’s part that the beloved might have professional reasons for demanding money are generally well harnessed into the requirements of the argument, since ‘he would say that, wouldn’t he!’ In fairness, indeed he would. Some awkward details have to be glossed over or argued away, such as the puella‘s respectable grandfather (Prop. 3.20.8) and the modest distress of the very proper door (Prop. 1.16), or the deliberate ambiguity of that troublesome word uir. But arguing the other way (for the beloved as ‘respectable’, i.e. as an elite, married, or marriageable woman) also requires ignoring or glossing over problems in the text (like bare feet, e.g. Tib. 1.6.68). It seems to me, however, that the very fact that either ‘case’ necessitates some critical fudges is itself the point: there are all sorts of ontological problems in saying that the beloved ‘is’ a courtesan, especially once you break free of the biographical tradition of reading, in which the woman would have a particular personal historical identity (and so stands more chance of having a stable social status). It might (not unreasonably) be a tenet of the ‘feminist-materialist’ position taken up by J. that a reading such as mine, which stresses the ontological difficulties, is fudging (or even dodging) the important issue, which would be that even a fictional woman does not exist in a cultural and economic vacuum. Fair enough, but in that case (or even, ‘be that as it may’), I would notice that the wider cultural environment in which elegiac poetry is situated does not itself submit to the kinds of clear social categorizations which J. reads into these poems. At various points, it is argued that the beloved cannot be a ‘respectable’ woman because no respectable woman would behave like that (see e.g. pp. 49-50). But, first, Livy or Suetonius (and many others) show us elite women behaving at least as badly, and, moreover, either the ‘respectable’ aspects or the ‘meretricious’ aspects (or both) of the beloved’s characterization might be — must be — precisely that, characterization, ways of talking about her, ways of constructing her. (This point would of course go for Livy as well as for Propertius.) It is a pity that J. did not have the opportunity to engage with the case made by Roy Gibson, who argues that the woman constructed by Ovid, particularly in Ars Amatoria 3, is deliberately fudged in social status, in contrast and response to Augustus’ attempts to make clear and unassailable the distinctions between these two ‘classes’ of women.2 J. seemed also to be committed to being clear (in the laudable name of honesty) about the status of a courtesan as a sex-professional who has nothing to do with elite women. And yet at one point, at least, the fuzzy alternative to that clear distinction seemed to show through her case: the elder Julia is described as ‘an elegant and learned lady herself’ (p. 219). The reference to the docta puella is unavoidable.

My second quibble is in that frequently-applied designation, docta. J. rightly states that the girl is supposed to be widely read in Greek and Roman literature, also a sensitive critic and even a producer of poetry — all of which more or less covers the classic meaning of the adjective for Augustan poets. And also an erotic figure, since doctus among the elegists often acquires that meaning too. J.’s approach must be right here, and ought to remind us not always to be taken in when the poet-lover seems to wink at the (male) reader over the uncomprehending head of the puella : she might actually comprehend only too well. A clever girl who sees through the strategies and conventions of elegy offers a refreshing perspective. My problem has two parts: first, that most of the time it is the ordinary intelligence (and knowing cynicism) of the female addressee which seems to save her from being taken in by the poet-lover, rather than anything more explicitly doctus; and second, more importantly, that the girl’s doctrina is always presented as something which makes her resist persuasion by poetry. If we are to take her seriously as a clever reader, as an appreciative and sensitive critic of poetry, would we not be increasingly concerned that she might in fact be seduced by the erotics of the lover’s poetics? She might well be good at playing the game and be forewarned and forearmed by her knowledge of the elegiac conventions (even in advance of Ars 3) at the purely sexual level, but insofar as she is also a reader of poetry, surely she will, like all of us, fall straight into the trap. The point is briefly alluded to at p. 72 and almost again at p. 219, but it is as a ‘paradox’ that ‘she may well appreciate the artistic offerings of her lover but not be able to afford them, or at least not often’. On this reading, the girl likes the poems well enough (otherwise the poet-lover’s activity would be even more pointless, pitiful, and self-centred than it is: or maybe that’s right?), but sees straight through them to their ‘true meaning’, which is an attempt to deceive her into giving sex for nothing. Could it not be, however, that a less positivistic recuperation of the puella‘s point of view would have her, indeed, see through the generic necessity of (for example) the poet-lover’s ‘poverty’ (see e.g. p. 75), but then be seduced precisely by its generic charms into receiving the poem (and poet) — along with us readers?

I should perhaps stress here that the difference between my reading and J.’s is that J. keeps to a single, perhaps more straightforwardly logical, level of reading, whereas I flit about between erotics and poetics. I appreciate the political force of the narrower, more focused reading, and recommend the book highly as a learned (sorry!), intelligent, and passionately argued reading of an infuriating but endlessly charming set of poems.


1. Usually it is the woman-as-elegy, rather than the man-as-elegist, who is characterized as displaying the physical trait imposed by the meter, but I thought the inversion might nicely respond to J.’s deliberately upside-down reading of elegy from the perspective of its female addressee.

2. See R.K. Gibson, ‘ Meretrix or matrona ? Stereotypes in Ovid Ars Amatoria 3′, PLLS 10: 295-312; and also in Ovid Ars Amatoria Book 3, Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 40, Cambridge (2003), esp. 32-4.