BMCR 2008.03.32

Generic Enrichment in Vergil and Horace

Harrison, S. J., Generic enrichment in Vergil and Horace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. viii, 262 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780199203581 $85.00.

Table of Contents

To be a reader of poetry in Rome in the 30s and 20s BC meant to be challenged by a rapidly expanding roster of generic experiments. The audiences that Virgil and Horace led first through pastoral, satire, and iambic, then didactic, lyric, and epic must have had an appetite for this stuff. For every unfamiliar generic code and new intertextual model mastered and assimilated, there were countless violations, departures, and tweaks of the dominant codes. “Generic enrichment” Harrison calls it, by which he means the incorporation of elements of one generic system in another “for the purposes of perceived expansion and variation of the ‘host’ genre” (21). His new book thoroughly surveys the importance and prominence of generic self-awareness and self-assertion in the set of texts that with exceptional speed changed the landscape for Latin poetry: Eclogues, Satires, Epodes, Georgics, Odes, and Aeneid. The reader-based approach of “generic repertoire,” shared expectations, and intertextual competencies that Harrison advertises in his introduction (after Alastair Fowler) is just the right thing to get a handle on the phenomena he describes. The follow-through on the application of this approach is, however, perhaps less than we are led to expect; the role of the reader tends to fade as Harrison discusses individual texts. The book does provide a bounty of compelling readings, as one would expect from Harrison, and examples are well chosen from each work to illustrate generic adaptations and incorporations. If there is something missing it is more attention to the cases where there is something beyond just generic expansion and variation at stake, where, for example, genres are made to confront and comment on each other.

By gathering the discussion together chronologically Harrison allows us to see commonalities of technique and purpose in some of the diverse generic experiments of the period: a recurring interest is how generic targets get remade to conform to the expectations of their host genres. The trajectories of the period also accentuate the way genres were embedded in hierarchies and could act as stepping stones for poets intent on doing big things. Harrison reminds us how often epic is the object of generic incorporation in the early, ambitious phase of Augustan poetry. In an introductory chapter Harrison positions generic enrichment against the most commonly invoked model of generic change for this period, generic “Kreuzung.” As described by Harrison the presence of one genre in another leads neither to a change of generic identity nor to the creation of a hybrid. He helps his case on this point by describing generic enrichment throughout the book almost always in terms of specific intertextual relationships. For Harrison the concept of genre is relational; it functions as a tool for defining similarities and differences between texts. In his analysis, a “host” genre makes use of a “guest” genre much the same way an alluding text incorporates a target text; the very existence of the phenomenon requires that boundaries and separate identities be preserved. No hybrids then. The presence of multiple genres in a single text would not always require the direct incorporations of language from a source text on which Harrison focuses, especially where readerly activation of generic “repertoires” is in play. The specific examples he discusses are, however, largely well suited to the approach he takes.

The introduction concludes with a roster of features of a work that contribute to generic identity and can therefore be exploited for generic enrichment. Across the board, however, a particular text’s primary generic identity is taken largely as a given, so that attention can directed to the departures from that identity, which is Harrison’s real subject. In the case of the Eclogues, subject of chapter 2, a sense of what exactly Harrison means by “pastoral” has to be built up by considering what he describes by that term, even though it is a generic label open for definition and contestation more than most. Here, as in most of the book’s chapters, some attention to how readers would have gained the generic competency Harrison attributes to them might have been welcome, but Harrison is not primarily interested in diachronic questions. From the Eclogues the poems which he treats, 4, 6, and 10, are the ones that offer the most sustained focus on generic differences. He does an excellent job of cutting through the clutter of opinion about the confrontation staged between pastoral and Gallan elegy in Eclogue 10. The poem is the one from Virgil’s collection best suited to Harrison’s purposes because its extensive use of another genre is staged against a stable backdrop of Theocritean imitation. The more miscellaneous character of Eclogues 4 and 6 is perhaps harder to crack in Harrison’s terms, and a statement that Eclogue 4 “in fact keeps very close to pastoral character” (42) despite its uses of panegyric and prophecy and epithalamion is more controversial than it sounds. Still the wide-ranging generic interests of both poems emerge clearly from Harrison’s discussion.

Having absorbed the lessons of Callimachus and the Eclogues, Horace’s Satires develop the tendency already present in Lucilius for satire to engage other genres and raise the profile of satire by reworking them to satiric appropriateness. Satire, however, raises a particular question that Harrison does not address directly, namely whether it would be possible to have satire that did not appropriate other genres, for purposes of, for instance, ridicule or criticism. Harrison focuses on Horace’s refined technique and greater range as his defining contributions to the generic profile of satire. The chapter on the Epodes is highlighted by an especially strong reading of Epode 1, in which the Archilochean atmosphere of comradeship, sea-faring, and peril is enhanced with Catullan intertextuality and a re-imagining of the role of the iambic poet now embedded in Roman social structures, notably patronage. Harrison is convincing in arguing that generic enrichment, with an eye on elegy in particular, is one of the ways the Epodes update an archaic Greek form with contemporary Roman realities. Harrison observes a movement away from the specifically Archilochean in the book, as Horace sets his sights on a higher genre, lyric. A similar sort of ambition Harrison sees unfolding in the Georgics, whose generic framework is focused on varieties of epic (he excludes prose genres) and directed ultimately along a path that leads toward full-blown Homeric epic.

When the ambitions of the proto-Augustan period become possibilities and realities in the 20s, Harrison helps us see a shift in the function of generic enrichment. With the Odes and the Aeneid generic flexibility and capaciousness become Harrison’s watchwords. Works firmly and confidently atop literary canons advertise their ability to incorporate and use lesser genres as a means of self-definition. Harrison’s case studies in the Odes take notice of elegy, epigram, tragedy, encomium, epyllion, and epic. The fourth book is a welcome focus, and the chapter ends appropriately with poem 4.15’s self-reflexive absorption and adaptation of the Aeneid in the process of declining epic. With the Aeneid the pre-eminent “guest” genre and object of generic aspirations has finally, perhaps unexpectedly, become the host genre. Virgil forgets none of the lessons of the earlier period. His epic’s identity as epic is tied up extensively with its characteristic deviations from generic norms, well described by Harrison. As he recognizes, this is in part a function of acknowledging Homer as font of all genres, but the poem’s generic “polyphony” also serves an analytical purpose as a tool for reflection “on the Aeneid‘s epic plot and values” (208), which Harrison sees correctly as not necessarily oppositional. The strong discussion of the Aeneid makes one wonder what Harrison might have had to say about other instances of analytical or confrontational generic enrichment.

As Harrison points out, the period’s innovated and revamped genres were by and large dead-ends with little or no significant afterlife (Harrison chooses not to discuss the elegists). The Aeneid was the great exception, effectively redefining the generic landscape for epic while enabling a subsequent dynamic tradition of creative imitation. There was clearly something going on in the period of the 30s to the 20s to encourage producers and consumers of literary texts to want their genres “enriched” that was unlike anything before or after.