BMCR 2006.03.18

Latin Epic and Didactic Poetry: Genre, Tradition and Individuality

, Latin epic and didactic poetry : genre, tradition and individuality. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2004. xxiii, 264 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0954384563. $69.50.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In recent years, issues of genre, long ignored or avoided, have come to the forefront of the study of Latin literature. Much of this work has been based around the tension between ancient generic self-consciousness, which (especially with respect to the prestige genre of epic) posits fixed categories and traditions within which authors place their work, and corresponding blurring of generic boundaries that arise as authors experiment with different literary forms. The papers in the present volume, which began as a panel at the first annual Celtic Conference in Classics at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, in 2000, exemplify this tension as they deal, in widely differing but stimulating ways, with epic and the related genre of didactic. In spite of the wide range of material covered by these essays, from classical antiquity until the twentieth century, they cohere admirably around themes of defining the relationships between epic and other genres, and the roles played by poets in creating and locating themselves within generic traditions. A theme running throughout these papers is, as Gale notes in her introduction (p. xiii), that of the monumentality of epic: the impulse on the part of an epic poet to encompass other stories and get the last word in. Perhaps as a consequence of this totalizing tendency (or perhaps simply because of epic’s position at the top of the ancient world’s generic ladder), the “epic” of the title dominates the “didactic”. Most of those papers that deal with epic treat it squarely as an independent tradition, whereas (with the exception of Harrison on the Georgics), those that are concerned with didactic focus on its connections with epic.

Part I of the collection is concerned with the relationships between genres, as well as the sometimes arbitrary nature of modern definitions of genre. Morgan’s engaging essay looks broadly at generic relationships as they are framed in metrical terms. Morgan makes the case for meter not as a purely formal feature but as a motor that drives meaning in Latin poetry, as the epic hexameter is used as a foil against which other types of poetry contrast themselves. Elegists and lyric poets take advantage of the mixed nature of their meters to contrast their work with heroic themes by setting “lofty” hexameters against pentameters and other “humble” subsidiary meters. Satire, sharing the same meter as epic, is at even more pains to distinguish itself as a genre, and satirists use devices such as elision to mark their poetry as disordered and ugly; that is, as anti-epic. Metrical decorum is also an issue for the post-Catullan hendecasyllable (another anti-epic meter), as revealed by a reading of the poetry of the younger Pliny, who embeds quotations from Cicero’s erotic hendecasyllables within hexameters. The uneasy fit between the two reflects the similarly uneasy relationship between lusus and seria in the life of a Roman male.

Laird reframes the issue of genre to question the modern distinction between didactic and epic. He argues that while the poem of the Renaissance humanist Politian on the life, poetry and influence of Homer has been considered straightforwardly “didactic” (that is, technical and non-narrative) and, as a text about other texts, “secondary” (and thus, not literary in its own right), the subtle and complex poetics of the poem break these categories down. The Ambra illuminates not only Politian’s reading of Homer as a didactic poet who offers educational and moral utility, but puts these same poetics into effect, by linking the figure of the poet with that of Homer to suggest the applicability of these premises to his own work. At the same time, by reworking the plots of the Iliad and Odyssey in his own poem, Politian embeds the mimetic techniques of poetry that define Homer in his own work, emphasizing the fictive nature of his poem. Thus the poetics of the Ambra break down any neat distinction between the categories of epic and didactic, as well as “literary” and “scholarly” works.

Gale, like Laird, collapses the distinction between epic and didactic, in this case by using the tool of narratological analysis. While the mimetic function of epic has typically been seen, by Aristotle as well as by modern critics, as defining it as a narrative genre, Gale shows the importance of various sorts of narrative for Lucretius’ poem. Didactic poetry has several built-in types of narrative structure (such as the relationship between a teacher/poet and student/reader structures of time, as for example seasons in Hesiod and Vergil). But Lucretius’ Epicurean universe, in which there is no beginning, end, creation or destruction, resists offering a story. The poet solves this problem, in Gale’s reading, by connecting the structure of his poem with the structure of an individual life: it begins with images of birth and growth and culminates with death, in the description of the plague at Athens that ends the work.

In contrast with the previous two papers, Nelis argues that Vergil is acutely aware of the differences between the hexameter genres of pastoral, didactic and epic, and that he uses the central passage in the Georgics (the transition between the end of book 2 and beginning of book 3) to reflect on his role in the hierarchy of genres. Noting the connections between the mid-point of the Georgics with the mid-points of the Eclogues and Aeneid, Nelis argues that the middle of Vergil’s middle work outlines the potential limits of these genres while expressing the difficulty of separating them cleanly. In particular, the famous image of the temple in the prologue to Georgics 3 appears at once to refer to the themes raised in the second half of the Georgics and to a possible future epic. The description of the temple places an emphasis on time, and on the origins of things, both themes that prove central to the Aeneid; the final words of the passage, origine Caesar anticipate the Aeneid‘s program of presenting a universal history, of Rome and of Aeneas. Nelis’ concluding discussion of book 1 of the Aeneid shows how Vergil puts this universalizing program into effect, not through an annalistic history (which would violate Aristotelian and Callimachean principles) but by providing a series of inset beginnings for his narrative, which look back to and fulfill the promise he made in the Georgics.

The four essays in Part II take as a given the various generic categories, focusing on how authors use various allusive techniques to position themselves within a literary tradition. For the most part, they are concerned with epic, but Harrison’s paper on the Georgics looks at Vergil’s construction of a system of didactic literary filiation. Harrison contends that the Corycian gardener in Georgics 4 is a subtle and sustained allusion to Nicander and his lost Georgics a poem that in his assessment of the fragments, dealt with kitchen gardening (rather than raising livestock or producing grain). The old man’s home would accordingly be Ionian Corycus, not far from Nicander’s home of Colophon. As a Greek transported to Italy, the old man serves as a metapoetic icon for Vergil’s own adoption of Nicander’s poetry. While Vergil rejects the subject-matter of Nicander’s poem in his own work, he nonetheless makes a claim to encompass the didactic tradition that Nicander, along with Hesiod, Aratus and Lucretius, represents.

The contributions of Clare and Gibson each use the figure of Hypsipyle to show the very different strategies that Silver Latin poets use to fit their poems into the epic tradition. Clare focuses on Valerius’ use of double allusion (to Apollonius Rhodius and Vergil) in his account of the Lemnian episode. Valerius pursues a strategy of differentiating his poem from Apollonius’ by elaborating or condensing narrative, while linking it, through extensive allusion, to Vergil’s work. In the case of the episode of the Lemnian women, Valerius creates an allusive structure that grows larger and more complex as the poet shifts from one model to another (at times employing more than one model simultaneously) for his narrative and characterization. This growing multiplicity of allusion deepens the complexity of Apollonius’ characters as the episode progresses, forcing the reader into a continuous process of re-evaluation. This complexity of characterization becomes clear in the case of Hypsipyle, whom Valerius constructs from multiple allusive models, including Apollonius’ character (alternately sticking closely to or moving away from this model), the figure of Dido (herself a character who draws on a multiplicity of exempla, including Apollonius’ Hypsipyle), Nisus and Euryalus, and Aeneas.

As Gibson shows, when Hypsipyle reappears in Statius’ Thebaid, she is an allusive figure with a more aggressive relationship toward her predecessors, not so much looking back to earlier models as Valerius’ character did, but rewriting and supplanting earlier versions. As a reading of the Silvae makes clear, concerns about his role in the epic tradition, and in the hierarchy of epic poets, are a recurrent theme for Statius, who venerates the work of older poets (in particular, Homer and Vergil) as he obscures that of more contemporary authors. With his theme of the story of Thebes, the poet absorbs and reworks material from the Cyclic Thebaid to Ovid’s Metamorphoses into his own work. Hypsipyle, a character who obsessively tells and retells her own story with all the accoutrements of an epic narrator, is a pair for Statius. Her version of events de-emphasizes the role of the Argonauts at Lemnos, relegating them to a minor episode in her narrative. In effect, rather than being content to remain one episode in the Argonautic tradition, she swallows that tradition whole, making the Argo into one event in her own story. Similarly, Valerius, who not long before had offered Hypsipyle poetic immortality in his work, is absorbed and rewritten by Statius.

Ware shows how Claudian simultaneously positions himself within the epic tradition and uses that tradition to heighten the effect of his panegyric. In the prefaces to his panegyrics, Claudian deploys allusions to epic poets, including Valerius, Vergil and Ovid, to stress his part in an epic tradition that combines historical and mythological narrative with current events. This link between epic and panegyric is particularly pronounced in the preface to his poem on the consulate of Stilicho. As Valerius did with Hypsipyle, Claudian uses multiple allusive models, here to characterize his role as a poet, linking himself with Ennius (and his patron and subject Stilicho with Scipio), Vergil (in turn associating Stilicho with Aeneas) and Silius Italicus.

The flexibility and inclusiveness of the epic tradition is the subject of the papers in part III the collection, each of which deals with the ways in which post-classical authors adapt epic motifs to fit changing contexts. Green’s paper forms a good link with the previous section, showing how Juvencus reworks epic concerns about literary filiation in his hexameter poem on the Gospels. Juvencus creates a very different kind of epic, bringing together material from two completely separate traditions. The poem’s preface shows Juvencus engaging not only with philosophy (principally Lucretius) but also epic, as represented by Homer and Vergil. Because his work has been imbued with Christian inspiration, not false pagan myths, it will surpass the canon of pagan literature, proving to last until the end of time.

In Hardie’s reading, the Renaissance Latin poet Fracastoro emerges as a writer who engages very closely with Vergil, primarily with the Georgics (which provide a model for the didactic Syphilis) but also with the Aeneid. Book 3, which features an account of Columbus’ voyage to the New World and the discovery there of a cure for syphilis, mixes together imitations of Vergil’s Aristaeus epyllion with themes from the Aeneid, as well as Christianizing motifs that mark America as the earthly Paradise. Moreover, Hardie argues, Fracastoro’s descriptions of the inhabitants of the New World, which demonstrate a close allusive relationship with Vergil’s account of the inhabitants of Latium before the arrival of Aeneas, present a reading of Vergil that takes into account the darker aspects of European imperialism and anticipates by several centuries the “Harvard School” of Aeneid criticism.

Davies’ essay, the last in the collection, also examines the influence of Vergil in later periods, in this case his adaptation into Welsh by three modern poets. Davies shows how readings of the epic tradition as represented by Vergil (and to a lesser extent, Dante) prove a fertile field in which authors address their concerns, in this case about the Welsh language and identity. Vergilian language is fit together with the conventions of the Welsh poetic tradition, and Vergilian imagery is used to express the threats faced by Wales. The relationship between the Welsh and classical literary traditions is most sustained and complex in the work of Saunders Lewis, who adapts the katabasis of Aeneid 6 as an expression of Welsh nationalism, first presenting a Heldenschau of figures who fought for, and failed to achieve, the freedom of Wales. The darkness of this theme continues with the end of the poem, which reworks Anchises’ prophecy to Aeneas, drawing on Welsh literary history to ask— but refuse to answer- – whether the Welsh language will survive.

In sum, Latin Epic and Didactic Poetry is a well-edited volume that represents a useful contribution to the field. The quality of individual papers and the extent of the material covered make for a collection that will prove valuable for scholars of the Latin hexameter genres as well as of genre more generally. In particular, those interested in the reception and influence of the Aeneid (a poem that, while it is not the focus of any one essay, nonetheless looms large over the collection) will read this book profitably.

List of Contributors

Monica Gale, “Introduction: Genre, Tradition and Individuality” (xi-xxiii)

Llewelyn Morgan, “Getting the Measure of Heroes: the Dactylic Hexameter and its Detractors” (1-26)

Andrew Laird, “Politian’s Ambra and Reading Epic Didactically” (27-47)

Monica Gale, “The Story of Us: A Narratological Analysis of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura” (49-71)

Damien Nelis, “From Didactic to Epic: Georgics 2.458-3.48″ (73-107)

Stephen Harrison, “Virgil’s Corycius Senex and Nicander’s Georgica : Georgics 4.116-48″ (109-123)

Ray Clare, “Tradition and Originality: Allusion in Valerius Flaccus’ Lemnian Episode” (125-147)

Bruce Gibson, “The Repetitions of Hypsipyle” (149-180)

Catherine Ware, “Claudian: The Epic Poet in the Prefaces” (181-201)

Roger Green, “Approaching Christian Epic: The Preface of Juvencus” (203-222)

Philip Hardie, “Virgilian Imperialism, Original Sin, and Fracastoro’s Syphilis” (223-234)

Ceri Davies, “The Aeneid and Twentieth-Century Welsh Poetry” (235-252).